tiny house planning

Gladstone tiny house, front

You might remember reading hints that I'm planning to build a tiny house. Thanks to cancer, I now have the builder lined up: my step-father, who generously volunteered taking on the project. According to my (slightly annoyed) mother, he's been spending all his free time the last few months researching tiny houses. He texted me just this week asking if I'd like a tiny Japanese soaking tub for a shower base. "Why yes, I do!"

As yet, we are still in the early planning phase. Post-cancer treatment, now that I've gone back to work after six months' leave living off the savings that had been meant for the tiny house, it's up to me to work and save (starting from scratch again, sigh) to buy the trailer, building materials, appliances, and all interior and exterior finishes. My step-father will provide the labor on evenings and weekends down in Altamont, Oregon, possibly with extra help from my youngest brother, who has lately turned himself into a house-flipper and landlord. I expect I'll somehow be shuttling materials down south from time to time on long weekends.

Portland, with its greater population and Nike and Intel wealth, has many more secondhand resources than my impoverished small hometown, of which I plan to take advantage. By regularly scouring Portland Craigslist, Habitat for Humanity's ReStore, and the ReBuilding Center, I should over time be able to find relatively inexpensive quality countertops, flooring, tile, windows, lighting, and the like to build a custom tiny house. Even better will be discarded materials sourced for free. Since I'll have more time than money, salvaged materials will be the priority whenever possible. Fortunately, reusing what already exists is also better for the environment.

Up to now, I mainly have an inspiration board via Evernote for a simple, modern, boho cabin-themed tiny house and a growing list of ideal specifications:

  • shed design
  • corrugated metal roof
  • solar panels
  • passive solar construction
  • rainwater cachement system
  • composting toilet
  • exhaust fan
  • many high windows (for light and privacy) 
  • storage stairs to lofted bedroom
  • vaulted ceiling at entrance
  • tankless hot water heater (?)
  • European stacking W/D
  • smoke alarm
  • CO detector
  • fire extinguisher
  • kitchen storage
  • butcher-block kitchen counter
  • small magnetized knife rack
  • undivided kitchen sink
  • garbage and recycle bin under-cupboard storage
  • two-burner stove
  • small oven
  • small apartment fridge with freezer
  • small microwave (for reheating leftovers quickly)
  • small dishwasher
  • underfloor heating
  • tiled shower with bench and built-in alcoves
  • Japanese soak tub shower "floor"
  • wired-in lighting (white globe pendants)
  • efficient built-in closets and storage
  • L-shaped sofa bench with built-in wheeled coffee table
  • enough floor space for yoga
Having pared down my possessions over a year ago to my favorite, most useful things, I have the decor ready to go, things like baskets, a small kilim rug, a sheepskin for the sofa bench, a Thonet chair, an Albini rattan footstool, a DIY wall hanging and thrifted art, handmade pottery, a few geodes, small houseplants—all the things I live with seen in pieces on this blog over the years. What I need is the building structure. But this is no small thing: building even a tiny house is a big project.

And that's especially true when challenging cultural norms. My mother, for example, is skeptical of the tiny house concept. Most of my childhood we lived in mobile homes not by choice but financial necessity, first a single-wide and then a double-wide trailer made with thin walls and cheap particleboard, fiberglass, and vinyl finishes. Compared to typical prefab construction, traditional houses or condos are made from sturdier materials, but they are also much more expensive, requiring for most people 15-30 years of mortgage with interest and a commitment to place.

And that is what many baby boomers don't quite understand: their stable post-WWII consumerist lifestyle is just about over. While the Arctic is melting, the rest of us, even many baby boomers themselves, are finding it increasingly harder to stay in the middle or even working class (cf. Bernie Sanders). For single folks and a few hardy couples tired of enriching landlords' pocketbooks, tiny houses can offer the best of both worlds as well as a kind of financial life raft on a changing, ever more crowded and costly planet: the affordability of a mobile home with the higher quality materials of a stick-built house. The trade-off is of course space: the dimensions for a house of what will fit on a road, preferably without requiring special wide-load permits.

