To Trailer or Not

Posted March 1st, 2010 by RyanMitchell and filed in Issue 16: How To Design & Build a Home

One of the great debates surrounding Tiny Houses is whether to have your Tiny Home on a trailer or not. I have seen several discussions on this topic and find that both sides have merit.

To get at the root of this debate, we should probably start off with discussing why it even exists. Why they heck did people start putting houses on trailers?

Originally, Tiny Houses weren’t much smaller than those in which many Americans lived, and which today, what the rest of the world lives in. The existence of building codes weren’t an issue. So long as you paid your taxes, you were fine. That said, in earlier times, there still existed some homogeneity from house to house because building a home was something the whole community would come together to do. Most people in that day had a pretty solid grasp of the general principles of home building, but by the action of coming together, there was some consistency to every home.

As society progressed, or regressed in some cases, our municipalities and tax structures become more rigid. Concurrently, we began to see an increase in home size, not because of occupancy, but because of status. Taxes of course followed and as a result, the combination of evolution of building codes and the need for baseline taxation, we find ourselves where we are today. Today you are going to be hard pressed to be able to legally build a house under 500 square feet without special permission, which is becoming harder to get.

Enter the trailer. Trailers were originally thought to be a loop hole, to be frank, whereby potential builders could get around these minimum standards for square footage. The underlying principle was that a trailer is something that doesn’t have a lot of bureaucratic red tape, that is easily purchased, that is minimally taxed if at all, and that in many states doesn’t even have to be registered. The trailer presented a solution to many of the issues that building codes presented. As a side note, there are several reasons for building codes outside of taxation; safety issues motivate many of the codes in existence.

The next big benefit of trailers is that by avoiding building codes, we have been able to take a complex system of regulation and neatly avoid it. Tiny Houses can be built by someone with very little knowledge but with some basic common sense. If you have ever taken a moment to do some digging on your local building codes you can see that they can be difficult to understand or even find. Removing these constraints from the equation makes the prospect of building a Tiny House on your own much more manageable.

Costs are yet another reason why many seek to build Tiny Houses on trailers. With the elimination of building codes, you by proxy take out contractors, inspectors, permits and certified tradesmen. The average mark up of hired help is roughly 40%. Permits can run a few bucks to several hundreds or even thousands of dollars! Finally, inspections are also removed by pursuing the trailer route. With them in the equation, construction can easily come to a screeching halt quickly and bring lots of worry to the build site.

Also, with a trailer approach the build site doesn’t have to be the same as the home site. There are obvious advantages to building a Tiny House in a warehouse or a wood shop. You can work regardless of the weather, you can heat/cool the space for comfortable work, and you can bring in power which you might not have where you will be living. All these things mean that you can build in one spot and live in another without having to make concessions.

Finally, Tiny Houses on trailers will allow you to roam. There are three distinct advantages here. The first is related to an earlier point, building code enforcement. Let’s say that you have your Tiny House and somehow your local inspector finds out, you can easily preemptively move it or say that it is there temporarily.

The second benefit it being able to move. Moving for a job or school can be a huge expense and while companies have “moving packages”, this isn’t the case for many of us. All you need to do with a trailer Tiny House is to secure a space in the new location and what once was a headache, becomes a road trip with all the comforts of home.

Finally, part of my overall life simplification plan is to get to a point where I work independent of a location, a virtual worker if you will. This means that I can live anywhere. But why stop there? Taking this to the next level, lets live wherever, whenever. What I mean by this is, you could own 5 small plots of land around the country and rotate between them. Unimproved land is very cheap (both tax wise and cost) in many places so why not have a plot of land near your favorite ski resort, one down the road from family, and another near your favorite city. You can have your cake and eat it too read about my approaches to working here.

Now what are the advantages to forgoing the trailer, to building on piers or a standard foundation? I think the two biggest advantages to this approach are size and legal acceptance.

The size of a house is greatly limited to the trailer you have to build on. In addition you have to concern yourself with road clearance heights. This isn’t the case with Tiny Houses on Trailers, you can build your home to the footprint and height that suits you. This is a very powerful aspect to non-trailer Tiny Houses because you gain flexibility. You are able to build your house around your needs, not the needs of the trailer.

