1. Design (or modify a pre-existing design) your tiny house

The 2010 Statistical Yearbook of the United States Census Bureau reports there are 233,000 architects in the United States. I am not one of them. Neither is Crystal. Therefore we’ve chosen to keep the design simple in an effort to build on a tight budget, and because we have limited building experience. Granted we will be enlisting help, we still want to do the lion’s share ourselves. Per our research we have decided to avoid blowing out dormer windows, adding complex rooflines, having angular interior walls, expanding windows beyond the “standard” sizes widely available at the box stores, and using excessive ornamental features. It makes sense to us that each tiny complexity has the potential of adding several hours to the build as well as several hundred dollars to the budget. And while we could have easily purchased plans from a number of qualified designers such as Jay Shafer at Tumbleweed Tiny House Company we decided to come up with our own design that fits our needs and our body sizes. Shafer’s designs are really incredible and not too difficult to build but because we have very specific notions of what we want and what we don’t want we just put pencil to paper (or cursor to CAD) and started going for it. Once we printed out our design it was time to rough out a budget and get moving on acquiring a trailer.

2. Rough out a budget

We certainly are no strangers to living life on a shoestring. Both of us have traveled the country and the world with little more than a laptop and a backpack and much of my time living in New York was done so on less than $5/day (oh, that includes rent). As I explained in our manifesto part of our decision to move into a Tiny House was to avoid the bondage often caused by ‘the American Dream’ or ‘the American Mortgage Nightmare’ – whatever you prefer to call it. To that end we knew that second hand items, recycled and upcycled building supplies, and the labor of our friends and family, would be our saving graces. Our goal is to build for $10k or less. According to RealEstateabc.com, the median home price in July 2010 was between $159,000 (in the South) to $244,300 (in the Northeast). That puts us well below what it would cost to purchase a stationary home anywhere in the US. Our goal: part deux – if you will – is to also have much of the $10k paid for by the time we move in; no mortgages, no overhead payments, no loose ends.

Some of the ways we have thought about to save a dollar here and a dollar there are:

  • Trailer – By shopping the trade papers, local newspaper, Craigslist, and eBay we think we might be able to secure a solid trailer for up to $1000 less than could be purchased on the showroom floor.
  • Exterior Siding – The idea came up to consider a single layer material like Hardie Board instead of cedar shakes or cedar planks as other builders have.
  • Interior Sheathing – Consider drywall over wood. It’s not as warm and cozy but that’s okay as we don’t want to live in a cabin all the time.
  • Windows & Doors – Between the Habitat for Humanity resale store, Craigslist, and a few other salvage stores in the Atlanta area we are hoping to buy these essentials at significant discounts.
  • Interior Decor – In terms of countertops we do want to pick a sustainable material so we may have to spend a few more bucks than we like. But that money can be made up by looking at less expensive and even second hand lights, switches, plugs, etc.
  • Flooring – There are a ton of bargains to be found in flooring in the new and secondary markets. Not to mention we have seen several people practically giving away old wood that can inexpensively be planed and upcycled.
  • Appliances – Going by the mantra, “we can always upgrade later” we are going to look at second-hand RV appliances, small size box store appliances, and, of course, the Internet want ads.

2. Acquire and prepare a trailer

Perhaps the single largest expense of the Tiny House is the trailer. A bad one will only cause your project to crash and burn (pardon the intended pun). Too new of one and you could easily break your budget with the first purchase. However, if you choose to build on a trailer as we have, owning land is not a requirement. It does help to have a place to build the house where you have ample space to work and understanding neighbors. By law, tiny houses can be as tall as a semi-trailer, 13.5-feet, so it is definitely a project that requires fair weather or a large warehouse-like workspace.

Tiny houses are heavier than normal travel trailers because they are built like houses, so they need to be built on heavy-duty trailers. The most common type of trailer used is a simple dual-axle flatbed trailer with trailer breaks. We are expecting to spend between $2,000 and $4,000 for a new’ish’ flatbed trailer. The cost increases as the weight capacity and size increase.

