Everything in excess is opposed by nature.
My main philosophy is simple-keep things simple. I like design that is clean, un-complicated, functional, and some might argue, minimal. You don’t have to get rid of everything you own to live in a Tiny House (I myself have a nice collection of bikes, skis, gear, and tools), but making the decision to dwell in something so small will be an exercise in determining what you really can and cannot live without. Some people can’t imagine living without “such and such”, but to others, this idea of downsizing will sound downright freeing.
If you so desire, I can build you a Tiny House with ornate turned spindles, a gothic gable window, interesting roof lines like a Dutch Hip, or even add dormers, but all these things add complication and expense, and in some cases compromise performance. The Tiny House movement is grounded on the basis of simplifying one’s life, owning a simple yet comfortable shelter outright, not having a mortgage, having the flexibility to move the house around, and I would add, being more in touch with one’s surrounding.
In architecture school, I studied several different styles, designers, and ways of thinking about building design. While I’ve never had the chance to design anything remotely resembling a Frank Lloyd Wright building, time and time again I reminded of his principles of organic architecture. Architect David Pearson sums up these principles with the following.
“Let the design:
- be inspired by nature and be sustainable, healthy, conserving, and diverse.
- unfold, like an organism, from the seed within.
- exist in the “continuous present” and “begin again and again”.
- follow the flows and be flexible and adaptable.
- satisfy social, physical, and spiritual needs.
- “grow out of the site” and be unique.
- celebrate the spirit of youth, play and surprise.
- express the rhythm of music and the power of dance
When it comes to Tiny Houses, at least ones on wheels, it’s not quite possible to meet all these guidelines, but they are always in the back of my head subconsciously at work. Beyond the philosophical approach to design, there are also a host of practical goals that I try to meet, not limited to:
Affordability- Have you seen some of the pre-finished Tiny Houses on the market today? $70-$80k for a house that barely takes up 200 sq ft? Now don’t get me wrong. My time spent as a home builder on custom homes quickly taught me the real costs associated with a higher quality product. The beauty of an all wood Kolbe window will beat that of a vinyl Jeld Wen any day, but to me, as long as that Jeld Wen performs just as well (it does, maybe even slightly better) I don’t mind using vinyl to save quite a bit money. Do you really need a custom built sheet metal wet bath, or will that fiberglass insert that is $300 cheaper suit your needs just fine? Do you really need that sexy $1200 propane heater when something half the cost will work too? Of all the things that add expense to a Tiny House, time has to be the greatest. I am constantly seeking and developing methods that reduce the amount of time, effort, and material needed to build a Tiny House without taking away from the quality/functionality. For example, I recently came up with a floor framing system that doesn’t require adding wood joists on the trailer. Instead, I use the metal angle that is already part of the trailer! That is one full day that I just knocked off production time and the floor will be just as strong and have just as much insulation. It just took some careful planning and execution of details. Not only the amount of time, but what I think my time is worth. I take great pride in my work, but don’t charge an exorbitant amount for it. I produce a quality house, but it’s not like I’m installing intricate stair railings or crown moulding. Most of the skills fall between rough framing and trim work, although my “rate” is much closer to that of a rough framer.
Durability- I go to great lengths to ensure the house is “buttoned up” from head to toe. This means all my critical wood to wood or wood to metal connections are properly reinforced with straps, hangers, or bolts. The sheathing is attached with heavy duty construction adhesive and then fastened at approx 6″ o.c. House wrap covers the entire house and keeps moisture and drafts out. High quality windows are installed and then flashed the right way. I only use medium to heavy gauge metal for roofing because it will stand the test of time, as well as constant highway winds.
Easy To Tow-I am constantly seeking out ways to keep Tiny House weight to a minimum, yet still maintain my high standards of durability. There aren’t really any big shortcuts you can take to reduce weight, but there are a lot of little things, and it is the sum of the parts that really adds up in end. I have my trailers custom built from a local manufacturer and have all extra metal that isn’t critical to the safety of the trailer removed. I utilize advanced framing techniques to minimize the amount of 2×4’s needed. Sometimes we use a nice plywood for the subfloor that also doubles as the finish floor. Heavy materials like sheetrock, tile, dense hardwoods, and solid surface countertops are avoided. I also like to use trailers in the 16-20′ range for ease of travel on tight twisty mountain roads. Some of my designs incorporate fold out porches or window awnings. They can be folded up and secured to the house while in travel to not add any length or width to the trailer. When the budget allows, we build cabinets in house that minimize material and use lighter plywood instead of mdf or particle board.
