Disclaimer: I am NOT a professional carpenter or tiny home builder. The following article is simply to share my design experience. This information can be used for inspiration, but it is very rudimentary, and should not be used as a guideline for safe design or building practices.
There is no right way to design a tiny home. The most important consideration is comfort and livability for you. This post is a little bit longer than previous posts, so if you read on, be prepared to get the nitty-gritty of my thoughts.
As I type this I’m sitting here on my deck awaiting the arrival of a new acquaintance Krissy who asked if I would mind if she came to check out my house. She’s interested in learning a thing or two about my process and subsequent lifestyle. She was not the first one to ask this and she won’t be the last, but it’s got me thinking. Before building my home I had never seen another tiny house in person. People kept asking me if I planned to go and stay the night in one or something like that, but my answer was always “No?” Like I wasn’t sure that was the right answer, but at the same time, I just knew that I didn’t need to. “But how do you know you’ll like it?”, people would ask. Again, it just wasn’t a question for me. I have always been confident that, as long as I took it slow, I’d make the best decisions possible for myself.
So where to start? I was lucky that at the time that I decided to do this, I was
sharing a small apartment with some friends. I definitely had some furniture and whatever, but not too much. I had been squirreling away some things in our basement with the idea in mind that eventually I’d have my own place, so I was
in pretty good shape in terms of my ‘stuff’. I decided the best thing to do would be to take inventory. I wrote things down. What did I absolutely need to have in my tiny house? Meanwhile I was also taking a mental catalogue of space
requirements. What kind of storage would I need to plan out in order to keep the things I wanted? It worked out that my sister was in the process of buying her new house just outside the city, and she would be able to use all of my furniture and appliances that I wouldn’t be able to take. I also took it one step further an considered how my things moved around my space. For example, where would my dishes dry after I washed them? Where would I toss my dirty clothes at the end of the day? When
my bedroom gets messy, where does the mess come from? And how do I put it away? People seem to be under the impression that you have to get rid of EVERYTHING you own, but don’t jump the gun! Here’s a secret: I’m not a minimalist, I’m just really good at planning (don’t tell).
The next consideration was size. Here’s another one of those ‘cold hard fact’ moments when it came to my misconceptions. I, like many other people that are drawn to the tiny house lifestyle, like the idea that tiny houses can be moved. For me, this was true, but not at all in the way that I had originally thought it through. Yes my house can be moved. When the time comes, a truck can be hooked up to it and it can be pulled away to wherever I want. But here’s the thing, it wouldn’t exactly be easy. I also have to say, at this point, I’d be scared outta my mind to put this baby on the road. I mean, it’s my BABY! Two-plus years of work and money and time, rolling down the highway? I can’t even imagine! Guys, I understand it’s a tiny house, but it’s BIG! At least it seems that way when I think about putting it on a truck. Sure people do it, but that will not be me. Not now. It’s not ‘quick vacation’ road-worthy. Besides the fact that I couldn’t even comprehend how expensive it would be to move. I’d certainly hire someone to do it for me. Even if I did have a big truck (which I don’t cause the point here was to save money), I don’t know the first thing about towing something so large and fragile. I guess that’s all to say, (unless you have a very specialized set of skills) if you plan to move frequently, I might pare down my plans to utilize a shorter trailer and simpler design.
Now…all that being said…I’m happy that I built the way that I did. If some day I really want to live the full nomad life, I’ll buy a van. For now, what I really needed was a home, and since I don’t need to vacate my residence any time soon, a spacious design is suiting me just fine.
So while I wasn’t sure yet what I’d do about a trailer, it seemed that it would be a good idea to pick a relatively average size, and see if that catalogue of 'my stuff' that I had in mind, would fit. I decided to plan for an 8x20 ft house. From there it was just an endless conglomeration of things I’d seen on tv, social media and in books that I had liked. I also paid pretty close attention to the characteristics that I didn’t like. And that almost helped me more. For example:
-I wanted every aspect of my house to function independently. I didn’t want to get forced into moving things out of the way in order to access other things (like a bed that hides away, or a table that’s also a couch etc.)
- I didn’t want a loft that felt claustrophobic and cramped. In fact, I didn’t want any part of this design to feel cramped. (I know you're thinking 'But you're building a tiny house!' Well settle down, cause it worked.)
