Home Design Concepts

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shipping container remote cabin - exterior open

The ability to button-up and secure remote cabins helps thwart would-be thieves. Tiny buildings made from shipping containers are naturally easy to secure when left mostly intact. Cutting holes for windows and doors not only opens the home up with natural light, it opens opportunity for break-in.

In this design exploration I show how windows and glass doors could be sealed simply with some hinged and lockable steel shutters. Just for fun I show how the small solar panel array could also be secured inside the center shutter – which opens by folding down. This would keep the panels away from the pry bars carried by thieves, but means they can’t do their work charging the batteries when closed. One solution for this would be to mount a single, 5th, panel on the roof for slowly topping-off the batteries, while the bulk of the solar investment sits safely behind the shutter.

shipping container remote cabin - exterior closed

The exterior of a shipping container should be water proof, so a secondary roof should theoretically not be needed; but anyone who’s been inside a metal shed on a hot day knows that without some shade, metal boxes get hot. Flat roofs also provide little to no potential for shedding water and snow. So adding a second roof over the box to shield it against the elements might be a wise decision. In this illustration I’m showing a metal roof with metal framing.

Another ever-present danger to remote cabins is fire. Trimming a fire perimeter around buildings located in high fire danger areas is always a good idea, and required in some regions; but building entirely with non-famable materials on the exterior can also help save the cabin in a worst case scenario. It’s not a sure bet since it could also cook like an oven inside if the fire outside was to close and/or too hot – but the steel exterior would definitely help. The only exception to this material selection shown here is the wood deck.

Another advantage to building a self-contained cabin from a shipping container is that it can be constructed off-site and delivered by truck. The roof shown here would pose a slight logistical challenge, but the container could be brought in and set onto pre-installed concrete footings. The roof could be mostly pre-assembled off-site and brought in by truck, or assembled in parts and bolted together on-site. It could also be added permanently to the cabin prior to deliver but may need a wide-load permit for hauling unless the eaves were shortened.

In any case building where it’s convenient and not on top of a mountain can speed  construction and reduce cost. The main logistical issues left would be getting the cabin to the site by truck on the windy dirt forest roads and connecting it to any on-site utilities like power, water, and sewer. If the cabin were designed to be very frugal, truly off-grid alternatives could be used for these as well.

A rain water collection tank and plumbing could be added to that shed roof. A composting toilet could be installed in the bathroom. A grey water system could be used to handle the water from the shower and sinks. All power could be derived from the solar system if sized properly with the expected power consumption. A propane tank could be located outside if gas water heat or heating were used.

Inside this cabin could be a bathroom, micro kitchen, table, and sofa/bunk bend.  But many other configurations are possible, especially if the bathroom were smaller or the container longer.

shipping container remote cabin - floor planshipping container remote cabin - inside at night shipping container remote cabin - inside at dusk shipping container remote cabin - living room shipping container remote cabin - bathroom

Most shipping containers come in two standard sizes, 8×20 and 8×40. There are other sizes but these two are most common. An 8×20 is shown here. The cost of containers is fairly standard but costs rise the father they must travel from ports. You see these boxes are what’s used to ship goods from overseas – but many don’t find their way back. Instead they are resold for other uses. The farther you get from a port, the more expensive they tend to be. Check your local craigslist.org for businesses that sell containers near you.

I’m not sure how much of a DIY project a shipping container cabin would be. Certain parts would likely require some professional help, like the transportation. The metal work would also present some challenges to the average owner-builder. But in terms of cost I think a cabin like this could be completed for the same kind of money as a wood cabin. So at the end of the day the main decision factors would be aesthetics and function. If you felt the benefits of a steel box out-weighted the aesthetics of a wood cabin then a cabin/house like this might be the right path.

The illustrations were drawn with SketchUp and rendered with Podium V2, a photo-realistic plugin for SketchUp. I draw design concepts like this mostly for fun – and share them to help introduce ideas to others. Enjoy!

