Building your own tiny house can be empowering but also overwhelming, especially if you have no construction experience. This page has tips and reference books to help you along the way.
Size & Design Considerations for Tiny Houses on Wheels
Size: Generally, tiny houses on wheels should be no more than 13'6" high and 8'6" wide, in order to tow them without special permits or licenses. However, some states are more restrictive; some are less. Here's a handy but unofficial summary of size limitations. Please check with your local DMV for the laws in your state.
Weight: Try to keep the weight of your tiny house below 10,000 pounds. Above this weight, some states have special driver's licensing regulations. Here's a list of weights of common building materials.
- Tongue Weight: Your tiny house design should take into consideration how much weight is forward (toward the tongue of the trailer) and how much is on the back of the trailer (which might be the front of the house).
The tongue weight is the static force the trailer tongue exerts on the hitch ball. An improper load condition can make for a dangerous trailering situation. If you don't have enough weight on the trailer tongue (less than 10 percent of the total loaded trailer weight) the trailer can end up swaying from side to side, making it difficult to control. If you have too much weight on the trailer tongue (more than 15 percent of the total loaded trailer weight) it can overload the rear tires and push the rear of the vehicle around. You might not be able to go around corners and curves properly, and your vehicle might not stop fast enough when you press the brake pedal.
According to the 2013 GMC Trailering Guide, to get the proper trailer tongue weight, you should put about 60 percent of the load centered evenly over the front half of the trailer. You can calculate the proper trailer tongue weight by figuring 10 to 15% of the total loaded trailer weight. For example, a 3,000 pound trailer has a proper tongue weight of 300 to 450 pounds.
Please see the FAQs for more information on weight and tongue weight.
Trailers: If you buy a used trailer, know that a lot of welding may be needed to tailor the trailer to your design. If you're not a welder, you might save money in the long run by buying a new trailer, customized to your design specifications. Here's a helpful video on trailers from Dan Louche of Tiny Home Builders.
Ready to buy your trailer? Tiny house builders with TRL to the left of the company name on this builder list
sell trailers to DIYers.
Front Door Placement: If you will be staying in RV park, be aware that it's customary to have the front door or main entrance on the passenger side as opposed to driver's side. Typically the hookups for the water and waste are on the driver's side.
Accessory dwelling units (ADUs)
An accessory dwelling unit (ADU) is a second small dwelling on the same property as a larger single-family house. An ADU can be a tiny house (on a foundation) in the backyard, an apartment over the garage or a basement apartment. ADUs are allowed in many towns, but the rules vary as to size, permitting, and placement. In addition, some towns restrict who can live there (e.g., only family members of the main house, or only people providing long term care for someone in the main house). Here are two website devoted entirely to ADUs:
Tiny House PlansTiny house plans vary in detail and quality. Plans of even the most well known tiny house companies can have errors or omissions.
You can find tiny house plans on the Builders page, Plans, Designers & Consultants, some for purchase and some for free. The Small House Catalog offers free plans for a tiny house on wheels and for small houses on foundations.
What should you expect in plans that you purchase? Some, but rarely all, of the below items will be included. In particular, numbers 9, the Bill of Materials, is often absent or incomplete. Number 10, Step by Step Instructions, and Number 11, Consultation Services, are rarely included, although they may be provided at an additional charge.
- Cover sheet: an artist’s rendering of the exterior of the house that shows how the house will look when built.
- Foundation plan: (not included for a tiny house on wheels) The foundation plan shows dimensions, concrete walls, footings, pads, posts, beams, bearing walls, and any stepped foundation and retaining wall information.
- Floor Plan (layout): Dimensioned plans indicating the layout of the rooms in the house, dimensions, door and window locations, ceiling heights and plumbing fixture locations. These plans are an overhead view of the house.
- Structural Plan: Overall layout and necessary details for the ceiling, loft framing (if applicable), roof construction, and securing of the frame to the trailer.
- Roof Plan: describes the elements that make up the roof. The roof plan typically illustrates ridges, valleys, and hips. It also may indicate the roofing material and slopes of roof surfaces, as well as chimneys and decorative elements.
- Exterior Elevation: a 2d representation of the front, rear, left and right sides of the house. Materials, details and measurements are also given.
- Cross Section (also called building section or wall section): cut-away views through the house that show adjacencies of spaces. Important changes in floor, ceiling and roof heights or the relationship of one level to another are called out. Also shown, when applicable, are exterior details such as railing and banding. These sections specify the home’s construction, insulation, flooring and roofing details.
- Electrical Plan: a drawing that indicates the location of lighting fixtures, switches and outlets.
- Bill of Materials: lumber, doors, windows, hardware, insulation, etc. needed to build the house.
- Complete set of step-by-step building instructions.
- Consultation services.
