Thursday, October 7, 2010

Why We're Building a Tiny House

Why are we building this tiny house? Why would anyone have one? Do we want to live in a tiny house ourselves? Is it cheap because it's so small? (That's a big no on that last one, by the way.)

These houses bring up a lot of questions, and these are just a few I've heard since we started this project. Let's take them on one at a time:


We're building it to sell it for a profit. We're in love with the idea of joyfully downsizing the American Dream and embracing an environmentally sensitive lifestyle. Promoting smaller living spaces is one of the clearest paths toward living in a more reasonable ecological footprint. We're a free market society driven by supply and demand. To lend momentum to a whole new product category - tiny houses - investors have to recognize the value, jump in early, adopt the concept, and create a supply. We had the opportunity, capability and desire - if not us, who?

Is it cheap because it's so small?

In a word, no. The most expensive parts of a habitable dwelling are the core systems; climate control,  plumbing, electrical, and appliances. All those systems are needed to provide quality shelter, and in a tiny house they'll be used and viewed at close quarters and often have to be specialized in some way. For one example, Jay Schafer installs the smallest safest propane fireplace designed for use on boats, so there's (nearly) no danger of it catching something nearby on fire. It's also a beautiful little piece of clean modern design, and happens to be quite expensive. Other appliances offer similar challenges. Further, this particular house is a tiny gem of custom construction, with quality throughout: tongue and groove cedar siding, all plywood sheathing (no cheap OSB), rigid foam foil faced insulation, screw and glue fastening, high grade hardwood plywood ceiling/floor for the lofts, solid wood floor and wall coverings, stainless steel siding screws, premium low VOC finish and too many more to list them all here.

There are some moments when it feels like it's cheap to build a tiny house. When you buy flooring, for example, it hurts a lot less to multiply your cost per square foot by 120 than by 1500. This is delightful when you price materials and do the math, but it can get you in trouble. If you're anything like me, you might have a tendency to shop higher end because of the smaller figures involved. I have to watch myself and make sure I'm selecting upgrades that are more than simply cosmetic; I stick to options that provide superior performance or meet my internal green choice criteria. In the end, you might be startled to find out that the tiny house is amazingly economical - until you calculate the cost per square foot.

Why would a property owner, or anyone for that matter, want a tiny house on a trailer?

Money - while a tiny house is far from cheap by the square foot, it is certainly less expensive in a few important ways than its larger counterpart. The most significant factor is the lack of a long term mortgage and the attendant interest. If you can save up the 20% down payment ($50,000) for an average home priced around $250,000, you have a choice. You can either use it to buy an enormous amount of debt and pay $231,000 in interest (at 6% fixed) over a 30 year span, or you can go small; you can choose to build a tiny house or buy one outright. Imagine what you could do without a house payment! Pursue your hobbies, travel the world, further your education. Even if you had to finance your tiny nest with a personal loan at a higher interest rate - say 10% - you could pay off $50,000 (plus almost $13,741 interest) at $1063 a month in five years. Or you could have a lower monthly payment of $830 per month over seven years. Use a mortgage calculator (like this one from to figure out your own scenarios.

The Environment - the size of the average American home has grown from under 1000 to over 2300 square feet since the 1950's. These larger homes consume more materials and more energy and put more waste in landfills than their smaller counterparts - and produce more greenhouse gasses per year than the average American car. Since international building code requires houses of a minimum size, some folks who want to live in smaller homes have to look for alternatives. One option is building a home using a trailer as a foundation.

Legal Barriers - building a tiny house on wheels sidesteps the legally mandated minimum size standards imposed on residential building. If you add up all the minimum size requirement of various rooms specified by the International Building Code (established by the ICC) the smallest house you can get a permit to build is about 700 or 800 square feet. A tiny house with a trailer for a foundation, however, is subject only to maximum size limits for towing and safety regulations for RV plumbing and electrical.

Simplicity - imagine the time savings with so little square footage to clean, everything a few steps away, and all the maintenance chores on a smaller scale. Sometimes life gets complicated and for whatever reason we have to change locales. Not a big deal, when you can take your house with you - like a turtle - wherever you need to go.

Who would want a tiny house on a trailer?
Single people (or close couples) without much stuff.
Homeowners who want to add living space without construction hassles.
Parents looking for a cottage for the au pair or nanny.
Folks who like to keep everything they use close at hand.
People who need living quarters for a caregiver, nurse, or caretaker.
Extended families in need of a granny unit.
People who hate to clean.
Those who can't stand paying money for wasted space.
People who don't like a lot of clutter in their life.
Traveling souls who want a portable house that's comfortable year-round.
Property owners with bare land who need a comfortable living space.

Do we live or want to live in a tiny house ourselves?

We live in a non-traditional household, and conduct much of our lives in very small spaces. That said, we're a three generation family of six with chickens, pets, and an organic garden. Between that and the fact that our multiple trades depend on a large stash of tools and inventory, there's no way we could live year round in a Tumbleweed Tiny House on a trailer. I do think we could fit comfortably in something on the larger end of Jay's scale, like the Sebastarosa design with the extra bedroom add on. And a tiny house as a granny for the grandparents. And a big shed. And a workshop. And a chicken coop. I have it all mapped out.

A couple of our backyard hens
Ok, I admit it, our family farm is not likely to fit all our activities and tools into a space that one could call tiny. But I'm committed to fitting in as small a place as we can, and cultivating habits suited for moving in that direction. We avoid collecting stuff we don't actively use, we sell or donate stuff after it runs its course in our household, and the stuff we do acquire trends toward the durable, well-designed, compact end of the spectrum. Speaking of stuff, check out one of my favorite videos, The Story of Stuff.

What other questions do you have about our tiny house adventures?