Robert & Samantha

This post was originally featured on Tiny House, Tiny Footprint.

Robert & Samantha designed and constructed a 24-foot (204 square foot) modern tiny house. With minimal construction experience, but a desire to learn and a passion for adventure, they spent 14 months building their house, which cost them $30,000.
They only live in 180 square feet of their 204-square-foot home, because 24 square feet of it houses a gear room to store all of their outdoor equipment, allowing them to spend their free time exploring the Pacific Northwest. So while they don't travel frequently with their tiny home, they are able to travel much more because of it.

Square Feet: 204

Our house is built on a 24’ x 8’ 6” trailer footprint.

Welcome to our mobile basecamp.

Make, Model, Year: 2015 Self-Built Tiny House on Wheels

It was constructed in 2015 on a 24-foot long Iron Eagle Trailer.

Months Living Small: 10

Our apartment lease expired before the house was finished, so we moved into the barn it was being built in as we finished construction. With no natural daylight coming through the windows, it was an interesting experience. Sometimes we would flip on the barn lights just to pretend like there was sunlight outside our windows.

How did you get the idea to build a tiny house on wheels?

While a tiny house aligns closely with many of the underlying principles we believe in including reducing our ecological footprint, the conversation was ultimately kickstarted by our interest in saving money and increasing our option for mobility. The thought of taking on more debt in the form of a mortgage while trying to pay off a six-figure student loan debt was a huge turn off, and we did not know if we would be staying in that location long term, or even for the 3-5 years that seemed to be required to make sense of buying a house.

A brief joke about building a tiny house quickly evolved into a real possibility when we noticed that it would help achieve all of our goals and also it was exciting.

We wanted the firsthand experience and knowledge that we would gain by taking on such a project. And we wanted the ability to apply my formal education (architecture) to a unique real-world scenario in which we would be experiencing both the positive and negative consequences of our design first-hand. We also saw it as a fun challenge.

It was another opportunity to spend a lot of time with each other, toiling away at a communal project and learning even more about our strengths and weaknesses along the way.

How did you determine how you would design your tiny space?

The design phase took a couple months of intermittent scribbling and sketches. We got the broader things like form and rough layout pinned down enough to purchase a correctly-sized trailer with proper axle location for weight distribution, but then we let things evolve organically throughout the construction process.

Our design was guided by parameters of necessity and function that then let the form emerge intuitively. In order to avoid any special permitting requirements when transporting our home, we designed it within the maximum dimensions of 8’ 6” wide and 13' 6” tall. This first set of constraints provided us with an empty volume to start. We prioritized our needs and tried to proportionally represent them in relation to the volume we had available. We took into consideration what we found to be the minimum amount of actual space required for tasks, the amount of time spent in each space and the nature of the task when deciding how much space to dedicate. Placing the loft over the kitchen made sense based on similar square footage plans, and that decision resulted in the highest point of our tiny home. Spaces like the bathroom and gear storage areas did not require high ceilings, and so a single line drawn from the high point of the loft down to the lower ceiling of the bathroom became a longitudinal shed roof that removed the unnecessary weight, energy costs and construction costs associated with 270 cubic feet of unneeded volume. Addi­tionally, the form that emerged became more aerodynamic when we transported it. The final tweak to the roof line came from the need to increase the height of the entry point into the loft.

We were drawn to the nickname "SHED" because it spoke to its simple form and utilitarian design that we sought (noun) while simul­taneously speaking to the process of downsizing and simplifying when used as a verb.

Walk us through the construction process.

We picked up our trailer the day after Thanksgiving of 2014 and started construction shortly after.

Without going into the long and boring details, the process was not unlike that of a normal house and went something like this: floor framing, insulating and sheathing. Wall framing and sheathing. Roof framing and sheathing. Windows, siding and roofing to get it "weathered in." Electrical wiring and then insulating the entire space before installing our interior paneling (1/2” plywood instead of drywall for weight reduction).

Then we finished out the interior (painting, trimming, lighting and flooring) before adding built-ins, cabinets and appliances while simultaneously installing the propane lines mini-split system (electric heating and cooling) and plumbing lines (kept inside the space instead of inside the 2x3 walls to prevent them from freezing).

