Designing and Building Your Tiny House

Well, we did it! We built our tiny house and have been living in it for 5 weeks (half of that time it was still under construction — not recommended…). I’ve been thinking about our experience and what we learned — and here it is.

Sky works on the tiny house, summer 2012.

Sky works on the tiny house, summer 2012.

Think about your life

So, you want to live in a tiny house. The first thing you should know is that a tiny house is, well, tiny. As in, very small. As in, there are not many places to put things or do things.  Know what activities are meaningful to you (and what things and space they need), how you’ll be spending your time (working out of the home,working at home, not working), where you’d like to park your tiny house (in town, in the country, in a city), how often you plan to move (never, yearly, every few months, every few weeks), and how long you plan to live in your house (always, seasonally, temporarily until you can afford something bigger, have kids, etc.).

If you love to entertain, dance, play a large musical instrument, or participate in an art or craft that requires room, tiny house living may not be right for you. If you’re a person that craves silence and privacy, and you live with someone else, tiny house living may not be right for you. I just had a friend visiting who said, “This is the most amazing house, but I would be totally claustrophobic.” Know thyself.

Think about what systems you want

Do you want running water? Hot water? A shower? Can you live without a toilet, or with just a pee jar and a bucket of sawdust? Or do you want more comfort in the bathroom? Do you want to cook with a microwave, a toaster oven, a hot plate, a camping stove, or a real kitchen range? Do you want arefrigerator or not? What are you going to store — bikes, skis, guitars, craft supplies, electronics, books, multi-seasonal clothes, food, water? Will you have a pet? What kind of space/food/litter box/play space does your pet need? Do you want to sit up in bed, climb a ladder to a loft, climb stairs to bed, or have your bed on the main floor? How will you heat and cool your space? Do you want to be plugged in to electricity, or do you want to be off-grid?

There are many, many choices here, and many ways to get what you want. But it’s best to know beforehand, so that you can incorporate all the features you want into your tiny house as you build it. It’s easy to add a feature to a regular house after it’s built — renovate the kitchen, put in another bathroom or bedroom, rip out a wall. Not so true in a tiny house! Make your plans beforehand. If you decide you don’t want a feature, you don’t have to put it in. But if you decide you want a propane stove after the fact, it’ll be harder to find the space and install the piping for the propane.

Plan for public space and private space

This is especially important if two or more of you are going to live in the tiny house. Even if you love being alone, you may feel the need to have your bed, your clothes, or other things out of the public view. Unless you are a complete hermit, you’ll have visitors whether they are friends, lovers, or strangers. You may live with a partner, a roommate, children, and/or pets. Even if you live alone, you may want the feeling of going into another room.

You don’t need floor-to-ceiling walls to create separate space. Half or three-quarter walls may be enough, or a bookcase, pantry shelves, curtain, or stand-alone screen can provide division.  As you consider these dividers, also think about what will be seen to the public and whether that’s OK with you — dishes and kitchen items may be fine, but how do you feel about dirty dishes and laundry being in the public eye? Think about your level of comfort with these things before you start building.

Do your research

As you probably know, the internet is loaded with ideas about tiny houses. We looked at hundreds of photos with a special eye for clever storage ideas, dramatic windows, beds that were not in lofts, and interesting features. Get a feeling for what you like and what you don’t like. One thing we noticed is that most of the houses had mostly wood interiors. While I love our cedar paneling, I wanted to be sure we had lots of interesting colors, and so we planned accordingly with painted trim, shelving, and flooring along with bright rugs and cushions. Besides perusing the internet, there are many books on the subject as well, though we did not look at any. Check with your local library.

Get into the habit of measuring things, and keeping a notebook with this information and any other ideas you like. How big a bed do you want, what size sitting area is comfortable to you, what kind of ceiling height feels right? Keep track of all this, and when you’re ready, get some graph paper and start designing. Even if you plan on using an architect or purchased plans, it’s best to be clear about what you do want. You may want to modify the purchased plans or have specific ideas to share with your architect. We’re all different.

Ready to start building?

Plan ahead so that you do things in the right order

OK, so it’s really tempting to go on to the next project without quite finishing the last one. Or to start building walls when you haven’t quite secured the foundation. Or to put up the interior finish work without getting all the wiring and plumbing rough-in done. Even though we had built several regular houses before we built our tiny house, we did not follow this very well, and spent too much time going back to fix or redo things. Be patient and take it step-by-step. It actually will save time in the long run.

Part of planning ahead is also buying the materials you need in advance, so you don’t have to run out for screws or a few more pieces of lumber or some wire nuts. Looking over our building log, it looks like we wasted at least four or five days between not having materials, or doing things out-of-order. We built the tiny house in 9 weeks…but we could have been done even sooner if we were careful.  If you’re not on a time crunch as we were, this will matter less, but it still is not that much fun to have to rip out something you’ve already done (wasting both time and materials) because you missed a step.

Be conscious of weight and space

In a regular house, weight and space matters less. You can build 2×6 or 2×8 walls, and it’s no problem. You can add or subtract kitchen counter space, and never know the difference. In a tiny house, every half-inch matters, and things are not as flexible. When we built our other houses, we could say, “Let’s put that wall here, instead of there,” moving it several inches one way or another. You can’t do that in a tiny house… no inches to spare!  And if your trailer or towing vehicle can handle only so much weight, you have to be exquisitely careful about the materials you use. We used 3/8″ plywood, for example, in a situation that would usually call for 1/2″, and 1/2″ when it’s usually 5/8″. We used 2x4s for our exterior walls, but 2x3s for the interior. And we built our walls, joists, and rafters on 2′ centers instead of 16″ — there are many ways to save weight and space. If this is important to you, be aware of it — and consult with a builder or architect to make sure your choice is structurally sound.

Make friends with your power screwdriver

Most tiny houses are built with screws, not nails. Screws provide greater strength, and flexibility for houses that may travel. However, I found that it was hard to get used to running the screwdriver — I was so used to pounding nails (which isn’t that easy either, but it was familiar). Get the best power screwdriver you can afford (with two batteries), and practice before you start building. And remember, one of the perks of building with screws instead of nails is that it’s easy to take things apart if you mess up! Don’t forget to splurge on good screws too — long enough for the job, and weather-resistent.

What about money?

Everyone has a different budget. Some of you will want or need to build with recycled/reclaimed materials. Others can splurge on top-notch materials. But everyone can save money by planning ahead, checking around for the best price, purchasing items before you need them, asking for a discount, and looking for used items for sale on Craig’s List or other venues. We built our tiny house for about $21,000 including a new trailer, a complete off-grid electric system, speciality appliances, and high-quality windows and door. Doing without all that, you could easily build an 8′x20′ tiny house for under $10,000 excluding the trailer. Don’t let your lack of money stop your dream! You can start saving now for the house you want.