Designing a tiny house – 15 questions to consider

In October 2017 I first contacted a tiny house builder. In July 2018 we moved into our tiny house. It’s fair to say that those ten months were intense, from just dreaming about a tiny house we made it all the way to moving in. And we couldn’t have done it without a professional builder by our side. There were so many aspects of the house we had to consider and which I hadn’t before. So I thought I’d compile a list of questions for anyone interested in or already in the planning stages of a tiny house. Some of these will most certainly also apply to a normal house while others are specific.

The questions here are of general nature. They are meant to assist you in turning your dreams and ideas into a house. You will have to talk to a professional builder to work out the details. Or, if you’re building your own house, I would suggest using these questions as a starting point. Don’t get lost in details from the start but narrow it down slowly.

And if there are any questions missing from my list, please comment below so we all can learn from each other.

1. What is important to you in a house? What building principles do you want to follow?

Asking these questions at the beginning is essential because it helps you (and your builder) to get a good understanding of what it is that you need. Just to give you an example: we wanted to have a healthy (aka toxin-free) house which applied as many of the passive house standards as possible (in a tiny house on wheels). Those wishes drove our design and built, from choosing wood fibre for the insulation to our floor.

2. What is your budget for a tiny house?

The question of money is, of course, a very important one. And it’s crucial to be honest about it with your builder as well. You need to have a plan on how to finance your tiny house and then see what that gets you. There is no way around it.

It’s also a good idea to plan with a buffer. Everyone who has ever build a house will tell you that there will be unexpected costs. The same applies to a tiny house. Just because it’s small, doesn’t mean there won’t be things that will cost more than anticipated.

3. What aspects of a house do you want to keep and which ones are not important to you?

For that question, you should look around your current place and think about the things you like and which ones you don’t like. Maybe it’s a fireplace which makes you feel comfortable while a bathtub is not essential to you (or the other way around). Or it’s something completely different which makes a house home for you. Write those things down and keep them in mind when it comes to the design stage.

4. What do you want to do in the house? How many people will live in the house?

If you have a particular hobby, you should incorporate that in your design. If you have a pet, maybe that too. For us, this question drove the entire design process. We are a family of four, with us two adults working from home. All those things had to be incorporated into our design. And we made it work, without compromise.

It’s also a good idea at this point to think about who is going to live in the house. You might want to involve other future residents in the design process as well.

5. What comforts do you want to have in your house?

Just to give you an example: a dishwasher. Do you need one or can you live without one?

On a more essential level, you should also think about how comfortable you are with shared or multipurpose spaces. For example, are you okay with taking your shoes off in the kitchen, or having the closet in your workspace?

Get those details together to help you design your floor plan. And you should differentiate between ‘must-have’s and ‘maybe’s.

6. Are you okay with rearranging furniture daily or multi-functional furniture?

Rearranging furniture might seem like an interesting task at first but trust me, it will get less interesting over time. So you should ask yourself if you are okay with things like moving a table around to eat, flipping up a workbench to prepare food and cleaning it straight after to fold back down, or rolling up a mattress in the morning. If you are used to it, then continue to live that way. If you aren’t I would very much suggest to not start getting used to it in a tiny house.

For us, it was important to avoid multi-functional furniture as much as possible. We have a fold-out table to eat together but that’s it. We have multiple zones in our house but no multi-functional furniture (unless you count the fold-out couch as multi-purpose).

7. What overall design appeals to you?

When it came to a design for our house I used Pinterest a lot. My husband and I both collected pictures from the web of things we liked: a particular kitchen, a certain bathroom arrangement, a roof shape, and an outside look. The board we had created helped us immensely to understand our style. And from it, we took a lot of inspiration for the final stages of our build. The roof shape and outside design, however, had to be determined early on so we would know what dimensions the house had.

8. What are you going to do with the house?

Since we’re talking about a tiny house, you should also think about if you’re going to move it around (then get wheels) and if so how often. For us it was easy: we wanted to move around but only a handful of times. Aspects like road safety, weight, and portability were not as important as they would be in a house that gets towed a lot. Or, as a matter of fact, if you don’t want to move your house, maybe consider a tiny house on a foundation rather than one on wheels.

9. Be honest, what do you need in your tiny house?

This question might seem repetitive from the ones above but it’s absolutely crucial to get this right.

Be honest with yourself, what can you cope with and what not. For example, are you someone who spends a lot of time in the bathroom? Then you probably don’t want a small bathroom. Or, are you someone who doesn’t like doing dishes? Then you should either plan for a dishwasher or get large cupboards for all your clean dishes and a large sink.

Don’t design the house to who you would like to be but to who you are. This question goes for the entire design. Don’t get a loft bedroom if you’re claustrophobic. Don’t get a fireplace if you don’t like it. Listen to yourself, no one else will know you better.

10. What is your inspiration for your tiny house?

Your inspiration for your tiny house can come from various sources. Maybe you have found a house you really like. Or you have found a building idea you want to pursue. It’s a good idea to collect any inspiration in one place. We used Pinterest and a google document. Use whatever suits you but make sure to only have that one place.

And then there are the more specific questions.

11. Do you want your house to be on-grid, off-grid, or something in between?

This question might not have to be decided right at the beginning of the design process but it’s a good idea to contemplate it early. On-grid houses are generally cheaper to build but more difficult to park. Off-grid houses only work with plenty of sunlight (if you’re using solar) but have lower overhead costs later on.

In line with this question also falls a decision on fuel for your house. For example, you could have a house with electricity only. Or you can opp for gas rather than electricity. Or you can aim for burning wood for heating (maybe even cooking). There are a couple of options and you need to be clear on what it is you want.

You also need to think about your options for sewage. Will you have access to a sewage system or will you look into mobile options for that? Are you okay with a dry composting toilet or do you prefer a more complex system like an incinerating toilet?

Again, the answers to those questions might not drive your design but they are important to start thinking about early. They will also determine your overall budget.

12. What kind of overall outside design appeals to you?

It’s a good idea to look around a lot at other houses, normal as well as tiny houses. Find an overall shape you like the look of. Consider the roof as much as the windows, doors, and colour.

The golden rule for a tiny house on wheels is that you don’t want an ugly tiny house. Finding parking for an ugly (or maybe ‘unusual looking’) house is more difficult because people might object. I once heard an example of a pink tiny house. The owner of the house had immense trouble parking it and neighbours complaint. If, however, your house blends into the landscape, it won’t attract as much attention and therefore annoyance.

13. What could your floor plan look like?

Although you will work out a floor plan with a builder, it’s a good idea to start thinking about it. Where would you want kitchen and bathroom to be? Next to each other or on opposite ends of the house. Questions like that obviously determine what your house will look like. And it helps everyone if you have a somewhat clear picture in mind before any designing begins.

14. What kind of internal design do you like?

Again, start collecting ideas in one central place.

Knowing your likes and dislikes for an internal design will help any builder to design your house. For example, if you like open-plan living than a flowing kitchen and lounge area is an option. If you prefer the kitchen somewhat separate from the rest of the house, you can design it that way, too.

I also really enjoyed looking around at colour schemes I liked. We went for a very clean and straight interior design, with a lot of white and windows.

15. What appliances are you thinking of getting?

Although this final question doesn’t necessarily need to be explored right at the beginning, it’s good to keep in mind.

With appliances, I mean everything, from a fridge to a heater. It’s a good idea to know your options and to incorporate them into your design. For example, if you want a fireplace, that would need to be fixed pretty early on. Or if you want a large fridge, a large oven, or a large shower head. Think about those things and discuss them with your builder early.

Good luck with your house!

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