Top 5 lessons from building our own tiny house

September 15, 2017

It’s hard to believe it was a full year ago that we started our endeavor to build our very own tiny house. Admittedly, unlike a lot of other tiny house DIY builders we met, we didn’t spend a ton of time researching every angle before buying our trailer shell. We knew the basics from reading other tiny house blogs and researching the very do’s and don’ts of construction. We figured you can spend your time researching or spend your time doing – and we both prefer the latter for better or worse. Here’s what we’ve learned:

1. Knowing when to let the professionals take over

Our studs being set into place

When first researching the tiny home building process, we found there were typically 2 methods: build it yourself or hire a professional service to build your home. Before we made the plunge, we visited Tumbleweed Tiny Homes in Colorado Springs to see tiny homes up close and personal.

At first we thought we wanted to build the entire house ourselves from scratch. We looked at several blueprints that are available for sale on the market, and even tried learning SketchUp to modify and create our own design.

After spending an evening trying to just navigate a blueprint with SketchUp, I realized that this tool greatly simplified the design process but Amy and I weren’t tiny house architects. We’re builders.

Our compromise – ordering a Tiny House Shell

But we were picky, we knew what kind of layout we were looking for and we scoured the internet for inspiration. When Amy finally found Liberation Tiny Home’s Modern Farmhouse model, we were smitten.


And as we looked at our options on their website; it turns out there’s a 3rd option – you can hire a builder to only construct a portion of the home. This is what what they call a “shell”.

A shell just consists of:

  • A trailer – which is the foundation of our home. The Liberation Tiny Home’s Farmhouse comes with 4 pre-welded jacks, one on each corner of the trailer to stabilize the level the home while stationary.
  • A subfloor – the floor under the floor. This thick plywood is sandwiched between the steel trailer and your soon-to-be-installed regular flooring. Don’t forget to insulate under these.
  • studs – 2×4’s that frame the structure. These 2×4’s are the skeleton of your home, they’re bolted to the trailer and act as support for the entire building.
  • sheathing – plywood that wraps the home’s exterior. This sheathing acts as your rudimentary walls and roof from the elements – but this is just plywood and serves moreas  structure than weather proofing.
  • house wrap – a thin wax paper type of material that wraps the house on top of the sheathing. It’s just stapled to the sheathing (which is plywood) to protect the wood against rain while you’re building. And after your done building as well, just don’t rely on it forever.
  • loft + bathroom wall – the Farmhouse model came with the basic studs for a bathroom wall and the loft skeleton and subfloor built. Your builder may not include these or they may not be part of your blueprints.

These 6 things are the very basics to your tiny home.

The finished shell by the wonderful folks at Liberation Tiny Homes

The finished shell by the wonderful folks at Liberation Tiny Homes

 

Professionally built where it really counts, and DIY the rest

And we are so so glad we let the pros at Liberation do their magic here. Not only did our shell get completed ahead of schedule, but honestly we’d probably be spending another 3 to 6 months building if we did it ourselves. Now note, we’ve never built our own home before, so this might be a straight forward process for a seasoned contractor. But to us, as green as green could be, we’d be spending the rest of the late summer just getting the frame up.

We sleep easy upstairs in the loft knowing that the foundation of our home was built by those with a far greater understanding of how to achieve structural integrity. The only structural integrity I have is where my 6 pack could be.

If you know you want to build your own home I heavily recommend at least letting a builder do the shell for you. You will still have free reign on the inside of the home to do the layout as you see fit.

 

2. Knowing the order of work is more important than actually doing the work

drawing

Que pasa? This sounds like mumbo jumbo at first. But let me give you an example from our own tiny house construction story.

We started our build in early August. After we installed the front door, we ordered our windows and were waiting for them to arrive so we could start installing them. Of course I wasn’t going to sit around and wait for these windows to arrive before moving onto something else. In the meantime, I figured I’d work on the one thing that was very elusive and seemed like the hardest thing to me – wiring up the house with scary electric wires (actually called cables, the more you know).

