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Tiny Houses: Emerging Trend or Passing Fancy?

TUESDAY, JANUARY 30, 2018

By Robert J. Kobet, AIA


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My interest in tiny houses began with my first reading of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden – Or Life in the Woods while still in college in the early 1970s. It was assigned along with Amos Rappaport’s House, Form and Culture, which also explores places we live as a reflection of who we are.

In both, the premise that we can live quite well in limited space is put forth as a function of using resources wisely while walking gently on the Earth. Thoreau’s famous abode in the woods outside Concord, Massachusetts, and his alternative approach to living resonated with me in that period of social upheaval.

Beyond Thoreau’s early insight and experience, it’s important to note the interest in tiny houses as a viable housing alternative, and what has grown into a global tiny house movement, has been evident for at least 30 years. Early pioneers include Lloyd Kahn, author of Shelter (1973) and Lester Walker, author of Tiny Houses (1987). Sarah Susanka’s The Not So Big House, published in 1997, is credited with starting the countermovement toward smaller houses.

Photos courtesy of the author

The possibility of building one's own home has fueled the movement, particularly for tiny houses on wheels. They are often compared to recreational vehicles, are governed as such, and appeal to tiny house advocates for the same reasons. Shown here is a tiny house sold by 84 Lumber.

Tiny houses on wheels were popularized by Jay Shafer, who designed and lived in a 96-square-foot house. He went on to offer the first plans for tiny houses on wheels. In 2002, he and Greg Johnson, Shay Salomon and Nigel Valdez co-founded the Small House Society. Salomon and Valdez subsequently published their guide to the modern Small House Movement, Little House on a Small Planet (2006). In 2008, Johnson published his memoir, Put Your Life on a Diet, which recognizes living in a tiny house is a lifestyle, not just a housing choice. Shafer later founded the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, and the Four Lights Tiny House Company in September 2012.

The financial crisis of 2007–08 garnered attention for tiny houses as the need for affordable housing became acute, foreclosures and mortgage defaults traumatized the housing market, and concurrent interest in ecological and environmentally sensitive building was growing.

My own experience includes the design and construction of a 288-square-foot passive solar tiny house for a county park in 2005; consulting a large building supply company between 2012 and 2016 that offers tiny houses as kits; and my current association with an ongoing program at a local university to build tiny houses for veterans. Each has provided its own rewards and lesson learned.

What Are They?

Tiny houses are loosely defined as any inhabited structure, usually residential, less than 400 square feet. Small homes are those between 400 and 1,500 square feet, with most in the 1,000-square-foot range. Purists question if 1,500 square feet is small, but many packaged tiny house plans feature homes this size.

In a society that highly values material wealth and social status, it’s hard for many to imagine the value of a tiny house or their role in providing energy, material and resource-efficient housing with adequate accommodations and utility. In the United States, the average size of new single-family homes grew from 1,780 square feet in 1978 to 2,662 square feet in 2013, despite a decrease in the size of the average family. Our homes are still the most significant part of the average family’s financial security, and cultural preferences for what most consider acceptable housing remain outside the realm of what a tiny house provides.

Why Are They Trending?

In spite of their seemingly niche market appeal, small and tiny houses are trending in response to increasing media coverage in the press, industry conferences, publications dedicated to tiny houses, numerous websites and dedicated television shows. All of these sources enlighten potential tiny house owners about the feasibility of living in a tiny house while dealing with many of the myths that surround them.

Our homes are still the most significant part of the average family’s financial security, and cultural preferences for what most consider acceptable housing remain outside the realm of what a tiny house provides.

The possibility of building one's own home has fueled the movement, particularly for tiny houses on wheels. They are often compared to recreational vehicles, are governed as such, and appeal to tiny house advocates for the same reasons. However, tiny houses can be built to last as long as conventional homes, use traditional building techniques and materials, and are aesthetically similar. The appeals are strong enough to have convinced some companies to use tiny houses in planning housing developments in both urban and suburban settings, especially for low-income families and the homeless, including veterans.

What Are The Cost Factors?

