Get Ready, Go Tiny: How to Design A Tiny House
New here? Head back to the Intro post for more information about this blog series!
Want to skip back? Check out the Parking Guide to figure out where to put your tiny house!
Now that you’ve figured out your parking situation, it’s time to start designing your tiny house!
Design considerations are split into three loose categories:
Utilities → Structure → Interior Design
I urge you to make your design decisions not based on what you would like your house to look like and working backward to functionality, but rather, addressing your functional needs and designing a house to suit them. Ideally, you will take your priorities and compare them to your budget. For example, it may behoove you to remember that affording a fully functioning utility set up is probably more important than skylights or roof decks! But of course, this will depend on your unique, individual needs.
Let’s talk about some basic yet large decisions you need to make in the early stages of designing your tiny house:
Designing your utility system will depend almost exclusively on your parking location, or lack thereof. Going off-grid means you will have no access to reliable, year round power and/or water sources. Including off-grid systems will cost more money than being on-grid and also take up a larger footprint inside your tiny house. Tanks and pumps will need somewhere to go and the best designs will make sure your systems don’t eat up your valuable living space, which is why it’s smart to know how you will want to set up your systems before you start designing.
Do you need on- or off-grid utilities?
If so, all of your utility systems should be contained in the house for easy maneuverability, similar to an RV. I recommend choosing a smaller size for the tiny life in the road, such as an 8x22' or smaller. This will allow you to tow your unit with ease and reduce the likelihood of needing a CDL or a vehicle with a high tow capacity. If you are hoping to park your tiny house in any or all locations, from RV parks to state campgrounds to boondocking, you might consider installing a variety of utility hookups, including the ability to be on- or off-grid depending on your parking site or trip length and destination.
Will you be traveling full-time or moving your house often?
The more people in your house, the greater amounts of sleeping spaces and clever storage solutions you will need. This will increase the amount of thoughtful details you or your builder will need to provide, which will increase the design and build time, as well as the cost of materials and overall weight of your home. Consider hiring a professional to help you design all your built-ins and creative storage solutions!
Number of occupants in your tiny house?
We get lots of potential tiny house clients who are looking for tiny vacation homes or tiny rental properties, but most of our clients are interested in living in their tiny house full time. A full-time tiny house will need to hold all your stuff and be sturdy enough for full time living in your climate - in New England, this means being totally winterized and reliable enough to keep you warm in freezing temperatures! Part-time tiny houses can get away with more minimal, modern aesthetics and less storage space. Full-time tiny houses will likely need every square inch to be considered in order to suit the client’s unique hobbies and belongings. For utilities, a part-time tiny house may be perfectly usable with abbreviated or simple systems where full-time tiny house dwellers will likely need more robust systems that operate more like a traditional home.
Full-time or part-time use?
So now that you’ve gotten a handle how to prioritize your tiny house design, it’s time to decide whether you are going to DIY your tiny house or buy a tiny house. Both paths have a few options. If you choose to DIY, you can purchase plans and modify them based on your custom needs, hire Tiny House Crafters to draw framing and/or building plans for you, or buy a shell and finish the rest yourself (Request a quote for these services!). Or you can buy a move-in ready tiny house that is either customized and built by professionals like us or from the secondary market and sold as is.
One good reason to buy a newly built, custom model from builders like us? You will be able to know exactly what is going on behind the walls, you will know that your utility systems will perfectly match your parking site, and that all your needs and wants are considered so the transition to the tiny life is as seamless and fun as possible!
DIY or Buy?
How, exactly, does one go about designing their utility system?
First, you should know that there are three types of off-grid water types...
Fresh water: This is your drinking and cleaning water. It will feed your sinks and showers and any water-based appliances.
Gray water: This is your dirty water or any water that has been used to bathe or wash or clean with. This does not include water from the toilet.
Black water: This is dirty water from your toilet that has come into contact with feces or urine. If you mix gray water with black water, it becomes black water.
You have several ways to set up your water utilities depending on your access to resources:
Other off-grid utilities include propane and solar power. If you plan on powering your house completely with solar (no grid access), your electrical consumption will need to be supported by a system that can fit in your tiny house; make sure you plan space for your panels and battery bank.
Need more off-grid information? The next post in this series will go more in-depth with on- and off-grid utility design. Be sure to follow us on Instagram @tinyhousecrafters so you never miss a post! Or to check out my past post on going off-grid, follow this link!
How to get started...
Draw to scale. First things first, you need a floorplan that speaks to you. Graph paper and pencil works just fine for this as a tiny house is easily planned out in one or two feet sections. One thing to remember is that the interior width of a tiny house is not a true eight feet. Once you take into consideration the legal road limits of 8.5' and then factor in roof overhangs and wall thicknesses, you will have more like 7.5' on the interior. This may not seem like a lot, but in a tiny house, every inch matters!
