Part 2: Building a Tiny House (UK)
In Part 1 of this tiny house series, I got a general tour of the tiny house lifestyle and all its wood-panelled splendour. In hindsight, it’s all a very romanticised view of the tiny home movement. Not to mention it’s royally daft to base any life-changing decision on rosy Instagram photos and on the word of a guy who literally sells tiny houses for a living.
So, this month I’m going to check under the fingernails of the tiny house trend and find out what it’s truly like. I want to know exactly what I’m getting myself into — before I find myself bouncing around a shoebox with £6 left in my savings.
Okay, I started a little late this month. But things have been hectic lately with family and whatnot over in London. I live in Kent so that means a lot of back and forth in half-empty trains for me. (Empty trains are arguably one of the best side effects of COVID-19.)
Anyway, I popped back into the grumpy English Tiny House UK Facebook group and posted a question for anyone who had dealt with the main tiny house company in the UK. I was feeling hopeful about getting some people to talk to, right until I noticed their last post was on May 2018.
I clicked around for a while longer and came across an older post linking to a ‘Tiny House Q&A’. It’s an interview with a UK ‘tiny houser’ (apparently that’s the term I could’ve been using all this time).
The interview covers the basic things like what qualifies as a tiny house (answer: anything under 50m2), why people move into tiny homes (answer: because brick houses are bloody expensive), and why people move out (answer: ??).
For that last one, the reasons are what you’d expect. People get tired of crouching to get into bed or they have more children than they can live with. It’s also easy to feel cramped and cluttered if you don’t keep things tucked away — something that Chris March also mentioned in our call last month.
(I’m not the most organised person, but as a writer, I have become incredibly skilled at tidying up instead of working towards a deadline. The other day I carefully dusted off my succulents with a paintbrush.)
On the other end of the stick, lots of people go tiny as a temporary solution and end up liking it so much they make it permanent. The first reason is, obviously, that the housing market is a hot mess. The next reason, according to their research, is freedom.
‘Freedom to prioritise community, family, hobbies, volunteering, setting up your own business, further education.’
Not being crushed by a mortgage or hoping your next landlord isn’t the human equivalent of anal herpes are certainly good motivators.
Another interesting tidbit I found buried in the threads is a new company called OpHouse. It’s a collaborative project between people looking for affordable housing and companies who build it.
It was only founded in 2020, so it’s still a baby. Right now they’re just putting out feelers and asking people to register their interest in getting help building their tiny homes. Just submitted the form myself. Not sure what’s supposed to happen next though.
You know you’ve hit a ‘certain age’ when you find yourself googling the nearest chiropractor. After decades of sleeping like a pretzel and hunching over my laptop while I stab keys for 8+ hours a day, I think the crooked mess that is my lower spine needs a check up.
As always, Google strides in with its comforting search suggestions:
If I suddenly stop updating this tiny house series, please know that it’s because someone, somewhere in London, has horribly misjudged the strength of my vertebrae.
I was in bed at 2 pm scrolling through Instagram (as you do) and landed on one that showed a virtual tour of a tiny house.
It was a lot better at giving an accurate sense of the space than those photos taken with a wide lens that could make a litter box seem as big as a football field.
The design of this tiny house is different from what I usually see, so I decided to dig a bit further. Using my incredible investigative powers (i.e. clicking on the source clearly stated in the caption) I ended up on a website called Tuttle Shuttle by Ryan Tuttle — a San Francisco photographer who, like me, wants to reel in all the tiny house information scattered across the internet to make it easier for others.
She has a few great tips and resources that are nice and easy for people just getting started. She’s in the USA, so not all of it applies, but here are some universally useful insights:
Get inspiration before designing. The first step to designing your tiny house is looking at what everyone else has already built. Like me, she found Instagram and Pinterest to be the best places for hoarding ideas. After a while, you’ll find that a lot of the stuff you’ve bookmarked share similarities and it’ll become clearer what you actually want.
Map your home routine to help with floor planning. This was one of those tips that you only think is obvious once someone points it out. ‘Write down what you do during an average day to help you plan what you need’. For example, Ryan usually changes her clothes in her room, but tiny house lofts have pretty low ceilings, so she designed a little landing space atop the stairs with a wardrobe so she could change without smashing her head.