The arguments made for and against building or purchasing a tiny house are as numerous as the variables that inform the debate. Some are made on objective data, such as cost per square foot or purchase price. Others are more subjective, based on personal taste or lifestyle motivation. Central to the discussion is what the purchaser or builder is receiving for the money invested, and whether it can provide adequate comfort and utility. The essence of the debate can be distilled down to how we process price, cost and value, where:

  • Price is the amount of money we pay for goods or services, often referred to as “cost.” Price is highly variable in a tiny house. A tiny house can be built from recycled materials for about $40. Others are on the market for over $80,000, at over $390 per square foot.
  • Cost is about things like environmental impact, socio-economic equity, our time, etc. The literature shows many tiny house advocates are very aware of their environmental benefits.
  • Value is what we make it, and is usually very subjective. Tiny homes appeal to buyers willing to downsize and who resonate with a lifestyle focused more on quality of life and environmental stewardship, instead of material possessions.

A major objection to tiny homes is their alleged high cost per square foot compared to conventional housing. This can be due to:

  • As size goes up, cost per square foot comes down. Extra bedrooms, closets, foyers, hallways and garages not found in tiny homes are the least expensive spaces to construct.
  • Conversely, kitchens and baths—the most expensive amenities in any home—comprise a larger percentage of the overall tiny house square footage.
  • Equipping a tiny house is challenging. Small, compact energy efficient appliances can be expensive. Many are drawn from the RV and marine architecture industries. In a standard home, appliance prices do not significantly impact square foot costs.

There is also the consideration of first cost versus life cycle cost, and the cost of ongoing ownership, operation and maintenance. Tiny houses are very desirable in these areas because:

  • Monthly utility costs in a tiny house can be significantly less than a larger conventional home. The savings can be applied to the mortgage, if any, making payments more affordable or shortening the mortgage period while building equity. Money not absorbed by large mortgage payments can be invested or used for other things.
  • Depending on the location and municipal jurisdiction, insurance, property and real estate taxes can be less, all contributing to increased cash flow.
  • Tiny houses may not need a permanent foundation or conventional connections to civil infrastructure for water, sewer, gas, etc. This is both a cost savings and key to one of the more significant tiny house benefits—the freedom to relocate.
  • The scale and relative simplicity of tiny houses make a do-it-yourself project more feasible than building an entire conventional home; a potentially significant savings.
  • Tiny houses can be viable starter homes for a wide demographic. They are a unique investment opportunity for students where they are being offered as alternatives to traditional campus housing. Finished with your degree? Take your tiny home with you when you graduate.
  • There is less to clean and maintain. This can save money and time.

What Are The Code Issues?

As the popularity of tiny houses continues to grow and advocates push for their inclusion in more traditional, established communities, they have come under increased scrutiny from municipal jurisdictions, financial institutions, community development groups (including those writing covenants to oppose them), local code officials and building inspectors.

It’s clear tiny homes are not welcomed by those who see them only as something that will devalue communities and the properties they contain. Others who appreciate their benefits have been proactive in removing the barriers to living in tiny homes.

The arguments made for and against building or purchasing a tiny house are as numerous as the variables that inform the debate. Some are made on objective data, such as cost per square foot or purchase price. Others are more subjective, based on personal taste or lifestyle motivation.

Chief among these are the building codes specific to tiny houses. They are now recognized with their own chapters in the International Residential Code, and the parent International Construction Code. These were issued in 2017 and are expected to be enacted in 2018.

The codes deal categorically with whether the tiny house is mobile or on a permanent foundation, and focus primarily on life safety issues. These include egress, access to sleeping lofts, building systems design, energy efficiency, fire prevention, structural integrity and compliance with other applicable codes, including state Departments of Transportation. It is hoped that having established building codes will give local officials more confidence in the integrity of tiny houses that will, in turn, manifest in reduced liability concerns and wider overall acceptance.

