What is a Tiny House?

Tiny House Giant Journey and RV on the Road

What is a Tiny House?

A tiny house is in simple terms a downsized version of today’s standard urban,suburbs, and modular homes.

To get an idea of the size of a standard home, click on this link which takes you to a page called “Characteristics of New Housing” from the census.gov website. If you then click on the data table with the name “Median and Average Square Feet”, it shows that the average area in sq. feet for a typical single-family home is somewhere between 2200 sq. feet to 2600 sq. feet for 2-3 floors.

There are those who claim that a house with 1000 sq. feet area is considered a tiny house. There are those that claim that a tiny house cannot be over 500 sq. feet. There are even tiny houses under 100 sq. feet. I think a good guideline is that for one or two people, a tiny house of 400 sq. feet or less is suitable.

Other than the size, there isn’t much difference from conventional houses as the same traditional materials can be used as well as construction techniques. Other times, tiny houses can be made of unconventional materials like stone, adobe, bamboo, etc.

Lastly, a tiny house can be built up from a foundation or a trailer or some large container-like object can be converted to a tiny house; container-like objects like school buses and cargo containers have been converted to tiny houses.

The common motivations for building a tiny home is as follows:

  • Financial: To explain this, first consider the prices associated with standard urban/suburban houses. The average total cost of a single family 2-3 story urban/suburban home can range from $250,000 to $650,000+. The high costs are a result of paying back a mortgage loan (with interest!) over a fixed period of time (e.g. 15-year, 30-year, and 40-year plans). Factors that affect the total mortgage payback include material amount, total labor, property value, and how much profit the home lender wants to make. Regarding property value, the price is pushed higher the more desirable the home’s property is. Other long-term costs include property taxes, Home Owner Association(HOA) fees, utilities, and etc. Additionally, due to rising home prices and uncertain economic times reducing affordability, tiny houses are becoming an alternative for many. Also, tiny houses can feasibly be DIY which avoids having to hire labor and getting involved with mortgage plans. If one carefully selects/purchases land, HOA fees and high property taxes can be avoided/limited. The prices for materials and equipment for DIY tiny houses can range from $10,000 to $25,000 or possibly less. Buying a complete tiny house can cost around $50,000 to $90,000. Also, utilities are cheaper due to the smaller size. Thus, the savings associated with tiny houses are HUGE for both short and long-term if done correctly.
  • To live life more meaningfully: One of the meanings is that with a tiny house that is built efficiently, energy usage is less and more manageable because the house is smaller; cleaning shouldn’t take long unlike traditional houses where cleaning can take hours or days; also, because space is small and efficient, things are easier to organize and things won’t get lost as easily; also, property taxes are less due to smaller size and there shouldn’t be mortgages. Taking all this to account, there is a tremendous savings in time, energy, and money. With all these savings, one could have more resources to pursue the things they want. Another meaning to “living more meaningfully” comes from the fact that having less will make life more meaningful. This means that because houses are tiny, a homeowner has to think what items to keep due to limited space; the picked items will usually the useful/functional items and not the “symbol of happiness”(items to simply make you feel better but don’t really need) items.
  • More environmentally sustainable living: A tiny house uses less materials(and those materials should be environmentally friendly) which makes it less taxing on the environment. This applies two ways. First, there is less materials for construction so less resources are used from nature. Second, there will be less stress on the environment due to less “presence”on the land. Also, because tiny houses don’t adhere to a fixed building scheme as they’re customizable, this opens up to building with environmentally safe materials that are not normally used. Examples include stone, bamboo, adobe, and cob tiny house variants that are all environmentally safe.
  • Mobility: because tiny houses are tiny, they can be put on wheels kind of like a trailer or RV. Because tiny houses on wheels resemble RVs, most laws easily treat them as RVs. Tiny houses on wheels are comfortable, insulated, and can be built with non-toxic materials. But they aren’t suited for long term travel because their durability is often lower than that of full-fledged RVs since RVs have a metal frame and chassis whereas tiny houses on wheels are made with a wooden frame on top of a trailer bed. However, RVs and trailers are not the most comfortable for full time living because they aren’t designed with the intent of long-term comfort. As a result, an RV may be missing one or more of the following needed for full-time homes:
    • It may not have best insulation as the focus is on mobility and shielding from elements; the walls may be thin and thus RVs aren’t that good for cold weathers.
    • RV usually burn a lot of propane for heating as a result.
    • RVs have lots of plastics and chemicals which may potentially be toxic over a period of time.
    • Lastly, RVs are essentially advanced machinery; which means that RVs require more maintenance.

