The tiny house movement is real, and picking up quite a bit of steam.  And it’s awesome.

I, like most others, bought in to the ‘American Dream’ of buying my own house when I was 26: a 2500 square/foot home on 1/3rd of an acre – 4 bedroom, 2.5 baths, master on main, fenced-in back yard, blah blah.  It was a great house, but I was single.  I didn’t need that much space.  I traveled a lot for work.  Also, some years later, I ended up moving across the country twice for two different career paths.  Once from Atlanta to New York City, and then 4 years ago, from Atlanta to California.  Because of the uncertainty of my career path (and that I have no family of my own at the moment), owning a big house was just foolish in retrospect.  I ended up wasting a lot of money on mortgages and house upkeep that I’ll just never get back.

Living in Manhattan and now Silicon Valley, trying to buy a home in these environments is just ridiculous.  Homes that I wouldn’t pay $80k for anywhere else in the country regularly sell here for $650-$800k.  It is insane.

“But Les”, you might say “just move! Anyone foolish enough to pay that much on a mediocre home is just stupid.  I’m living in Wyoming and my 3000 square foot house only cost me $180k!”

Unfortunately such a reductionist view is not realistic for many like me.  I founded a Silicon Valley tech startup and there is just no way I can live away from my company (and note I said ‘startup’: I have to budget myself like almost everyone else).  If you’re a banker, the center of your world is Manhattan – the benefits – and sometimes requirements – just require you to be there.  For a software architect/founder like myself, the center of my universe is Silicon Valley.  And in my case, I must be here. I don’t have much of a choice.  So those that dismiss expensive locations as foolish should take a look at the world and understand that not everyone wants to live the way they are living, and many don’t have a realistic choice.  (Yes, I know, we still actually have a choice to run away to live cheaply in the wilderness, but that’s not a choice many of us would ever want to choose.  I just like Indian delivery too much, among other conveniences!.  Ok moving on…).

I sold my house last year (December 2013), and thankfully got out from underneath it after the housing economy started to recover.  But it was close – if I chose to sell two years earlier, I could have been hurt by a negative value on the house due to the steep market hit in 2008.  That whole experience left a bad taste in my mouth.

Because of all of this, I wanted to see if I could build my next house myself and not have a mortgage.  Basically build it as I go, and pay as I go, and not be a slave to the bank again.  Being a fairly handy guy (with a former cabinet shop in my old 2-car garage), I thought this was something I could research and realistically execute.  I was thinking that I’d just buy some land, and build a ‘normal’ house as I go.  And that still may be a reality some day.

However, in doing this research, I stumbled on this concept of tiny homes, because they are inexpensive to build, energy efficient, and easy to do yourself.  Then I started seeing a lot of websites dedicated to tiny house living: everything from DIY solar power setups to interior design, to construction techniques, tiny houses on wheels (to avoid building code restrictions), etc.  Also interesting, I was really impressed at how much it felt like a community – people helping other people learn and offering help, advice, and positive open discussion forums.  This added an appeal all its own.

Because of this, I decided that I would like to build my own sometime (hopefully soon).  I’ve spent a lot of time researching the latest construction codes and techniques, as it has been about 10 years since I’ve done any significant general construction projects myself.  All in all, I feel like I have plenty of information to get started.

So the first step: I started to design my own tiny house on wheels on a 5th wheel trailer frame with the following dimensions:

  • 8 1/2 feet wide (102 inches – max allowed by state/interstate roads without a Wide Load permit and commercial drivers license)
  • 13 feet, 6 inches tall (max allowed by interstate roads across the whole country, although most Western states allow 14 feet)
  • 45 feet long (36 foot long base deck + 9 foot long upper deck/platform above the 5th wheel hitch)

As of January 1st, 2014, the state of California allows 5th wheel trailers to be up to 48 feet long (as long as the vehicle pulling the trailer + the trailer do not exceed 65 feet).

Ok, those are the size restrictions to work within, without requiring a wide-load permit or commercial driver help to move it.  But what about weight?

The reality is that, while the above dimensions are within state RV size limits, traditional stick frame construction on a heavy duty equipment trailer that length will most certainly push the total weight above 10,000 pounds.  And that poses a challenge.

In California, a standard Class C driver’s license (what almost everyone gets after their 16th birthday) only permits the driver to pull a travel trailer with a maximum 10,000 pound GVWR (Gross Vehicle Weight Rating).  Note that this is the weight rating of the trailer – how much weight the trailer is capable of supporting – and not the actual weight of the trailer!  This means that you could have a 10,000 pound GVWR trailer and pull 10,000 pounds of cargo and you’re ok.  But if you have a 10,001 (or greater) GVWR and pull only 1 pound of cargo, you’ll be in violation.  So the GVWR is what matters for California and driver’s licenses and not weight (until, I think, you get to 26,000 pounds or more, but we don’t have to worry about that).  For 5th wheel trailers, a Class C driver’s license in California permits up to 15,000 pound GVWR (again, rating here, not the actual weight is what is important).

So, to be safe, I’m planning on getting a non-commercial Class A driver’s license, which can allow me to tow up to – I believe – 26,000 pounds.  Once constructed, I expect the entire house to be anywhere from 13,000 to 16,000 pounds, well within that upper threshold (and towable by a Ford F-450).  Then I won’t need to pay anyone to move it any time I get the desire to do so.

Anyway, over the coming weeks and months, if I can make the time at all (most likely on a weekend day), I’ll be posting my trailer and house designs (all made using the very awesome – and free – SketchUp Make software program).

Some design decisions to pique your interest:

  • 5th wheel trailer with three 7,000 or 8,000 pound drop-axles, allowing for a 21,000 or 24,000 pound GVWR respectively.  (drop-axle = lower trailer deck for maximum vertical space utilization).
  • Each axle will (hopefully) have Timbren STI Air Ride air suspension.  This will increase the trailer cost, but I want crack-free seamless walls (MgO board) and a bathroom with real tile and glass!  The air suspension gives about the softest ride possible, allowing one to install things in the tiny house that most others could not have, like full tile setups, glass panels, and other semi-fragile things).
  • MgO board interior and exterior walls (maybe in the form of SIPs, maybe not – If I can get a higher R-value w/ spray foam, I’ll likely use MgO board + spray foam instead of MgO SIP panels)
  • Tiled 3′ x 5′ shower with frameless tempered glass panel and door (tempered glass = no fear of cracking during road travel)
  • 4′ x 30″ x 30″ deep Japanese soaking tub (aka ‘ofuro’).
  • 3 ‘bedrooms’ (2 lofts + one downstairs)
  • 8′ wide galley kitchen
  • LOTS OF WINDOWS!!!  (natural light really opens up small spaces, and this is a must for me).
  • Living room w/ reclining leather sofa + movie theater wall
  • Plenty of closet space
  • Full-sized stacked washer and dryer set
  • Radiant floor heating
  • Air conditioning