I’m beginning to build a publicly available library of SketchUp drawings for those using this free 3D illustration software to draw their own tiny houses. In time you’ll be able to search the category SketchUp Files and find all the available files.
This first file is a simple to use trailer drawing, based loosely on the Big Tex Trailer specifications. I have no affiliation with Big Tex, I just like the fact that they publish their dimensions online.
If you do some trailer shopping, virtually or in person, you’ll find that few trailers are alike. So I’ve made this simple trailer drawing easy to adjust to the exact size of the trailer you buy for your project. This way you’ll be able to draw your tiny house design to fit on the exact size of your trailer.
In the SketchUp file you’ll find three trailers. They are all exactly the same except that I’ve resized the length to 14-feet, 16-feet, and 18-feet. All three measure 82-inches between the fenders. Just open the file, then copy and paste the size trailer you want to start working with into your own drawing. Be sure to adjust the trailer before you start your drawing.
The main measurements to focus on are:
Deck height – The height of the flatbed deck from the ground. Since tiny houses need to be under 13-feet 6-inches to be legally towed without a special move permit (in most U.S. states), the deck height can impact to height of the walls and roof pitch.
Position of the fenders – Focus on the front of the trailer to the start of the fender, from the rear of the trailer to the end of the fender, and the height of the fender from the top of the deck. Your side walls will need to wrap around and over the fender.
The width between the fenders is normally 82 or 83-inches for 8.5-foot wide trailers. You might also be wondering how a 102-inch wide trailer would only allow for 82 inches between the fenders – the simple answer is that the fenders are fairly wide themselves.
Stay tuned for more drawings in the next few days and weeks.
Camping trailers are a common sight – mobile tiny houses are still a bit of a novelty. Some of the aesthetic differences are immediately recognizable but then the similarities begin to blur. Below is a quick run down of how these two housing choices compare & contrast.
Construction: Manufactured to RV industry standards in a factory setting. Typically built with a thin shell of metal, wood, and composites. The base trailer is usually custom engineered for the home it supports.
Plumbing: Built with standard RV toilets, plumbing, water, and waste tanks.
Electricity: Typically built to connect to grid power with standardized plugs & outlets and use on-board backup generators. Can also be built with off-grid systems.
Weight & Portability: Relatively lightweight and easy to tow.
Size: Camping trailers are often shorter (in height) than tiny houses. The maximum road height for most (if not all) U.S. States is 13 1/2 feet (without special permits). You may find some 5th wheel trailers coming close to this height, but not your average trailer. This makes camping trailers easier to pull into gas stations and other tight places.
Insurance: Relatively easy to insure.
Financing: Lenders understand RVs well and many financing options are available.
Warranty: Like many manufactured products warranties are often available.
Taxes: Generally recognized as a second home (but check with a tax advisor).
Immediacy: The moment you take possession of a camping trailer it’s usually fully functional and ready roll – the benefit of buying a turn-key manufactured product.
Cost: Used camping trailers can be found on craigslist, curbsides, and through dealers – often for very little money. In fact in terms of bang for your buck, used (and even some new) camping trailers can be a good deal.
Fit & Finish: The interiors of manufactured homes are typically finished off tastefully and carefully. But like most manufactured products long term reliability and longevity will vary.
Year-Round Living: Lighter weight frames and siding also mean that trailer homes will cost more to heat and cool.
Construction: Handmade, typically by owner-builders in backyards and driveways. Built like a normal framed house on a heavy duty flatbed trailer.
Plumbing: Can be built with RV plumbing but owners often choose to install composting toilets, gray water outlets, and garden hose inputs. From time to time you’ll even see some rain water collection systems being used.
Electricity: Can be built to connect to grid power or built with an independent off-grid system.
Weight & Portability: Typically heavier than camping trailers making it more costly and difficult to tow.
Size: While the side walls of a tiny house are shorter than most normalhomes, a 12/12 pitched roof can easily cause the total height of the house to come to just under 13 1/2 feet. The side eaves also often extend the house to a full width just under 8 1/2 feet (the road limit for trailers). So while tiny houses are tiny for houses – they are in fact very large trailers (watch those overhangs).
Insurance: Sometimes easy to insure – depending on your local insurance agent and their ability to imagine how tiny houses fit into existing definitions.
Financing: Rarely financed and somewhat difficult to finance because lenders are typically unfamiliar with tiny houses – making them difficult to underwrite.
Warranty: When you build something yourself – you are the warranty.
Taxes: Generally not recognized as a second home (but check with a tax advisor).
