Issue 16: How To Design & Build a Home

Posted March 1st, 2010 by Michael Janzen and filed in Issue 16: How To Design & Build a Home
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Tiny house design and construction is my favorite topic. In this issue we’ll discuss how to approach this somewhat challenging task. I’m also very happy to tell you that we have our first guest submission by Jay Shafer from Tumbleweed Tiny House Company and a second contribution from Ryan Mitchell at Thanks again Jay and Ryan! If you’d like to contribute to our journal learn more about Guest Submissions.

There are four articles in Issue 16: How To Design & Build a Home:

My article is late because I’ve been working feverishly on my entry to the FreeGreen design contest. I’ll have my post up in a few days. It will focus on how I use Google SketchUp to design the house designs I post on

Overcoming Obstacles, Past and Future

The subject of this issue of Small Living Journal was actually my suggestion. I thought it would be useful to hear how people have solved, and plan to solve, past and future challenges. Here are some example of common obstacles and my solutions.

Past & Current Obstacles

Debt Reduction

After watching the equity in my home evaporate I began to think very differently about money. I decided that for me, debt is to be avoided at all costs because the risk it too high. For example if I were to loose my job I would put my family in a very difficult position.

I’ve made some immediate changes in spending and have chosen to eliminate every unneeded expense. Living frugally immediately puts money back in my pocket and gives back some of the freedom lost by taking on debt.

When the housing market recovers we’ll be able to move on and into a smaller less expensive home on a larger piece of land. Once we’ve landed my financial focus will be becoming debt free.

Income Growth

I have a simple plan to create multiple revenue streams by leveraging my knowledge and skills. Most of us make money by selling our time to an employer. We make more money over time as our skills and knowledge improve, advancing as our contributions increase. The problem with this is that we’re reliant on someone else to support us and if that company should fail we go down with the ship.

There is another option that everyone can capitalize on immediately, and that’s banking your knowledge. To some degree everyone is an expect in something and when you take the time to record that expertise on a blog, book, recording, video, etc, you are banking your knowledge.

I’ve chosen to blog about my passion for tiny house design and have a couple book ideas in the works. Each one of these efforts becomes a small self-sustaining revenue stream. They don’t have to be large, they just have to be plentiful and require little effort to maintain. Blogging does require a lot of time and energy but I love to do it so I’d actually say the effort is low. In other words I’ve taken something I love doing and turned it into a revenue stream.

My long term plan is to create enough small streams to help eliminate debt and give me back more and more of my time. It’s a slow process but can work if you can maintain that entrepreneurial spirit.

More time with my Family

In 2006 Julia and I adopted our daughter Katie. As every parent can attest, having a new baby is life altering. The job I had at the time was a 100-mile commute away. I took the bus mostly and then the train when the bus route got canceled.

After Katie was born I began to make the trip to San Francisco by car because it was faster and gave me back about 2 hours a day with my family. But this was still not enough, I wanted more.

One day a job opportunity presented itself and a few months later I had switched positions and was working from home full time. Working from home has saved me so much time commuting and I can even have lunch with my wife and daughter.

Not every profession is as accommodating to working from home as mine. It’s also very hard to imagine working from home if you’ve always worked outside the home. But I think if you use your creativity and do some research you might be able to find a niche that fits your skill-set. My only warning is to look for real jobs and avoid anything that looks like a scheme.

Future Obstacles

Peak Oil Transition

I realize this is a loaded topic so forgive me for blurting it out like this, but hang in there with me for a few minutes.

At some point in the future the demand for oil will exceed supply. This will be due to increasing demand and fewer sources of oil. It’s clear that business and government are focused on the problem and are injecting more resources into finding a way to curtail demand, like using energy more efficiently, and diversify energy production by exploring coal, new oil exploration, tar sands, solar, wind, nuclear, etc.

In my humble opinion, all of this momentum has created a peak plateau and I’m certain it’s all in an effort to make a smooth transition to a new alternate energy source world. Some see our future powered by coal, nuclear, and natural gas; others see a wind, solar, hydro world… but they are all united in finding a way to make the transition smooth to keep human civilization strong.

