Once or twice a week for the last year and a half, since I’ve been living in my tiny house, I’ve had curious visitors come on exploratory trips as they contemplate taking the tiny road themselves. They find me on the blogosphere and ask to come and see it and ask for tips. It’s always a strange experience, for me and for them, as I invite a stranger into a room that my hands have touched every square inch of, that my brain has conceived every detail of, where every object is chosen and has significance.
Usually, I have coffee — strong coffee — and I repeat some of my go-to tiny house one-liners: “I’ll give you the full tour; you don’t have to move,” or when I show them my collection of tiny things, “The biggest problem in having a tiny house is your friends always give you tiny trinkets — like I have the space for all this crap?” For the record I do have the space; there is a shelf dedicated to them. At first I would be deferential, eager to share my space and meet a kindred soul but reluctant to offer any words of advice, since I was just winging it myself. As time went on, and more people visited, I noticed my words of advice have evolved, become more opinionated and refined — perhaps one day even leading to a tiny manifesto of sorts, not too long, of course. As I am in the process of selling and moving my dear abode, I have compiled a short list of disparate lessons for people looking to get in the tiny game:
1. There is no building project more fun than building your own tiny house.
2. Design it yourself, and spend as much time on the design as you can.
While you can, of course, buy plans that already exist, it's my bias that if you’re going through the trouble of building a tiny house for yourself, it should really reflect you, and all of your quirks and eccentricities. If you're ever going to design a house, this is your chance. With certain details it's important to consult the tiny house experts who have already figured it out (connection to the trailer, weight distribution, etc.), but otherwise it's an ideal medium for experimenting. If you do decide to take on the design challenge, really get into it: Make a bunch of different drawings before narrowing your direction; think about how you will really use the space (not how you might use the space); tape out your floor plan in full scale to see if it suits your body properly; think about the heights of the windows, their alignment on the outside, and their relationship to your eye height on the inside.
3. Invest in good tools up front.
Good tools will not only prevent headaches and unnecessary mistakes, but they are also objects you can keep long after the tiny house is done for future building projects. It's not worth it to borrow tools and risk messing them up, or get cheap ones that break or give inferior results. Buy good tools, and buy them once.
Window reflection detail
4. Make the furniture yourself, for yourself.
Handwork is essential to giving any house a “soul,” and a tiny house in particular should have remnants of the builder's hands to give it its essence. Scale is also important, as “regular”-size furniture just doesn't work in tiny houses — everything should be custom.
5. Don’t become obsessed with furniture performing multiple functions.
This is one of my biggest tiny house (I know) pet peeves. Sometimes something that flips and rotates and does five different things does do all of those things, but all very poorly. It’s better to have something do one thing, and do it really well. There’s also that dance of clearing off surfaces to flip them, and then where does all that stuff go? Moving parts are fun to geek out on, but if you can avoid them, do it!
Left: stairs to loft; right: loft bed
6. It’s okay to hire help.
Sometimes, it’s not worth doing it all by yourself. Learning carpentry and fine woodworking is enough of a challenge; it can be wise and reassuring to hire seasoned professionals to do the electrical, plumbing, roofing, and drywall (if you dare to drywall). They can do it faster and free you up to do the really fun things.
7. There is no building project more fun than building your own tiny house.
— Matthew Wolpe, www.justfinedesignbuild.com
Matthew Wolpe is the coauthor of Reinventing the Chicken Coop and co-owner of Just Fine Design/Build, a studio that produces original handmade furniture and small structures. In 2010 Matthew and his partner, Kevin McElroy, designed a chicken coop called “Chick in a Box” that went on to win an Editor’s Choice award for design at the Bay Area Maker Faire and was featured on the Make: magazine blog, the Farmhouse Modern blog, and the Treehugger blog. Matthew also is a senior mechanician for furniture and carpentry at the University of California, Berkeley's College of Environmental Design and teaches woodworking at The Crucible, a nonprofit arts school in Oakland, California. Matthew built and lives in a 120-square-foot tiny house in Oakland.