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Tiny Houses: A Look at Materials


By Robert J. Kobet, AIA

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As an avid blue water sailor I have always been interested in how marine architecture meets the challenges of the marine environment. Anyone who has spent time on the open water, especially in adverse conditions, can appreciate the rigors of coping with structural dynamics and high wind loading, corrosive salt air, high humidity, dampness and the need to carry at least the essentials to remain safe and, ideally, comfortable.

boat house
Photos: Robert Kobet

My tiny, floating home and office on the Atlantic.

Between 2005 and 2011, I was privileged to own a 30-foot C&C in South Florida which I appreciated as a sturdy, stable and reliable vessel that provided most of the comforts of home, and what I needed to do business while off shore. I grew to admire how a well-designed boat maximizes the space available, provides for multiple uses of almost every amenity and feature, and how the materials used provide strength. Light weight and surface textures also enable safe movement under wet or damp conditions. I got to know several people who lived on board their boats, and often thought I could do the same; and I still may.

Tiny Home Prototype

The harbinger of that predilection is manifest in a tiny house project I designed for Two Mile Run County Park, north of Franklin, PA, in 2002. It is an early entry into what is now growing interest in tiny houses, and proved to be very successful as a prototype for the type of guest quarters the owners of the park wanted to provide—small, short-term and energy-, material- and resource- efficient accommodations for two adults and perhaps a child or two.

The 24-by-12-foot passive solar building contains a full bath (including a full tub shower), kitchenette, great space and limited storage. It was constructed on site of prefabricated structural insulated panels (SIP), high performance windows, energy-efficient appliances and simple finishes.  The point-loaded foundation enabled minimal disturbance of the natural environment, and a place for secure storing of canoes, kayaks, bikes and skis.

The project received great reviews and hosted everyone from a couple on their honeymoon to scores of campers and cross-country skiers before the park was privatized in 2005. It was then moved, like many tiny houses, to a private lot owned by the original park stewards.

Focus on Materials

Since the mid-2000s tiny houses, while still a niche market, have grown more sophisticated. Those who live in tiny houses are as diverse as the designs themselves. Entire websites, newsletters and television series now address how to design, build and live comfortably in a tiny house.

Tiny House

Tiny house cabin designed for Two Mile Run County Park (Pennsylvania).

The best are very challenging projects that stretch the imagination and technical prowess of everyone involved. As in marine architecture, material science plays an important role in meeting the challenges of what can be frequent moves, structural integrity, superior indoor air quality and overall energy and resource efficiency.  As the literature shows, there are a number of ways to accomplish these goals.

The same gestalt that attracts a potential tiny house dweller to live in a very environmentally sensitive dwelling also can drive an interest in recycled, after market and used materials, products and equipment. Gathering, storing and often reconditioning recycled materials can be challenging, and should be carefully considered in any full cost accounting. An emphasis on benign materials can lead to using dense pack paper, wool or recycled cotton insulation. Flooring with tile samples, used wood parquet or random carpet squares may be laborious, but the unique individuality that comes with hand crafting a tiny house of used materials can be very rewarding.

Combining Old with New

Most tiny houses, including those that are mass-produced, rely on traditional materials and systems from the ground up. Many are constructed on standard steel or powder coated trailers. The enclosures mimic conventional residential or mobile home construction, usually with emphasis on nontoxic, hypoallergenic and non-combustible finishes. SIP panels, standing seam metal roofs, stainless steel counters with integrated sinks, natural linoleum, and interior wood surfaces all have a familiar look and feel.

Today, the cutting edge of tiny house construction combines elements of the old and new. A recent episode of “Tiny House, Big Living” on HGTV featured Zane Fischer and his company Extraordinary Structures of Sante Fe, NM. The tiny house combined prefabricated building panels, steel roofing and siding, sheep wool insulation, a hand crafted Japanese soaking tub of Atlantic white cedar, one piece stainless steel kitchen counter, and plastic fastener covers generated on the shop’s computerized 3D printer. Hand-crafted movable furniture, some of which is positioned at night to support a foldaway bed, and numerous other ingenious design features favorably impressed Sante Fe’s mayor and public housing director. They are now considering tiny houses as part of their municipal housing solution.

Now, if they could only get them to float.


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.



Tagged categories: Aesthetics; Architecture; Building design; Color; Design; Government; Modernist architecture; Public spaces; Urban Planning

Comment from Tom Bright, (7/12/2016, 12:41 PM)

Following the wife's 30-plus years in social services, my church work in crummy neighborhoods over that time, and my million-plus miles on streets and highways, personal experience predicts that city money spent on picture-pretty housing will be a total loss within a year or two. Rough sleepers, as the Limeys call them, refuse to care for their own bodies, let alone an abode. Recall on ABC’s home makeover program a dozen years ago that a very nice family, gainfully employed as civil servants, suffered months of sewage in the basement because it never occurred to them to call a plumber. I am discounting common grumbling that public figures are more interested in polishing their Mother Teresa image than actually helping the helpless. Recall the rude joke about conking a drowning man with a solid gold life preserver: Operation a success, because the cameras caught the mayor at the scene, looking concerned.

Comment from Robert Kobet, (7/13/2016, 5:53 PM)

Thanks, Tom First, thank you and your wife for your community service; it's important. As someone who has spent a lot of time working in numerous emerging countries I appreciate your observations of the human condition, and the sometime disengenuous response to our basic needs. My experience is what constitutes a rational solution to low income / no income housing varies with the culture, a number of socio-economic constructs, and the variety of agencies that provide social services (if there are any) including church groups. The degree to which we can "help someone to help someone" is often overwhelmed by sheer numbers. Housing for a number of very deserving veterans differs markedly from the needs tens of thousands of refugees in the country they may have served in. Yet, in a way they are intimately linked. The US has had its share of public housing successes and failures. There is quite a difference between Pruitt Igoe and what tiny house communities are trying to achieve. What brings anyone to need public assistance, including housing, isn't always as simple and straight forward as we may believe. How this country allocates its resources speaks volumes about what our priorities are. I contend until we effectively address the causes of homelessness instead of just housing per se, we will continue to treat the symptoms in ways that are not. Tiny houses are a growing part of the housing mix. My hope is they are provided and used in the best way possible by people whose mission and intent are sincere.

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