Get a handle on big ticket items first. Desperately need a washer/dryer in your tiny house? Then you know right away that you should increase your budget to include a specialty appliance. You will also need to make sure that you can get water and adequate power to the unit and perhaps this will require you to rethink your utility design, not to mention losing a precious 3x3' piece of floor space! In a tiny house, one seemingly small element can be costly for the wallet, schedule, and design. However, allowing for deluxe and fancy elements are what makes each tiny house truly unique. Are any of these items on your tiny house wish list?
- Off-grid utilities
- Skylight and/or specialty windows
- Wood stove
- Roof deck
- Drop-down porch
Research building science for your climate. It's important to use the right building techniques and materials for your climate. For New England and other wet and cold climates, we focus on keeping our houses as dry as possible. At Tiny House Crafters, we make sure to use a rain screen between our siding and sheathing to help our houses dry out as well as spray foam insulation, which will prevent condensation from soaking into the stud bays. Using top-of-the-line building materials may be costly upfront, but it is one of the few ways you can truly make your tiny house investment last a lifetime. If you are having professionals build your home, make sure they know how to build for your climate!
Get the right tools for the job. Building a tiny house on your own? Then be prepared to buy or borrow lots of tools! Parts of a tiny house build include framing, siding, roofing, insulating, electrical, propane, plumbing... the list goes on and on, all the way to detailed finish work! And each of these tasks will require special tools and knowledge to complete with confidence. For some, the right "tools" may also include custom building plans and/or the help of professionals!!
Don't forget about ventilation!
We are passionate about venting at Tiny House Crafters! If you live in a climate where it is cold and damp (like New England), you will want to employ a few different types of venting to help you in your battle against condensation, humidity, and mold. Here is a briefer on a few, important types of ventilation:
Point-of-source: If you have propane appliances, such as a heater, water heater, or refrigerator, then each unit will need to be individually vented. This is because when propane combusts, it produces water vapor as well as carbon dioxide (CO₂) or even carbon monoxide (CO) if the appliance functions improperly, so we vent to reduce humidity and keep the air safe!
Hood and kitchen: A hood vent over your stove or cooktop will help dispel fumes and moisture caused by cooking. It will also keep your house from getting greasy. Bonus points for putting the sink close by to the hood vent so it can do double duty when you need to run your hot water for long periods of time.
Bathroom: Most of the moisture we create will come from showering and bathroom activities! You should install a through-the-wall vent to help combat moisture in the air from showering, as well as normal bathroom odors. Most composting toilets will also have a dedicated fan or vent that will help keep the unit from becoming too smelly.
Solar batteries: Solar systems of different sizes and robustness can be used with a variety of different battery types and each will have different temperature, mounting, and ventilation requirements.
Energy Recovery Ventilator (ERV): For when life in a tiny house outpaces the capacity of all our dedicated vents, we use an Energy Recovery Ventilator (ERV) to manage the rest. An ERV is installed near the ceiling of a tiny house and exchanges humid, interior air with fresh, exterior air. The magic is in the ceramic core, which heats the cool, outside air to room temperature so there is no energy loss - very important in winter! See my article about the ERV at Jelly Living.
Don't forget that vents need a steady supply of electricity to operate!
Now we are closer to physically realizing our priorities and getting ready to sign off on your tiny house design. So how do you communicate your needs to your designer?
As the designer here at Tiny House Crafters, it is really helpful for me to know:
What is your budget?
How will you use the house?
How will you set up your utilities?
From here, I will easily be able to help you take your dreams and turn them into reality.
- Fully-rated tiny house trailer foundation
- Spray foam insulation
- ERV and point-of-source ventilation
- New double pane, vinyl windows
- ZIP system sheathing and rain screening
- Metal roof in choice of color
- Built to Universal Building Codes
- Propane and full on-grid utility systems*
- Interior finishings and detailed trim work*
- Ready for New England winters*
All of our homes come included with:
*comes included with move-in ready models
Want to get in on the build process but don't think you will be able to take on the whole project? We offer an array of services to give you the tiny house design adventure of your dreams...
- Consult with us to determine the best building practices, design, and products for a truly successful build!
- Work with us to design custom framing and building plans so you can take on the whole project with confidence!
- Have us build you a sturdy and watertight shell that you can finish on the inside at your leisure!
- Start your build, finish it as much as time, skill, or budget allows, and then have us do the rest!
... however you want to go tiny, Tiny House Crafters can help you get there.
Ready to go tiny? Get a custom quote for your plans, shell, or move-in ready tiny house today!
The takeaway? Designing a tiny house is all about knowing how and where you will use it, everything else we do is just icing on the cake. It’s an exciting and thrilling process that we are delighted to embark on with you.
Hi, I'm Kate and this is my Tiny House blog! For more than five years, my partner, Anderson, and I have been learning how to build tiny houses for the New England climate. Through much trial and error and the help of our wonderful clients we have learned many building tips and tricks for designing utility systems and staying warm and dry all winter long. If you are looking to design and build a tiny house, please stick around!