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  • Writer's pictureJessica Morgan McAtee

Tiny House Design

Living in a Tiny House (T.H.) is an undertaking that requires some mindfulness and reflection. Living in less than 400 square feet is challenging to most Americans (maybe not our N.Y. friends). This isn’t a move most people make without considerable thought. They may believe it will help the environment or their finances. It may give them more flexibility to travel. It’s not for everyone, but for those who are strategic about it, it can be wildly liberating.

Whether you will build one yourself or select a pre-fab model you should first examine your lifestyle, preferences and daily activities so that the one you get works for you.

You will be working with an extremely limited space, so EVERY INCH COUNTS.

Making the most of every nook and cranny is essential for a highly functional home. If you can build it yourself, you will be able to include all of your “must haves”. If you purchase one that is pre-designed, you will want to know what works best for you ahead of time.

We would not have been able to live in just any tiny house comfortably. There are lots of important details that inform how we live. It’s the same for you. Are you able to climb ladders? What will you do most in your T.H.? Do you have hobbies that must be accommodated? Will you work there? Do you exercise indoors? How often do you use your kitchen? Do you watch TV? Will you entertain? Do you have pets? Kids? What will you store? How small are you willing to go?

How and where it will be constructed is a major consideration. When we decided to embark on our T.H. adventure, we did so very strategically. My husband, Kelly, was going to construct our T.H. by himself. He is an engineer and loves to tinker and build. We had opted to do it all ourselves, not hire out any design work or contractors. We wanted to keep costs in check and being retired, we have plenty of free time. Building it ourselves made sense. His deceased grandfather had left behind a large workshop near where we wanted to eventually live in our T.H. Grandma still lived at the attached residence, so we asked her permission to build at her place. She graciously agreed and our dear T.H., Frontier, was built.

What type of T.H. do you want? This depends on how, when and where it will be used. Ours is a summer home that we only use seasonally. We didn’t have property yet but we anticipated buying several acres in the future that we would move it to. Therefore, it had to be mobile. It would be a Tiny House on wheels, which is a popular design though some people build on a foundation.

From the beginning, we knew ours would be on a trailer, and it would be on the smaller end of that spectrum. They typically range in length from 18 to 32 feet. Our trailer would be 8ft x 20 ft. It could weigh no more than 10,000 lbs. We would build a tall one that was at the upper limit of what was allowed on the local roads, 13.5 ft. This way, we could utilize loft space and squeeze out more than the 160 square feet on the first level.

We searched online for ideas and we also visited a T.H. show. A few county fair exhibits and rental communities also had T.H. on display. Whenever we got the chance, we looked into what others were doing.

From there, we were able to get some great ideas that we definitely wanted to incorporate in our own T.H. Also, we saw some things we certainly did not like, or that would not work with our lifestyle. It was at one of these shows that we were inspired to make the exterior of ours out of several different new and recycled materials. We essentially made our own version of a beautifully modern one on display for a fraction of the price.

Getting ideas and formulating a plan was helpful in giving us a direction in which to head. We had never done this before, so we created the path by taking one step at a time.

In the beginning, there were certain elements that each of us hoped to include. We had to hold these with an open hand, because competing requirements or space limitations may necessitate elimination. Therefore, prioritizing was also important.

On my list was:

· The bathroom as far from the kitchen as possible

· A ventilation exhaust fan or a window in the bathroom

· A tub, not just a shower

· Lots of natural light, some T.H. that I had seen felt really dark and confining but windows seemed to make them feel open to the outdoors

· A full-size fridge

· A full-length mirror

He tried to fit a dishwasher in for me, but it would have cost us too much necessary kitchen storage, so in the end we opted not to have one. I was OK with this as it would have been a luxury but it was not on my “must have” list.

He prioritized:

· Energy efficiency

· Plenty of storage inside and outside

· Full-size kitchen and bathroom sinks (and definitely not a single sink pulling double duty)

· Safety features like sturdy ladders, smoke alarms, and a propane/carbon monoxide detector

· A full-size fridge

· Keeping things on budget which was originally set at $15,000 (and exceeded in the end by about $2,000)

We were able to achieve all of the above with our design.

Days of Our Lives

After those initial desires, we carefully analyzed our daily routines to see what must be incorporated into our teeny space.

For instance, my days are somewhat routine. I drink coffee and read in the morning. I exercise, mostly outdoors, but also inside using a yoga mat and weights. I write on the computer and study books, so I needed a usable desk area. Reading and napping is my relaxation, so a comfortable place to lounge is necessary. On a typical day I cook two meals and I enjoy creating new recipes. Several times a month we entertain guests for dinner. Occasionally I make jewelry (the desk area could be used for this). Also, I drink wine and enjoy hot baths.

We created a second loft that ended up doubling as my "yoga loft" and it has a desk that can fold down against the wall for workspace. The upper shelf can hold books, papers and computers.

His introverted days involve lots of computer time when indoors. This meant that we would need two workable computer stations so we could be on simultaneously. He exercises too, but generally he runs outside. He requires a toilet, a bed, an abundance of convenient electrical receptacles, and food. He’s simpler than I am.