So dumb.

Dylan putting up electric cable

This is me wiring up our house IN SEPTEMBER

 

Don’t forget – Summer ends eventually

If I would’ve stopped and taken the time to think about the external factors of building a house I would’ve realized how fast summer turns to winter here in Ohio. No there is no fall season here, it’s a myth. On top of that, I should’ve realized that the roof house wrap was only going to hold up in the rain for so long. What good are your nicely installed electric cables going to be after getting soaked every time it rains while you’re installing your roof.

We were very proud to have the windows in, but the roof leaked

We were very proud to have the windows in, but the roof leaked every rainfall. Hence the roofing paper on the gable and the tarp over the dormer.

On top of that, it’s not just the outside temperature that changes with the seasons, but the amount of sunlight lessens with each day as time slips into winter. So I didn’t realize it when I was working inside the tiny house in August that our time work outside was closing.

Date of Photo - 12/12/2016. We basically just started siding in the middle of December.

Date of Photo – 12/12/2016. We basically just started siding in the middle of December.

 

The ideal Tiny House build order

  1. order windows
  2. order roof material (we used Ondura, which is not available in stores here)
  3. order siding
  4. while orders are on their way
    1. cut out all of the window rough openings and cover with scrap house wrap or roof paper to keep rain out. This would’ve minimized time to install the windows themselves
    2. install the starter strip around the house for the vinyl siding
    3. build the utility boxes that are attached to the front of the house
  5. when the orders arrive
    1. install roof
    2. install windows
    3. install j-channel around the windows
    4. start siding

By the time fall rolled around, even though we had to spend some time researching the materials that best suited our needs and waiting for the materials to arrive, I’m confident we would’ve had the roof and outside siding 100% complete. We could’ve spent the majority of that winter inside and worked on our electric wiring for lights and heater.

dylan-and-amy-posing-by-the-bathroom-wall

As a result, during the harshest months of winter we were working on external features of the house. Many nights we had to setup lights to work on the siding in the cold. Also, fun fact, vinyl becomes very brittle and cracks easy under a certain temperature.

If you live in Southern California or the Southwest; this advice is moot.

3. If something is extremely difficult, you’re probably doing it wrong

Building your own house, even if it’s under 300 square feet, is challenging. You have to keep your head down at times and try not to think of that to-do list that seems to grow faster than shrinks because you’re learning just how much goes into construction.

What I mean by difficult here is when you’re working on a small task specifically and it seems almost impossible.

A silly example is when were were building our interior walls. We decided to go for the ship lap look. This entailed buying big sheets of thin plywood and ripping the sheets into uniform 7 inch wide strips. Sounds simple enough right?

Well it should’ve been. We tried placing the large sheet on saw horses, measuring exactly where a guide needed to be clamped for our circular saw and just ripping it.

We tried this method over and over again. The pieces would turn out wavvy and too short. The board would bend in the middle as we cut. The blade would sometimes get stuck for no apparent reason. It was frustrating to say the least.

Then we found the Kreg Rip Cut Saw guide. We were already huge fans of the Kreg Jig product and figured this had to be around the same quality. And that assumption turned out to be correct. That simple add-on to our circular saw was in our top 5 tools we used to build the house.

"We

There’s almost always a tool out there for the task at hand

But it wasn’t just the Rip Cut that allowed us to fix our problem – we had to change our technique. We placed the plywood sheet on top of 2 laid down ladders. While making sure to not come close to the ladders while cutting, we just walked alongside the board with the saw. It was like cutting butter. Butter that produced an astonishing amount of sawdust. This revelation made us very very happy builders.

I have many other examples of times when a task was so difficult, until I used a different tool or technique. Like the way our corner studs were aligned, it was impossible to fit our PEX ring clamper behind the corner to make a good connection. I can distinctly remember the ah-ha moment when I discovered PEX push fittings. It’s like they were tailored for the exact problem I was having. Like someone encountered my problem before.