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Primeval Symbiosis - Single Pole House

This is a design concept by Konrad Wójcik, from Aalborg, Denmark. It’s modeled after a tree, sits on a single pole, and has built-in systems that make it self-sufficient. It’s shape and foundation also give it virtually a zero footprint making it possible to build communities without necessarily cutting down trees.

It has four layers, so a bit of stair climbing would be needed.

  • The lowest level serves as a mudroom, storage and systems.
  • The next layer is the main living space, and includes a kitchen and bath.
  • The third layer is a work space.
  • At the top is the bedroom.

I really like the idea of building off the ground on a single pole. The illustrations are also fantastic and really give a sense for how dramatic homes like this could be.

With a bit more fine tuning of the interior layout and a reduction of the number of levels, an approach like this could also serve a wider population.

Kudos to Konrad for putting together this great idea! It’s definitely the kind of thinking that will inspire others to think outside the box.

See and read more about Primeval Symbiosis – Single Pole House. Illustration credit to Konrad Wójcik.

Primeval Symbiosis - Single Pole House Systems Diagram  Primeval Symbiosis - Single Pole House Community Primeval Symbiosis - Single Pole House Solar Back

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Spiral Shelter - Exterior

As things heat up in the Middle East and the potential for trouble spilling into the rest of the world increases, I bet there are a few folks wondering how a simple shelter could be built without a permit, in a backyard, and serve as something like a home office on a daily basis.

Well even if that scenario hasn’t crossed your mind yet, let me share with you a design concept for a stout yet tiny earthen building.

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Uncut Tiny House v3 Exterior

As a result of this exploration we now know that a tiny house that could be built without a saw. The direction I went in is just one way to go too – and I’m certain there are many many more. In fact several folks have commented and contacted me directly suggesting some great improvements. I was thinking of running a little design competition to see how many people we could inspire to jump onto this idea – but this whole process sparked a new idea that’s even better.

You see when you choose to avoid using a saw in your design, you end up making compromises that create another kind of waste – the use excess material in the structure. Making cuts for a perfect fit means the house only ends up with just the right amount of material, albeit with some discarded waste lumber.

So what if we took the learnings from the Uncut Tiny House and applied them to a No Waste Tiny House. In other words, take the benefits of avoiding using a saw and combine that with a few strategic saw cuts that result in pieces that are included in the structure. The house should still go together much like a kit with little sawing and the end result would be no wasted material.

But I digress… Let me show you this version of the Uncut Tiny House. The post that follows this one will be my first pass at a No Waste Tiny House.

Continue to see the assembly process and details.

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The other day I posed the riddle… can a tiny house be built without a saw and off-the-shelf materials? That’s the goal of this design exercise. In my first pass at solving this challenge there were a few things that didn’t quite work so well, so I went back to the drawing board.

  • I made the roof a bit taller so that the rafter overlap at the top was stronger. I also added H1 hurricane ties.
  • I removed the 4×4 posts on the sides and reduced the amount of wood used.
  • I changed the foundation to 4x6s on concrete piers.
  • I added some windows on the side and there’s still a door on each end.
  • I also made it longer, now 20 feet.

I imagine that the floor, wall, and ceiling panels would be partially built before putting into place – then finished by insulating and attaching the exterior plywood siding. You can see those steps illustrated below. This approach would also make it easier to add electrical, plumbing, and exterior house wrap before attaching the exterior sheathing/siding.

The partially built panels would also be lighter and easier to handle for one person, giving the owner-builer the opportunity to use fasteners to help secure the panels in place. The disadvantage would only be that the exterior siding would need to be lifted into place and fastened once the walls were wired, plumbed, insulated and wrapped.

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Uncut Tiny House Preview

The other day someone commented on Facebook and challenged tiny house designers to design houses with fewer angled cuts. They had spent the day cutting angles on their own tiny house.