Let's talk for a minute about space. Having lived abroad in both Europe and Asia, I've experienced firsthand how Americans generally have an inflated requirement for living space compared to citizens of other countries. Many homes being built in the U.S. are massive compared even to homes in the near past. As a single person, I don't need a three-bedroom house. I also found a 500-square-foot apartment a little too big. But for the record, I'm not interested in a teeny-tiny home like tiny-house pioneer Dee Williams' wee pad but one as spacious as possible under road constraints. Even small electric washers and dryers and dishwashers, for example, just make life easier, freeing up time for other things, like writing. But the nice thing about building a custom tiny or small home is that everyone gets to decide such priorities for herself.

I had first considered building a shipping container house, since those prefab structures are by design practically indestructible and pre-sized for road transport. But they are also much less mobile than tiny houses on wheels—unless you happen to own a crane and a semi-truck and trailer—being heavier and involving relatively high construction costs for even basic modifications to the steel shell.

Some folks opt for living in an RV as a ready-made tiny house. But for me, RVs, designed for temporary living, don't have enough of the comforts of home and wouldn't be able to fit enough of my downsized possessions. I need more customized space than an RV or converted bus or Airstream offers.

If I had lots of money, I could buy a ready-made A-frame mountain cabin like this one. If I already owned land and planned to stay on it, I might build a cob house (like this elfin one), straw bale cottage, or Earthship, using natural and recycled materials, rain cachement, and passive solar principles like walls of south-facing windows and polished concrete floors. Eco building concepts I still want to follow when possible in my tiny house.

tree bark closeup

Another basic building design maxim is using what is natural to one's local environment. What the Northwest has are trees, which implies building with wood, instead of the adobe, straw, or brick more suitable to sunnier climes or less earthquake-prone regions. I am increasingly drawn to the idea of living in a pinewood cabin with white walls.

Not knowing what the future holds, to me mobility is crucial to the concept of home and security. With my vagabond history, I can't even fully commit to staying here in Portland long-term, let alone Oregon. My wooden house will need wheels. 

I've seen a few tiny houses around town. The rest must be hiding—meaning off my current bus and MAX lines and therefore out of sight. There's a little one under construction in Brooklyn off McLoughlin with a shingled exterior. There are a few scattered in northeast Portland around Mississippi and Williams. There's the famed tiny house hotel, Caravan, up on Alberta. Tiny houses are sprouting up these days like mushrooms to fill gaps in affordable housing on the West Coast and elsewhere. In Portland and other places, tiny houses are a logical form of city infill and a way to skirt combative Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) issues.

Gladstone tiny house, back

So far, the only tiny house I've seen in Gladstone is a teeny tiny house that doesn't appear to be inhabited. It's parked on a side street off East Arlington, convenient for the owners since most of the side streets here don't have sidewalks. I was finally brave enough to snap a few quick photos a couple weekends ago. It appears to be some kind of commercial cook space, but for what I have no clue. I like its mixed materials, especially the corrugated metal roof (aluminum? steel?). That's a feature I want on my own tiny house to amplify the sound of rain and since metal roofs are strong and durable.

Something I worry about when planning my own tiny house is the possible lack of privacy involved in living in something so novel and outside the norm, especially since the most likely space to site it in the short-term will be on someone else's city lot. A wall of high windows might help with privacy—so will curtains and a strong door.

Inspiring tiny homes like this beautiful one in North Carolina or architect Macy Miller's tiny house in Idaho take full advantage of space and light. The tiny homes I'm drawn to on the Net are the ones that feel personal to their owner, who typically helps design the space according to specific life needs and priorities, rather than something generic picked from a builder's catalog.

Machinists-Boilermakers Federal Credit Union, Gladstone

Until I can save up enough to buy the trailer, framing, roofing, insulation, and windows, I'll continue my research and design phase, mapping out what I want my home to look and feel like. I want it to feel cozy, restful, light-filled, humble, and peaceful, a haven from the world outside and a space in which to dream and create.

How small a home could you live in?

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