The idea with our new small house is to self-build a [mini-]homestead for cash. This is a bit of an experiment, so we aim neither to spend as little as possible nor as much as possible, but to create an extremely efficient house that is as small as could possibly work for us; a ‘minimum viable home’. From what we can tell at the moment, this means a square 22′ x 22′ double-wall cellulose super-insulated structure with a gable roof, 400 sq ft of indoor area, a frost protected floating slab foundation and passive solar glazing. 400 ft sq may sound too small to some and too big to others but based on the spaces we’ve lived in, 400 sounds just right for us and our stuff. We will take a form-follows-function approach to design and optimize for simplicity – in terms of both construction and upkeep – wherever we can. “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.” – Henry David Thoreau. In the end we’ll have a cozy base of operations with very little overhead set in a beautiful area.
Tiny House vs Small House
Typically the term ‘tiny house’ brings to mind an 8 foot wide trailer home made of materials you’d find in a traditional site-built house. They often incorporate a high level of finish and charming, miniaturized architectural design elements that might not necessarily be functional but that make the home feel stylish and inviting.
We’ve watched a multitude of documentaries about tiny homes and have seen examples ranging from 84 sq ft to 500+ sq ft. However, the exact definition of ‘tiny house’ remains elusive. They can be found on wheels or a foundation, with one or more stories, custom-made or purchased from a tiny home manufacturing company. They can be made of anything e.g. wood, earth, metal concrete, styrofoam or garbage objects. There is a lot of variation, but two common threads seem to be shockingly small size and disarming cuteness throughout.
Having seen so many tiny houses that are really tiny (sub 200 sq ft) with intensely multi-functional internal design elements (e.g. curtain for a TV screen, stairs made of custom shelving, fold-down tables), we hesitate to call our project ‘tiny’. Therefore we’re calling it a small house. Also, going small rather than tiny allows us to incorporate many functional characteristics that we feel are important, namely – a serious solar array, super insulation, passive solar principles and site-built benefits (i.e. simple, time-tested utility hookups and the slab for thermal mass). Thus it will require little or no maintenance and cost little or nothing to heat/cool; it will exist as a self-regulating oasis of comfort regardless of outdoor conditions.
Our first encounter with a tiny house was in Rochester, WA. It was a ~14′ x 14′ two story without wheels, clad with stained wood and a standing seam steel roof. It sat on a normal suburban lot surrounded by dense evergreens in a neighborhood of normal houses and brought to mind a really cool tree fort. Looking at it, we wondered what it might be like to live and how easy such a thing must be to build.
These are some design parameters one must consider when planning a tiny or small home:
Wheels or no wheels
Total freedom, ability to hit the road with your shell on your back, the ultimate nomad pad…A tiny house on wheels is a trailer RV that feels like a real home. You have flexibility in where you place it and you can take all of your belongings out of town at the drop of a hat. For the tiny house community, there’s another a [massive] added perk: putting it on wheels it allows you to avoid residential building codes entirely.
You can have a composting toilet, a wet bathroom, a loft with barely any headroom, a ladder instead of stairs. You can heat/cool however you’d like and you don’t have to follow any minimum room-size requirements. The drawbacks are height restrictions (think low bridges), constrained width to stay below the oversized load limit and the necessity of a strong truck to tow it around (RVs are built to be light; tiny homes are not). You also have to be conscientious of maintenance items associated with both the trailer and hard-working truck that pulls it. Additionally, incorporating steel trailer elements within an insulated structure should be done with care in order to avoid thermal bridging heat loss and condensation issues.
In contrast, building on a foundation automatically means abiding by the residential building codes of your municipality. A building inspector will make a frequent visits and anything that isn’t done to code will have to be re-done. As it stands, the lower bound size for a site built house according to the International Residential building Code (IRC) that most U.S. municipalities adopt is about 120 sq ft. On top of that, most areas we have researched poo-poo the idea of a composting toilet and require integrated heating (i.e. no space heaters as the sole heat source). Additionally, there are requirements on fire escape routes, minimum room-size (70 sq ft), ceiling heights, window-square-footage-to-house ratio, building materials, roof snow loads…the list goes on. If you wonder why someone built something in a particular way, your first guess should be that they were required to do it. Building codes are ostensibly intended to protect people (and/or banks & insurance companies) from issues related to shoddy building practices but – as with any form of legal regulation – they stifle experimentation and innovation: “my way or the highway (house on wheels – get it?)”. Alternative approaches might be viable and proven, but until they are lobbied through the committees of the IRC, they might as well not exist. Hence, the most exotic tiny houses you see will be on wheels. Or in countries without building codes (Mexico?).