Since so many tiny homes are owner-built fewer cuts would make construction faster and easier. I found the idea was so compelling, I decided to attempt a tiny house design that required the builder to make no cuts – use no saws. In other words, a house design that just used material right off the store shelves.

This is what I came up with; it’s only conceptual – I’ve not tried to build it. The tools you’d need are: a drill & bits, hammer, utility knife, level, measuring tape, ladder, and shovel (or post hole digger). In addition to the wood you’d need some building adhesive, foam insulation panels, nails & screws, lag bolts, plexiglass, hinges, door latch, metal roofing, roofing felt, flat roof membrane, wood finish.

The plans for this concept will be available in the next few days. Below are the step-by-step assemble illustrations.

Uncut Tiny House Preview - Door Closed

Uncut Tiny House - Step 01 - Posts and Floor Supports

Uncut Tiny House - Step 02 - Floor Panels

Uncut Tiny House - Step 03 - Porch Decking

Uncut Tiny House - Step 04 - Wall Panels

Uncut Tiny House - Step 06 - Roof Panels

Uncut Tiny House - Step 07 - Roof Trim Boards

Uncut Tiny House - Step 08 - Roof Supports

Uncut Tiny House - Step 09 - Roof Rafters

Uncut Tiny House - Step 10 - Roof Sheathing

Uncut Tiny House - Step 11 - Doors

Uncut Tiny House - Step 12 - Roofing

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Arjan Sauna by Jonas Wagell

Don’t get too excited – it’s just a sauna…but what a wonderful tiny design it is! Each sauna building, designed by Jonas Wagell and Arja Saijonmaa, measures just 7.5 square meters (80 square feet).

What I like most about the design is the simplicity. I like the natural wood siding, the simple pitched & planted roof, and even the asymmetrical window & door placement. The whole thing is so perfectly balanced, it’s inspiring.

Learn more at Jonas Wagell’s website.

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Chanfer Home - Exterior

This is a design concept from s-archetype.com for a vacation retreat, but the size & layout would work well for a tiny home. It has a bedroom and living room that are separated by a bathroom and kitchen core. It’s just under 300 square feet and has tons of glass for light and ventilation.

I really like the simple layout of two living spaces being separated by a utility core. I like how the big opening windows would let in the light and how this house could be very connected to the place it inhabits. So I really like this design as inspirational design study – but I don’t think it’s terribly practical.

The primary function eaves and pitched roofs provide is to protect the home from the weather & sun. So when there are no eaves and the house has a flat roof the exterior materials take a pounding. In my humble opinion, no matter how high-tech the glass is or how sturdy the exterior materials are, high-tech stuff eventually fails.

So since houses live outside through rain, snow, heat, and take the beating sun for so many days, we should design for these conditions. We should also plan for longevity to help keep maintenance cost and tasks down. Don’t get me wrong, I like these modern box design concepts as much as the next person. I just wanted to take a moment and bang on the drum of frugal practicality.

Image credit to s-archetype.com.

Chanfer Home - Living Room

Chanfer Home - Bedroom



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Camper Kart - Kevin Cyr

Tiny houses and functional art has a special place in my heart, so Kevin Cyr’s work definitely strikes a chord.  I’m not sure how useful a cart like this would be, or if it might flip over when one flips over in one’s sleep – but I like it anyway.  Great out of the box thinking for adapting existing tools (shopping cart) for sheltering the homeless. Here’s what Kevin says about it:

“A pop-up camper constructed out of a shopping cart. The project investigates habitats and housing; recycling and ecology; exploration and mobility.”

See more on Kevin Cyr’s website.

