A friend was asking me recently about our experience living in a tiny house. She is planning on building a new home too, and was planning on living in a tiny house on her property in the meantime. After our visit, I kept thinking about what we would have done differently if we had known we would be living in the cabin for this long.
As much as I love living in our little house, you know that living tiny wasn’t our dream. We were supposed to build regular sized house years ago and for one reason or another, those plans were postponed. That’s okay because we get to have this experience instead for a while!
That first year, we camped on our property several times. We cleared some space, cut down trees, and tried to picture where our dream home would situate. During the long drive to Lake Chelan, we would discuss what was next and how we would accomplish it.
To start with, we would construct a little weekend cabin. It would be years before we would build the main house, and a small cabin would be a warm, clean, dry place to spend time at our happy place instead of having to pitch a tent. I love our cabin for so many reasons. The first is that we are the ones who lovingly built it. Everyone thinks that Rick did it, but my blood, sweat, and tears are embedded in that structure as much as his. Not to mention the ideas, the eagerness to make this leap of faith, and lots of elbow grease. He did the complicated stuff, and I did what he asked me to do. We also had a lot of help from family, especially my dad, Matt, my brother, and his husband.
Ten years ago, the tiny house movement in the U.S. was beginning to pick up steam. When we were looking for design ideas, it was difficult to find plans for a house that was less than 500 sq. ft., so we figured it out ourselves. Our design would feature a shed roof, lots of windows, a small kitchen, and a sleeping loft. The 200 square foot cabin sits on pier blocks, so technically it is not a permanent structure.
While we built it, we slept in our tent and made dinner on a camp stove situated on a counter made of a piece of plywood on sawhorses. We completed the shell in 2010. We were able to drywall and paint the next year. Several years later, Rick completed the kitchen. Since it was just our little weekend getaway spot, and we weren’t able to come over all the time, there was no deadline for completion. Pieces of furniture and details were added as we went along.
Here we are now, living full time in what was a weekend cabin. It wasn’t designed as a permanent home, so it doesn’t have a lot of features that would have made things easier or more comfortable. Most tiny houses have furniture that serves multiple purposes. We could use more storage. We didn’t even have a permanent heater until we moved in last year. We used a portable kerosene heater if it got really cold.
For power, we use a small solar system or a generator. The solar system is small enough that it can’t handle running the ceiling fan or my CPAP machine overnight. We charge separate batteries for my machine. While we wintered over at the lake house, I bought an Instant Pot which requires enough juice that to use it at the cabin, we have to use the generator. The only other times that we use the generator are when Rick is using power tools or if it has been cloudy for a couple of days. Otherwise, the solar-powered system is enough.
Everyone wants to know about plumbing. This is the unglamorous part of rustic, tiny house living. How do you wash dishes, clean yourselves, and poop? Most tiny houses are on wheels. For the bathroom, they will use a composting toilet or a holding tank system like an RV. New composting toilets cost around a thousand dollars. I imagined that we would have a septic system put in sooner rather than later, so we opted for a portable toilet like you might see on a boat (an $80 purchase). Unfortunately, years later, we are still using that portable toilet. This year sometime, we will put in a septic system for the new house, and there will be a standard flushing toilet in the cabin.
Washing dishes is easy, and we can usually do it with only three to five gallons of water. Since until very recently, we were hauling water, so conservation was necessary. We heat water in the kettle or a big pot and use a water cooler with a spigot and short hose attached for rinsing. Not glamorous, but not that hard. As I write this, Rick is putting the final touches on a plumbing system that will bring hot water into the cabin. So exciting! He can do anything!
For showering, that has been a very low tech, camping style set up. Rick built an enclosure that has a shelf for a couple of camp sun shower bags. I can shower with just three gallons of water. When the sun is out, the water heats up, and an outdoor shower is nice. When it’s cloudy or cold outside, we heat water, pour it into the shower bags, and brace ourselves for the cold air. This also means that showers usually happen in the afternoon while the air is warm instead of in the morning. Maybe tomorrow we will be able to take hot showers with hot water from the tap!
In general, our eight-foot long kitchen layout functions well. We have a three burner gas stove with a small oven, a double compartment sink, and a table that doubles as an island. The table is an Ikea find that works brilliantly in our space. There are two leaves that we can pull up if we have people over, which happens occasionally. If I open the leaf that is closest to the kitchen, it works just like an island, and I get an additional three-foot square counter for preparing dinner or making cookies. If I open the other leaf, it works as a table for two or as a desk. This table also has three small drawers on either side. We keep small toiletries on one side and potholders, towels, foil, and other kitchen stuff on the other side. This table was a great find that really makes our kitchen workable.