Immediacy: Months after buying your flatbed trailer you might have a habitable home if you’ve worked hard long days or had lots of help. Building your own home often comes with the cost of investing real sweat equity. The smaller the project the faster it goes but tiny houses take time to build.
Cost: I’ve seen tiny house owner-builders report spending anywhere between $5,000 and $50,000 to build their home. Labor costs can be offset by doing a lot of the work yourself. Materials costs can be cut by making frugal choices.
Fit & Finish: It’s up to you to choose what kind of custom finish your put into your home – and the quality of the work. Many tiny houses are finished off with a lot of natural wood but anything you can imagine is possible if it’s in the budget.
Year-Round Living: Many tiny house homeowners live year-round in their homes. They are built like real houses with materials that typically do a much better job of keeping the weather outside.
When you boil it down camping trailers are better for those who need more mobility and are content with giving up comfortable year-round living and some aesthetics. Tiny houses are better for those who intend to mostly stay put, need the year-round comfort from the weather, and want a custom home.
Both solutions can help you find a way to live more simply, untethered from some building restrictions in the gray area between rentals and normal homes. Lastly, they can also both provide a safe, mortgage-free home to those needing or wanting to downsize their lives. In questionable economic times having the added security of owning one’s own home – no matter the size – can provide that needed safety net.
Randy has a blog called Mobile Kodgers where he writes about the freedom he finds on the road. Today Randy told the story of a long-time friend who lives in a private location on the Mogollon plateau in Arizona.
The land she found is part of a giant failed real estate development where parcels regularly sell for just a few thousand dollars. Before you whip out your checkbook be forewarned that low prices like this often come with challenges most folks wouldn’t choose to face.
But Taylor cleverly adapted to this rugged and remote environment. The house was built around a small 5th wheel trailer after she spent time freezing in the winter and baking in the summer. First the roof went up, followed by walls to keep out the wind. She even collects rain water from her small roof, 300 gallons from 1-inch of rain.
Building a tiny house on a trailer is one way to avoid certain limitations that are often unavoidable when building on permanent foundations. For example, while building codes can be a great guide for building a safe home, I’ve never heard of a planning department expressing any desire to examine a tiny house on a trailer.
It makes sense actually – tiny houses on trailers can move to and from different communities; who would inspect them? The truth is tiny houses exist in a grey area between traditional houses and travel trailers.
But this scale of home is not entirely without limits. If you want to be able to pull your house down a highway without a special permit, it must conform to certain size limits. In most U.S. states this maximum size is 13.5-feet tall, 8.5-feet wide, and 40-feet long – 65-feet maximum including the tow vehicle. Extra care must be taken to squeeze the house into this semi-trailer sized imaginary space.
Below is a simple drawing that shows how quickly everything adds up. You can instantly see why so many tiny houses have roof pitches that are no steeper and 12/12 (45-degrees) and walls that are a bit shorter than 8-feet. At first the design challenge seems daunting, but as you browse through all the different homes people have built, you can see that there is still quite a bit you can do within the box.
Commercial travel trailers are designed to be lightweight and aerodynamic. Tiny houses are typically built from heavy building materials, like normal houses. This can make it much more comfortable to live in year-round but every foot in length adds-up and increases the requirements for the trailer and tow vehicle.
For example, a Tumbleweed Fencl is about 19-feet long and weighs just shy of 6,000 pounds empty. Add your belongings and you might start pushing 8,000 pounds. Now theoretically double the length to the 40-foot road limit – you could be talking about a house that weighs 16,000+ pounds, which would require a really big pickup to tow. This is not unthinkable of course, they build pickup trucks that can pull trailers that size; but it is an important consideration to make before committing to that scale.
Building tiny houses on trailers can provide a lot of flexibility and freedom; but like every design challenge, it doesn’t come without trade-offs. While you may not have to talk with building inspectors, you are pretty much on your own to build a safe and strong home on your own.
It’s best to use building codes as guides and add extra reinforcement like earthquake and hurricane straps – after all the house will encounter 60 MPH winds and road vibrations. For some this may sound adversely challenging – to others it sounds like music to their ears. In either case try starting your design process from these practical size and weight limits.
If you decide to build a tiny house I’d love to share your story here on Tiny House Design. I also strongly encourage you to get a free blog at WordPress.com or Blogger.com and journal about your experience. We’re stronger together.
The PVC Bike Guy sent me few photos that show the progress of the Teardrop Bike Trailer, a project inspired by a design I posted about a year ago. As his nickname implies he’s a builder of PVC based bikes and gets most of his raw materials free as scraps. It’s not easy to build a strong chasis from PVC pipe, but he successfully puts it all together with bike parts to make operable little peddle powered vehicles. Here are the update photos. I’m really looking forward to seeing how this one turns out.