It’s amazing what you can live without. The recurring theme in tiny-house living is that you can always do with less. Case in point: my rented studio came without a freezer, so I have been living without my usual four tubs of Ben & Jerry’s for almost six months now. Do I hate it? Yes. Am I doing just fine without a freezer and saving money? Also yes.
Shop around for builders. Even though Ryan’s in the USA where tiny house builders abound, it turned out to be cheaper to get it built in Canada and shipped to San Francisco. Looks like I should nosey international builders and compare quotes then.
Tiny houses are in a legal grey area. As we know, most countries aren’t too clear on what you can and can’t do with a tiny house. Generally, tiny homes on wheels are grouped in with RVs and you can legally live in them for about 30 days at a time. But, unless you have a particularly fastidious council, they won’t actually know if you’re living in your tiny house full-time or not.
She says that most tiny homeowners are simply living under the radar. They find a plot of land and just stay there. If they get found out, it’s usually because some disgruntled neighbour reported them. The worst that will happen is you’ll be asked to move your home. So as long as you stay out of public view and be nice to your neighbours, you should be fine.
As for finding land, her advice neatly coincides with what Chris told me in our call last month. Start with friends and family, then branch out into sites that rent out camping spots or farm land. She also recommends finding land while building your tiny house — or at least after you’ve designed it — so you know exactly what kind of land you need (size, water access, etc.).
What tickled my interest was one of her posts about working with a tiny house builder, particularly when they’re not in the same country as you. Being a photographer, she was very detailed on the visual part of her tiny house design so the builder (Minimaliste in Quebec, Canada) would know exactly what to do.
This is a screengrab of the sorts of references she sent them.
Not everyone is skilled at 3D or architecture, but even the densest of us can slap pretty photos in a document and send it. (This is where your Pinterest/Instagram hoarding comes in handy.)
Minimaliste also sent her daily photos of the build, and she did visit in-person once. I think I’m going to reach out to her with a couple questions of my own, like how accurate her overseas build ended up being once she got it and what she would’ve done differently.
She offers a ‘Zoom tour and QA’ for $105 (about £80) or just a quick tour of her tiny house for $45 (£35). The latter is much cheaper than what I paid Chris March, so I might get the short tour and stick in some questions — since her inbox will likely spit my email straight into her spam folder.
On another note, she mentions that her house isn’t hooked up to traditional sewage but uses a ‘greywater’ system. I’ve seen that term in passing, but haven’t really delved into it. Should probably do that.
I know about greywater and water waste now. And let me tell you, it is disgusting.
But, if one of your reasons for getting a tiny house is to live a self-sufficient and sustainable lifestyle, then you’re going to want to come to terms with all of this now.
Not only did I have to trawl through endless forums where the most recent activity was three years ago, I also had to abuse my retinas with pages that look like this:
As we know, getting an eco tiny house means going off-grid with things like solar panels and rainwater collection. The good thing about going off-grid is you don’t pay any electric/gas/water bills since you’re not hooked into city services— the bad part is…everything else.
One major niggle is dealing with waste water. There are two types: black water and grey water. Black water is basically sewage from your toilet, whereas grey water is the dirty water from your sinks, shower, washing machine, etc. It’s usually swimming with bits of food, soap, grease, hair, lint — all that lovely stuff.
So, to recap:
Blackwater = faeces.
Greywater = not faeces.
The good thing is that greywater can be recycled, but only if it’s free from harsh industrial chemicals. If you dump bleach down your sink then toss that water into a nearby lake, you might as well set the forest on fire while you’re at it. I suddenly understand why Ryan Tuttle was promoting biodegradable products for greywater systems. (UK-based Vera-Bee is a nice little online shop with all sorts of eco-friendly soaps and cleaners.)
Moving on. Here’s what I found about managing your shitty and non-shitty water in a tiny house.
To get rid of your sewage without gagging, you can install a composting toilet. Think of it as a cat’s litter box, but for humans.
First of all, it looks like a regular toilet, but when you lift the lid, instead of one big hole there’s two. One is smaller and leads to a bottle that stores your urine, the bigger hole is for the turds that drop into an internal tank filled with some sort of smell-neutralising litter (coco coir and peat moss are mentioned often).
