ECOURSE DAY 3:
DESIGN AND FOUNDATIONS
HOW TO DESIGN A TINY HOUSE
Designing a house is no easy task. That’s why architects and designers are paid well for their efforts. Designing a TINY house, is even more difficult. Consider that in a large home, there is some wiggle room to make adjustments. For example, if you need a little extra space to make the kitchen cabinets fit, you simply bump into the next room a little, or even add some overall square footage to the house. In a tiny house, especially one built on a trailer, you won’t have that option because every inch counts, and I mean every single inch. I’ll give you a quick example. When we designed hOMe, we originally had a flat framed 2×4 wall in between the bathroom and the main living area; however, as we looked closer into how much space our composting toilet would require, we realized that we did not have room for the framed wall assembly. Instead we opted to create our bathroom wall out of a sheet of 3/4” cabinet grade plywood. This saved us 1-1/4” of floor space which allowed us the room we needed to fit the toilet and to line up our living and dining room layouts perfectly with the wheel wells. That 1 1/4” made all the difference.
I’ve outlined a few ideas about how to work within the limited space of a tiny house when it comes to design. These are ideas that have worked for me in both traditionally sized home designs and in the design of hOMe.
• Start with a blank slate (if you don’t find a design that totally speaks to you). There are a lot of tiny house designs out there and it is a good idea to look at them and get a sense of what you think works and what doesn’t. If you don’t find anything that really speaks to you, start the design process with a blank slate. Start with a to-scale drawing of your trailer, bring with you the inspiration of what others have done before you, and design your own home to meet your specific needs. One exercise I recommend is to create a list of all the functions/areas your tiny house must fulfill (i.e., full sized kitchen, office area, bedroom, etc.). Create individual pieces of paper that list each of these items and place those labeled pieces on your tiny house floor layout design. Move them around as needed paying attention to flow, access, and how each area relates to each other. This exercise is excellent in helping you establish your initial layout.
• Go with an existing set of plans. If you find a set of plans that is very close to what you want, but not 100%, go with that. Most tiny house plans are well done as most designers have put a lot of thought and research into creating them. Designing a tiny house from scratch is no easy feat and there are a lot of considerations one must take. With the hOMe plans, we have seen people modify them into 20′, 24′, and 30′ lengths. An existing set of plans are an asset because they can show you how the framing all comes together as well as various other vital pieces. If you find a set of plans you like that have a SketchUp file to go with them (such as the hOMe plans), this is a great way to go. SketchUp is a program that allows you to modify an existing set of plans so you can have a real sense of how the changes made will have an effect. If you’re interested in safe and tried & true tiny house plans, please visit our site www.TinyHousePlans.com. We have done the vetting for you so you can feel confident you’re getting high quality plans which have been built by others successfully.
• Be honest in your assessment of your needs and your lifestyle. The answers to the question “what do I want?” will help you create the home of your dreams, but only if those answers are totally honest. Be sure to really feel into any answer you give and check in at a deep level as to how you feel when you picture yourself living in the space you are considering. Here’s a common scenario. My friend Richard is a good cook; however, he much prefers to eat out or order in food for dinner most nights. As much as he might consider himself a good cook, he simply doesn’t need a large kitchen because the reality is that he rarely uses it. If he were not honest with himself, he might design a full kitchen because that’s the norm of our society. If he is honest, he would design a kitchenette: something large enough to manage breakfast and lunches and nothing much more. He can then use the space he saved for something else that is more important to him personally.
• Take stock of what you intend to bring with you into this space. This includes the obvious things like family and pets, but also needs to include physical things like kitchen utensils, clothing, bathroom essentials, etc. In a tiny home, all of these items need a specific storage space. Having too much stuff will make the home feel cramped, so lighten your load as much as you can and then design your space to accommodate those items you decide to hold on to. Creating an actual detailed list of all of your essential items and referencing it during the design stage is highly recommended.
The design process is challenging, but it can also be really fun. Unless you are a home designer or architect in your personal life, you should not expect yourself to nail the perfect design on the first try. It is a journey and one to be explored, enjoyed, and shared. If you are open and don’t have specific expectations, your experience will be much more enjoyable and your design will be better as a result.
