Designing and Building My Tiny House
I’m currently sitting in the Hong Kong airport, en route to the Philippines for 2 months. Clearly, I won’t be building my tiny house in the next couple months. Due to life circumstances, I kind of reached the point where it was either going to be build it NOW, or hold off for 6-9 months and re-evaluate. I got so far as talking to a friend of mine who is a contractor to see if he would help me. Then, I had a bit of a crisis around the money thing. Not that I couldn’t afford to do this project (although it will take a chunk out of my savings). But while lots of people who build tiny houses are living in big houses so the tiny house is a significant savings in cost, I’m not in the boat. I had been living with roommates so super cheaply. And given my current location, I like to travel. The beauty of renting is that you give up your place, put your stuff in storage (or your parents’ basement), and take off with very limited bills continuing. If I built my tiny house right now, my cost of living would not decrease, but probably increase a little. I would gain my very own little place (versus sharing a house with friends) which is definitely worth something, but worth the cost of building the house? And the tiny house would mean some bills continuing even if I went traveling (insurance and maybe storage).
And finally, my life is a bit in flux right now. I don’t know where I’ll be living in a year. Which in some ways makes this tiny house project perfect (after all – its on wheels). And in other ways, makes things harder because some of the places I might want to live are big cities where it would be harder to find a spot to park my house. Do I want that stress? Anyway….I decided to take a couple months to mull it all over (and to go someplace warm and kiteboard). We can also call this research – how do other cultures do tiny houses?
I’m a big believer in research, especially when you’re trying to do something that is more than a bit of a stretch for you (i.e. building a house with no experience). But, I realized that maybe I had gone a bit overboard when I stacked up all of the books I had accumulated and got this pile:
Which includes two of the same book. Because I checked one copy out of the library without realizing I had checked the same book out the week before. And to be fair with this list, all but two of these books are library books (I love libraries!). The two non-library books are Little House on a Small Planet (a gift from my sister for Christmas) and Michael Pollan’s A Place of My Own (I love Michael Pollan and the library didn’t have this one).
Anyway, I thought it might be helpful to run through some of the books and whether I thought they were helpful. So, here goes (starting with ones that are due at the library yesterday…oops):
Shed Nation: Awesome. Good for inspiration and for practicalities. It’s written for a rank beginner but not overly simplistic. Also, it has good info about how to choose some green building materials and what the trade-offs are between materials options. It’s by a guy who works at the very cool Yestermorrow (which is hosting a tiny house workshop in September). I’m sad this one is due back…but I might just have to get it out again.
Shed Chic: Not so much a how-to guide as an inspiration guide. Lots of pretty pictures of cool little sheds (all with different purposes and very different styles). It’s a little frustrating to me right now because I’m at the point where I look at pictures and want to see the full layout (like the gypsy caravan…how did they fit all those pieces together?). But, its awesome for seeing what kind of style appeals to you. It’s kind of like reading shed porn.
Green from the Ground Up: The book that I ended up with two copies home. Which is fortuitous because this is my current favorite green building book. It is good both for looking at the big picture and for thinking about small decisions like what kind of insulation should I use. It has a very very reasonable approach to things, which makes sense given the authors’ backgrounds.
Tiny Houses: Also a kind of shed porn. Runs through a bunch of case examples of tiny houses with good pictures. Good for giving you a sense of what is possible, but not at all a how to book. Most (but not all) of the examples are pretty modern in style Written by one of the new tiny house superstars, Mim Zeiger.
Sheds The Do-It-Yourself Guide for Backyard Builders: One of three David and Jeanie Stiles books I ended up with (and the best of the bunch). The other two were Rustic Retreats and Playhouses. This is definitely a how-to guide and an awesome one at that. Occasionally, it assumes you know some things which I didn’t (but are easy to look up), but it does a very nice job of talking through the options for sheds, the general how to build one, and then several specific projects.