Here’s a list of things I’m doing and plan to do. Ironically no matter what your predictions are for the future, none these choices can hurt.

  • Eliminate all debt.
  • Move to a temperate climate with adequate rainfall.
  • Become less dependent on an income by building a sustainable and self-reliant lifestyle and multiple small revenue streams that could theoretically survive a deeper economy downturn.
  • Move toward a sustainable lifestyle and live in balance with nature.
  • Buy only things I’d be happy keeping for a lifetime.
  • Buy only electronic devices that can run on 12VDC.
  • Invest in alternative energy equipment like photovoltaic solar panels, batteries, and wind turbines.

Life, Liberty, Happiness

While peak oil concerns have acted in part as a catalyst for my interest in simple living, downsizing, sustainability, and self-reliance; I think it’s really the desire to live a happy and free life that is my primary motivator, as it should be.

This is also something I think every human around the planet can relate to, we all ultimately want to be happy and freedom is a prerequisite. It seems many of us have strayed from that goal by giving into short-term perks powered by borrowed money and a society that seems to require the sale of our time, aka, a job.

Ironically the solution to this obstacle has been staring at us through the pages of history. Species that survive are those that are in balance with their surroundings. We are an incredibly resourceful animal. I’m certain that if we choose to solve this puzzle and take into account the need to be in balance with our natural surroundings we will prosper, be happy, and free. I suspect if we choose to use up our natural surroundings we will ultimately fail because we’ll be so far out on a limb when the branch finally decides we’ve gotten too heavy to hold.

So I’m choosing to get off the limb and climb down the tree. I certain I can find a way to live free and be happy by choosing to use my clever human ingenuity to architect a sustainable future for myself and family. I figure the more of us that put our focus on what truly sustains life the better our chances will be for a long and fruitful civilization. The first step is it to move our focus off the noise around us and redirect it on the things that keep us in balance with the life around us.

I invite you to follow me on Twitter, and visit my design blog, Tiny House Design.

How To Draw a Tiny House with Google SketchUp

camping-trailer-front-porchI’ve been having so much fun drawing 3D tiny houses lately that I thought I’d use this opportunity to show you the basics of drawing with Google SketchUp. Instead of writing it all down I decided to dust-off my podcasting microphone and do a quick podcast video to show you how to do it first hand.

Google SketchUp is free 3D drawing software that’s easy to learn to use and will run on both Mac and Windows computers. Before trying it do yourself a favor and watch a few of the SketchUp training videos. I made that mistake and couldn’t draw a thing until watching the videos a few times.

In the video below I’ll show you how I start a quick tiny house sketch. You’ll see how easy it is to draw the basic shape of a house. I’m also posting the actual SketchUp file in case you want to play with the actual file. If you’re like me and like to day dream and explore design ideas I bet you’ll enjoy playing with Google SketchUp as much as I do.

Download the SketchUp model in the video.

Explore the tiny houses I’ve drawn on Tiny House Design… and sorry that the video sound quality isn’t great :-)

I invite you to follow me on Twitter, and visit my blogs, Tiny House Design and Tiny Free House.

Searching for More from Less

Posted March 22nd, 2009 by Michael Janzen and filed in Issue 1: Introductions
“Our houses are such unwieldy property that we are often imprisoned rather than housed by them.”
- Henry David Thoreau

The Back Story

At a time in my early adult life I wanted nothing more than to prove that a livelihood could be carved out of doing what one loved doing. For me that was being a potter. I was very good at making pots but struggled to find a way to make a living as an artist.

For several years I lived in a small cabin in Mendocino County in northern California. I had built a tiny studio and on weekends I traveled to crafts fairs and farmers’ markets to sell my pots. But after a few years of struggling I finally chose to get a day job to pay the bills. First I worked for another potter but eventually got a job at big corporation.

Finding Success

I felt like a total sell-out working for the man so I decided to refocus my creative energy on another emerging craft, web design. I discovered that I was pretty good at it and several years later found a web design job at the same big corporation with only one disadvantage, I had to move to the city. My wife Julia and I found a small apartment in Vallejo, California and left the tiny cabin and studio behind.

katie-janzen-builds-pallet-houseThe web design job really took off. My approach to art and design has always been to focus on keeping things simple which actually really paid off in my approach to web application design because I was able to keep complex web applications simple and easy to use. I promoted quickly and ended up managing a team of designers and web usability researchers.