    All of the above issues can be resolved when building a tiny houses on wheels.

Design Principles and Examples

Because the tiny house movement is not mainstream, there isn’t a standardized set of rules/principles governing their design. However, there are similarities between most tiny houses that can be called principles.

A Few Tiny House Design Principles

  • Use of Subtractive Design: subtractive design is the design process of removing as many elements as possible while maintaining a design’s functionality and effectiveness. This sort of design process has to be applied because tiny  houses are under 400 sq. feet and is unlike traditional 2000+ sq. feet houses w/three floors with excessive space. If one looks at one’s daily life, one will find that most of the things he/she owns are “symbols of happiness” which are things like extra clothes, purses, shoes, extra mattresses, and other excessive decorations which are of no functional value. Removing these along with the unneeded rooms will free up a lot of space and leave only the essentials when building a tiny house.
  • Make use of every square foot: After doing subtractive design and getting rid of unnecessary rooms and “symbols of happiness” to determine what is truly necessary, every square foot has to be used effectively to utilize what is necessary without being cluttered and unnatural to the tiny house occupant(s) within a tight space. An example of doing this would be to use of a drawer staircase where the space under the stairs can function as a drawer at the same time. Another example is that one can use a ladder instead of stairs because a ladder has much smaller dimensions and space usage. One more example would be to use a bed loft to save the limited floor space of a tiny house since a bed takes up a sizable area. In short, design the tiny house in a manner where everything can be organized within limited space and still feel roomy.
  • Put windows on all four sides of the house: the reason for this is because windows will allow natural light and reduce electrical lighting use. Also, natural light can be used for passive heating if the house has good insulation and if the windows are placed correctly.

Ultimately, it’s easiest to show examples of tiny houses to illustrate what is a tiny house.

Tiny House Design Examples:

Example #1:

Tiny House on Trailer Diagram

In the above tiny house on wheels, you van see the main faculties needed for sustenance. There is a place to sleep(the loft bed reachable by stairs), a place to for sanitation needs(the restroom on the left), and a place to eat(the kitchen to right).

The above kitchen has the necessary stove, sink, fridge and eating table. The kitchen also has a lot of cabinets which provide for ample storage. With that much storage, it would be a good suggestion to put canned-at-home foods inside the dark cabinets along with the cooking ware.

The loft bedroom as has decent storage with spaces to store at bed header as well some cabinets to the right side of the bed. The header spaces would hold the alarm clock and some bedtime books; the cabinet on the right would hold clothes.

The bathroom has a cabinet under the sink plus some shelf space next to the shower.

Looking at this design, the windows in the kitchen seems decently sized, but the window(s) in the bedroom seems narrow with the bathroom’s window even narrower; theoretically, I don’t think there will be much light going on without light bulbs.

Also, there doesn’t seem to be a washing machine/dryer unless its placed outside.

Outside of some minor issues, this SketchUp design signifies a tiny house well.

Example #2:

12' x 12' Tiny House on Foundation Diagram

The tiny house in the above image is not on wheels and has a foundation. Like the previous tiny house example, there are three necessary faculties.

There is the stove, faucet, and mini fridge for a small kitchen at a corner of the house. At the back right corner is the restroom; an inside image of the restroom without the wall is on top right of the above image. Lastly, there is a sofa for resting on first floor and a loft bed reachable by stairs.

The house with only 144 sq. feet(12′ x 12′) of floor area manages to provide the basic amenities.

Looking at the small image on the bottom right with full view of the house, you will notice that there are many windows that will bring in natural light.

Lastly, there are the shelves on top of the mini-fridge and a larger set of shelves behind the stairs for storage. There is even a washing machine next to the bathroom. Notice that there is no shower in the design(see top-right of image); this should be remedied. Regardless, this is another good design showing what a tiny house is about.