Small Spaces: Be wary in general of getting books that are called “small”. Small is usually quite a bit bigger (some of the books were going up to a couple thousand square feet which is very very different from having 120 square feet). But, this book had some good ideas about how to maximize storage space and things like that. Not my favorite of the books, but an interesting skim.
OK – I think I’ll save the rest of my stack of books for a second post (and I’m off to the library…so there may be more coming home with me!)
So, it’s been a while since I posted (not that all that many people are watching), but I have been busy. Especially in the last week or two. Lots of reading. Lots of Google SketchUp. And here’s my current favorite plan for my tiny house.
This plan is for an 18ft, wood house with salt-box style roof. The house would sit on a trailer (not shown). The plan shows an outside deck, but that would have to be either something that folds up on the side of the house or comes separate. Also outside is a small storage box that would sit on the tongue of the trailer (for kiteboard and snowboard gear). Inside is a composting toilet in a wet bath; small kitchen with range, fridge, convection oven, and sink; loft with extra storage accessible via a bookcase ladder; Dickinson propane marine heater; and a built-in window seat.
PS Did I mention I love Google SketchUp?
So, I love castles. I went to Ireland with my parents right after I graduated college. It was one of my first traveling with parents as an adult trips. And it was one of the first trips with them without my sisters. Which meant I got to do a lot more planning than usual. And which meant that we basically went from castle to castle, with a boat trip thrown in as well. As a kid, I always dreamed about having a tower on my house (probably to hold the two-story library I had planned which would have needed a book ladder). And I thought that my tiny house dreams would make the tower impossible. But, I stand corrected. You can have a tiny house with a tower. In Sweden.
P.S. I also have to thank RelaxShax for turning me on to a awesome blog, Neatorama. Not only did Neatorama find this tiny castle, but other recent posts include how to make Google beatbox, why drinking whiskey is good for the world (my family did more than our fair share of helping the world this Thanksgiving), and, more relevant to tiny houses, a trailer park gingerbread house competition.
Yes, I realize Thanksgiving was last week. But, in my family, Thanksgiving isn’t a day, but a long weekend spent with extended family. And the reason why it is yay for Thanksgiving is that only in my family do people not only get the tiny house idea, but get excited about it. They want to see plans and talk about plumbing and composting toilets and wood stoves and all that stuff which is perpetually in my head. So, yay for Thanksgiving! Even if it gives me even more to think about (proving that the more you know, the more you know you don’t know).
As I play with floorplans, I realized I needed to have a good sense of what kind of appliances I want in my tiny house (so there is room). It also makes sense as I try to think through the plumbing and the electrical (especially this one because I have no real idea how this works). Anyway, here’s the bucket list of potential appliances:
- Refrigerator/Freezer – Yes please! The plan is to go small-ish sized (somewhere between 3 and 4 cu ft) I have been known to use my freezer to store yarn (very moth proof) and my fridge to store pots and pans, so I know I don’t need a ton of space. At the same time, I do like to cook some times so don’t want to go too tiny and definitely want a separate freezer compartment (ice cream is a priority). Right now, I’m playing with two models in my floorplan – a 3.2 cu ft under the counter, Energy Star model (like this one) and a slightly larger 4 cu ft Magic Chef one. The Magic Chef one is a bit bigger so doesn’t fit under the counter but has a nice little profile. Unfortunately, I can’t find one that size that is Energy Star. And, I keep going back and forth over whether the extra fridge space is worth less countertop space.
- Stove/Range – I’m looking for 2 burners, probably propane but potentially electric.
- Oven – I’ve gone back and forth on this (and will probably continue to do so). I don’t cook a ton in the oven, but I do love to make bread sometimes. Is it worth it having a full-sized oven? There are some awesome, small marine stove/oven combos like this Princess model, but they are expensive (around $1000). I don’t know if I can justify all of that, but maybe I’ll check with marinas to see if there is a used one for sale. I know Tumbleweed Houses are starting to use this Camp Chef model as a small, affordable stove/oven combo. However, the reviews seem like the oven is a pretty terrible oven – ok for camping but not what I’d want to use forever. Another option I’m considering is using a countertop convection oven, kind of a fancier toaster oven. I think that may be the affordable solution to my trouble.