Additional questions to consider when purchasing plans:
- Qualifications: What are the designer's qualifications? How many houses have been completed with this design? Has the plan been reviewed by an architect or structural engineer?
- Support: Do you expect be able to ask questions of the designer during your build? Will there be an extra charge for this support? What kind of turn around time does he or she offer to respond to questions? What if the designer is on vacation — will anyone else be available or will you have to wait? Will you want the designer's help with customizing features?
Learning the answers before you make your purchase can prevent unnecessary headaches and frustration during your build.
Should I start with a tiny house kit or shell?Building your own tiny house on wheels is a daunting task. Almost everyone reports that it takes longer, costs more, and is more difficult than they had expected. Sometimes the results are less than stellar, too — after all, construction takes skill and not all of us have the aptitude for it. Tiny house kits or shells can provide a good foundation and save you a significant amount of time. Learn more here: tiny house kits and tiny house shells.
Design & Construction Guides
Building a quality home starts with a quality design. If you decide to design your own home, be sure to have the design reviewed by a professional to make certain it is sound.
- Sketchup is a popular, free, online design application.
- Chief Architect offers a variety of designer programs in their Home Designer Suite.
- Sweet Home 3D is for interior design.
- Floorplanner is another fun tool, free for one basic design.
- The Stanley Floor Plan App helps with floor plan mapping and job estimating.
- This handy series of diagrams called "64 Important Numbers Every Homeowner Should Know" from This Old House, shows the standard dimensions and distances for fixtures in a typical house. While it's useful as a reference, you may need to make an adjustements for your tiny house.
These construction guides (combined with a hands-on workshop) can give you the knowledge you'll need to build your own house:
For specific technical issues, refer to building and manufacturing codes:
The 2012 IRC is available free, online.
Note that to see the detailed subsections of the International Residential Code, you need to scroll down within an IRC page and click on "next-section".
The 2015 IRC code book is available for purchase.
While the 2015 IRC has eliminated the requirement for a house to have at least one room of 120 square feet or more, states will need to adopt the new code in order for it to be effective. In addition, the IRC still contains other minimum size specifications that prove challenging: rooms (except for bathrooms and kitchens) must be 70 square feet, ceiling height must be 7 feet, etc. (additional code discussion). Accordingly, while it is possible for a tiny house to meet building codes, a house built on a foundation on its own land is more likely to be small (more than 400 square feet) rather than tiny. In addition, a building permit will probably be required.
Whether you decide to build or buy, be sure to review the design and detailed plans. A great tiny house begins with a great plan!
If you're blessed with more time and skill than money, building from salvage is a great choice. Not only can you get beautiful, sturdy materials, you also can avoid the excessive chemicals present in many new materials. Here's an example of a beautiful wood floor built from pallets. Old windows, doors, and panelling can be found at salvage stores, dumps, curbside on trash pick up day and through Craigslist and Freecycle. Keep in mind, however, that you may need to modify your design to work in the materials you're able to find. In addition, if you're trying to meet building codes, you'll want to document and take pictures of your materials, and perhaps even ask your building inspector to come out and take a look to be sure they're acceptable.
In general, conventional framing is cheaper but takes more skill than building with SIPs. SIPs provide exceptional insulation but installing electrical wiring is more complicated. Steel framing can be lighter but takes more time than either conventional framing or SIPs. Here are some helpful references:
- Should you use steel or wood studs to build your tiny house?
- Drawbacks of using metal
- 15 Reasons to build a tiny house with SIPs
- EcoSIPs for tiny houses
- Batts of rolled insulation
- Loose fill that is blown in
- Expanding spray foam
- Rigid foam boards
- Reflective foil
- Natural block - straw bale and cob.
About 120 hours for a professional. For the average DIYer, building a tiny house takes about 480 hours, either concentrated (3 months of fulltime work) or spread out over a year or more, fitting construction into spare hours on weekends. Here's a more detailed discussion from a professional.
"Dreaming of Living in a Tiny House" Facebook group by Aubrey David Mann Brumfield.