Used trailers can be a better bargain but are a bit harder to find, and like anything used, harder to determine if the weight capacity and overall condition of the springs, axles, coupler, etc, are up to the job.

3. Build the floor

Like cinderblocks, a poured concrete slab, or cement piers, the trailer is the foundation of the mobile tiny house. The next step is to build the floor with standard lumber, securing the framing to the trailer, insulating, and sheathing it with plywood or OSB (oriented-strand-board). Both plywood and OSB are extremely durable, but OSB typically costs a little less.

Attaching the framed floor to the trailer in an important step. Each trailer is slightly different so there is no single right way to make this joint. Using metal brackets, nuts and bolts, and u-bolts are common methods.

4. Prepare for utilities

A number of nights were rendered sleepless thinking about water and sewage and electrical hookup. Unlike pulling into an RV slot at the local campground, living in a tiny house requires some sort of permanency. And for us we want to show this as a sustainable yet realistic means to live so it is extremely important to make this part of the process attractive and logical.

Drains and wiring that must run through the floor should be installed now. If you’re adding RV waste and potable water tanks this is a good time to add those too. They can be added later by crawling under the trailer but with careful planning this extra work can be altogether avoided.

One good option (and one that is making its way into more traditional home structures) is a composting toilet, which does not require a black water (sewage) tank. You will still need some way to handle the grey water from the sink(s) and shower but that could come in the form of an irrigation system of landscaping or gardens. The shower (and in our case, tub) location and drain installation is also best at this time.

We will not be building laundry facilities but if you choose to this is a perfect time to think through the waste lines involved with that endeavor.

5. Frame the walls

We have all seen a house take shape as the framing is put up and the walls are defined. Framing the walls should go fast and make the project seem as if it is coming right along. It will also feel like quite an accomplishment to have the walls up and sheathed with plywood or OSB.

Like its stationary counterparts, many tiny houses employ hurricane strapping and other metal brackets to hold the roof firmly to the walls and the walls firmly to the floor. The metal bracing is not visible when the house is complete but works inside the walls to keep everything together.

6. Frame the roof

Once the walls are up the roof can quickly follow. Roof framing is tricky because you’re working up high and you’re building something more complex than strait walls. Tiny houses may look small tooling down the interstate but when you’re working on one 10′ to 13′ above the ground, it probably isn’t as easy as it looks.

Score one for frugality at this point, as the decision not to add dormers and stick with something simpler will seem a wonderful choice. While dormers and hip roofs and such look gorgeous when done right, they simply are not for the inexperienced builder and can even bring about unwanted links later in your time in the house.

7. Install the roofing material

Once the roof is framed and sheathed you’ll want to put on the roofing material that will keep the rain out. We have already decided to use standing seam metal roofing because it lasts an incredibly long time and is ideal for rainwater collection – something we already employ in our current living situation. Metal roofs will also hold up much better than shingles under the high winds you’ll experience on the highway.

The steeper and more complex your roof the harder it will be to install. Most tiny houses I’ve seen use a 12/12 pitch (45-degree angle), which is actually a very steep pitch. Choosing a shallower pitch will be easier and safer to install.

8. Wrap it up

No one wants to breed mildew and turn their home into a science project for mold spores. So at this point it is wise to wrap the house in something like Tyvek – a breathable material that keeps the walls dry and protected from the elements while allowing moisture to escape.

9. Windows and doors

Perhaps one of the few times in building the tiny home when a second pair of hands is almost necessary, installing windows and doors can be a testing time on both patience and relationship. The difficulty is that windows and doors must be perfectly level and square. Even in a tiny house on wheels this is important because it will increase the longevity and function of the entire structure.

You’ll also use house wrap tape or window tape to seal around the windows and doors adding an additional seal. Water can work its way inside the walls and house, especially at high speed on the road or in a storm. So it’s really important to take great care with all the seals. Not to mention the energy savings that are a requirement in sustainable building.

10. Exterior cladding, trim, paint, caulk.

Some people will actually sheath the exterior of the house with a paintable (or pre-finished) material that doubles as cladding, so adding another layer of cladding/siding is not always needed. Others simply paint the plywood sheathing in an effort to disguise it as classing. Our design calls for cedar plank siding though, which will be installed piece-by-piece; run-by-run.