Honesty- Using materials “honestly” has come and gone through0ut the course of history and can be traced all the way back to the Greeks and even earlier in primitive architecture. What is meant by this is to use materials in a way that makes the best use of their inherent properties, both functionally and aesthetically. For instance, stone and concrete perform well under compression, and are suitable for creating a heavy or grounded feel, such as in courthouses or bridge pillars. They don’t do so well in tension or bending. Additionally, if you are trying to minimize weight, they aren’t a great choice. Wood does ok in compression, tension, and bending, but has limitations when connecting it to other pieces. Wood’s greatest appeal is as a finish material. It is pleasing to the eye, warm to the touch, and easy to work with. Steel is also great in all stress forces, but can be welded and manipulated into forms that are very strong and will endure a beating. Steel is a somewhat “cold” material though, and not always suitable as a finish material. With today’s advances in manufacturing technology, a slew of materials have hit the market to simulate the look of a desirable finish material, yet use a different material to make up for the functional shortfall of the real material. Take for example, a vinyl tile that has a wood grain printed on it. Or a stone paneling product that looks like stone but is made from a plastic composite. To me, it’s obvious these products are fake, and they feel cheesy. I prefer to not use them, and find a way to use the real thing instead. Sure, it might add some time and expense, and in some cases rule out certain “looks” altogether, but in the end using materials honestly yields a better and more enjoyable product.
Flexibility- Some Tiny Home Builders offer a handful of different models and within those models only a few options. I have the skills and resources to offer maximum customization for minimal upcharges. In the regular building industry, when builders and craftsman hear the words “custom” or “change order” two things normally happen: it’s usually met with a little resistance, i.e. there is this “laziness” to not want to do things the non standard way, and then the words “yeah, I suppose I could do that, but it’s gonna cost ya!” I don’t harbor that mentality or play those games. I like challenges. I thrive on challenges. You may have a floor plan that you really like but want to change a few things. No problem. You might want a completely unique design from the ground up. I can do it. Perhaps you would like to use a funky material or have a creative design idea you would like to see incorporate into your Tiny House. It’s your home, and you deserve to have it just like you want it. Granted, there will be some limitations due to the functional criteria that a Tiny House must meet, and I will advise you of these, but I just want to make it clear high customization is not going to cost you an arm and a leg when you do business with me.
Health, both physical and mental. Indoor air quality is a big topic of concern in today’s housing market. We have learned to make houses so air tight and energy efficient, that yes, they require less energy to heat the same amount of space, but at the expense of air quality. All of the materials that go into building a house “off gas” to some degree, meaning a solid portion of that material will convert to a harmful gas vapor and enter into the occupied space. In the past, this wasn’t much of a problem because 1. materials were more natural, i.e. solid wood, plaster, natural insulataions, etc. and 2. these houses “breathed” quite a bit since they weren’t as air tight. Nowadays, our materials are very chemical laden, be it the glues used in plywood or OSB, the VOC’s in paints, stains, and caulks, the binders in fiberglass insulation, the resins in anything that is plastic, the list goes on and on. In a space as small as a Tiny House, this problem can become exacerbated quickly! There are two main ways with which to deal with it.
The first one is on me, the builder. I try to source as healthy materials as I can, primarily, good wood. Where I have to use plywood, such as the floor or for sheathing/decking, I try to find formaldehyde compliant plywood or OSB. This is becoming easier as the market is pushing for products like this anyhow. Most of my interior woodwork is solid wood, usually pine or reclaimed doug fir. I use paints and clear coats that have no VOC’s and are completely non toxic. They have a very faint odor when applied, but after a day you can’t smell anything. The EPS foam insulation I like to use is free of toxic materials and is fairly inert.
Without spending exorbitant amounts of time and money, though, there is no way I can eliminate off gassing, and as tight as my houses end up being, it is up to you, the occupant to help me out with the second line of defense. If the weather is nice out, keep your windows open! Fresh air is awesome-there simply is no substitute. On those colder days of the year, perhaps keep one window cracked a little. You’ll be wanting to do this anyways so your heat source, be it a woodstove or a propane heater, can get some oxygen for combustion.
From a mental perspective, I think the fact that you are choosing to live in a Tiny House will immediately make you a happier person! That said, the design of your Tiny House will have a large impact on your complete nirvana. The house has to fit you and your style. It has to be functional and efficient. It has to meet your specific needs. This is where my architecture background comes into play. Through a series of coordination meetings, my goal is to extract your ideas and needs and manifest them into your Tiny House.
Be more in touch with nature- If you are anything like me, you realize that the land we live upon is our greatest resource, not how big or how extravagant our houses are. It’s a little hard to explain this, but, when you decide to shrink your house, the world around it somehow becomes bigger and you become more in tune with it. There is a lot less house to look at, and much more nature. As I sit here writing this, I am surrounded by beautiful trees and grasses, vast mountains, and the Animas River. Whether I take time or not to enjoy all of this, it is there anyways, always rejuvenating me.
A word about Green design.
While I strive to use certain products on the market that might be deemed “green” such as low VOC paint or stain, FSC woods, recyclable metal, etc. etc., the simple fact that you are choosing to live in a Tiny House is considerably more “green’ than building a 1500 sq ft house that is ultra insulated, has solar panels, water recycling, net zero energy, green roof, or whatever “green” bell/whistle you can think of. I don’t bill myself as a green builder just for the sake of having that tagline. The word has become so overused that it’s almost lost its meaning. If you are familiar with the Tiny House movement, which I assume you are since you are reading this, you shouldn’t have any doubt that Tiny Houses are one of the most “green” ways of living that currently exists.