Materials

In essence, tiny homes are exactly that: tiny homes. Design and material considerations address the type of tiny house under consideration. In almost all cases:

  • Whether factory or site built, tiny houses mostly use conventional framing techniques. Wood is most common, especially with DIYs, but light gauge steel and structural insulated panels have also been used.
  • Roof structures are usually simple, short spans using single framing members, eliminating the need for conventional trusses. Shallow pitches and small surface areas make metal roofing a popular choice. The relatively high first cost is offset by the need for a limited amount of material.
  • Low utility expenses in a tiny house are more a function of size than an energy efficient building envelope. Tiny homes usually do not feature thick, composite walls and open attic cavities that can accommodate high levels of insulation.
  • Because they are of ordinary construction, tiny homes are almost always light mass, and respond quickly to exterior temperature changes. Window size and placement must be scrutinized to optimize natural light and ventilation while avoiding overheating due to direct solar gain. Some have tile floors, but extensive use of interior masonry or drywall is rare, especially in those designed to be towed.
  • Wall surfaces are essential to providing storage. The size and location of windows and doors must be coordinated with closets, cabinets and shelving.
  • Using recycled materials, used windows, doors, counter tops, cabinets, plumbing and electrical fixtures, furniture and accessories is popular as it resonates with many owners’ desire to save money and be environmentally sensitive. Used building material outlets often have an excess of these items, which are reasonably priced.
  • Building with aftermarket and used materials is quite feasible because of the relatively small amount of product needed. Projects using salvaged materials can be spectacular, and are often a source of pride in the tiny house community.
  • The size and scope of a tiny house project do not typically require specialized tools, cranes, scaffolding or other specialized equipment. Simple tools and commonsense construction practices will suffice.
  • Because of their small size and simple, open floor plans, small houses are excellent candidates for using fan-door technology when air-sealing the home. However, reducing random infiltration to absolute minimums increases the need for benign interior finishes and effective ventilation control.
  • Tiny house dwellers enjoy all the benefits of allergy free, nontoxic building materials, finishes, caulking, vapor barriers, furniture options and cleaning products, most of which are cost neutral. This is most important in tiny homes because of the close proximity of all materials, the limited breathable air volume and uncertain ventilation scenarios.
  • Limited space and volume make material selection important in developing a good psychology of space. Color schemes should be uplifting. Wood flooring should be laid perpendicular to the long axis of the unit to make the space seem wider. Pocket and bi-folding doors are popular when space is tight, and strategically placed mirrors can bounce light and expand views.

Whether factory or site built, tiny houses mostly use conventional framing techniques. Wood is most common, especially with DIYs, but light gauge steel and structural insulated panels have also been used. Shown here is a home designed by the author.

In tiny houses on trailers designed to be mobile:

  • The width and height of the unit is usually governed by a state’s Department of Transportation requirements for mobile homes. Allowable length may also be a factor.
  • Exterior shading devices, decks and entrance stairs cannot be transported attached to the unit and are usually added once the structure is sited. However, these can be shipped to the final destination inside if properly secured.
  • Material selection will impact weight restrictions, the class of the trailer the unit is constructed on, and the inclusion of “running gear” such as safety hitches and brake lights. If the buyer cannot arrange for a vehicle capable of towing the unit safely it may have to be moved each time by a commercial towing service.
  • Joinery must be carefully considered. Many interiors use finishes applied in sections or smaller pieces that provide for flexibility. Individual boards, peg board and thin plywood are often used inside instead of drywall, which is heavier and prone to fasteners popping if the structure is racked.
  • The wind and shock loads encountered while transporting a tiny house necessitate the almost exclusive use of threaded fasteners.
  • Light gauge steel framing can reduce weight and provide superior structural rigidity if properly braced. Precut studs come punched or formed to accept plumbing and electrical runs.
  • RV codes are often more sympathetic to composting toilets, renewable energy and alternative plumbing, heating and ventilation systems than conventional building codes.
  • Local ordinances can restrict the use and placement of tiny houses that are classified as mobile homes, and have a great deal to say about connecting to water, sewer and electrical services. Conflict can arise if the tiny homes are not moved periodically, proving they are being lived in as mobile homes or “temporary” structures.

