Here’s a little bit of my tiny house building story and some of the things I learned in the process. I hope this information will help or possibly inspire a few future tiny house builders, in the same way I was greatly supported by all you guys who shared your stories before me. The best things about this project were the support I received from friends and family, and getting to learn so many new things this year.
Before I started I had a little bit of experience building. I’d built a shed or two and some homemade plywood furniture. Until a year ago, the stuff I built was almost totally designed from a functional perspective. But a few months before I started my project I had the good fortune to work on a backyard shed with my friend Steve, who taught me all about using salvaged and old materials.
On my first trip to the salvage yard I had no idea how much things should cost, or even the difference between redwood and fir. A few weeks later, the idea of taking a little extra time to find beautiful materials and design things a bit more uniquely was starting to make sense to me. Turns out interesting and older materials (usually cheaper, and almost always more time consuming to get) really impact the feeling of the house.
In order to get from the little experience I had to being comfortable building this thing, I relied on a few key online resources, including Dee Williams “Go House Go“, “The Tiny House Construction Guide” and a great video from Tumbleweed showing the building process.
At first I was hesitant to pay for those e-books, but I quickly came to my senses and realized the cost would more than pay for itself by saving me time and money spent making big mistakes.
I designed the house myself, using Google Sketchup (which I had learned earlier that year for a couple other personal projects.) Of all the computer programs I’ve learned over the years, Sketchup has the best instructional videos I’ve seen, so I would definitely recommend it to non computer experts – a few days of practice and I think anyone could design their own house with it!
A few notes on the design of my house:
- I did a rough design based on the property I was planning to move to first. This was before I had the windows or any other materials. Then, after a month of searching to locate windows and doors that were roughly the correct size, I did a final design with those measurements.
- I chose the shed-style roof because I’m really tall and wanted to maximize loft-space. And I definitely wanted a couple of windows in the loft, so I could gaze out while lying in bed.
- It’s on a standard 8×18′ “car-hauler” trailer. The manufacturer was willing to add some welded on “wings” so I could make my house wider, in exchange for not including some of the extra metal (d-rings, etc.) that usually come with such a trailer.
A few notes on materials and systems:
- Insulation in the floor, walls, and ceiling is wool from Oregon Shepherd, which I read about from Tammy Stroebel’s project built by Dee. It was time-consuming to install, but otherwise a total pleasure to work with.
- Downstairs floor is reclaimed 1 1/2″ tongue and groove fir, upstairs floor is 3/4″ fir – both from a great salvage yard in Windsor, CA.
- Exterior is two batches of T+G redwood. One had been sitting unused in a friend’s landlord’s barn for 30 years, the other from a salvage yard in Petaluma.
- Interior wainscoting is that same 30 year-old redwood, with tongues and grooved ripped off.
- Ceiling, and much of the kitchen cabinet, is reclaimed fir from a house on the Russian River that was pulled apart by a carpenter friend. I re-sawed it in half, from 3/4″ thick down to about 5/16″, thus making a lighter ceiling and giving me twice the material. I used the same technique for the redwood hallway walls and closets.
- White walls are 1/4″ plywood from Home Depot. I went this route thinking that plywood would be lighter and stronger than drywall, and would add more visual light and less all-wood-monotony to the room. So far so good.
- Water heater is 10 gallon RV tank-style heater. My research seemed to say this was going to be more efficient than tankless. It’s still hard to believe that’s true…I might go tankless next time. But this does work well and I can take piping hot 10 minute showers.
- Fridge is high-efficiency Novakool, powered by AC or DC. (currently running on DC)
- Wood stove is “The Hobbit”, by Salamander Stoves of the UK. It’s an amazing stove, and from my research was cheaper (and more attractive) than similar small US-made stoves. Can’t recommend The Hobbit highly enough.
- Water system includes two parallel supply lines: One for “city” water, if I’m hooked up to a friend’s hose, and one for “gravity” water, with an RV water pump to boost the pressure in case the incoming water doesn’t have enough. (Which is the case at my current semi-rural location.)
- Electricity is 100% solar, coming from two 225 panels and six Trojan
- T-105 batteries. House has AC and DC lighting. (Water heater, fridge, and RV water pump are also DC.)
- LED tape lighting around the upper part of the walls is super-efficient and can’t be beat for creating a comfortable ambience.
The schedule of my project was roughly:
- September 2011 – research and design
- October 2011 – gathering materials (especially lumber, windows and doors, and the trailer)
- November 2011 – January 2012: building the outside and getting waterproof
- February 2012 – March: researching plumbing and electrical
- April 2012 – plumbing, electrical
- May – June 2012 – interior
I did most of the building myself – but early on I decided that while my pride wanted to be able to say “I did it all myself,” that was actually a recipe for loneliness. So I begged and traded for as much help as possible, and was blessed to know incredibly skilled people who sped up my learning curve immensely. In order to feel any degree of confidence that my house wouldn’t fall apart, my contractor friend’s advice made all the difference. Tony sacrificed his back-health to get the four walls up, and freely offered consultations on everything from solar to framing to, well, everything. I would have imploded or gotten totally stuck on the electric and the plumbing, without help from Jim and Michael. Bruce and Duncan shared tons of amazing cabinetry and furniture-making wisdom, as well as the use of some pretty deluxe tools. I had a great time working with both of my parents, who each stepped in and helped me with many crucial aspects of the project. And four amazing angels shared with me their beautiful property on which to build my house, and gave me a room to stay in until my house was liveable.
I’ve tried to keep this story brief, highlighting practical information for future tiny-house builders, but I did a ton of research (thank you tiny house community!) and I’m happy to share more about anything. Ask any questions you like in the comments section below if you’re building or thinking about building your own tiny house.