- Vent Hood – do I need this?
- Microwave – I think I may try to go without this. I mainly use it to heat up water for tea and I can use the stove for this. Especially if I have some sort of oven, I think I may skip it for starters.
- Coffee pot – I realize this barely qualifies as an appliance, but it uses electricity. I love my baby Mr. Coffee and separate grinder, but I might try a French Press so I just have to heat up water.
- Dishwasher – Hell no. Not worth it for me.
Bathroom and Assorted:
- Heater – gah! This is a whole separate discussion.
- Washer/dryer – I will admit, I felt like I made it as an adult when I moved into an apartment with my own washer/dryer. It was awesome to do just one load and not have to stay with the machine while it was doing its thing. But, there’s no way I can justify having a washer/dryer in this tiny space. I survived just fine with laundromats, and while traveling, I became quite good at hand-washing. Maybe I’ll splurge and get something like the Wonder Washer, but I don’ t know if I need it. And if I go crazy, I could try to install a drying rack in the bathroom ceiling. And maybe another one outside (that doubles as a chin-up bar in my ideal world which this gets to be).
- Hot water heater – I will probably use a tankless, on-demand hot-water heater. I was thinking propane, but I’ve heard the electric ones are more efficient so I will do a bit more research on this. I may try to rig up a solar hot-water heater as well to at least minimize use. Part of me says I could survive without this (did without hot water showers for most of my traveling), but for my forever, full-time living situation, I think I would like to have the option of hot showers.
- Toilet – I don’t want to deal with blackwater so am going to go for a composting toilet. I don’t know if I’ll make a humanure one or go for a commercial model. One factor is definitely where to dump the humanure version to compost, given that my current plan is to move every 6 months for at least the first year.
That’s most of the appliances, but since this is close to my list of everything that will use electricity, let me round it out with the rest of that list:
- Maybe extra flat-screen monitor for movies
- Cell phone and charger
- Fan (both for getting rid of moisture and for the summer)
It’s amazing how much I look at parts of my life differently, even while my tiny house is only in planning and dreaming mode. I was washing my face this evening and realized that the bathroom I am planning is basically the size of my current bathtub. Then, as I rinsed the soap off my face, I couldn’t help but think about how much water was going down the drain and how I might deal with that amount of graywater.
OK – so in the midst of the details, scary decisions, and overwhelming new info (aka…how in the world are electric systems set up), is the fun of designing. I have to say…this has been awesome. What in the world do I want my dream house to look like? How many people get to think about this and then actually build it? All of my friends have bought houses or rented apartments..which means you have grand ideas about your dream house/apartment, then find something sort of close and make it work. I get to include all of my dream ideas (within budget, size, and weight restrictions…sadly the castle tower I’ve dreamed about since I was a kid is probably out).
The first thing I did was to look at all of the tiny houses online I could find. Tiny Texas Houses are awesome – I love the reclaimed wood and the cool details. So I definitely want to think about including things like that. And I have to say, I love the ladder being built into shelves…looks like it fits in better.
But, then I realized I should probably think of more basic design elements (like the shape of the house) first. Like most people (it seems…based on blogs), I started thinking it would be something like a Tumbleweed House. Something like the Fenci seemed appealing – about the right size, nice interior, pretty siding, a good loft, but an open great room to feel airier. But it definitely isn’t perfect so time to think about all of the tweaks!