Uwe Salwender restores Airstream trailers in Orange, California. His company, Area 63 Productions, emerged out of a hobby at the beginning of the recession when his entertainment industry related work began to dry up and the number of people looking for ways of rebooting their lives increased.
The quality of his restorations reflects the extra time and careful craftsmanship he puts into these trailers. The result is pristine Airstream restorations.
While the cost of his work may be out of many peoples’ price range, it’s inspiring to see what can be done when you invest the time and money to have a professional do it right.
Another one of my readers, Adam Waltering of Spokane, Washington, has started to build an 8×16 Tiny Solar House from one of my free house plans. This small house design features a simple shed roof and a tall south facing wall for maximizing solar gain during cold weather. During hot weather the house can be turned around making shade awnings unnecessary. The interior ceiling is high with a loft at one end.
So far Adam has bought the trailer and the first big batch of lumber. He’s also started to lay out the floor framing. Adam plans to live in this home while attending college where he’ll study architecture.
The other 8×16 Tiny Solar House that I know about is being built by Bill Brooks who plans to take his up to Alaska for an extended visit. You can see some early progress photos of Bill’s house at Tiny House Blog.
One of my regular readers shared some designs with me over the weekend. Tracy’s idea is to design a small lightweight habitable module that slides onto a common flatbed trailer. The entire structure would be built on top of skids tall enough to clear a trailer’s wheels so that the width of the house can be built out to the full legal road limit. In many states in America this is 8’6″ (102″).
While recovering from the flu I found myself obsessing more and more about this ultralight house concept. I also began researching other unrelated ultralight topics like ultralight backpacking. I guess seeking extreme examples of less is more is just a fun to noodle over; but I have to admit… I think I’m developing a bit of an obsession for ultralight design. It could be a temporary condition though… I’ll keep you posted.
The last design proved that for a tiny house to be truly ultralight it must be built more like a travel trailer than a house. The disadvantage of this approach is that as the walls get thinner and lighter the house becomes less suitable for 4-season living. It also gets a bit harder to build with easily obtained and inexpensive building materials.
You could use aluminum, titanium, carbon fiber, and other composite materials but that tiny house might cost a fortune. Since I’d rather present ideas that are low cost and easy to implement I chose to stick with common building materials for this version.
Imagine a wall system that starts out as a 2×4 and 2×2 frame. To that is glued and screwed an exterior layer of 1/2 plywood or OSB (oriented strand board). To lighten that heavy layer of plywood big sections would be cut out, but in such a fashion that retains much of the strength. Then a 1 1/2″ foam board (R-9) is glued into the cavities. To seal the interior side of the wall a thin layer of wall paneling is glued and nailed into place. The total wall would be just over 2-inches thick and have an insulation value of about R-10. Additional reflective layers of insulation could also be added as well as layers or house wrap to help seal up the walls. The exterior would be covered with lightweight metal roofing panels, like standing seam roofing or corrugated panels.
The floor would be as thin as the walls since the trailer provides a firm flat platform. The roof would be a bit thicker with a full 3 1/2″ space for insulation. The trailer would still measure 6′ by 10′ making the interior floor space about 55 square feet. What I’m not sure about is if this approach would really be strong enough to hold up to regular highway travel. I bet with the addition of metal bracing (hurricane/earthquake straps) it would do fine but I’m not an engineer so I can’t be sure.
I also want to thank all the folks that provided all the links to cool trailers and suggestions for making the house lighter. I was really blown away by all the great ideas that the original design concept elicited from our wider community. I’m going to try to step back from my growing lightweight obsession for a moment now and finish the 12×24 plans. I know there are a lot of people waiting for those plans.
One of my regular readers, Craig, has been getting more and more addicted to Google SketchUp. Below are some of the drawings he’s been doing. He actually started on this series before I started working on the ultralight tiny house concept. He also has a great little teardrop trailer and modified A-frame house drawn up. Be sure to see all of his drawings at his new blog.
I stumbled quite by accident on Rick Harrison’s blog tonight. Rick has created a quite little place to live in a forest in Wisconsin. He built his tiny house out of a 1950′s travel trailer that measures about 7′ by 12′. His water comes from a slightly elevated 50 gallon barrel, heat from a small propane heater, and his plumbing is a lovable loo style composting toilet. If his plans work out this will soon be his full time home.
While many people will think this choice of lifestyle is a bit extreme I’m always inspired by folks that have the courage to step outside the norm and build themselves such extremely sustainable lives. Rick had a bit of a head start having lived on sailboats for 20 years.
My hat off to you Rick… and I’m really looking forward to following your progress online.