It is worth noting that we designed our wall assembly different than most tiny houses, using 2x3 advanced framing with an additional inch of continuous exterior rigid insulation under our salvaged corrugated metal siding that spent its first half century as a barn roof up the road.

For those of you who are considering a tiny house or are interested in all the gory details, we have thorough video and photo documentation here, and you can search by keywords.

The time each task took varied from 1 to 3 weeks (working only weekends) and many overlapped each other. One of the more interesting statistics we learned was that for each hour we spent building onsite, a half an hour on average was spent in preparation at home. Being armature builders, we spent a lot of time researching and learning about the next stage and task, designing and detailing, acquiring the appropriate tools and choreographing material purchases and deliveries so that our time on site was spent as efficiently as possible: building.

How did you find the materials for your build?

We initially approached this project with intentions of using as many reclaimed materials as possible to save money and give them a second life, including our trailer. We quickly learned that finding acceptable salvaged materials can be very time consuming. When considering used or reclaimed items like a trailer or lumber, there are questions you should ask about the structural integrity. When looking at used windows, there are questions you should ask about energy efficiency and glass integrity. Those concerns were compounded by a complete lack of suitable materials in our area after sifting through Craigslist, garage sales and boneyard piles (for misordered and leftover windows). So the majority of our home is built from new materials with one really big and awesome exception—our siding. The corrugated metal was salvaged from the roof of an old barn up the road, and the walnut around the entry (and in other areas of the interior) was also reclaimed from a barn and re-milled into our custom modern shiplap profile.

Did you have a budget for your house?

While we had initial (and presumptive and uneducated) hopes of building a tiny house for $16,000-$20,000, it was hard to build and incorporate exactly what we wanted and we knew it would cost more than that pretty early on, thanks to our seemingly expensive taste.

Because we were paying for everything out of pocket, we had to stay within the constraints of our paychecks. But we began to look at our budget as a moving target that would be offset by X number of years living in our tiny house. We spent about $10,000 per year renting a space. So not only was it paid for in full upon completion, but once we lived in it for the appropriate amount of years, it paid for itself.

Our final total was $30,000. We are confident that someone could build a similar version of our home for $20,000 by making some different choices in construction materials and finishes.
 
Some of the more expensive individual items of our build were:

  • Tiny house specific trailer: $4,300
  • Windows and doors: $3,000
  • Dimmable and wirelessly controlled cable and tape LED lighting: $1,200
  • Separett composting toilet: $1,400
  • Professional grade propane stove: $800

Contrarily, some of the inexpensive projects were the most time consuming, such as the custom plywood stairs and counter tops, tandem LVL beam design for the loft, the shampoo alcove and the walnut accents around the front door.

Custom plywood stairs.

How did you fund your build?

A lot of people think that you have to live a nomadic life or be able to work from home to live in a tiny house on wheels. Those two options are awesome, but we have pretty normal careers with pretty normal hours. I work as an architect and Samantha as a pediatric nurse practitioner. While in the midst of paying off our student loan debt, we were able to use our savings to purchase the trailer and start construction. Then, we funded the project, paycheck by paycheck. Our advice would be to open a credit card, not to actually utilize the credit line, but to filter purchases through it and accumulate airline miles. We never spent more than we had, so we paid the balance off every month and earned ourselves two free flights.

What did you learn from building your house together?

That the only thing harder to deal with than one perfectionist is two.

We have a long history together, plenty of it in difficult or stressful situations—often times on the side of a mountain in slightly more dangerous situations. So while this project tested our patience, it was an incredibly gratifying experience that we will never forget. Living inside of a space that you built with your own hands; learning the consequences—both positive and negative of your design first hand; being able to look at a single piece of trim, corner of the stairs or misaligned piece of walnut and remembering the very moment you did that, how you felt at that moment—it really is amazing to say the least.

To this day, we look back in disbelief on what we were able to accomplish. It’s incredible what can be done when approached one step at a time.

What's your favorite part of the house?

Our favorite part of our tiny house is the equilibrium of having everything you need and nothing that you don’t.