1. Porch – While it’s cute, it seems silly to waste valuable trailer space on a porch. Especially the porch on the Fenci which is unusable (other Tumbleweed designs have bigger porches which would be nice to have, but then they use up more trailer space). If I get super-ambitious, I could design a fold-down porch (maybe on steel wires, or with fold-down legs too) with a roll-out awning and screened walls. A less ambitious path could be just to buy a camping screen room (like this one) and put it in front of my house.
2. Roof – the Fenci has the extra fancy front roof, which seems like extra hassle, especially given my construction abilities. A simple pointed roof seems like it would perfectly fine for my needs. I’m not sure which one makes more sense – if I go for the pointed roof, I’m probably going to lower the pitch to give myself more room in the loft (I want to make sure its comfortable even if you are not sleeping exactly in the middle of the bed. A shed roof may also work just fine for me – it makes it easy to add in some high-up windows (without needing to mess with skylights). I would just turn the bed in the loft sideways (maybe more of a hassle if it’s a couple living there, but with just me would be fine). Something like the two pictured below would work for a shed roof. I clearly need to do some research about what roof pitch is needed to know how far I can stress the design.
3. Separate Kitchen – I’ve lived in small and tiny apartments, and I much prefer it when the kitchen is open to the living room, not a separate room, like in the Fenci floor plan. If its part of the living room, then a table can triple as counter space, dining room table, and desk. It also makes everything seem more open and big – better in my mind than multiple tiny rooms.
4. Storage Options – I plan on adding in a couple extra things for storage. I kiteboard and knit, so I have kites (backpack sized), boards (like snowboards), lots of yarn and fiber, a spinning wheel, and other extra crafty things. I don’t need tons and tons of stuff, but it seems silly not to maximize the storage space in a tiny house. So, some things I am thinking about adding include:
- foot-lockers in loft along side of bed for extra storage or shelves along wall in loft if using shed roof design
- storage locker over the trailer hitch for kiting gear and other sports gear
- move the front door to the side of the house (next to the wheels) so that I can put in a window seat at the rear end of the trailer with built-in cabinets and bookcases around the window seat
5. Bay Window – This is not a big modification, but I saw a picture of house with a bay window in the kitchen and I love it. Room for some plants, maybe some herbs. A garden window would also work. I know these are expensive, but it may be worth it.
OK – I’m sure there will be more brainstorms but this is enough to get things going for now.
P.S. Click on any pic to see the website from which it comes.
So, as I said in the last post, I have decided to go for a tiny house on a trailer. But all decisions lead to more decisions to be made. In talking to friends, they asked why I wasn’t just thinking about buying an RV, ripping out its guts, and refinishing the inside (like Jay Shafer did). Or buying an old school bus and doing the same (called skoolies). Then, I’d get a waterproof shell that I knew was good on the road. No worries about leaks or, even worse, the roof falling off as I drive down the road. And I could have the same satisfaction of the hands-on construction work of creating my own home. Also, it may be easier to move around and potentially to tow my little Honda Civic behind it. My Civic certainly won’t be able to tow any trailer so changing locations may require multiple trips, one to move the trailer and one to move the car. And yes, I know in the ideal world, I just wouldn’t have a car. Trust me, I didn’t have a car for 10 years. But, I kiteboard. A lot. Which means driving to beaches with several kites and boards and wetsuits. So, a car is necessary. Anyway, back to the trailer decision.
But, there are a couple of downsides of using an RV or bus.
1. First, I think it may limit the places I can park. In certain neighborhoods, I can see neighbors being OK with a cute little house parked in the backyard while they wouldn’t be OK with an RV or school bus. A cute little house on wheels is easier to put in a neighborhood and have people think its just cute, versus an RV or a school bus.
2. With a school bus or a drivable RV, I run into the issues of the road worthiness of the engine. Engines are a bit of a mystery to me (perhaps having to do with my not owning a car for 10 years). So, taking on a used engine, figuring out if it’s a good used engine, fixing it, all that seems like a whole new challenge for me. I like challenges and am sure I could figure it out, but I have a feeling that house construction is going to be plenty challenging enough for me for the next bit.
