#6- Change it Up
You must be willing to change how you live. This is a mistake I sometimes see people make, especially those who switch to living off the grid, where their living system has changed but their expectations of life didn’t. A great example is with power (I know this is a bit redundant from #3, but since energy consumption and production are such important issues these days I figure what the heck.). I know folks who built lovely off the grid houses only to drop a small fortune on solar power and solar hot water arrays and batteries. Of course there is nothing inherently wrong with this idea, solar power is arguably a shade more environmentally friendly than other forms of power production, but it does take a lot of resources and energy to produce solar power equipment and those products don’t last forever. I’m not being critical of alternative energy, but I am concerned that any idea (whether it be solar, wind, wood gasification etc.) loses value when it is scaled up in size or quantity, look what happened with the Stay Puffed Marshmallow Man.
I have lived without power from the grid for 4 years and for two of those years with no power production outside of my truck which charged my life on trips to town. As I said earlier, recently I invested in two small 25 watt solar panels that are made for backcountry use (I am a wilderness guide and instructor) that give me enough power to get things done, no more no less. Think of it this way- a reduction on living space requires a reduction in overall consumption. Tiny house= Tiny footprint.
#7- No Couch Potatoes Allowed
As opposed to some large modern houses that allow its occupants to live more or less detached from the outside world (save for trips to work and the grocery), tiny houses function more as little respites of indoor sanctitude from all that lives out of doors, instead of as long term indoor living spaces. What I quickly discovered is that living in a tiny house really necessitates spending a part of every day out of your house, as too much time in a small space can take on the feeling of a cage instead of a home. I would go for hikes, see friends, hit up the library and coffee shop in town, or just about anything I could think of to get out of the house for a few hours every day. This was more poignant for me last year as winter wore on and the days grew short and the mercury bottomed out. I think living in a tent (as opposed to to other small houses) exacerbated this problem for two reasons: the encroaching cold made my space feel even smaller and there were no windows in my tent- both adding to the claustrophobic small house feeling.
Solutions are easy: make a plan to get out every day- even better if it involves some socializing, make your indoor space as comfortable as possible while still allowing for enough space to feel productive on those days when indoor recess is necessary, build in plenty of windows in your tiny home, or for those days when you just feel like lazin’ around the house, rent the Ken Burns documentary library- that should take up any free time you’ll have for the next few decades.
One last thought, an important feature for a tiny house (or any house in my mind) is a covered porch. A covered porch gives you a place to hang out on those days when it is just inclement enough to not want to be fully outside and it will also provide storage for your stuff (tools, food, outdoor gear) that doesn’t need to be totally sheltered but that you don’t want living fully exposed to the weather. With both of my tent houses I built covered porches, say around 4’x6′ that were big enough for a small outdoor kitchen in the summer, a shelving unit for tools and projects, my humanure toilet, and a couple of folding chairs. Ultimately a covered porch makes a small space feel a whole lot larger.
#8- Water, Sewer, Power Oh My!
When I first moved into a 7’x12′ utility trailer a few years ago, one of the biggest challenges was figuring out how to take care of our utilities- water, heat, electricity and waste- garbage, human, and waste water. In my opinion having simple and reliable systems in place to provide these utilities really make the difference between just getting by comfortably living. Whereas modern houses take care of these utilities in a variety of fairly inefficient ways, meeting your needs in an alternative home demands creative problem solving.
The easiest of the these was dealing with our water needs and waste water disposal. In our trailer I built in a shelving unit with a space that perfectly fit a 5 gallon plastic water jug, and as long as we were judicious with our water use, the 5 gallons lasted the better part of a week. Directly under the water container was a small sink that drained into a 5 gallon bucket hidden in a cupboard, that when full was either dumped in a friends compost pile or in a remote location (yes we used biodegradable soap and nothing went into the bucket that would be detrimental to the environment).
We never got around to electrifying our trailer due to indecision and a lack of funds, but I did power up my tent as I wrote in #3 and #6. There were durability concerns using solar panels with our trailer as we read that the jostling of the trailer on the road would severely reduce the life expectancy of the panels, so we opted to just use rechargeable batteries and took advantage of the power our truck made in transit to recharge the batteries.
