8 Challenges of the Tiny House

Last week, Tiny House Atlanta and Southface hosted a room full of tiny house enthusiasts. Even if you don’t think you want a tiny house, you should give some thought to the idea.

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What is a Tiny House?
The name and definition of tiny homes vary by group and region. Some people refer to a “small house movement”, some people people use the phrases “tiny house” or “tiny home”.  In general, they refer to single-family homes that range in size from about one hundred square feet up to about nine hundred square feet.

You need to qualify one key issue when you speak about tiny houses: Are they on a foundation or are they built on a trailer so they can be moved from place to place? Tiny homes that are fixed on a foundation may be larger (up to about 900sf) to accommodate a family and they may offer more amenities like basic accessibility and utilities like natural gas and high-speed broadband access to the internet.

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The image above shows an unfinished tiny house mounted on a trailer. The exterior sheathing (the green stuff) is sealed to the trailer at the bottom to prevent air and moisture from getting into the construction. It will have a finished siding material (and paint) applied to the green sheathing. This home by Kokoon Homes was towed from Toccoa, Georgia to Atlanta (about 95 miles) for the meeting.

Where Are They Now?
There are also a number of tiny house communities and more are developing. The tiny houses on trailers can be moved to enjoy changing seasons. You can probably find a tiny house community or village in your region if you’d like to see one for yourself. The Blue Moon Rising Village in McHenry, MD; The Village of Wildflowers in Flat Rock, NC and the Hiker Hostel in Dahlonega, GA are examples of places you can rent a tiny house.

What Challenges Do Tiny Houses Face?
The tiny house movement is relatively new so you’ll need to consider some of the challenges before you invest in a tiny house. There are already a number of tiny houses so the challenges shouldn’t prevent you from your goal; you’ll just have to pay attention.

1. Tiny Loans Remain a Challenge: Tiny houses may cost as little as a car and home loans typically aren’t designed to deal with such relatively small amounts of money. This is a situation where your choice between a tiny house on a foundation or a trailer will probably make a difference. A tiny house on a foundation is just a small house while a tiny house on a trailer is regulated as a recreational vehicle. [If you own a home, you may be able to address the financing challenge with a home equity loan that allows you to enjoy a low interest rate.]

2. Tiny Appliances: You’ll need to give some thought to the kitchen(ette) appliances you’ll use since you may not have room for a typical oven, cook top and dish washer. Don’t forget, you’ll also need to be able to get those appliances through the door.

3. Tiny Building Systems: You should have a design professional figure out your building enclosure (exterior walls + windows, roof and floor) and heating/cooling/ventilation issues. It may be a challenge to find heating/cooling equipment small enough to adequately address your heating, cooling and dehumidification needs. You’ll also need to insure those solutions aren’t disruptive. For example, a window or PTAC (like you find in hotels) air conditioner makes a lot more noise in the space you’re occupying than central heating/cooling.

4. Tiny Choices for Mobility: The sleeping space in a tiny house takes up a relatively large amount of square footage so sleeping lofts are popular. A sleeping loft may be difficult for some people to access. There’s not much room for basic accessibility options in a tiny house, especially if it’s on a trailer, so you should take care to make the most out of every opportunity.

5. Tiny Amount of Separation: We thrive when we enjoy interaction with other people. Many of us find a balance between interaction and solitude though that may be a significant challenge in a tiny house that offers little to no separation from other occupants. You may need to step outside to use the phone, use headphones and take more care to respect the sleep/rest schedule of other occupants. This is one of the best reasons to try a tiny house before you buy one.

6. Tiny Amount of Durability: A tiny house built on a foundation is just a small house – it enjoys all the building materials and methods available today. Tiny houses built on trailers are subject to stress when they’re moved and the design loads for natural elements like wind and snow may change significantly if you move them from one area to another. If you’re planning to invest in a tiny house on a trailer, you should ask your design professional to help you investigate how to move the house and what loads it’s been designed to withstand.

7. Tiny Tolerance for Building Codes + Zoning: There may be some building code and zoning ordinance challenges for tiny houses, again, depending on if they’re built on a foundation or a trailer. For example, the International Residential Code has some minimum requirements for sleeping rooms that you’ll likely need to meet. There may also be zoning regulation issues if a tiny house on a trailer is considered a recreational vehicle or a “mobile home”. Home owners association covenants may set a minimum house size or require that homes are built on a foundation. If your tiny house is on a trailer, it’s probably subject to Department of Transportation rules as well. Take care to look into the requirements for any area in which you intend to live in a tiny home so you’re not disappointed to learn of restrictions or regulations after you’ve made an investment.

8. Tiny May Mean Acute: The small square footage of a tiny house can mean issues are more acute: severe in effect. For example, you may lose much of your heating/cooling energy when you open the door of a tiny house to enter/exit. It can also mean the indoor heat gain from an appliance like an oven can be an issue because that heat doesn’t have a significant square footage in which to spread out. Humidity from people, cooking and bathing may also cause more of a problem due to the small indoor area. This is another reason to involve a qualified designer to help you be healthy, comfortable and efficient in your tiny house.

Tiny Renewables Call for a Modern Style
You know (from reading this blog) that the orientation of a building (houses are buildings) on its site makes a HUGE difference in building performance. Orienting the house on a site, even if it’s on a trailer, creates the opportunities for daylighting, ventilation and generation of renewable energy. For tiny houses on trailers that will be moved from one place to another, why not drop the details of traditional housing like gable roofs and detailed exteriors for the simplicity of modern design?

For example, a tiny house comes with a tiny roof. If you need to maximize the number of PV panels you can put on the roof to generate electricity, having the entire roof slope in one direction so the house can be positioned with a southern exposure makes the most sense. That would also make it easier to design the roof overhang to shade windows on the south side. Even tiny houses on trailers can enjoy a creative design.

Tiny Home Transition
Many people probably dismiss the idea of a tiny house without giving it much thought. It doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition. Having a tiny house gives you the opportunity to move your home rather than buying two houses OR you can buy a home and keep a tiny house on another property OR you can buy a home and keep your tiny house on your property and move it to enjoy warmer weather, visit family, enjoy a event, take on a (work) project in another city, etc.

Living in a tiny house would be a significant lifestyle change for many people. If you’re interested, you can transition into a tiny house (even if it’s just for vacation) by renting tiny houses to try them out. If you buy one that you keep on your property, you can use it as a playhouse, office, studio, guest house, transitional house, etc. You could even buy a tiny house on a trailer to use as a temporary house while you’re building a house – this could be particularly helpful if you’re building a house on a remote site.

In Conclusion
Tiny house enthusiasts make the point that many people fall into the trap of choosing a home based on the loan for which they’re qualified. The organization giving you the loan will probably not tell you that you should buy less house so you won’t be “house poor”. Many owners want to buy as much house as they can with the hope that it will appreciate substantially over time. Whether we give it much thought, we often make significant trade-offs in other areas of our lives to afford our homes.

Whether you’re interested in living in a tiny house or not, don’t make the mistake of dismissing the idea without giving it some thought. The spirit of the tiny house movement is that we can do more with less house – literally. Spending less time and money on a simpler life allows us to shift our priorities to enjoy more of what life has to offer.

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