One YouTube couple who live in an RV detailed what having one of these toilets is actually like. Emptying the bottle seemed easy enough, it has a cap on it and you just lift it out and toss it every 2–3 days or so. The turd tank takes about a month to fill up, and for that one you’ll want to lift the entire toilet out and empty the ‘litter’ into a bag for disposal. (Where you dispose it depends on what’s allowed in your area. Some dump it down a public toilet, others use it as fertiliser, some just say ‘fuck it’ and dig a hole in the woods.)
The couple admits that it takes some getting used to, especially since you have to train your holes to do one thing at a time so the right waste drops into the right tank. There’s also the risk of your tank overflowing — while you’re using it. (Regular tank-checking is a must.) As a side note, if you have your period and you are not the person in charge of dumping out the tanks, maybe give the poor sod a heads up before they rush to a hospital.
The RV couple also insists it does not smell, saves thousands of gallons of water per year, and is cheaper than other blackwater disposal systems in the long run. Well, I bloody well hope so.
The methods for handling greywater range from placing buckets under your sinks or funnelling it into tanks that you manually empty every month, to sophisticated greywater filters that you can just buy and install.
These filters basically sift out the lint and other nasties so that the water can safely flow into your garden or the trees outside. You could dump unfiltered greywater into the soil as long as it’s free from chemicals and whatnot, but considering the amount of microplastics coming from your washer, it’s generally better not to.
Some tiny housers have devised their own DIY filtering systems, like this creative Australian who uses everything from worm composting to mosquito-eating fish to clean his water enough for re-use. One US blogger collects all of her greywater in a big tank and then pours it into an artificial wetland, which uses specific plants to naturally filter the water before it seeps into the soil.
I honestly do want to live in a sustainable house. I mean, think about it, the average UK household uses about 1000 gallons of water a day (and a third of that is just for flushing the loo). It’s a lot of waste — not to mention tons of money spent on bills.
But just thinking about everything involved in going off-grid makes me stare lovingly at my perfectly flushing toilet. Makes you appreciate it all a bit more, really.
I mean, imagine how apocalyptic this pandemic would be if our water/power had been cut off? Would be absolute pandemonium. Fortunately, all we did was invade Tescos and kick someone’s nan in the head for a 4-pack of loo roll.
Anyway, I suppose the key here is gradually (and voluntarily) removing yourself from the conveniences of city-life. It’s almost like going vegetarian. It’s tough to do if you just drop all meat at once, but it’s much easier if you start by taking out beef from your diet, then pork, then chicken, until you suddenly find yourself craving asparagus dipped in almond butter. (Is that a thing? It’s probably a thing.)
I’d go as far as saying that living sustainably is almost like the veganism of housing. Living out in nature and being 100% sustainable being top tier.
And, let’s be real here, sustainable living is a privilege. Not everyone has the luxury of buying zero-waste soap hand made from rose thorns and locally-sourced bee breath. Shit’s expensive.
So, maybe I can start off with normal electric/water services and then gradually ease into sustainable living. I can handle the idea of funnelling greywater into the toilet tank for flushing. That seems doable and I wouldn’t have to haul an entire loo outside to empty it out.
Speaking of toilets: for the UK, I found a company aptly called Toilet Revolution that sells all sorts of composting toilets and greywater filters. Some loos go for a whopping £3,500 — so that’s something else to consider.
Fortunately, it looks like plenty of tiny housers start off with a normal loo and then switch to compostable. So it’s not like you have to splurge on a glorified litter box from the start.
I accidentally woke up in a good mood today and decided to try my hand at floor planning.
As you can see, it went splendidly.
I probably would’ve produced something equally as sophisticated had someone stapled all my fingers together.
Clearly, I need some direction. So I took up Ryan Tuttle’s advice of checking the designs you’ve saved online and grouping the similarities to piece together your own Frankenstein version.
Here’s some of what’s saved in my Instagram so far.
It would appear I really like sofas that can be turned into dining areas and beds. Also, cosy reading nooks.
I do love loft bedrooms and most houses are designed so that you can retreat upstairs to sleep, but loft bedrooms also seem very…open. I’m the jumpy type of person to always sit in the corner of a restaurant and choose the side of the bed that’s nearest to the wall. There’s probably some deep psychological reasoning for my aversion to wide open spaces, but let’s not unpack that. (Plus, I prefer an old boyfriend’s reasoning: ‘you’re what happens when a paranoid cat reincarnates into a human for the first time.’)
