Behind the Scenes: How to Build a Tiny Mobile House
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
Step #1: Document It
When filmmakers Christopher Smith and Merete Mueller set out to build a tiny house for the 2013 documentary Tiny: A Story About Living Small, they had no idea what they were doing. “We were new to construction,” says Smith. “The house turned out great, but there are definitely things I wish we would have known going into it.” The couple learned so much during the process that they ended up publishing a 101-page ebook.
We caught up Smith and Mueller to better understand how their cozy 124-square-foot abode came together—and what you can learn from their mistakes.
Start with a Trailer
If you want your tiny home to be mobile, build it on a trailer. Outfitters like PJ Trailers and Tiny House Basics offer towables specifically designed for hauling tiny houses. The width matters more than the length: You’ll want a trailer that’s narrow enough to comply with highway restrictions. It also needs to support the weight of a house, says Smith. Calculating weight before construction can be tricky, but if you’re using an online blueprint (which the couple recommends), it should already be provided.
Rain Is the Enemy
“This was Colorado in the mountains during the summer, so we had storms rolling in basically every afternoon,” says Mueller. The inside of their house got soaked almost every day until the roof and house wrap were in place, but Colorado’s arid climate helped dry things out. If your trailer doesn’t drain properly, it could collect rainwater, which will bog down the base. Worried about weather during construction? Look for a covered building site.
Your tiny house will be tiny, sure, but that doesn’t mean a tumble off the roof won’t hurt. “The roofs of these houses tend to be steep,” says Smith. “We actually built scaffolding around the house for this stage of construction.”
Roof height is also a factor when it’s time to take the house on the road. It would be a shame to have a highway overpass shear off your brand-new roof (and demolish your house).
Smith and Mueller chose beetle-kill wood for their siding. The lumber is cheap and plentiful (pine beetles have ravaged hundreds of thousands of acres of Colorado’s lodgepole pines) and has a cool blue tinge. Because you’re using a trailer as your base, make sure the siding is flush with the back of the wheel wells.
Tiny houses also require fewer building materials than their full-size counterparts. This makes it easy to get enough reclaimed wood (like beetle-kill boards), metal, and other materials to build the entire structure.
Go for a Porch
Some, like Smith, love tiny house porches. Others prefer to maximize the interior space. The porch Smith built is so big (relatively speaking) that it actually hangs off the back of the trailer.
Smith and Mueller went with a bucket filled with peat moss and sawdust for their bathroom, but there are fancier options if you’re willing to spend the money. A manufactured composting toilet could cost as much as $3,000, but it will grind your waste into dust and requires emptying only about twice per year.
At the start of the project, the couple planned to purchase only the essential tools. But they “quickly learned that buying tools and always having them on site ends up saving you tons of money and time,” says Smith. It’s good to have at least one spare hammer, screwdriver, and electric drill nearby. Here, Christopher manhandles a flooring stapler, a specialized tool they rented for a few days.
Look to the Boats
Tiny-house owners often look to sailboats for design inspiration, particularly when it comes to kitchens. “Sailboat appliances are built to last in harsh environments, and they’re very economical in terms of space,” says Smith. The pair opted for an alcohol-burning stove. The only downside: At high altitudes, it produces a lot of carbon monoxide, so they have to vent diligently.
What type of kitchen you build depends on how often—and what meals—you’ll cook. In the spirit of radical minimalism, you can get away with just a few pots, pans, plates, bowls, and utensils. Pro tip: Hang them up or store them in open shelving to make the kitchen appear more spacious.
That’s Smith and Mueller’s number one piece of advice. Building a tiny house can be an amazing but maddening project. “Building this thing will probably take you two or three times longer than you anticipate, and that’s OK,” says Smith. “When it’s finally complete, I guarantee you’ll miss working with your hands, and you’ll feel pretty nostalgic about all the work you did to create this new living space.”