Why Tiny Houses Are Stupid
Tiny houses are enormously popular these days, and I wonder why. I’ve watched a few of the popular tiny house shows, and think their angle glamorizes the fun parts of tiny houses and ignores the annoying parts of tiny living. The shows certainly minimize the hassles of building.
For the record, my wife and I have two tiny houses under way, with one nearly done. We started in Alpine, Oregon, in March of 2016. We did a mass of research and designed our houses ourselves. Then we enlisted an architect to create buildable plans in CAD. We have learned a lot along the way, and would make many different choices if we could. This post will explain some of our criticisms of tiny houses.
First, when we started we did not have a solid plan for where we would live upon completion of the houses. We had options. We thought we’d have one house near Portland, Oregon, and one out in the countryside somewhere. Then we learned that tiny houses are considered recreational vehicles in Oregon, so you’re not allowed to reside in one full time. That’s surprising, considering Oregon is considered to be one of the tiny house centers in the US. Recent attempts at legalizing tiny houses in Oregon have met with obstruction from the head of the Oregon Building Codes Division.
I saw RVs all over rural Oregon with people obviously living in them full time, but we decided not to risk it. At our rented build site in Oregon, a neighbor reported our landlord after seeing our tiny houses going up. We were not living in them. This was a very rural environment and our build wasn’t bothering anyone, but there are jerks everywhere.
So that’s one of the problems—tiny houses are not welcome everywhere. You have to check codes and zoning for the place where you want to place your tiny home and see if it’s allowed. Some counties have not adopted a building code, so there’s no building inspector and thus no legal mechanism for the powers that be to cite you. In our case, we bought land in Colorado and moved the houses after the roof and siding were finished. We’re not breaking the law, or an administrative rule that was never voted on by elected representatives, by living in our houses here.
Next, building on a trailer presents many problems. In our case, we’re not moving our houses again, so if I could do it over, I would choose a place I like and buy land. Then I would build a more standard structure on a foundation. This approach would be easier, cheaper, and would appreciate over time. Will our tiny houses appreciate with the value of our land? Who knows? Probably not.
In our case, we spent $5500 on a new trailer for each house, and that money could have gone to a real foundation. One of the challenges with tiny homes in cold climates is insulating the floor. There’s room for about seven inches of insulation in the cavity created by the frame rails.
Using Roxul, you get an R23 floor. Not too bad, but that’s just in the cavity. I also added 1/2" rigid foam, so the total R-value is about R25. The trailer frame is all made of steel, and has a “sill” at the edges where you attach the framing. The best you can do with insulating that area is to put rigid foam down over the whole floor deck. I don’t know if that’s allowed by code, but there’s going to be some compression when the walls and roof are installed, so I didn’t do it. Thus, no insulation in part of the floor. It’s a thermal bridge. Yes, I just mentioned building to code. We tried to build to code even though we didn’t have to go through inspections. Our roof and walls meet code for framing and insulation. Our roofs can handle about a 60-pound snow load, which meets code for our location.
The underlying point here is: why build on a trailer if you’re not going to move the house? If I had a do-over, I would find land first, then build. I also think that towing a tiny house around is challenging. You need a proper heavy-duty truck, but it’s still a massive chore. I had a commercial driver’s license years ago and have towed hundreds of loads, but this was at another level, and it wasn’t pleasant.
It’s a big job to move a medium-sized tiny house, and a huge job to move a large tiny house. My house is built on a 26-foot trailer and overall is about 33 feet long. I haven’t weighed it, but it’s probably at 13,000-14,000 pounds. Crossing Utah we encountered extreme winds that would move the whole rig three feet sideways before I could catch it. And that’s while driving at 25–30 miles per hour. Towing a tiny house is a pain in the arse.
Building on a trailer also constricts the house dimensions to 13’6” in height and 8’6” in width. This is a major issue. Living with a loft height of less than 5’ is a chore. We end up crawling into and out of bed. Building a cabin that’s 20’x 20’ would yield much more comfortable space, be easier to build, would appreciate over time, and would have room for standard components and for roomier living space.
The next issue that comes to mind is using standard building methods and materials. If you don’t design enough space for hardware like the toilet, shower, and kitchen things, you’ll be stuck with custom-made items. That’s a pain, unless you really like building custom stuff.
I should have decided on the shower unit and toilet, then built the room to fit them. Big mistake. Now I’m faced with using an agricultural stock tank as a shower, as off-the-rack shower units are too big for the space. My bad. But you can see that a tiny space is less flexible, less adaptable, than a normal-sized space.
On the plus side, this has been quite an adventure! We had an idea and decided to go for it. We live in a beautiful and healthy place. I'll have more to say in a future post.