In addition to the above, tiny homes that are site built:

  • Are not a mobile home or RV. Therefore, the home must comply with all state and local codes that apply. These include minimum size requirements, energy performance, community covenants and other municipal jurisdictions. In some communities, this includes the type of materials used on the exterior, orientation to the street instead of optimum solar orientation, the need for a paved driveway, etc. Opportunities to use alternative waste disposal or space conditioning systems may not be allowed.
  • Have the size, proportion and orientation flexibility afforded by not being restrained to a trailer, or what a trailer needs to be secured to the site.
  • May be purchased as kits, partially completed or finished units. Some building supply companies specializing in tiny homes offer packaged plans and materials that can be delivered to the job site.
  • Can be built on continuous masonry foundations or point loaded on piers. Each has its own functional considerations and code regulations. (Note the emergence of the Tiny House codes embedded in the IRC.) Tiny home owners who remove the wheels from the trailer and simply prop the unit up on blocks to have it considered a permanent installation may be challenged.
  • Foundations can be surrogate basements, accessed from the exterior. They are useful in freeze-proofing water and sewer connections, and in keeping unwanted pests from living under the home. Permanent foundations may be subject to state energy codes.
  • A tiny house can serve as a starter unit with the intention of expanding in the future, or they can be attached to an existing house, matching the exterior finishes. Where permitted, they can be an out building suitable for habitation and a number of different uses.

In addition to these common approaches to tiny homes, advocates have also used repurposed shipping containers, used buses, railroad cars and agricultural silos. Each must be properly reconditioned, detoxified if necessary, and able to be transported to where it will be placed.

“Containerized housing” is most popular in places like southern California and the Gulf Coast, where used ones are available in major shipping ports and associated transfer stations, and the climate is moderate. Shipping containers are very strong, can be stacked or built in multiples, and are generally non-combustible and waterproof. Extremely high housing and land costs, and the need to house the homeless makes them a viable housing option. Today, there are several companies who specialize in shipping container homes. I am most impressed with the creativity I’ve seen by those who have used them.

I never imagined that after a 36-year career practicing internationally in sustainable design and development I would find myself enjoying a working retirement that includes building tiny homes for veterans.

Thoreau’s Walden, the text I read almost 50 years ago, is now an iBook on my phone, and I admit to falling asleep often while listening to it. I wonder what he would think about the tiny house movement, how it’s trending and what he would have to say to those of us he has inspired.

ABOUT THE BLOGGER

Robert J. Kobet, AIA

Robert J. Kobet has worked with clients on five continents for more than 35 years to create innovative places to live, work and learn. As an architect, educator, speaker, former chair of LEED for Schools, primary author of LEED for General Contractors and Construction Managers, and president and CEO of The Kobet Collaborative, Bob is working to make his vision for a green building era a reality. Leaning Green explores that reality. Contact Bob.

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Tagged categories: Green building; Green design; Residential Construction

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (1/31/2018, 8:46 AM)

Communities are becoming more and more welcoming of tiny homes, both as standalone and as Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) - a tiny house sharing a lot with a larger house. Spur, TX started explicitly encouraging tiny homes in 2014, and others such as Leander, TX have started to join in.


Comment from Robert Kobet, (1/31/2018, 11:51 AM)

Thanks, Tom This is good news. We know they are a viable housing option in many situations. I hope those who are supporting their use succeed.


Comment from B Pittman, (2/1/2018, 6:34 PM)

We built a "small house" (768 sf) as a sturdier alternative to our camper that stayed on our weekend property. After having it completed 2 years now, my husband and I have decided this is where we want to retire. We still have our "big house" (2350 sf) close to work for now, but realize we can survive on much less and still be quite comfortable. Plus, cleaning it is a breeze! We both can't hardly wait until we can live "small" full time. I don't think we could do a "tiny" house, but "small" works just fine!


Comment from Robert Kobet, (2/7/2018, 5:57 PM)

'Sounds like you have the best of both worlds. "Tiny" or "small" is often a matter of degree, and livability is a function of how well it is designed. I hope your "alternative to big" is everything you hoped it would be, and you enjoy many years to come. Thanks for writing!


Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (2/12/2018, 3:49 PM)

It can often be easier in cities to designate the tiny house as an Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) - colocated on the same lot with a larger home.


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