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Tips to Successfully Design and Build a Tiny House

Things have changed a lot since I designed and built my tiny house way back in 2013. So much great info can now be found online that did not exists at all when I was building. However, the core principles of a successful design and build process remain the same. Here are some tips to ensure your tiny house build goes smoothly.

Design: Don't overcomplicate things

If you plan to build this yourself, or you're thinking of way to keep costs down, just keep things simple. Some of the best tiny houses are very simple architecturally; essentially a box, with a flat or triangular roof. But within that space, every inch can matter a lot. So spend time on making the interior space just right for your needs, not trying to design something complicated just to look cool in photos. Complex roof angles, massive windows and unusual design features will undoubtedly increase cost, complexity and the ability for you to build the house well yourself, so do yourself a favor and don't get overzealous during the design phase.

Design: Walk through your floorplan

When you think you have your final design, mark out a full-size tape or chalk floorpan of the house in a driveway or parking lot and walk through it to see how it feels navigating the space. Check to make sure you've got enough clearance in tight spaces (like kitchen or hallway where people pass each other), especially if you are designing a house for more than one person. Even better, build some elements in 3D using cardboard (refrigerator boxes are great) to really get a feel for the space. You might just discover something that doesn't work for you, places where your body does not fit like you expected, and can then change the layout a bit before you get into the building process and it's too late.

Design + Build: Take your time, do things well

Take your time in the design and planning phase as that is where you hope to catch and fix as many problems as possible. You can never draw too many floorplans! — and the extra time problem-solving early will make the actual construction that much easier. You'll still probably be solving many small problems every day as you build, but with good preparation and planning, you can avoid the big ones. Don't just assume everything will fit perfectly later on. Measure everyone, plan each detail as best you can before any building begins.

In the building phase, take your time to do things well -- do the research, build to best practices, and take those extra hours refining and polishing areas that you'll use or see every day. The space is so small, you can take extra care on making the house air tight for high energy efficiency, or spend a bit more time on interior finishing to create a space that really feels amazing inside. Go the extra mile on a few special things you really love to make the home feel unique and personal.

Build: Get if finished before you move in

In my experience, once I was done with the house, I almost never went back to change or fix anything. Yes, there will little upgrades, fixes and replacements over the years, but for the most part I was too busy living in it and the energy of the project had completely shifted. So again, take the time to do it right the first time, and follow through 100% on everything before you move in.

I know many people who have taken the opposite approach, starting with a nearly empty weathertight shell, and then just finishing the interior as they lived in the home, bit by bit. This may work well for some, but it complicates the process a lot. Building is MESSY, and it's hard to feel comfortable in a place that is always in some state of chaos and change. So if you can wait to finish all the building -- every little detail -- before you begin living in the house, I think it makes for a much smoother process and better final product too!

Be kind to yourself

Designing and building a tiny house is not easy. Be kind to yourself and those around you as you go through this process, especially the building phase. If you build yourself, it's pretty much guaranteed to be not only a physical challenge, but an emotional and psychological one too. The massive time commitment and all the various decisions and stresses along the way can be hard on relationships if not managed well. So work your asses off, but also take time to rest when needed, and don't forget to be kind (to yourself and others) no matter what happens.

What are your top tips for a successful tiny house build?

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4 comments on “Tips to Successfully Design and Build a Tiny House”

  1. I was wondering what you think the biggest mistake you made was and what you would warn people against when jumping into this life style. Also, how did you handle your insurance situation with your tiny house.

    1. Hello. I don't really think I made any big mistakes myself. But that is because I took a lot of time on design and planning before I started any building. I think that's the one thing I would suggest to people is that planning is super important. Don't rush it. Make sure you're really considering how you'll use the house, not just what looks cool on Pinterest. And expect that it will take longer and cost more than planned. It's hard work, but will be worth it. I also always tell people depending on their location that unless you live on your own land that has no zoning regulations, or you live legally in an RV park, you really need to be open to living in a bit of a legal grey area. Not everyone is OK with that kind of uncertainty. You just need to trust that it will work out. For insurance, there are a couple options, and some people find others locally willing to insure them. See for more discussion of insurance.

  2. Great tips, I highly recommend google sketchup as well. If your handy with computers.. I never used it before and it took a week of frustration to figure it out. But after that it was so usefull to make my design in 3D. Its also a usefull skill to have even after designing your tiny house. With some things it can really help to get a perspective.