If we are talking about a physical aspect, then I think we can say that our entry is our favorite part. For a part of the house that was never supposed to be that way, it ended up really nice. The original plan to install our entrance into the flat sidewall was the most practical and easiest constructed option, but it lacked the definition that every main entry deserves. A last minute stroke of inspiration led to a build site sketch on a piece of construction debris and we discussed how to "subtly push the door into the space" just enough to add emphasis on the outside and better align the user to the space upon entry. We harnessed one of the perks of DIY design and construction and made the change on the fly, correcting the already framed opening to better suit our vision.

The angled alcove provides visual relief on the long façade of salvaged corrugated metal siding (from a local barn) and denotes the moment of entry. This also became the perfect opportunity to get creative with a second siding choice that could really make this moment pop, and we used reclaimed walnut wood that was re-milled into 1/2" thick boards with a shiplap edge profile. They are installed with a 1/8” horizontal reveal between each board and affixed to the wall using square drive stainless steel screws installed on a carefully measured grid. Our door is a 32” wide full lite door with retractable blinds in between the layers of glass allowing our entry to double as a large window and a door, with the ability to ensure privacy when needed.

To complete the entry, we wanted the stairs to look and feel like they belonged as part of the design and not an afterthought. We knew we would be using stairs every single day and wanted a unique and sturdy feature piece that was on par with our walnut entry. It was easy to draw a simple line that represented the thin side profile of three steps, but we had to ask a talented friend of ours to make that line become a reality (and he did so in steel). We had our stairs folded out of a single plate of 1/4” thick steel and blackened.

The top tread of the stairs rests on the little wedge step, and we lift them off and place them in the bed of our truck when we move to another location.

Would you change anything if you did it over again?

I’m sure there are plenty of small things we might tweak—smarter or more efficient construction decisions and the like—but nothing comes to mind.

Samantha really misses having a bathtub, but it is not something we would add if we did it again as it is not the best use of space when designing micro dwellings.

Chalk it up to a compromise of living in a tiny house.

What advice would you have for someone thinking about building their own house on wheels?

Do it. The act of building something like this is more important and memorable than the act of having it.

At the end of the day, a tiny house is still an object, but the experience of building a tiny house is what we will always remember.

The financial and mobile benefits that accompany it are a bonus.

Besides that, be sure to set realistic expectations. It will probably take longer and cost more than expected. By setting realistic expectations up front—along with smaller steps and goals during the construction process—you will reduce time and financial-related stress and be pleasantly surprised rather than frequently frustrated.

Has your relationship changed at all during this process?

If it has, it hasn’t been negative. When Samantha and I met more than a decade ago, we were sleeping on a full-sized bed, and we still do now. It is big enough for us, so why would we need a bigger bed that would only allow more space between us?

We tend to think similarly about the space we live in and the fact that our home was designed and built by us as a team further strengthens our relationship and makes us feel like we can accomplish anything together.

Will you always live in your tiny house?

We have always said we will live this way for the foreseeable future. I don’t think it is a forever home, but it is currently a very important tool at this stage in our lives. It's one that allows us to focus on what is important, do more things we love, pay off student loans, and, if an emergency occurs, pick up and move while providing valuable perspective.

We would love to purchase a piece of land in the surrounding area and live in our tiny house while we design and build a small house (between 600-1,000 square feet) on the land that would more efficiently host a family, which we would love to start in the coming years.

Our tiny house will then be used in a slightly different capacity, either becoming a backyard studio/office, a place for family and friends to stay when they visit (because our potential future house will be small) or a source of additional income through a rental program like Airbnb.

What's next? Any news you want to share?

We just finished a video tour.

We are working on compiling our timelapses and other videos into one video that will show the construction of our tiny house from start to finish, and it will be released sometime this winter.

We also have a downloadable eBook that costs $15. It includes 145 pages of information and imagery of the design and construction of our tiny house.

Follow Robert & Sam of SHEDsistence

Produced by Kathleen Morton of Tiny House, Tiny Footprint.
Edited by Kate MacDougall.
Photos courtesy of Robert Garlow.