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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It’s All Relative

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

Tiny Victorian front

So, you’ve decided that everybody else’s designs don’t quite fit and you want something completely unique, right?  You want to design it yourself so you get exactly what you want.  Now how do you begin?

First, I suggest taking a long hard look at the life that you want to live after you move into your small space.  You must be realistic about your space requirements. Do you want to entertain people? Do you need a home office? Do you like to cook?  You MUST be completely honest with yourself and don’t hold utopian ideals about how your life will be once you’re settled.

Next think about your storage requirements.  Are you a minimalist who has only 3 shirts, 2 pairs of pants and 1 pair of shoes?  Are you a seamstress or a crafty person who needs alot of storage?  Once again, really consider your storage needs.  And don’t forget to factor in those items that are easily forgettable: toothbrush, toothpaste, et cetera.  I would make a list of everything you want to pack around with you in your little house.  My personal goal is to be able to pack every thing I own into 3 medium sized boxes.

While you are designing, take into consideration not only floor plan but also think about things like your water heater, your home heat, all the tiny details. And we like to think that looks aren’t everything but lets face it, we all want a pretty home so don’t forget aesthetics!  I like to plot everything out on paper first and then I like to tape it out on the floor so I can get a sense of scale.  Then I whip out my Google Sketchup and go to town drawing it up.  I haven’t had a chance to actually build a home yet, but it’s on my to do list.

I also recommend making a list of the reasons why you wanted to go small and keep them by your side as you design.  That way you can keep your goal pure and create your perfect home.

Also don’t forget to use the tips and tricks featured in last month’s edition of SLJ!

Live free!    Lelly

chalet floorplan 2

Thinking Big, While Living Small: 4 Design Ideas

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

January 2010 FunMoving to a smaller apartment has helped us downsize even more. Less stuff and less cleaning lowered my stress level, improved my health and saved an enormous amount of time. My extra time is now spent with friends, hobbies, and Logan.

Even though we have less stuff, I still want my home to be a safe, beautiful and welcoming environment. I think tiny apartment or home can be all of those things and more.

Whether you live in 80 square feet or 1000, the following tips will help you arrange your livings space to perfection.

1. Let your style shine through.

You can still let your style shine through and make room for the necessities. Jessica from Apartment Therapy has a 200 square foot apartment in San Francisco that is functional and designed beautifully. She has a “penchant for vintage” and “tried to blend antique collections with a modern aesthetic–all in a home the size of most people’s guest bedroom!”

You might even consider designing a special nook in your tiny space. :)

2. Less is more.

Less really is more. If you live in a small space, you don’t need to stuff it to the max. A few beautiful pieces of furniture will make your small space appear larger and less cluttered.

3. Use Mirrors.

Consider adding a large mirror to your little space. The use of mirrors will pick up extra light and make your home appear larger. Logan and I have a few mirrors in our apartment. The mirrors are designed simply, but add so much character to our apartment. I considered giving them away before leaving Sacramento, but I’m happy they are with us in Portland.

4. Bring in the plants.

Plants bring life to any small space. If you use vertical space you could even start your own radical gardening project on your balcony or inside your apartment. Creating a small outdoor project is not only fun, but a great hobby.

Do you have any design tips to add?

You can learn more about my downsizing journey by reading my blog, RowdyKittens, or following me on Twitter.

Building the Mobile Hermitage Small House

It was late spring of 2003 when I began assisting Jay Shafer of Tumbleweed Tiny House Company with the construction of my tiny house, The Mobile Hermitage. It amazed me that just two people, over a few months, could build a house.

At that time, I’d not heard of such a thing being done before. I’d had no prior building or carpentry experience (other than a wood shop class in high school), but found the process quite easy and fun.

The basic stages of constructing the house were actually quite simple. The smallness the house helped to constrain us a bit with the design. Being a basic 10′ x 7′ floor plan, and wanting the home to be road ready, there wasn’t much wiggle room for bay windows, overhangs, or outcroppings.

The simplicity of the house actually made the construction process much easier, less time consuming, and less costly. By necessity, we would build a simple structure of four walls and a roof.

The construction process from start to finish involved the following stages:

  1. Foundation. We purchased a high quality strong flat-bed trailer to build the home on. The trailer needed to be rated to handle the weight of the home. On top of the metal trailer frame, we constructed the basic foundation of the home out of wood framing and insulation. A wood foundation offers many benefits. I’ve always enjoyed the idea of having a home on a slab of cement to take advantage of geothermal benefits (gaining coolness or storing heat from the sun). However, it’s also nice having a home suspended a few feet off the ground (up on jacks). One benefit is a reduction in bugs. Another benefit is a reduction in wood or structural damage from water. The foundation layers were metal (to protect from water), plywood, 2×4 framing, foam board insulation, plywood, and then very nice interlocking wood flooring strips. Everything was screwed and glued for rigidity and an airtight seal. Expanding foam insulation (from a can) was used in any gaps and cracks.
  2. Walls. The walls went up fairly quickly and easily. You can see a little of the framing in the photo above. The tricky part, which required Jay’s expertise and experience, was to make sure the walls were straight and also structurally sound enough to support the loft and roofing. Jay installed numerous reinforcing mechanisms including metal bracing. As with the floor, solid foam board insulation was cut to fit into all spaces and any gaps were sealed with expanding foam insulation from a can. The layers of the walls from outside to inside were solid Cedar wood siding, plywood, foam board insulation, and then solid pine interlocking paneling inside. Everything was screwed, glued, and sealed up with expanding foam.
  3. Loft. Building the loft on top of the basic 10×7 foot cube structure was like putting a flat roof on the house. Because the ceiling for the downstairs would also be the floor of the upstairs, the same high quality wood interlocking floor boards were used as had been used in the floor downstairs. This made for a very attractive ceiling downstairs and floor upstairs with very little expenditure on materials. Jay constructed storage area on either side of the passageway between the downstairs and the loft. Instead of having stairs, a collapsible ladder was ultimately used as the way to access the loft.
  4. Roof. Because the loft area would serve as a bedroom, the roof would not have any interior support beams. So, the roof would be supported structurally at the ends. This was more than sufficient because of the short distance (10 feet) that the roof would span. Like the walls and floor, the roof had framing and solid foam board insulation along with expanding foam to fill all cracks and gaps.
  5. Furniture and Cabinets. To minimize wasted space, all furniture (other than folding chairs) was built-in, including bookshelves, tables, and clothes storage.

In the photo to the right, the basic structure of the home is complete with a space for the door and windows. This photo was taken at the beginning of stage #3 explained above.

Initially the home seemed a bit small, before having the finishing touches put on the outside and inside.

Surprisingly, after Jay added more to the inside of the house, it seemed more spacious!

The trick to designing small livable spaces seems to be in making them feel cozy and making the inside of the home to scale so that visually it has the look and feel of a normal home. Jay seems to have mastered the complexities of this challenge.

Something I really appreciate about the house is that it has a very tight building envelope. So, any airflow through the house is completely controlled and efficient. In this way, fresh air can be efficiently brought in as needed. Because of this, the heating and cooling are very efficient.

I’ve been living in my tiny home now for over five years and have really enjoyed it. The home is currently for sale, because my Fiancée and I plan to move into a slightly larger space.

Below is a photo of the home as it is today. The angle of the home in this photo is similar to how it is shown during the construction process in the photo above.