Designing and Building My Tiny House
Monthly Archives: November 2010
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/
For the last two or three years, I have found myself drawn to all of the websites of tiny houses and homes. I lived in Boston and New York City, so always had small apartments (especially in New York City). And then I spent 8 months traveling and living out of a backpack. After doing that, you realize how little you actually need in life. I don’t need a million shirts; in reality, I tend to only wear a handful and the rest sit at the bottom of my drawer. The same goes for almost everything. And I have very strong feelings that Americans tend to use way too many resources. Bigger is not always better (at least not in houses and material possessions) and certainly is not sustainable in terms of houses. So, small is what I want and what is good for the world (my own little part).
At the same time, I’m a bit of a homebody. I want to have a space that I can really organize and decorate and make mine. As soon as you know you are only going to be in a space for 6 months, how much do you really want to spend time, energy, and money to get it exactly how you want it to be? I want a space that I know I’ll be in for a while and can take the time to get just right for me.
So, all of this leads to me wanting to build my own small house. Right now its just in the planning stages, but that’s a hell of a lot of fun in it’s own right!