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.
- Tiny House on Wheels: Design, Size & Weight
- Tiny House Plans
- Tiny Houses: Kits vs. Shells
- Design & Construction Guides
- Using Salvage
- Conventional Framing, Steel or SIPs
- Considering Roof Types
- Design for Your Climate
- Moisture Issues & Preventing Mold
- Choosing Insulation
- Expected Timeframe from Start to Finish
- Expected Cost from Start to Finish
- Tool List: From a Professional
- Secure Your Tiny Home from Theft
- Need More Motivation?
Tiny House on Wheels: Design, Size & Weight
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, unofficial summary of size limitations. Always check with your local DMV for up-to-date 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 on the front (toward the tongue of the trailer) and how much is on the back (which may be the front of your house). The tongue weight is the static force the trailer tongue exerts on the hitch ball.
An improper load condition can make for dangerous traveling situations. 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 may not be able to go around corners and curves properly, and your vehicle may not stop fast enough when you press the brakes.
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.
Purchasing Used 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 may 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.
Buying a trailer? We have a list of builders that offer trailers!
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.
Tiny House Plans
Tiny 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, Plans & More page some for purchase and some for free. The Small House Catalog offers 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 Overhead view of the house indicating the layout of the rooms in the house, dimensions, door and window locations, ceiling heights and plumbing fixture locations.
- 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 adjacency of spaces. Important changes in floor, ceiling and roof heights or the relationship of one level to another are called out. Also shown, if 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 Indicates materials needed such as lumber, doors, windows, hardware, insulation, and more.
- Building Instructions Complete set of step-by-step building instructions.
- Consultation Services
Additional questions to consider when purchasing plans:
- 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 Questions to ask yourself and your designer.
- Will I need to ask the designer questions during my build?
- If so, will it cost extra?
- How fast will my designer answer questions?
- If my designer is unavailable, will I have to wait or can someone else be available?
- Do I need the designer’s help customizing features?
Learning the answers before you make your purchase can prevent unnecessary headaches and frustration during your build.
Tiny Houses: Kits vs. Shells
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
- 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:
- Go House Go
- Tiny House Design & Construction Guide
- How to Build a Tiny House video series
- Building Construction Illustrated
- Tiny House Build: set of four DVDs on how to build a tiny house
For specific technical issues, refer to building and manufacturing codes:
The International Residential Code for One- and Two- Family Dwellings (IRC) is a comprehensive reference for best practices in home construction and the basic standard for all home builders. A completely new version is published every three years. Small revisions are published more frequently. While all states have adopted the IRC, there is great diversity in the specific versions (scroll down to see the US map.) Additional codes may be written your state, county or city that are stricter than the IRC, particularly in regions vulnerable to earthquakes or hurricanes. Check with your local building inspector or a contractor licensed in your region for guidance.
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.
For a tiny house on wheels, specifications from both the IRC and the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) are useful. Please see the guidelines. Some states have their own certification process and seal of compliance for builders who intend to sell more than one tiny house a year. For an example, please see Oregon – in the linked document, scroll down to item number 918-525-0080 Manufacturing Facility Certification.
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.
Conventional Framing, Steel or SIPs
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
There are six main types of insulation:
- Batts of rolled insulation
- Loose fill that is blown in
- Expanding spray foam
- Rigid foam boards
- Reflective foil
- Natural block – straw bale and cob
And within those types, there are many variations. Tiny House Build wrote a helpful Insulation Report that discusses the pros and cons of each of these.
Expected Building Timeframe from Start to Finish
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.
Considering Roof Types
|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.
Design for Your Climate
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.
Moisture Issues & Preventing Mold
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:
- How To Save Your Tiny House From Mold and Moisture Issues
- HRV or ERV? How to choose the right mechanical equipment for a balanced ventilation system in your home
Expected Building Cost from Start to Finish
Cost varies greatly from a low of zero (if you can get all your materials donated or find free salvage) to $40,000 or more. The latest trend in tiny houses is to make them bigger and fancier, which of course, increases the cost. In general, a truly tiny 20-foot house on wheels will cost about $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.
- Here is a handy budget spreadsheet you can download.
- A spreadsheet of material costs from another tiny house do-it-yourselfer.
- Another tiny house couple’s labor hours and materials costs.
Tool List: From a Professional
Generously provided by William Rockhill of 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.
Measuring, Marking, and Leveling
Chisels and Cutting Tools
Wrenches, Pliers, Cutters
Bits, Nail Sets, Screws Sets, & More
Secure Your Tiny Home from Theft
It’s important to consider security during your build and even after you’re living in it. You can make it difficult for a thief to tow away your tiny house by installing a hitch lock and/or wheel locks:
- Megahitch Lock Coupler Vault
- TriMax Universal Unattended Coupler
- Proven Locks trailer coupler locks
- TriMax wheel locks
A GPS device can help you track your house if it does get stolen. However, most require frequent charging of a battery and so will be useful only if you go to the build site frequently.
Here’s a helpful article with additional tips on securing your tiny house.
Need More Motivation?
Already begun but your tiny house dream has stalled? Get 8 helpful survival tips from TinyHouseBuild.com