How Does Going Off Grid Apply to Tiny Houses?

A Basic Definition of Off-Grid

You first need to know what going off grid means. A power supply that is considered grid-tied(or on-grid) is connected to power lines that carry electricity from a utility company via power grid. An off-grid power supply is not connected to the power grid; thus power has to be obtained from renewable power(wind, water, and solar).

Off grid is oft synonymous with self-generated renewable power. However, because self-generated renewable power has been synonymous with self-sufficiency, the term off-grid has come to also mean anything that contributes to self-sufficiency and reduces dependency on society. This includes heating/cooling via architecture design and/or firewood, composting toilets for waste removal, water from wells and rivers, and even farming for food.

Difficulties of Going Off-Grid for Larger Homes

Trying to make traditional urban/suburban homes off grid and possibly self-sufficient is both difficult and likely very expensive; this is due to the fact that urban/suburban houses are often not situated in good locations to be made completely off-grid likely due to geographical and legal limitations. Also, because urban/suburban houses are large with 2-3 floors with 2200-2500 sq. ft. area, the costs and resources are greater for the installation of off-grid features and facilities.

Also, resource usage is greater; this would mean more heating/cooling would needed for a larger space, more renewable power would be needed to match the average power usage of a suburban/urban home, and more water to use for all the faucets, pipes, showers, toilets, and etc. Most likely, the resource usage can exceed what can be utilized from the environment.

Most of the time, it’s best to make a large urban/suburban home partially off-grid as that is more feasible.

Going Off-Grid with Tiny Houses

A tiny house with under 400 sq. ft. and about 1 floor, consumes less resources and energy in construction, maintenance, and running; and the installation of off grid facilities and features are easier and cheaper. Tiny houses are also easier to make off grid due to the fact that tiny houses can be made by anyone and not just construction teams.

Also, because tiny houses are often made from scratch, one can often go ahead to pick and/or purchase land that makes living off-grid as easy as possible whether you house is on a foundation or on a trailer. Lastly, it was mentioned in a previous section how tiny houses are cheaper than standard urban/suburban homes.

Because of the several thousands of dollars worth of savings(long term costs) by pursuing tiny houses instead of standard urban/ suburban houses, freed-up income can be used to purchase expensive off-grid systems like wells, solar panel, hydro power turbine, wind power generator and fan, an alternative toilet system, and/or etc.

Some Difficulties with Making Tiny Homes Off-Grid

There are still difficulties associated with making a tiny house off grid. Because the small house movement already has some traction, there is a niche of products that caters to tiny house enthusiasts. Most of these types of products function a lot like traditional everyday appliances and items; except they have a smaller physical footprint than their not so compact counterparts.

Examples of these compact items are small fridges, small kitchens(a.k.a. kitchenettes), compact dryer/washer combos, compact tabletop dish washers(these do exist), compact electric air conditioners, and etc.

Despite the above items being tiny house compatible, most of these appliances are not exactly suited for making a tiny house off grid because some of them are expensive resource/energy-wise because they are only focused on a small physical footprint.

Appliances and items that are energy/resource efficient and are suitable for off-grid homes do not always have a small physical footprint.

For example: energy efficient DC-powered freezer/refrigerator(s) can be of the same physical footprint as conventional freezer/refrigerator(s), and various horizontal-drum washing machines(which are both energy and water efficient) have a similar physical footprint as conventional washing machines.

Within the limited space of a tiny house, the owner/builder will have to be creative to able to fit in any of these devices and decide which ones to use.

Other options include utilizing the available ground space outside the tiny house. This works if one settles on some property. If the tiny house doesn’t permanently settle on land and is moving(like on a trailer), there will have be storage space store the on-property appliances when moving(ex: like the back of a truck that pulls the tiny house trailer).

As suggested earlier, tiny houses will need land to become fully off grid as land can provide water(wells), food(farming), and timber. Besides the difficulty of finding such land, there are legal hassles to take into consideration. This includes the fact that many properties require the house to be of minimum size; which is often larger than the 400 sq. feet standard.

The deal with this, options include purchasing land(w/off grid capabilities) is without such restrictions, applying for a variance(a permission for an exception), or seeking legal loopholes. I will cover this in detail in future blog posts.