There's nothing quite like finding the right tool for the job.

There’s nothing quite like finding the right tool for the job.

Remember, your problems are not really unique. If you ask around, you’ll eventually find someone who has a nice, packaged solution from their own experience.

4. Order all the things A.S.A.P.

To give some context, we ordered our shell and waited until we actually had it parked on the property before we made any solid decisions on materials like roofing, exterior walls, or even which water heater we were going to use.

In retrospect, we could’ve had these decisions made way ahead of time. We could’ve at least known the pros and cons of metal vs Onduvilla roofing and made a guesstimate order. Instead of starting the roof in October, we could’ve finished the roof by October.

Instead of building inside in the dead of winter, we were just finishing the siding. It had it's perks though.

Instead of building inside in the dead of winter, we were just finishing the siding. It had it’s perks though.

Quite a bit of building a house is knowing dependency management. The insulation can’t be put up until the electrical and plumbing routed through the studs. Construction on the interior wall  will have to wait until those  air gaps between your studs are insulated. Siding will be stalled until you have j-channel cut and nailed in around your windows. There are many many examples, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the real construction managers have spreadsheets or apps that show exactly which tasks are needed before others can begin.

The bad thing about ordering is that it takes time to arrive. The good thing about ordering is that it’s not your time.

5. keep it simple stupid!

It takes a smart person to come up with a complicated solution, but it takes a genius to come up with a simple one.

Being the techie that I am, when we were first plotting our circuits I had these illusions of grandeur when it came to making our house “smart”. I wanted one of my signature smart mirrors in the bathroom. I wanted smart lights that changed with the projector. I want a dashboard for our house so we could see the location of our house, turn lights on and off remotely, sync our inside lights with the sunrise/sunset. Don’t even get me started with the automatic cat food bowl idea.

dylan-under-trailer

Don’t get me wrong, we have many of those things in this house right now. But are they necessary? Do you really need a smart light system when there’s only a maximum of 23 some feet between you and every light switch in the house? Cmon, that’s just lazy.

Alas, despite my grandiose plans, Momma the Cat’s bowls are manually refilled by her loving owners servants. But the litterbox has fans that push her smelly litterbox air outside of the house.

I think this same idea applies to just about everything to the construction of our house – plumbing, electric, propane, heck even small things like trim. The less complex of a plan, the less things can go wrong. We’re partial to simple solutions. But then again we live in a ~240 square foot home.

Lastly, the best things never come easy

Sometimes when I’m sitting on this couch I just take a look around the house. I take a look at all of our nooks and crannys. I study the trim where angles don’t meet quite right. I take the time to check out the sometimes weird gaps in between in planks that make up our walls. I know it’s far from perfect, but it makes me very proud to call it my own.

Amy installing the first window in the tiny house

One very happy Amy putting the finishing touches on our first window ever.

Sure we could’ve hit the road a year ago if we just purchased our own Tiny House. It would’ve been instant, it would’ve been ready to roll. But how long would that rush of ownership last? I don’t know how well our house will last till it needs repair, but at least I know how to do it myself. Even better, I can learn how to improve it from the initial work. Maybe it’s a trait that’s becoming less common when procuring the things you want just warrants a click and it shows up in 2 days or less. How much effort does that really take?

Amy and I are project minded people. I’ve started way more projects than I have finished and I can say that this is the longest and most challenging project I’ve ever worked on. It took nights and weekends, it made us cancel social plans. It whipped us on Friday nights when we knew we had to get up and repeat the cycle for the next 2 days.

But it’s because of facing problems that were totally foreign to us and that sustained effort to overcome them that I’m so proud of this tiny space that we can call our home. Even if it is smaller than most.

A job well done-ish

A job well done-ish

 

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