Legal acceptance by municipalities is an important concern. It can be very hard to get code enforcement on board with what you are trying to do with a Tiny House on a trailer. Having a traditional foundation and a house in the 400-500 square foot range, building codes become applicable. This inherently does bring in extra costs of permits, contractors, and certified tradesmen. The outcome of this is that you are seen as a law abiding citizen, you don’t have to worry about inspectors bring down fines upon you and your house will be inherently safer.

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Organizing small spaces: 10 tips to make the most out of your space

Posted February 1st, 2010 by RyanMitchell and filed in Issue 15: Small Space Tricks

1. Use vertical space
After talking with lots of Tiny House folks, I have seen this as a trend: maximize the vertical. Everything above 8 feet is all dead air if you don’t use it, so capitalize on that. You could have a small chest that takes up 2 square feet of floor space. If it is 4 feet tall, you will have around 8 cubic feet of storage. Take that to the ceiling and suddenly you have doubled or tripled your volume, but haven’t given away any more floor space which is a scarcity in a Tiny House.

2. Everything has a place and is in its place
When working with a small space I know that everything needs a place. Without it, your house goes from quaint to cluttered. Make sure every item you have has its own resting place and be sure that it finds its way back once you’re done using it. One lady who lives in a 90 square foot apartment said to me “if it doesn’t have a place, do you really need it?” and that’s a good point. Things that matter and are used are important enough to demand a place.

3. Double duty on items
There are those items which are by their nature, multi functional. You need to capitalize on these types of items. When you consider an item, you should always think if there is something else that can do it already. A perfect example of this is the end table, which transforms to a chair for extra seating. Check it out here.

4. Purpose built – built ins
Built-ins are nice, but built-ins with a purpose are even better. Think specifics. When paring down your possessions, you will identify the 100 or so items that will be contained in your house. Take stock of those items and let them dictate the form of your storage. If you are a ski patrol member, your closet should be able to fit your skis. If you live in colder climates, you will need more room for larger jackets than others might.

5. Go digital / paperless
As if being greener isn’t motivation enough, going digital, as I call it, means that you are able to reduce the tangible items you need. Digital files take up no space if you have them stored online, with the added advantage of being able to access them from anywhere. Combined with backing the files up, they become safer than real world things. The IRS officially accepts all scanned copies of receipts and bank statements. This extends beyond receipts: books on your Kindle, movies on your Roku, music on OpenTape, or recipes in a wiki. See my post about using some of these. Here

6. Less is more
At this point I am preaching to the choir but, the question is not how to organize all your stuff, but on how to reduce the stuff to organize. The mentality needed is the same as you had if/when you went to college. The dorm rooms were tiny and you were broke. You only had what you really needed. Studies have shown that more stuff does not lead to happiness, so focus on the important things in life.

7. One thing in, one thing out
One principle that I like to pull from the Zen/Fung Shui school of thought is this. If you want to add a new item, consider adopting the rule that for every item you bring in, you must give up something else. Now, no cheating – like giving up a pen for an arm chair, but you get the idea.

8. Be intentional
Living with intention will have a profound impact on your life. Be thoughtful in your actions and choices. This extends to your organization and stuff. When you consider purchasing an item, you must first evaluate it and decide if you really need it. I often don’t buy it right then, but next time I am in that store (in a week or two). If I still want it then, I usually go for it if it makes sense.

9. Think inside the box
This is a technique that I use when I feel that a certain space is cluttered or if I start stacking stuff. Take a box, fill it up with everything. Then as you need the items pull them out of the box. Six weeks later, if you still have stuff in the box – no, let me rephrase that, you WILL have stuff in the box – you can evaluate what is left. There is rarely an item that I have that I don’t use within 6 weeks that’s worth keeping. Detailed box theory.

10. Most used items easy to access
This seems pretty obvious, but having the most used items in the front means you are able to access them quicker and without disturbing other things. This ties back to being intentional. You should be intense about organizing your items in this manner. If you notice that there are items in the back that haven’t been touched in a while, it’s time to evaluate whether you still need them.

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