The demands required from heating and cooling units are going to be unique to your geographic location, but in the northern tier of the country one needs to consider how you are going to stay thawed in the winter and, to a lesser degree, cool in the summer. In all of the tiny houses I lived in summer cooling was as simple as stepping outside of the house/trailer, dressing down, and/or taking a dip in a lake. The trailer did get awfully hot in the summer, which we couldn’t do much about as there was only one roof vent, maybe a small fan would have helped (or a few more windows). Heating on the other hand was an issue. With the trailer we installed a small propane heater with the tank mounted on the tongue of the trailer. It worked well when it was cool out, although we sold the trailer before it got really cold, so I am not sure if it would have been sufficient in the winter. The wall tent and the cordwood house of course did have wood stoves which kept both places cozy and warm even when the outside temperature was hovering around -40.
Human waste was another big problem to be thought through, especially in the trailer where we were always on the move and had no home base to live off. In all cases, tent, cordwood home and trailer, I used low tech humanure composting toilets. The tent and small cordwood cabin were easy as I had the composting piles on site, the only problem being in the tent the box and toilet lived on my front porch to conserve space and had to be brought in to be used, which when it was -50 outside made for one frosty toilet seat. In the trailer we ended up sometimes with a full bucket and not many good places to dump it. Sometimes it went into friend’s compost piles, sometimes it went into pit toilets, and a few times it ended up in the landfill. We didn’t quite get a good system down by the time the trailer sold, but I am sure there is a good idea out there. Ultimately those are the problems that you have to be willing to tackle to live an alternative life.
I have never been a “big salary” kinda guy. If I have a few bucks in the bank it is a good day, so when I started living in small houses I was immediately amazed that my bank account stayed (relatively) big as my houses got small. Tiny houses if nothing else are less expensive to build and less expensive to maintain, especially when you are living in a trailer or on rent free land. Of course you could build a phenomenally expensive tiny home, but I think most people who get into tiny houses do so on a budget or with the goal of reducing their cost of living. I am fortunate to own land to live on part of the year and where I work I live in my tent to free, so I was able to get out of the rent cycle, so I realize that other people may not have the same opportunities for free living, but I bet if you are ambitious and talk to the right folks you can find someone in your area who will lend you a corner of their land or rent it to ya for cheap. If nothing else, a mobile life is free from rent (unless you count gasoline to get around).
My trailer home was a bit more pricey because we decided to buy a brand new enclosed trailer. We chose to buy a new trailer for two reasons: we wanted to live in this trailer in a city and we figured a new trailer would look less sketchy to the neighbors and police (most cities frown on living in trailers parked on city streets) and also a new trailer would have a better resale value. The trailer was around $3000 and we put another $1000 in building materials, paint, utilities and furniture, and other odds and ends to make it comfortable. With a good truck to pull it you’re probably looking at close to $10,000, but of course you could probably do the whole thing for a tenth of that if you are crafty. The tent home was significantly cheaper, closer to $3000 for the tent, stove, building materials for the deck platform, and utilities like power and lights. In both cases though, once the initial money was spent, I had no real monthly bills to pay.
#10- Over the Line
Lastly, living in tiny homes can be habit forming. Over the past 5 years I have lived in a variety of small homes from a tiny cordwood home to an enclosed trailer to a wall tent. While a good friend of mine is quick to point out that I have indeed spent the majority of my life living in a modern home, I feel that the more time you spend in a tiny home or any alternative living situation, the more you can’t imagine going back. Even though as I write this I am living in a modern home ( I can hear the money getting sucked out of my pocket every time the heater kicks on), I have gone over the line to the point that I can’t wait to get back in a small house soon. This modern house has it’s benefits, but in the end it is just not worth the cost.
My next tiny home is going to be built on the platform my wall tent used to live on. In the end it will be 12’x16′ which represents a huge upgrade in space for me- about 90 more square feet! There are reasons to keep a tiny house tiny as some local building codes only require permits if the building is above a certain square footage, so for me as long as I am below 200 sq.ft. I’ll be building a “shed” and not a home. There are ways around size limitations, maybe you build a few small buildings instead of one large one or maybe you just bite the bullet and get a building permit. Which ever way you go, have fun with your home and let me know how it goes!