3. Insulation, waterproofing, and all of that sounds like it can be a challenge. Most RVs are not made for full-time living or winter living. There definitely seem to be horror stories about condensation, icing, leaking shells, and all of that. There are horror stories on the internet for everything…but these aren’t things I really want to mess with. Whether my construction will be any better is a question as well, but at least I have some control over that.
4. I really, really want a sleeping loft. It makes so much sense to me. Why waste floor space with a bed? Of course, I’m writing this as I sit on my bed, but part of that is that it takes up the bulk of the room I’m renting. Anyway, RVs have lower ceilings than my plan, which makes lofts harder.
Clearly, I’m leaning a bit towards a cute tiny house on wheels. Something like a Tumbleweed House. But, I plan to tweak floor plans and roofs and all of that. Because that’s the fun part of building your own house.
OK, so I know I want a tiny house, but immediately, there are all of these decisions to make. Which is the fun part. And the scary part (what if I decide the wrong thing). Anyway, some are decisions that need to be made up front and others are things to mull over.
The first big decision is putting my tiny house on a foundation or a trailer. Here are the things I’m considering with this decision:
- Build considerations: Trailers have weight limits (based on trailer axle ratings and how big a truck you want to use to move the trailer). Also, they are subject to some serious wind and vibrations while being driven down the highway so have to be built super-strong. Both of these means there are definitely some extra building considerations for trailers, which is a concern given my basically non-existent building experience. On the flip side, there are lots of good online resources for building your own trailer. Foundation takes the lead.
- Size limitations: Trailers can only be so wide (8 ft without requiring a wide load permit) and so high (13.5 ft), which generally leads to a long skinny house with limited loft space. And, I don’t think I’d want a trailer longer than about 20 ft. A house on a foundation has a lot more flexibility in design (except when you consider the next issue on the list). But, the goal of a tiny house is to go small – so size limitations may not be a bad thing (although I’d like to make sure I’m not going so small that I can’t live comfortably in it). Also, I can cheat a little on storage by stashing some stuff in my parents’ basement (not exactly the goal of a tiny house…but I’m a believer in cheating a bit at the beginning and working your way to the end goal). Still a preference towards a foundation.
- Permits: Depending on the location, houses on foundations over a certain size (usually 100, 120, or 200 square feet) require permits. And basically any building with bathrooms or kitchens require permits. Permits are expensive and likely would mean bringing in an outside contractors. Tiny houses are often under the minimum size requirements for zoning so require variances in order to get permits. All of this is a major hassle which I would like to avoid. Trailers for the most part do not need permits, so that’s a major plus on the trailer side. And things tip heavily towards a trailer.
- Water/Composting/etc: I’m not quite sure what to call this category, but a fixed foundation house has the advantage of having land around it. Which makes it much easier to think about composting, using greywater irrigation, and harvesting rainwater as well. All of these are possible to do with a trailer, but it requires a little more creativity (I think). Another plus on the foundation side…but not a huge one.
- Location: Clearly, a tiny house on a foundation is at a fixed location. This means a) I have to know where I want to be for many years because I don’t want to build a house and then decide to move 3 years later and b) I have to own land there. Which is definitely an added expense. My life is a bit nomadic these days. I spend 9 months living out of a backpack, followed by 7 months living in North Carolina, and I don’t know where I will be for the next 4 months. So, living in one location for the next 10 years is very hard for me to fathom. This is really the tipping point for me to decide to go for a house on a trailer. If 4 years down the road, I know I want to be in one place, I can buy land and park my trailer there for good. I can even potentially add on a small shed to act as a studio/office if I need some additional space. And putting my house on a trailer wins!
P.S. I am far from the first person to have this debate. See other musings on this topic at: http://smalllivingjournal.com/issue-16-how-to-design-build-a-home/ryanmitchell/trailer/