- I didn’t want a semi-permanent, uncomfortable or stiff looking couch.
- I didn’t want a ladder to be my only means of access to my loft.
- I didn’t want to worry about plumbing a toilet, but I did want running water and a shower. (More on composting toilets to come in the future).
- I didn’t want a kitchen built to suit full size appliances. I’m just one woman, and while I like to cook, I’m not usually making big meals.
-I didn’t want the exterior to be plain and lacking character.
I DID want a house that felt spacious and airy enough (for a tiny house). I wanted to be comfortable to move around and able to fully sit up in bed. Think hard here about the way your body moves in your current space. How much room do you take up? I wanted to be able to lounge on the couch, and cook reasonable meals. I knew I’d want some space to hang out outside, and a bathroom big enough to manage in without feeling trapped. I wanted a storage loft so that I might have an extra place to sit and read or keep a workspace. I wanted room for guests, and even a way for them to comfortably stay the night. I wanted at least a bit of table and counter space. I wanted ‘rooms’ that felt reasonably separate. I was in love with the idea of a stained glass window, and an exterior design that would be interesting. You get the idea.
At this point I had purchased some bundle deals that other tiny house builders were selling at the time. I had a package of possible floor plans. I had an intro package to the SketchUp computer program which I never figured out. Instead, I decided to put my art degree to good use. I got out a ruler, some colored pencils, and a stack of graph paper and went to town. As I’ve said before, this can feel very final. As though you can’t decide anything cause what if it’s wrong? Well…
let’s be serious…there’s a reason why pencils have erasers amiright?
I started sketching up all of the things that I knew I wanted, being careful to avoid everything I didn’t want. I scribbled down some colors, wondering what I might want things to look like, imagining how they might go together.
I was still constantly worried that I was choosing wrong. I kept asking my dad for input but he wasn’t interested. He said “I told you I’d help you build it, I didn’t say I’d design it. Come up with whatever you want and we’ll figure out how to do it.” At the time that was the last thing I wanted to hear, but it ended up being a blessing in disguise. The fact that I was designing all by myself without any carpentry knowledge lead to what ended up being a pretty unique
looking home. I had no idea that some of what I was planning was going to be super hard to pull off, but I held my dad to his word and we worked a lot of it out! (thanks Dad, I'm gonna just keep saying that.)
I finally got to a point that I was pretty happy with my design. My sis had just moved into her house, and I took the opportunity to tape out my floorpan in her new empty living room. Everything fit (how crazy is that?) and I was feeling good, but I still couldn’t quite visualize it. So I decided to build a small model. Why not? I won’t get into it yet, but by this time I had ordered a trailer. Turns out there was a long wait while it was being built. I literally had nothing else to do but agonize over my plans. So I cut out a bunch of graph paper and made a scale model of what I thought my
plan would look like. It seemed ok, but there was still this nagging feeling that something was missing. So on this particular evening, I set aside my work and went in for dinner. It just so happened that on that same night, my mom flipped on the tv, and there was an episode of ‘Tiny House, Big Living’ just about to start. I gotta tell you guys, at this point I didn’t want to see another tv show about tiny house design. I was on overload. I knew I felt good about my plan, and more ideas would’ve been just too much. But we watched anyways. One episode. This episode happened to feature The Alpha by New Frontier Tiny Homes. Now, 4 years later, this house has become pretty famous. The reason I’m telling you about The Alpha is this: It has a raised kitchen. Granted, it’s raised high enough that a large table can be pulled from underneath it, but something about that raised kitchen hit me. That was it! Under the floor storage! I had seen this before on Tanner's episode of 'Tiny House, Big Living' but I wasn't sure how to incorporate it into my own design. Then I saw the Alpha and it clicked. Big shout out to Tanner who later helped me figure out how to actually make it work! (the tiny house community is so cool.). Anyways, long story short, I scrapped my original floor-plan and made a whole new model! That just goes to show that nothing is final until you start building. Even then you can always tweak as you go, but I found that my best ideas came to me by accident.
We'll move on to design specifics later so you're not all overwhelmed, and to be honest, so I'm not overwhelmed trying to write this in a way that will be helpful for you. (I'm over here wracking my brain trying to remember what I was doing 4 years ago and typing by the seat of my pants).
I'll write next about choosing a trailer, and how that will affect the spacial relations of your design.