A few years ago, my father and I built an off grid tiny house on our homestead. We rented it out on AirBnB and it was all booked up in no time. It was going really well and making some decent income for our homestead. In short time it paid for itself. All was going well until we got a call from our city zoning department telling us the tiny house was not in compliance. We could keep it if we went through a bunch of ridiculous hoops like adding on another 200 square feet onto it (kind of defeats the purpose of a tiny house). Zoning and Tiny Homes can vary wildly from state to state.
How We Were Hired to Build a Custom Off-Grid Tiny House
After a lot of consideration we decided to sell it and move on. During that time we got a call from a woman across the country named Sam. Sam saw our tiny house on AirBnb before we had to pull it down and she liked it, but she wanted something larger and more custom. Sam asked me if we could build her a custom tiny house. I explained that we are not builders and we’ve only built one tiny house but she was OK with that.
We worked out the details and agreed to design Sam a custom off grid tiny house. It was one heck of a journey and we learned some valuable lesions along the way. We also took 100s of hours of video footage and edited it all down into a short, start to finish tiny house build video you can watch below. Check out, we are really proud with how it turned out.
I custom designed the tiny house to Sam’s specifications. She wanted a little front porch and a futon-nook area. She had plans for a custom live edge countertop. Unlike my earlier tiny house this one was going to be outfitted with a washer/dryer combo, cook stove and composting toilet and shower. The entire house was to be powered by three 100 watt solar panels and a battery pack with a backup generator for the large appliances. In short, this tiny house would be amazing.
My biggest advice to someone taking on any large building project like this, learn Google Sketchup. Not only does it help with planning and visualization, it also generates specific cut lists making for a real nice workflow. We spent nearly a half-day simply cutting each and every 2×4 for the flooring, walls, window cutouts etc. Then it was just a matter of assembling them all.
Sam purchased a custom tiny house trailer. This was expensive but it made for an excellent foundation to build upon, unlike my first tiny house which was built on an old camper trailer. We added sheet metal to the underside of the trailer to protect it and keep out critters.
It took several months to build and many calls and updates. But we got it built.
A Few Lessons This Experience Taught Us
- Custom Tiny House Trailers make the job much easier
- Hammering out all of the details and agreeing on charges for change orders is critical
- 3D designs were a critical part of scoping out and managing the project
- A good workflow will save a ton of time. We cut all the 2x4s at once then assembled like a big puzzle. We also built all of the walls flat in our workshop and then brought them all outside and stood them up. This saved a ton of time
- Tiny house roofs are tall! It was more dangerous than I thought putting up the metal roofing and skylight. A bucket truck or scaffolding will be in my future plans.
- No matter how much you plan, changes will arise and need to be account for upfront
- Freezing considerations. In my tiny house I designed the shower and kitchen sink and water tank to have all of the plumbing inside the interior wall to reduce the odds of freezing in winter. Sam had other ideas and later ran into problems. I should have been more firm on interior plumbing runs.
- Sam was a great customer and we loved working with her. The only trouble was it was very hard to build a custom project when she lived on the other side of the country. For that reason the 3D designs were critical for managing scope, but it was still really difficult.
We finished the tiny house and Sam traveled across the country to pick it up. She had nothing but nice things to say about it.
One of the biggest lessons I learned from this project is that I will never do a custom project again, even though Sam was a pleasure to work with. It’s too hard to stay within budget and so time consuming nailing all of the detailed minutiae, especially with the buyer across the country.
When I build my third off-grid tiny house, it will be designed specifically how I want it. It will be so much easier and efficient to focus on my vision and then find someone to purchase it versus trying to capture someone else’s vision.
In the end, it was one heck of an adventure, I think we built an amazing tiny home for Sam (in large part due to her vision and design input), but it wasn’t worth the effort for what we charged. We ended up going way over budget and by the end had very little profit for our time. I’m still glad we did it though, it was one heck of an adventure and we improved our skills and learned how to do it better next time.
See How the Off-Grid Tiny House Turned Out
Kerry W. Mann, Jr. moved to a 20-acre homestead in 2015, where he and his family use modern technology, including YouTube and Instructables.com, to learn new skills and teach homestead projects. Connect with Kerry on his Homestead How YouTube page, Instructables, Pinterest, Facebook, and at My Evergreen Homestead. Read all of Kerry’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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