Both of us spend a fair amount of time outdoors. Most folks who live in T.H. do. We engage in gardening, tinkering, exercising, picnicking, projects, butterflying, building, hanging-out, reading, eating, and wildlife watching, weather permitting. Of course, for cold, blustery or rainy days, the T.H. must be equipped to suffice.

Stuff Happens

We had to consider storage. This is a major component of T.H. design. Maximizing every inch includes adequate storage.

No matter how minimalistic one aims to be, there are certain necessities that must be included. Also, personal preferences dictate what additional items should be included. For instance, in our case an ironing board, a vacuum, a printer and a butterfly net were necessary.

Our situation is different from people whose T.H. is their primary residence. Ours is seasonal, we have our main home in Florida. We only spend part of the year in Frontier. Therefore, it need not hold everything we own, just the items we use for our summertime adventures.

The storage solutions we came up with accommodate the extra items we own. Shoes, games, upright items like broom/mop, outerwear and coats fit in the entry closet.

Clothing, especially my (perhaps excessive) hats, scarves, boots and jewelry, were a challenge. We hung a rod in the sleeping loft that holds most of our clothes on hangers and a stylish small dresser holds the balance. My jewelry hangs on the wall on hooks. My boots are stored below the dresser.

Built-in book shelves hold our books.

Our winter clothing and additional blankets are kept in a storage compartment below the couch.

He designed the kitchen cabinets to hold appliances like the air-fryer, waffle maker, crock pot, food processor, and coffee maker because we like the counter-tops free of clutter.

Our dirty clothes hamper and cleaning supplies fit conveniently inside the over-sized bathroom vanity.

We don’t use all of the storage we created, which is a good thing. We have extra shelving in the bathroom and kitchen cabinets as well as multiple built-in shelves that are left open.

He had the great idea of including an exterior storage cabinet as a type of mini-shed. It holds our hot water heater and propane tanks. It has plenty of room for extra storage. It can hold tools, boxes, sporting goods, camping gear and more.

Let there be Light

One thing that I was concerned about was having appropriate lighting built in.

There is not really space for lamps, so a well-built T.H. will include lighting for many activities. In the main living space we have a romantic dining-room chandelier, an artistic mood light that we made from my grandpa’s old boat trailer winch, and bright halogen lights on the ceiling-fan for task-work.

Both lofts have surface mounted LED lighting (to allow for more head room), which look similar to recessed light fixtures, and the one in our sleeping loft is on a dimmer switch.

The kitchen sports hip exposed conduit, LED Edison bulbs that give a warm glow, and bright LED under-cabinet lighting strips for food prep.

Three bright reading lamps mount to the walls behind our pillows for bed reading, on the sofa for lounge reads, and at the dining table for workspace.

The bathroom has three bright vanity lights and another recessed ceiling fixture over the tub. There are two exterior lights, one on each long side of the trailer.

As I mentioned before, I wanted lots of large windows, which was accomplished. Every space, including the bathroom has a window (but we couldn’t squeeze in the ventilation exhaust fan that I had wished for). The two living room windows are each 6’x 6’ and the kitchen window is 7’x 3’. So, we don’t have much wall space which means we had to get creative with storage because we were limited.

The benefit is Frontier feels very open and airy, even on dreary Oregon days. It doesn’t feel too depressing because the beauty of the outdoors can be seen from any room. Natural lighting is abundant, especially during the long days of summer.

Additionally, we added several mirrors to give the illusion of more space and also to reflect light. Two of them are full length, one on the entry closet and one on the living room side of the bathroom door. There is a mirror behind the bathroom vanity and one in the yoga loft.

Drawing board

We drew up our design again and again and again. Separating the bathroom and kitchen was accomplished, but not without some more complicated plumbing solutions. All of the windows I bought gave us a challenge with his energy efficiency standards, but we air sealed the entire house meticulously. Building safe and sturdy ladders to the lofts required taking from usable floor space, but we decided safety was paramount. We changed things often as we went.

Whenever possible, we used repurposed or second-hand materials to meet our low budget including the bathroom sink, much of the decorative wood and loft beams, the chandelier and boat winch lights, and some of the exterior siding. I got all (but one) of the windows for under $600, they were new but never installed by contractors or homeowners who overbought or mismeasured.


These considerations were only the beginning of the journey. We eventually had to plan which energy sources to use: propane/electric/solar, etc. We contemplated where electrical receptacles and light switches would go and what we would do for heating and cooling. We decided on some small (range) and some full-size (fridge) appliances.

Every detail about materials was thought out.

We had to choose a toilet type (actually, I knew from the start a composting toilet was not for me) and decided on a full size standard one. We strategized how doors swing, what furniture selections worked best, what color choices gave us the feel we wanted and which essential oils I would diffuse. Some decisions are more important others. In all of these decisions weight was a major factor because we couldn’t exceed the trailer limit of 10,000 lbs.

In the end, it is extremely functional for our lifestyle and we are happy we gave it as much thought as we did.

Happily Tinified,

Jessica Morgan McAtee

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