Happily enough, during one of my many Instagram crusades I did see a few tiny house designs with the bedroom downstairs — sliding door and all. I may need to rethink the whole bedroom loft idea. I do want to be able to shut the door if guests are staying over, especially if they’re the type to serenade you with snoring all night long.
Anyway, I’ve started tucking away individual bits and pieces that I like in a Google Doc for easy reference. A nice sink, a cool shelving setup, a good window placement, things like that. Here’s a hodge-podge of ideas for my home office, for example.
I can definitely see how the mere design took Ryan over a year. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the seemingly endless possibilities. I’d say just focus on one bit of the house at a time. Ideally, start with the room you’ll use the most — in my case, that would be the home office.
Speaking of Ryan, she hasn’t answered my email yet. Come to think of it, I haven’t gotten any responses whatsoever from the tiny housers I contacted.
PEOPLE. There’s a Danish company called Velux that makes window-balconies and they’re available in the UK. It’s a large window and you open the top half and push out the bottom half to make a balcony. IT’S A SKYLIGHT THAT TURNS INTO A BALCONY.
I have never wanted anything more in my entire life.
That’s not true. But it’s a pretty rad thing to have in your house.
It seems I did get a response from one of the many tiny housers I’ve sent messages to! It said:
Somehow, I doubt they’ll be getting back to me. To be fair, they must get dozens of questions from clueless cabbages like myself. Suppose I’ll just keep figuring things out as I go then — like a bewildered and directionless bumblebee.
‘Twas a day of serious Googling. I blew off work and sat down to read story after story about the colourful collection of problems that tiny housers never expected to encounter.
Oh yes, it’s time to peek into the ugly side of tiny living.
Here are a few worthy mentions:
Adele Peters wrote in Fast Company how she moved into a tiny home in Brooklyn because it was too expensive to live anywhere else. The house is lovely — for a short stay. While she still lives in it (again, too expensive to move) she says it’s like an eternal game of Tetris where moving one thing means moving another thing out of the way. The loft bedroom ceiling is too low for comfort and, as someone who works from home, it’s essentially hell in a teacup.
Kathryn Kellogg vented on her blog how she went tiny for a year and hated it. Her 325 sq. ft tiny home had an impractical layout and it didn’t take long to make her miserable. Using the bed as a sofa, workspace and dining area did a number on her back and the tiny windows let as much light in as a low-wattage lightbulb. Not to mention she was an early-bird living with a night-owling boyfriend, so they were constantly interrupting each others sleep schedules. Oh, and they had a large dog who shed a LOT of fur.
Johnathan Bellows wanted to build his dreamy tiny home but the zoning laws in his area were i m p o s s i b l e. He ended up taking a gamble and building it anyway, tucking it into the remote woods and hoping for the best. That worked for a while, but he eventually found an ‘unlawful structure’ sticker slapped on the window of his tiny abode. After endless battles with zoning boards and deciphering legal weasel-wording, he gave up, packed up and moved into a flat with a roommate. His tiny house is still sitting in the woods.
One couple in their early twenties spent a year and $26,000 Canadian Dollars (about £15,000) building their tiny house. They pitched it on family-owned land and all was well — until she got pregnant six months later. Then the hubby had health issues and they ended up selling the house and moving into town for easier access to healthcare (and more space for the little one).
Another couple downsized into an RV with dreams of spontaneous roadtrips and tasteful freelancing. Except the layout wasn’t well thought-out and their sweet taste of freedom turned sour real fast.
“I thought [living in an RV] would be a perfect Instagram scenario — I’d be naked, wrapped in an American flag with my hair blowing in the wind, with people taking my photo saying, ‘You’re so young, wild, and free.’ But the reality was me sweating my ass off in a bathing suit because you can’t turn the air conditioner on. Instead, you have to use the generator to vacuum up the 600 moths infesting the place.”
Lastly, a family man explains in a video that they ‘outgrew their tiny home’ after having a third son. Although he does attribute tiny living for their much-needed financial break and says living in the woods was by far the best part. Despite tiny living not working out for them, he still ‘strongly recommends’ it.