The kitchen doesn’t have a refrigerator. There are propane powered refrigerators available, but there were concerns about pilot lights and venting that we didn’t want to worry about for a weekend cabin. Instead, Rick built a couple of iceboxes. We would fill milk jugs with water to freeze into big blocks of ice while we were home, bring them over in our coolers, and then our iceboxes would keep things cool for a few days. When we moved over permanently, initially, we were traveling back and forth often enough to pick up forgotten items and to see family that we would borrow their freezer to freeze our milk jugs. Still, in that first month or two, we spent $100 a month, just on blocks of ice. After a while, Rick bought a small chest freezer for $170 that didn’t take too much power, and then we were able to make ice again. Every three days or so, we switch out our mostly melted milk jugs for freshly frozen ones. The freezer makes it so that we can also store frozen vegetables and meat again. We have a thermometer in our icebox to monitor the temperature, and it usually stays between 40 and 45 degrees. The FDA suggests that your refrigerator temperature be 40 degrees or lower, but we haven’t had any issues yet.
My favorite finish carpenter, aka my sweetheart, built our cabinets. They are flat panels made with cherry wood and gorgeous! As an experiment, the countertop is only 31″ tall as opposed to the standard 36″. I am short, so we thought we would try this. Rick doesn’t mind, but Matt does when he comes to visit and has to do the dishes. This experiment worked so well that the island in the new house will also be short, but the surrounding countertops will be the standard height to make it easier for Matt when he does the dishes. Rick worries about the weight on our foundation, so we opted for laminate countertops instead of DIY concrete or granite countertops. The only thing that drives me nuts in this kitchen is the same thing that happens in a regular house– the dead corner. At some point, we might put in a half lazy susan to make access more manageable, but we haven’t gotten around to that yet.
The view from our mountain down to the lake is lovely. I especially love the sunrises that we get. To take advantage of that and all of the light, we put in two sets of french doors. We thought that we would keep open both sets of doors most of the time, which we did a lot when we visited. Now that we live here permanently, we could use another wall with a window instead of both sets of doors. That would allow for more vertical storage or shelf space. Almost the entire front of the cabin is windows and doors, and if we built another tiny house, we would do that differently.
The sleeping loft is very comfortable for sleeping. At the highest point, where our heads are, there is four feet of room. At the foot of the bed, there is just a little over two feet, and the mattress takes up half of that. Beyond our feet, where we store camping gear, it slopes to where it is only a few inches tall. The hardest part about the loft is making the bed. Many other people who live in tiny houses with sleeping lofts also complain about how making the bed is a pain. For us, it is not terrible enough that we would not do a loft again, but Rick would like a few more inches of room.
Some tiny houses have a little washer/dryer combo which would be nice. I don’t like the laundromat in town. There is another one that supposedly has new machines that I am going to try out soon. If I was going to live permanently in a tiny house, and we had the chance to redesign our entire layout, I would seriously consider adding a washer/dryer.
Since we plan on building the new house soon, we haven’t done any landscaping around the cabin. Instead, we are surrounded by dirt. In the spring, that means mud and in the summertime, lots and lots of dust. We spend a lot of time outside, working on a project or writing at the picnic table, and of course, some of that outside dirt ends up in the cabin. We have a large piece of outdoor carpet that runs the length of the cabin and several doormats to help minimize the dirt that we bring in on our feet, but the cabin still gets dirty fast. When you are walking from the outdoor shower back inside to the cabin in your flip flops, your feet also get dirty. When the french doors are open, and a stray wind gust comes through, dirt ends up in the house. Pavers, a lawn, or even some gravel would help to minimize the dirt. Instead, we have chosen to sweep or vacuum more often and save our pennies for the new house.
I love books. I usually have two or three going at a time. Books on writing, personal development, or business related books, I prefer in physical form. Most of my fiction is on my tablet or borrowed from the library, so they don’t take up any space. The physical books I have, I cram into a bookcase in a way that I can see the titles. Some I leave out in case Rick feels inspired to read one. Even though I thin, purge, and repack books, I still have a lot for this little house. If we had room for more storage, I would have more of my books out. More built-in storage or furniture that doubled as storage would be a great addition to my next tiny house.
We use a lot of boxes, baskets, and totes to keep things organized in our little space. They fit under chairs, in bookcases, and the loft. That’s just life in a tiny house. We are more considerate of each other when we live here because other than outside, there isn’t anywhere else to go. Because it is tiny and temporary, we experimented with different products, finishes, and ideas. Some of that will be incorporated into the new house, like the lower kitchen counter and cement fiber siding. Overall, both of us are happy living tiny for right now. It helps that we like spending time together and being close in proximity to each other. We have both learned a lot, especially about how little stuff we actually need and what we genuinely need to feel content.
If you are curious about building your own tiny house, check out some of these resources.