|Shed Roof: If you're going to build a loft and want to utilize as much space as possible, a shed roof gives you the best option. It's a one side roof, allowing you to have the peak of your roof at the maximum height of the structure. It allows you to have additional lighting as you can place windows on the peak side in the loft area. Your pitch dictates how much space you have on the eave side of the structure. From a material aspect, you're saving as well, from roof materials to wall material. If you're going to rain harvest, this type of roof also has an optimal advantage in that all your rain only has to be collected on one side of the structure. One disadvantage, is if you live in a heavy snowfall area, you will have to compensate by increasing the pitch of your roof to help rid your structure of snow weight. With a metal roof, snow will come off pretty easily from the shed roof.|
Saltbox Roof: If you want a two sided roof, but want the space that comes with a shed roof, then there is the saltbox roof. A saltbox roof is similar to the shed roof, but its peak is off-center to one side of the structure. It has most of the advantages of a shed roof, but more importantly, it has more disadvantages. First off, the off-center peak requires you to have the end walls fortified under the peak. This means you don't want a door or window on the main floor under the peak, but rather to the side of the long roof. The off-center peak also is structurally weaker than other roofs because it is not centered, and load weight will be greater to one side of the peak. This can be compensated for with reinforcement, but you're looking at more material.|
|Gambrel (Barn Style) Roof: If you want a center peak and space in the loft, the gambrel roof is your best choice. You have added height and width in the loft area, increasing the space for greater functionality. Properly constructed, it is a stronger roof than your simple gable roof (I'll get to that one next). While I would choose this second to the shed roof for myself, this type of roof is your most complicated to build. You have a total of 8 angle cuts for each roof truss that also needs to be properly reinforced at each joint for maximize strength. It isn't as hard as you think, but you have to be on top of your game to construct this roof, as there is no forgiveness. Another thing to keep in mind, is this roof requires the most roofing material, as it has four pitches in total. It is a great roof, just know what you're getting yourself into building this roof.|
|Gable Roof: The most common roof built. Simple, center-peak, two-sided roof. While simplest to build, it also wastes the most space. As lofts in a THOW average about 4 feet, you essentially have a space you can crawl up into and lay on the bed. Lack of storage space and little utilization of the wall are biggest disadvantages. As far as building a gable roof, everyone has seen it done and doesn't take much to learn how to properly cut your roof trusses and secure them in the build. Of the roofs I have discussed so far, this is the second weakest roof next to the saltbox roof. It doesn't take much to reinforce it for strength, but doing so properly will take about a foot off of your headroom in the loft. If you're not in a snowy area, I wouldn't even reinforce it as you don't have to worry about snow loads.|
|Flat Roof: Simply put, don't do it. Flat roofs are susceptible to the highest damage for the elements, mostly water and debris accumulation. Structurally speaking, they are fine, but without a pitch to get water and debris off your roof, you're looking at the most leaks and repair of all of the roof types. Heaven forbid you don't build it strong enough in a snow load area.|
|Arched/Round Roof: Structurally speaking, you're not going to find a stronger roof type than an arch. The arched roof disperses load evenly (assuming properly built). A properly built arched roof is also one of the hardest to build, very time consuming and costly. If you want a long lasting roof and have the money, then this is a build to consider.|
There are additional roof types, but those described above are the standards. You can add dormers and skylights for more space and lighting, but they will also add to the cost and complexity of construction.
According to the article, Design for Climate, "approximately 40% of household energy is used for heating and cooling to achieve thermal comfort. This rate could be cut to almost zero in new housing through sound climate responsive design." While written for Australia, the tips and different climate types are easily translatable to other regions of the world.Keeping warm in cold weather (tips for tiny houses on wheels)
- If your tiny house is on wheels, the floor can get very cold if you haven't insulated. Radiant heating can be installed in the floor.
- Be sure to purchase a heating system (propane, wood, or electric) suited to your climate. A propane stove built for a small boat (e.g. the Dickinson marine stove) may work well in a moderate climate but be inadequate for the harsh winters of northern states, as the insulative quality of water surrounding a boat is absent in a tiny house. Consider propane direct vent wall heaters, from Empire or Rinai. Some are available with thermostats and blowers (a blower requires electricity).
- Protect the area underneath the house with hay bales around the periphery or by installing mobile home skirting.
- To prevent pipes from freezing, they can be wrapped with coil heat tape, then glass insulation wrap followed by plastic overwrap. Then encase all inside a larger diameter pipe, creating a dead air space and wind block.
- Much of the heat from a tiny house occurs through windows. Consider installing heavy-duty insulative curtains.
- More tips are available from Tiny House Giant Journey.
Tiny houses tend to hold in all the warm moisture its inhabitants exude if the right fans, ventilators, vapor barriers and air/heat exchangers aren't used. It's important to work into your design ways to prevent that moisture from building up and allowing mold to grow. Helpful articles:
1. How To Save Your Tiny House From Mold and Moisture Issues
2. HRV or ERV? How to choose the right mechanical equipment for a balanced ventilation system in your home
$25,000 in materials. Be sure to create a budget. Many folks do the carpentry work themselves but budget for hiring an electrician and plumber.
Bear Creek Carpentry, here's a list of recommended tools for building a tiny house. Of course, you can make do with less, but these are the tools a professional uses.
- Megahitch Lock Coupler Vault
- TriMax Universal Unattended Coupler
- Proven Locks trailer coupler locks
- TriMax wheel lock
Here's a helpful article with additional tips on securing your tiny house.
Already begun but your tiny house dream has stalled? Get 8 helpful survival tips from TinyHouseBuild.com