There are dozens more stories like these and most share the same complaints: they quit because they felt cramped after growing their family, got tired of dealing with parking and zoning laws (for mobile homes), hated how smells from cooking/bins/dog farts permeated the entire home, or just felt too isolated from shops and other necessities.
Another running theme in all these stories, that I found surprising, is that none of them regretted going tiny. Whether it freed them financially for a while, connected them with nature, helped them shed excess belongings or taught them about carpentry and construction, they all found tiny living a worthwhile experiment.
At this point, Google helpfully slides a related search to my attention: tiny house divorce rates. Hm, okay let’s follow that one.
Turns out the house wasn’t big enough for them to get away from ‘their partner’s personal habits, smells and the “sound of their stupid voice”’.
After seeing all the perfectly-modelled homes on Pinterest and the free-spirited lifestyles on Instagram, they thought tiny living would be an idyllic, low-carbon-footprint adventure that would help them bond as a couple. Problem is, they didn’t do what we’re currently doing, which is researching the nasty bits before committing.
‘I knew within 2 minutes of moving in we had made a huge mistake. It’s like we signed up for some type of social experiment because we’re idiots.’
Looks like tiny living can either be a dream or a compact nightmare. It’s clearly not for everyone and, I mean, conditions change and what was a good idea at the time might not work later on. That’s completely a-okay. That said, some of these people could’ve saved themselves a lot of trouble if they had had the full story behind tiny living beforehand.
So, let’s summarise the pros and cons of tiny living to make sure no-one else is romanced into downsizing, only to find themselves in an un-Instagrammable tin with their divorcée and depressed labradoodle.
Like everything else, tiny living has its merits and limitations that can make you think either: ‘Nope not for me’, or ‘Yeah I can deal with that’.
I’ve been reading for hours and my eyes are shrivelling as I type, but here are a few considerations I scraped together from all this:
- Layout is everything: If your layout doesn’t accommodate your lifestyle or the amount of people living in it, your tiny house will feel like a rat cage. Take your time with the design and be mindful with each space you create because the layout can make or break your tiny home (and sanity).
- Plan ahead: If you’re a couple and intend on having five kids in the next few years, maybe tiny living isn’t for you. Although plenty have used a tiny home as an in-between solution then sold it before upsizing. So there’s that.
- Align priorities: Can you live without a coffee shop within a five mile radius? Is financial freedom worth giving up seventeen pairs of shoes? Is constant cleaning something you can deal with in the long term? If those things seems bad now, they ain’t gonna be any better later (unless you intend to overhaul your entire personality.)
- Social expectations: If you’re a huge people-person who loves having friends over and can’t stand being alone with your own thoughts, then tiny living might feel restrictive. If you have exactly two friends and one is your houseplant, then tiny living is perfect for you.
I will point out that at the end of many of these stories, there was usually some guilt about quitting tiny living. Like they had failed to thrive in what is touted as the ‘better, healthier lifestyle’.
Here’s the thing: going tiny can make you more mindful about what you own and how you live, sure, but it’s in no way a superiority badge. You could live in a solar-powered treehouse and still go out and murder three people every Wednesday.
Going tiny simply means that you have a particular kind of lifestyle or a particular set of needs that make it a good fit. That’s all. Doesn’t make you better or worse than anyone else. Just a little different.
But I digress.
Bottom line is: measure all the pros and cons before going tiny. If it works out, great. If it doesn’t, well, you can always sell it.
Here’s another drop in the shitbucket that is tiny living: what about getting post?
I order a lot of rubbish online — a habit I’ve been forced to curb now that all my packages arrive at my landlord’s door instead of mine. But if I own a house, I would want my stuff to actually arrive. Now how exactly does that work if you’re pitched in the middle of the woods or have a tiny house on wheels?
I looked it up and according to this thread on Quora, here are our options:
- Bother a family or friend to receive your post for you. Problem is if you get an urgent letter and don’t pick up your post in time.
- Get a Post Office box (PO box). You do have to pay for it and physically go to the post office to pick it up, but it’s a good option if you’re living under the radar and would like to keep it that way.
- You can get a ‘mail forwarding service’ like most RV owners. There’s even a Traveling Mailbox that creates an address for you, receives all your post in your stead and you can check what you got online. If it’s an urgent letter, they can open it and scan it for you.
- If you’re legally living on a plot of land (stationary or mobile), you can just ask for an address. Make sure you have all the right papers though.