With success at work came more money and eventually Julia and I bought a larger home near Sacramento, California. Owning a real house came with some additional responsibilities. Our small condo had been very easy to manage but the house came with more square feet, more work, and more cost. I’m certain many new home owners go through the same adjustment especially now that money is so tight for so many people.

In 2006 Julia and I adopted a newborn baby girl, Katie. Luckily the position I had at the time allowed me to work-from-home most of the time which allowed me to spend a lot of time with my family. But I also noticed that it was becoming more and more difficult to keep up the the house.

Feeling the Downturn

In the summer of 2007 I began to feel the beginnings of the economic collapse. I had no idea how bad it was going to get but I began to do more and more reflecting on my values. As time went on it became clear that America was headed for hard times and that if I was going to pull my family through I’d need to begin looking for new solutions.

Ironically, or not, I found myself looking back at my early 20′s and the simple life I lead as a potter. I also stumbled on a simple idea that making better choices were the key to achieving goals. By simply changing our choices, big and small, we can dramatically change the course of our lives. This of course seems like an incredibly simple idea, so simple and logical you might even say it’s totally obvious. But the truth is that very few people stop to think about their choices or how they might be affecting their life. In fact if more people did this things like debt would be rare.

In late 2007 I bought Jay Shafer’s tiny house books and read them on a business trip to Los Angeles. By the time I got back I had a plan, or at least a direction, for getting back on a track that would lead me and my family to financial security and more time for each other.

A Tiny Plan

tiny-free-house-pitched-roof-famingIn a word, simplify. This simple logic can be applied to the people we choose to spend our lives with to the things we buy and collect. The more you surround yourself with the more responsibility you take on and the more time and energy you must spend taking care of those things.

The bigger your home, the more time and energy it requires. The more things you put in your home, the more time and energy they will demand. Even the things tucked away in your closet add up to an additional mental burden, effectively taking away our freedom.

When you add debt on top of all that you realize that you’re choices are diminishing. We’re not alone, millions of Americans are deep in debt and have mortgages higher than their home’s current market value. Theoretically housing values will recover and we’ll recover our ability to choose where we live. In the mean time every choice we make moves us closer or farther away from increasing our personal freedom.

The last two years have reminded me of some important lessons:

  • A simple life increases freedom – The less you take on the more time and energy you’ll have for the things that are important to you. This effectively increases your personal freedom.
  • The true value of a home – The true value of a home should be measured by the happiness and security it brings instead of its size and cost.
  • Lowering risk exposure increases choices – Lowering financial risk is required for increasing happiness and freedom. Borrowed money can empower you if it’s paid back quickly. Long term debt, like a mortgage, can imprison you.
  • Our time on earth is priceless – The way we spend our time and the people we choose to spend it with impacts happiness more than anything money can buy.

Future Goals & Tiny Houses

michael-janzen-pallet-houseAs a kid I always wanted to be an architect. In college I studied architecture a little but but finally gave into my love for pottery and graduated with a BFA in ceramics. What I’ve realized is that I don’t have to suppress my love for architectural design just because I don’t have a degree in architecture. I can’t say I’m an architect, stamp plans, and so on, but I can share that passion for small homes with others online.

In the not so distant future I hope to move my family to a home that is not mortgaged to the hilt. It may not be tiny but it won’t be so big that it’s a burden in any way. It will be safe, secure, and in a location that provides Katie with good schools and Julia and I a community we’ll want to grow old in.

The thing that drives me is searching for ways of achieving more personal freedom. A simplified life, efficient homes, low-impact living, social responsibility, respect for cultural diversity, and so on, are all tools for achieving this goal. The more of us that choose to live lite, the happier we will all in our own lives and together as a larger community. I suspect the silver lining to this current economic mess is that more people will realize their mistakes and turn back to the people around them and away from the things that imprison them.

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