Camper Kart - On the Move

Camper Kart - Trunk

Camper Kart - Exterior

Camper Kart - Interior

Camper Kart - Bed

Camper Kart - Counter

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shelter house 1 floor plan with lighting

My wife grew up in Oklahoma and has many friends and relatives there. So when the tornados recently started blasting through her old neck of the woods, we were getting minute-by-minute updates from folks on the ground via text messages and Facebook. Luckily nobody we know was hurt, but there were many close calls. For example her Great Aunt’s home was just 1/10 of a mile from a huge one that blasted through their town. Our prayers go out for all those that lost loved ones.

Events like this get me thinking and asking questions like – what can we do with the homes we build to reduce the loss of life & property due to the weather? The simple answer seems to be to move below ground.

I know living like a hobbit doesn’t appeal to everyone and comes with it’s own challenges, but it also solves a lot of problems. This small house design is my first stab at what a Shelter House might looks like.

In this context a Shelter House is just that – a home that doubles as a shelter. This small home design is just over 500 square feet and laid out like a one bedroom apartment. It has the usual spaces… a bedroom, bathroom, laundry closet, kitchen, and living room. But it also has a clerestory atrium tower that brings natural light in from above and provides a place to grow plants indoors. Other shelter features include a concrete & steel blast door and windows tough enough to withstand wind speeds in the triple digits.

The windows would be long narrow slits and I imagine that they would use built-up layers of thick polycarbonate sandwiched between steel frames that are anchored to the concrete walls. The walls would be core-filled reinforced concrete block with a layer of closed-cell foam sprayed on the exterior to help seal out moisture and reduce condensation.

The bedroom would be tucked deep into the hill the house is built under, and at a 90-degree angle from the main living space. This would give the bedroom even more protection from flying objects – even in the event of a nuclear blast. Yep… a natural side effect of this design is protection something as devastating as nuclear war.

The cost to build a house like this should be relative low too. Concrete blocks are cheap, about a dollar a piece. Concrete and rebar is relatively cheap too. In future posts, as this design evolves, I’ll post estimates on the cost to build a small Shelter House in case anyone wants to pursue such a project themselves.

To see how a block shelter is built read this article on How-to Build a Fallout Shelter.

shelter house 1 - bathroom shelter house 1 - bedroom shelter house 1 - exterior front shelter house 1 - exterior stairs shelter house 1 - front door from kitchen shelter house 1 - kitchen shelter house 1 - living room shelter house 1 - living space from hall shelter house 1 - living space

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A gabion is a metal cage (box or cylinder) filled with rocks (debris, concrete, gravel, sand, etc). Normally these are used as retaining walls in big & small landscaping projects. You might also hear the word hesco used with the word gabion. Hesco is a company that makes gabions used by armed forces as walls to protect soldiers from enemy fire.

I spotted a video on YouTube that showed the assembly of such a gabion that was used as a gun emplacement. It had walls, a doorway, window opening, and roof – just like a house. You can watch that military gabion shelter assembly video online.

So the thought popped into my head… why couldn’t a house be built from gabions? The building materials would be simple, wire gabion boxes, fill material, road base gravel for the foundation, a bit of concrete, your choice of roof, some stucco, and interior finishings.

In this imaginary example the interior space is very small, in fact just 135 square feet (9′x15′). It has a bathroom, kitchen, sofa bed and wood fireplace. A larger space could theoretically be built without adding much to the materials list so let this tiny space serve to get your imagination rolling. 

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One of the benefits of a manufactured travel trailer over a typical owner-built tiny house is improved mobility. This is due to the fact that most tiny houses are built like houses making them heavier and less aerodynamic than their manufactured cousins. While these traits often make tiny houses more desirable and comfortable for full-time living I often wonder if there’s a way to also have mobility too.

There are a couple of obvious work-arounds for lightening-up tiny houses. The best I’ve seen is by building the walls with lightweight structural insulated panels, like the Tiny SIP House, or this variation of the Sonoma Shanty. The design could also be made a bit more aerodynamic, whch is what I’ve tried to show here. I realize that this house is still not terribly aerodynamic, but it’s probably a lot slicker than most traditional tiny house designs.