Looks like going tiny will mark the end of my Tesco deliveries.
After seeing so much of the ‘ugly’ of tiny houses, the internet gods took pity on me and threw me a bone. Or, rather, Google’s stalker bots caught the words ‘tiny house’ in a few news stories and carelessly flung them my way.
One is a Bloomberg piece about a 57-year-old schoolteacher who went tiny so he could finally save for retirement. It also mentioned a 36-year-old folk musician who built his own tiny house and now actually earns more than he spends. Finally, it shared the plight of one woman who lost her home in 2008 and decided she wasn’t going to sabotage herself again. So, she built a house with zero debt and pays just $200 a month to rent the land.
Then there’s a story on KentLive about Fionnguala Sherry-Brennan, a Welsh woman living in a two-bedroom house who felt so inspired after watching George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces on TV (I should probably watch that) that she sold her house to fund a tiny house build.
She had zero building experience, so she started volunteering with retired carpenters to pick up a few skills. After a few weeks, she rented a space in a warehouse to start building her tiny home on a £10,000 budget.
‘It’s my house that I’ve designed and built. It’s a lovely feeling’.
The caveat is that, as with most tiny housers, she’s having trouble finding land for it.
‘I hope local authorities and the government starts to recognise that the way people live is changing and it will need to adapt’.
Well, if the tiny house movement takes off here they’re gonna have to.
One thing she said got me thinking though: since she has connections in Portugal, she purposefully build her tiny home to fit inside a shipping container. That’s a thought.
Now, the jaw-dropping privilege of this woman to sell her house to build another, smaller house is not lost on me. But what I’m choosing to take from this story is: 1) you can build a decent home for 10 grand, 2) learning carpentry to build it yourself is a good idea, and 3) if you plan on taking your house abroad, check shipping container sizes before you design it.
See, even the daftest story can teach you something.
Seriously, where are all these people finding magical family members with huge swaths of land??
Most of my family have lived in the same houses in Southeast London for the past 50 years, and the only ‘land’ they own is a garden the size of a teaspoon.
Anyone have a rich aunt I can rent?
It’s one of those days when a tiny house in the middle of fuck-all sounds mighty grand right about now.
My landlord’s grand-kids are over.
At 2 pm.
On a weekday.
I haven’t met the brats in person, but from what I can tell their hobbies include cycling, Viennetta, scream-crying when there’s no Viennetta, and channelling coked-up rhinos directly above me.
I’m currently wearing noise-cancelling headphones and trying to focus on my deadline in the midst of rattling windows. I have nothing but the deepest respect for anyone working from home with young children right now.
Honestly, I’d take a leaky composting toilet over this bullshit any day.
I’ve been rolling everything I’ve read this month about tiny living around in my head, and have come to the conclusion that I should charge ahead with my tiny mission. (More like ‘awkwardly bumble ahead’, but you get my point.)
I think I can deal with most things on the cons list: the compact size, the constant cleaning, heck I’m even coming to terms with the composting toilet. (Although if someone comes over with diarrhea, that’s between them and the woods.)
Isolation? No problemo. I’m a single, childless, petless, introverted writer — isolation is my jam.
Downsizing is the easy part. I’m a freelancing Millennial. I don’t even own a full set of cutlery.
As for guests, the only real guests I’d have to account for would be the Colombian side of my family. Latin American families just love piling into each other’s homes, but considering I’m in the UK and they’re not, it wouldn’t be a regular thing. Two extra pull out beds should do it.
Plus, I’m sure the infamous stink factor from cooking/bodily odours could be eased with a fan, a good amount of windows and having doors in the right places. Honestly, a strategic layout would solve half of the problems people have with tiny living.
Which leads me to think that maybe I’m being too lax with my tiny house design. I’ve just been slapping pretty things together and sketching visual monstrosities in a notepad. The good news is that now I know what most people had problems with and can design my tiny house around them.
I think my next move should be to really zero in on the layout and make sure I’m getting it exactly right — find tiny house floor plans, learn how to model one properly, what tools to use, etc.
I could just get an actual professional to do it, but I’m stubborn and want to take a good stab at it first. (Also, help is expensive and doing it myself will be much more amusing. For you, at least.)
It will likely end in tears, but let’s do it anyway.