It’s no news that the tiny home movement is taking the nation by storm. These small wonders (some of which BUILDER has showcased here) have gained the attention of American consumers who seek to defy the limits of square footage in their homes. Many are enticed by the financially independent, environmentally friendly, and clutter-free lifestyle that a residence measuring less than 200 square feet can provide.
A typical tiny home is about 10 times smaller than the average American home, and while production builders may not be jumping on the tiny home bandwagon anytime soon, mainstream builders could still learn a thing or two from the tiny home movement.
Derek “Deek” Diedricksen is a self-proclaimed lover of all things tiny home. The Massachusetts-based builder is the author of numerous tiny home books; organizer of tiny home building and design workshops around the country; and has been featured on more than one HGTV series and the DIY Network. His latest book, Microshelters, features 59 of the country’s most creative small structures—cabins, tree houses, stilted shelters, backyard huts, and tiny homes on wheels.
Here, BUILDER talks with Diedricksen about the ever-more trending movement. From space-saving design tips to cost-effective construction materials, the tiny home enthusiast offers words of wisdom for builders and architects alike.
What are the top reasons that the concept of a tiny home appeals to so many Americans?
There really are a ton of them, and the reasons from person to person are so diverse. Most tiny houses are a much more affordable option towards owning a home, and they're also cheaper to heat, cool, clean, maintain, and furnish. They can be a less site-invasive and environmentally more-friendly option than traditional homes.
What kind of designs are trending in tiny homes right now?
We're seeing a lot of Gambrel roofs so as to maximize the loft space in a tiny house. Aesthetically, I'm not a huge fan of this option, but it does make spatial sense. I also see more and more people trending towards tansu steps—mini-staircases that double as storage—almost like a "stacked box" array of steps. These can look great and provide a good amount of storage. We're starting to see almost an overabundance of dormer work in the roofs of tiny homes on wheels, and I caution people to not get too carried away—especially if you're going to occasionally travel with your home. Dormers result in the potential for failed flashing work and eventual leaks, but not only that, they stand as another less aerodynamic, and wind-bulldozing feature of the home when on wheels.
How can you maximize space to make small homes feel larger?
I feel that some of it is as simple as just being sure to not overdo it with storage nooks, closets, and boxed-in tables. You need open visual space, or a home as tiny as 150 square feet will begin to feel like a hoarder’s coffin. Working natural light into your home and putting in a few larger windows or skylights is also smart because it tricks the eye and mind into thinking that a space is bigger than it actually is. Dual-use items are also a must, like the age old stool that flips into a step ladder—“Turniture" we call it.
What design elements featured in tiny homes can be utilized in traditional single-family home building?
A good many of the tiny home space-saving concepts can be worked into more traditionally sized homes, no doubt. The elimination, if possible, of long space-wasting hallways would be one, wall-folding murphy beds might be another, as well as the hidden storage ideas you see in so many tiny homes these days, such as installing storage in exposed joists overhead, utilizing the kick-panel space in kitchen cabinets for stowing items, mounting fold down tables, and using curtains or pocket doors to eliminate the lost swing-space with doors.
What kinds of building materials are most cost-effective for building a tiny home?
That will all depend, especially region to region, but most tiny homes are stick framed, and a good many try to employ, where possible, a good array of salvaged and repurposed materials, even if just for interior cladding and décor. . This is something I'm pretty immersed in, as I feel that this path not only can save you money, but it can keep certain items from the waste stream. These materials can also give your home some real individual style and character, all indicative of your tastes, color preferences, and the textured or vintage looks you might be gunning for.
What challenges can arise when building a tiny home?
I could go on with this one for a few hours! This is another case-by-case, or region by region scenario, but if we just cover the very basics of building a tiny house on wheels (which seems to be the most popular mode now), you're dealing with having to balance weight versus strength against road jostling and wind forces, versus proper pairing of your design to a suitable trailer base. That also then correlates to cost—the better the trailer and bigger the home, the more money you'll have to outlay before you even begin building the mere floor.
Proper spatial planning is another big one, as I've entered so many tiny homes that just didn't take the time to plan out the everyday movements of a person inside a house. Sometimes it’s just simple things too. For example, I just stayed in a home where the kitchen sink doubled as the bathroom sink (just one step away through a curtain). But, to shave, the mirror was in the bathroom, so I had to keep ducking from one room to the other to see what I was doing or clean my razor. The house was otherwise gorgeous, but this is an example of just one little thing that was missed.
Can you make a tiny home energy efficient?
Easily. There are many off-grid solar homes out there, and tiny homes stand apart from RVs in that they can be much more insulated against the cold in the winter and retain more heat in the summer. There are many insulation options too, just as you have in residential homes. Passive solar set-ups, composting toilet set-ups, and rain catchment systems are all things I've seen in tiny houses.
What type of building code considerations are important to consider for tiny home construction?
This is going to differ from town to town. While there is an international building code, some regions further refine it, or reinterpret it based on the needs of the region, climate, and so on. Egress, or the ability to escape in a fire is huge, and I do see that neglected in lofts sometimes. Zoning is another one as some people, if they choose to go renegade and build without permits, build too close to their small lot lines. Tiny houses on wheels, all in all though, are actually pretty overbuilt, often beyond residential standards. You're really dealing with a stick-framed house, but one that has to dance in the mobile world of also being a form of RV. Waste disposal with black and grey water is another realm of this mode of living that can get tricky depending on where you are.