When it comes to tiny homes, there are two main foundation approaches: homes built on a trailer and homes built on a foundation. Some examples of code approved foundations are concrete slab on grade, raised floor/perimeter stem wall, pad and pier, pilings, basement walls on footers, lodge pole, and (perhaps) wood skids (if the building is considered temporary/mobile). Each foundation type has its advantages and disadvantages, so which one you choose will be based on a number of criteria. For example, a slab on grade can be an excellent source of passive heating and cooling as the thermal mass of the concrete is capable of storing huge amounts of energy. On the other hand, concrete is very hard underfoot and can wreak havoc on your joints when walked on day in and day out.
A raised floor foundation can provide either a crawlspace or a full basement under your tiny home. Perhaps you don’t want to increase your square footage (thus the construction of a tiny house); however, the basement space could be used as cold storage for your harvest, or for the long term storage items you don’t want to get rid of like large sporting equipment. The raised floor option is also very good in areas prone to flooding as it allows you to lift the finished floor elevation up higher than a slab on grade would allow. The same is true for pad and pier, lodge pole, and piling foundations as well. The down side of each of these being the need for more materials and often a higher cost of construction.
If you plan to build on a trailer, most states in the US have a maximum width requirement of 8 ‘ 6” and a maximum height restriction of 13’ 6”. Some states are different, so be sure to check with your department of transportation (DOT) to insure you are designing to the right requirements. If you plan on building something larger than that, a wide load/oversized load permit will be necessary. If you plan on never or rarely moving your tiny house then you could build larger than the road legal limits.
There are several different types of trailers available to you when it comes to building a tiny house: gooseneck, deck over, drop deck, and more. As is the case with everything in life, there are advantages and disadvantages to all of them and you will need to make your decision as to which style to use based on your needs for the house.
•Deck Over: If you want a lot of floor space without the interruption of the wheel wells and don’t plan on including a loft space in your house, then a deck over will be perfect. The flat, uninterrupted deck makes laying out the floor plan quite simple, as far as tiny houses go, and allows you to easily frame up the structure. On the other hand, because the deck is framed over the top of the wheels, it is higher off of the ground than most trailers. This requires the construction of stairs to enter the building and also limits the available head height in the home. If you want the option of a spacious loft, a deck over will not work well for you.
•Utility Trailer: Using a drop deck trailer will allow you the head height you need for the loft, but will require that you either design your house to function inside of the wheel wells, greatly limiting the width of your house, or that you design around the wheel wells. Their low profile means that a single step is enough to enter the home and that comfortable ceiling heights can be created on both the main floor and the lofts. We found that creative design was the best approach to handling the wheel wells and as a result, we have a house that feels spacious and open. That said, the wheel wells certainly required some work to not only design into the structure’s floor plan, but also build around.
•Gooseneck: Gooseneck trailers offer both a deck over and a drop deck option while improving the trailer to vehicle weight distribution. This means that the trailer is more maneuverable and handles better; however, it requires a specific truck set up to be able to haul the trailer. This may not be a problem if you own your truck and plan to move the trailer on your own, but it is a problem if you plan to rent a vehicle to move your home from time to time. Gooseneck trailers also allow for longer loads than a tow hitch trailer (both deck overs and drop deck trailers are considered tow hitch trailers). This may be just the thing that helps you decide on your trailer if you are looking for something longer to add floor space to your design.
•Semi Trailer Bed: Another option for a trailer is semi bed. They are typically 53′ long and 102″ wide. Factors to consider are weight and what size vehicle needed to move a tiny house on such a large trailer. If you plan on rarely or never moving your tiny house though, this could be a viable way to create quite a large moveable tiny house. Further, used semi trailer beds are fairly easy to find.
Whatever foundation type you choose, make sure to build it to code. After all, it will act as the structural basis of your home. Start with a good and solid foundation and your project will be on it’s way for maximum success.
Thanks for reading! Tomorrow’s lesson: Framing for tiny houses!