Based on the comparison so far, why would anyone build their tiny house on a foundation and endure the tyranny of code enforcement? Well, for starters, since you do not have to fit on the road, you have more options regarding your size and shape. Being a little bigger means you can take measures for increased efficiency such as super insulation. We’re planning on 1 foot thick walls – if an 8 foot tiny house on wheels did this, they’d only have 6 feet of width to live in.
Shapewise: We decided on a square structure because it maximizes internal square footage for a given amount of building material, because of the open feeling it’ll have inside and because it allows us to easily orient for optimal solar gain without rearranging the whole floor plan.
Foundationwise: Building on a slab foundation is important for automatic temperature regulation in a passive solar design. The slab acts as a giant heat moderator. For example, solar heat absorbed by the slab during the day in winter will be released throughout the night to warm the house. And conversely, a summer night’s coolness can be stored to mitigate the following day’s heat.
Additionally, there’s the big issue of location. Few places in the U.S. allow anyone to legally live in a recreational vehicle or tiny house on wheels for more than 30 days without moving. Usually people can slip under the radar by being good neighbors, but all it takes is one complaint to put your tiny house out on the street in search of a new home. You also have to consider where RV-park-like utility accommodations are available (i.e. water, sewer and power hookups). Most tiny house dwellers park on a friend’s property or purchase land but don’t report that they’re living on it in a tiny home. Having your home situation on a foundation means you know you’re legal and your utility situation will be straightforward.
Loft or No loft
Lofts seem fun. They’re like a tree house for adults. Plus, with a cathedral ceiling, it’s like you’re getting an extra bedroom for free. The catch is that cathedral ceilings are difficult to heat/cool and insulate. Additionally, you may tire of climbing to your bedroom or worse, climbing down in the middle of the night, while half asleep with a full bladder. Also to be considered is whether or not your beloved dog knows how to climb a ladder. Stairs are always an option but code requires a laundry list* of stair safety characteristics that take up lots of space.
*After writing this, it dawned on us that “laundry list” is a strange term. Who writes a list for their laundry?
In many of our early designs, we considered having a loft. It was a really exciting idea and we figured out how to exploit building codes to make it the best space possible. However, in the end, we decided we wanted a single floor for simplicity and keeping the house in one temperature zone. Based on the experience of having two floors for the past 7 years, it just doesn’t seem worth it.
Switching to one floor meant we had to figure out the bedroom. We didn’t especially like the idea of the bed sitting there all day unused and taking up space. In order to incorporate the bedroom into the downstairs, we switched to a futon. This combines the living room and bedroom into one unit. With good thick mattress, it works surprisingly well.
On grid or off grid
Public utilities are obviously the easiest way to get started. The water and sewer are right there and you just pay to hook up. One downside to this, we have found, is that certain cities in arid regions have “impact” fees associated with any new water customer. When we first started investigating Prescott, their charge for the license to hook up to water and sewer was $20,000. That does not include any excavation or meter installation; that’s just to get the paperwork started. For that amount of money, you could likely install your own well and septic system.
However, one consideration with installing your own utilities is that you have to maintain the system. For water, this means a treatment system that may take up precious space in your floorplan. Additionally, for installing a septic system, the cost is affected by the lay of the land and the soil composition. It’s critical to make sure your soil ‘percs’ before buying that property. These are non-issues if you find land with public utilities.
An unfortunate caveat with utilities is that sometimes you have no choice. Even if it’s a better deal to install your own well and septic system, if the town services your property, you may have to pay the impact fee regardless.
We are open to both options and would ideally like to keep it simple. We previously enjoyed the delicious taste of non-chlorinated well water. It’d be nice to have good water again.
With regards to electricity, an off-grid system takes careful planning and may involve a substantial upfront investment. Especially if you intend to charge an electric car. And if you plan on having power overnight, you also must maintain a battery bank that may need to be replaced every X number of years. Hooking up to the local electricity supplier takes no effort at all.
In town or out of town
Being in town usually means a shorter drive to conveniences and entertainment. We tend to prefer natural attractions, such as hiking and explorations, so we’re not too concerned with being close to a night club. However, driving an hour for groceries is probably not awesome.
Distance to town and therefore driving convenience also affects appliance planning. Being in town means you can avoid using space in your tiny house for a washer/dryer and instead utilize a laundromat. It also means you can buy food often and keep a smaller fridge and minimal freezer. If you live far from town and want to avoid frequent trips, you’d likely need to incorporate larger food storage.
Lastly, as gym/yoga studio users, it’s always nice to have these services nearby.
We like the idea of space and privacy but convenience is important as well. This will be a tricky area to navigate.