At this point exterior trim should be painted as well as extra caulking of any gaps that have been left unattended.

11. Rough-in plumbing

Now that our tiny house is dried in we can focus on the interior, which is, at this point, still rough. This is where the slow, detailed work begins.

The first step is to rough-in the plumbing. This simply means that you are putting drain and supply pipes in the walls and floor. You’ll also be adding your water heater at this point be it tankless or tank. (NOTE: If you’re using waste and potable water tanks like an RV, you’ll be adding them now if you didn’t add them when you built the floor.)

There are a lot of PVC products available that make plumbing a house quite easy. You can also consider PEX (crosslinked polyethylene) which is a bit less expensive and easier to work with.

There is also a new product on the American market called Aquatherm Green Pipe which is a polypropylene piping system engineered with a fiberglass composite. It is corrosion free, erosion free, has no catastrophic blow-offs and a no leak path in the fittings. And of course there is the more traditional copper plumbing which costs a little more money and is harder to work with but leaves plastic out of the equation altogether.

While you don’t hook up the faucets and fixtures at this point you will want to pressure test the lines. I can imagine us having to enlist a plumber friend at this point just to make sure all is well before we seal up the walls.

12. Rough-in electric

Roughing-in electric wiring is simply running wire through small holes drilled in the framed walls. The wires are connected inside junction boxes to outlets and switch boxes. It’s not rocket science but it’s incredibly important to do this step right because sparks from improperly installed wiring can cause fires. This process can become increasingly more difficult if you, like us, intend on using at least 65% solar power to run your house.

13. Insulate

There are a number of insulation products on the market and no right or wrong way to insulate a tiny house. Most tiny house builders we have run across seem to prefer using foam board. Look for low-VOC (volatile organic compound) board because it will keep the interior air quality of the house healthier. We are also looking at recycled denim insulation which is a little more expensive but it much more eco-friendly and easier to work with. The real trick with insulation though is stopping the radiant heat and air leaks. When you insulate you have an opportunity to fill all the tiny cracks and crevices. Expanding spray foam and plastic sheeting can help make this significantly easier.

Some people will also use a couple different layers of different types of insulation. For example, a reflective barrier next to the exterior sheathing will help slow down radiant heat allowing the foam board to work on stopping heat flow.

14. Interior sheathing

Once the walls are insulated and all the rough-plumbing and rough-wiring is complete, it’s time to seal up the walls. This is where the decision has to be made between wood and drywall.  Drywall provides a bit of additional fire protection and costs very little and is now available as a sustainable product at most box stores.

15. Interior trim and built-ins

Once the walls are covered it’s time to do the finish carpentry inside the house. This includes any cabinets, built-in units, and trim. This is slow, often tedious work and can take a bit of time. If you don’t have a lot of experience with carpentry you may want to find a friend or professional craftsman who can help. Watch your budget on this step though as costs can go through the roof depending on the materials you choose.

16. Interior paint and stain

Once the final wood work is complete it’s time to apply the final finishes, like paint, stains, and sealers to your walls and wood surfaces.

17. Finish electric

Now that the walls are finished it’s time to add your electric outlets, switches, and fixtures. For us this will be the time we focus on the off-grid solar electric system including installing the panels, wires, batteries, etc.

18. Finish plumbing

In order to finish up the plumbing faucets must be installed as well as shower/bath fixtures. This step should be easier even than putting in the pipes.

19. Finish flooring

The last step is to cover that plywood subfloor with a real flooring material. Wood flooring seems like the most logical material to use except in the bathroom and possibly the kitchen where a lightweight tile or linoleum product may work more efficiently. Pre-finished wood floors install quickly and are more affordable each day. Remember, you aren’t dealing with a lot of square feet so costs are significantly lower than a static home.

20. Move in!

One of the biggest differences between building a tiny house on a trailer and building on a permanent foundation is that you’ll most likely avoid building permits and inspections. Such is the case for us. However, it is a great idea and we will certainly take our own advice by checking with the county to make sure we are not breaking any laws.