Ending

Now you should be able to answer “What is a tiny house?”. Through out the course of the website’s posts, I will post many topics related to tiny houses ranging from different kinds of tiny houses, construction methods, legal topics associated with tiny houses, and etc. Lastly, I would like you readers to comment below what you thought of this introductory article. You may also give constructive criticism as to how to improve this article for future viewers. Also, please comment to state what kinds of future articles related to tiny houses, especially off-grid ones, you would like to see.

 

What is a Tiny House Pinterest

 

Image Attributions(You may skip this):

  1. Header ImageBy Guillaume Dutilh (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
  2. Tiny House Image Diagram(Example #1): Original Image created and owned by this website. You may use if you give proper attribution as explained in this site’s “Content Reuse & Attribution Policy” from the bottom.
  3. Tiny House Image Diagram(Example #2): Exact same policy as above #2.
  4. Hidden Pinterest Image(find by clicking the Pinterest Social media share button): I reserve ALL RIGHTS to this image as I created this for my Pinterest sharing needs. This composite pin image consists of:
    1. By Guillaume Dutilh (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
    2. wood texture background” (CC0) via Pixabay.com
    3. Little Fence” (CC BY 2.0) by Me in ME via Flickr
  5. Facebook/Google+/etc. Post Image: I also own all rights to this image as I made this for my other social media sharing needs. This is made up of #2 and #3 images used in the above hidden Pinterest image for this page.

6 Responses

  1. Simone says:

    I have been fascinated by tiny houses ever since watching a show about them. I love the idea of living life more meaningfully. Nowadays people are quite housebound in these big huge houses because there is no money left to enjoy life.

    We are a family of 4 and often talk about downsizing. Our current home is just over 2600sq feet and we do not need that much space. However, I don’t think we are ready for a tiny home just yet; but I bet we could easily manage with a home half this size!

    Thanks for all the great info on tiny homes. I will be coming back to your site for more info!

    • Bobby Kundu says:

      Even if you and your family aren’t ready to make a complete dive into tiny houses, even downsizing can do wonders for you all emotionally and financially.

      I am glad that you liked my website and I hope you will continue to like my website from here on out.

  2. John says:

    Bobby,
    I have been looking at Tiny Houses to replace the RV that I left parked at my dad’s. He has electric power, a water supply, and a sewer connection for me to hook up to; the fact that I do not move my RV makes it easy to look to replace it with a Tiny House.

    Your overview has answered some of my questions.

    Now that I have retired from work, I am going to look a little more into having one of these for a weekend retreat. This will make a great lake house for weekend getaways in the summer. I like the idea of going off the grid, as you do not have to depend on having all the utilities run to a remote location. Can you get one with electric only?

    John

    • Bobby Kundu says:

      Looks like you have been putting a lot of thought into your off grid tiny house endeavor and I am glad that my article has been of some help to you. With electric power, water supply, and septic management available from your father, you are well on your way as many folks have trouble getting these three necessities. However, one thing you need to think about is getting a building permit from local authorities; RVs are usually given more leniency because the’re treated as “temporary structures” and are not vetted as rigorously. Otherwise, I wish you luck on you off grid tiny house.

      Regarding your question, you can get a tiny house to be hooked up only to an electric utility as long as some kind of outlet from the power grid is available; this can include sharing power with a neighbor who has utility power, or making sure the tiny house is placed near a power grid access point.

  3. Marie says:

    Hi Bobby, thanks for the article I appreciate the definition of a tiny house because as you implied there seems to be different opinions as to what counts out there. It is also good to see the increasing media coverage of both off grid living and also attempts to decrease the size of the carbon footprint in both construction and living.

    I know your focus is strictly off grid, but what about the implications for generating electricity and supplying it back to the grid to increase the green energy available, especially as many tiny homes are able to generate more power than they use, what is your view on that? Thanks Marie

    • Bobby Kundu says:

      I think it’s fine to go ahead and supply power back into the grid as increasing green energy available to society is a good thing(less coal and nuclear power) while the one who produces the green energy gains compensation from the electric utility company.

      However, one should only attempt this after making sure he/she is able to supply with his/her own power and if it’s physically possible to connect to the grid.

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