Livable Space Design for Tiny Homes

Reader Contribution by Christopher James Marshall
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Livable Space vs. the ‘Box’

The ‘box’ is any rectangular living space, but the box we don’t want is the one that poorly satisfies our human dimensions and activities.  The problem presents itself when living space is compromised over building costs.  These choices boil down to balancing livable space with the building budget, however, creativity in space design is not limited; that’s how architects create nests.

When you are working with house concepts you must include the roof in the equation. The 5-sided (pentagon) house shape we are familiar with: a sloped roof and a box under the roof.   In the figures below, all will shed the weather, yet which shape will most comfortably accommodate our activities with the least material cost?  Note that the ‘bird house’ profile has greater square footage at eye level than at floor level.

Human Dimensions inside a 5-Sided Tiny House


Inside or Outside Rooms

The purpose of going inside is to get away from outside, and the reverse is true, that you go outside to get away from inside. This might seem silly, but the point to understand how much time you prefer spending inside vs. outside. At a homestead there is a lot of regular outdoor activity, so what the house can offer is a change from being outside!

If you want to feel more connected to the outdoors, consider concepts ranging from a ‘garden room’ which is outside with furniture among the plants, to a ‘glass house’ which is inside, with walls made of windows that creates the appearance of being outside.

One of the most useful and affordable outdoor spaces is a covered porch, often the space in-between the front stairs and the front door, with the second floor forming the roof over the porch.  This is a classic bungalow design, with a porch facing the front yard, sidewalk, and street. It offers outdoor living when the temperature is sufficient and presents a friendly attitude towards neighbors.

A flexible inside/outside design is a wall of ‘French’ doors that open onto an un-covered patio or deck.  This has major challenges in dealing with the egress of insects and pests and can only be used when the outside temperature is comfortable.

Another design for inside/outside is an open-air courtyard surrounded on at least three sides by the building, with windows and doors facing the courtyard. When the occupants rarely go outside then house plants are a way to bring the outside into the home.

The outdoor kitchen is worth considering in warm summer climates. The main purpose is to move the heat and vapors of cooking out of a tiny house. A barbeque on the patio is essentially an outdoor kitchen.

Single or Multiple Rooms and Floors

The purpose of multiple rooms is to separate activities, thus providing privacy and/or isolation of things happening in one room from pervading into other rooms like odors, sounds, and light. For example it is not healthy to have the bathroom adjacent to the kitchen.

Rooms should be dedicated to creating a space that is optimized for certain functions or to offer a change from the other rooms. Often these spaces can be simple extensions of a larger room the way nooks and window seats are known to offer their unique ambiance.

Techniques for one-room homes to make it more livable: Ventilation can eliminate humidity and odors; lighting can alternate the look of a single room for multiple functions by using dimmable lighting and task lighting.

Multiple occupants in a single room bring up other considerations:  generally related persons can share a bedroom; unrelated persons can share a ‘bunk house’.  However, lack of privacy can become an issue over a long period of time.

Multiple floors pay the price of floor space dedicated to the staircase.  The staircase opening is also a pathway for air currents and heat that must be considered.  If the upper floor has sloped walls as in an attic or dormer, you’ll have restricted head clearance, consequently the furnishings that require less height like beds and desks are usually placed along the walls.

Built-Ins and Fold-Outs

Putting some thought into the design of built-ins and fold-outs prevents the problem of believing your kitchen space is large enough and then finding it too tiny after you attach cupboards to the walls and place a table in the middle of the room.

Objects like books, dishes, food supplies, or clothes will decrease the “people volume” of the room.  These items can be accessed with built-ins and fold-outs and can be designed into the “wall volume.”

An important aspect of built-ins and fold-outs is that they will be permanent features and not easily modified, thus their utility or function is fixed and the amount of repetition to operate a pull-out or fold-out plays into the confidence in its value.

Examples of built-ins: shelves, cupboards, drawers, closets, a staircase that allows access to shelves behind the treads.  Note that lights, fans, heaters, video displays and speakers are often and can be built-in.

Examples of pull-outs and fold-outs:  flip-up work surfaces; convertible beds, sofas, and benches; closets that roll around and become a room divider; window coverings.

The Fourteen Basic Requirements of a Livable Home

1. House is solidly built and has no leaks exposed to unfavorable weather nor unwanted pests

2. House creates a sense of security for the occupants and their possessions

3. Materials are pleasant to touch, non-toxic, strong and durable

4. There is a water supply, electric power, hot water, and heating and/or cooling

5. There is a place to securely park the homeowners vehicle

6. There is access to a garden for humans and their pets

7. Kitchen has a refrigerator, stove, sink, and enough counter space, pantry, and cupboards

8. Bathrooms have a toilet, a shower and/or tub, a sink, and cupboards for toiletries and towels

9. Laundry rooms have clothes washing and drying devices

10. Each member of the household has his or her own private place that is comfortable

11. Rooms are generous in space for humans while storage space is compact and efficient

12. Rooms are warm in winter; cool in summer

13. Rooms have a view and natural light from at least two directions

14. Rooms have lighting for nighttime and task work

Christopher James Marshallis the author of the do-it-yourself small house book Hut-Topia and is a modern-day off-grid mountain man. After weathering recessions and lay-offs every decade since the 70s through the “Great Recession,” he became semi-retired by making plans to live sustainably and then built his 500-square-foot off-grid home.Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here. 

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