Tiny House design secrets to living large in a small space

The tiny house movement continues to gather steam as more people come to realize they can live a fulfilling life in a small home that's less resource intensive to build and operate.

Home designer Kim Lewis, who has designed many homes for FYI's Tiny House Nation and is the former lead designer for Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,and now a regular contributor to Ply Gem's ProTalk blogtalked exclusively with ProudGreenHome.com about the tiny house trend and how it's reshaping residential design. She went from designing 4,000 square-foot homes on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition to 180-square-foot homes on FYI's Tiny House Nation. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Kim Lewis

Q: With the buzz about tiny homes over the past few years, are they becoming more mainstream?

A: As someone who's been designing for 12 years, the tiny house projects I've worked on have gotten such a buzz and I think that's a testimony to how interested consumers really are in this movement. The average home has grown about fifty percent over the last forty years. When the market crashed I think people had to think about how much house can they actually afford and not be a prisoner of their own home.

People are really excited about it. There’s some freedom that comes with that open road feeling so many of my clients are excited about that idea. People are working at home more and now they have more freedom in their business to work from wherever they would like to.

Q: Many of the tiny homes you've worked on are actually portable?

A: A lot them are portable, people are buying gooseneck trailers for $8,000 and then building a  on top of that so they can change location maybe three to four times of year. They’re not treating it as an RV. They might establish a residence for several months at a time, or move only twice a year. You have traveling nurses, musicians and writers who can work anywhere.

It's definitely a niche market, a lot of couples that I hear from are single or newly married, or may be have only one kid. After you have more than one child it becomes less realistic.

People are more interested in leaving smaller footprint, and I think people see that you can get more for your money. You don't have to be locked into a 30-year mortgage.

Q: Are people hungry for a new way to approach their living space?

A: A lot of my customers are more the DIYers, the people you would find on Pinterest, and they’re really excited about making their home a reality and making it unique to themselves. So when you're creating something on your own, you might have a little more expendable cash to do something like unique siding or put in more windows because you have some leverage in what you’re able to spend.

A lot of people are looking for a niche, unique floor plan or design that really does speak more to who they are rather than what neighborhood to live in.

Q: Are there unique challenges to designing tiny homes?

A: I would say that designing for tiny homes is more challenging because you know you're planning several functional things that are critical to the path of the home and you have less space to do it in. And scale is everything: every inch on a tiny home matters especially when you’re moving into the more mobile units.

You’re limited by the space in which you can take it down the road, and most of the space is somewhere between eight and eight and a half feet wide, which is smaller than most bedrooms, which are 10 x 12 feet.

The scale is so different so you have to work with the client on the sacrifices they are wiling to make as opposed to tacking on more square footage to accommodate that specific thing they may or may not use.

It challenges consumers to really think about what they need, if they were going to pack a suitcase and go somewhere, what do you actually need to take with you and what do you not really need?

Tiny Home Buildings Tips

  • Wider, taller windows can be used to draw in more sunlight and natural views without added energy loss or maintenance. A small home does not have to mean smaller windows.
  • Mix stone and siding for added texture and color, and to make the home appear larger.
  • Don’t forget about the roof, which makes up about a third of the exterior. Low maintenance, high-design roofing like engineered slate is easier to install and costs less than natural slate.

Q: What kind of person wants to live in a tiny home?

A: It's a less wasteful consumer and it’s someone interested in downsizing and willing to make those compromises. You don’t have room for a dishwasher so you have to be committed to hand washing dishes in the kitchen or maybe you don't have a bathtub just a shower.

There are some pretty big decisions that people have to make when they’re committing to going so much smaller. A lot of the homeowners we design for don’t even own a television. They’re watching Netflix on a laptop on the sofa.

We try to use products like a composting toilet that will disintegrate waste, and things that will allow the owner the freedom to pull into any park within reason and allow them to live off the grid. A lot of people want to live off the gird or make the utilities very simple to plug in somewhere.

Keep in mind a tiny home will average about six light bulbs, where as a home in the 2,500 square-foot range will average 45 to 50 light bulbs. It’s drastically different.

Q: What are some of the challenges of designing a home that moves?

A: You have to balance design with the weight issue. When you’re looking at materials, you have to look at laminate floor instead of hardwood. Vinyl siding is better than a heavy wood side or fiber cement board. It’s a tough to gauge as you’re building but you have to make the best decisions you can and try to keep calculating as you go along.

Structurally you have to have the proper ties like hurricane straps and consider any wind gusts you may hit.

It’s definitely a different animal as far as building goes. It’s fun to watch them go up. They're not intimidating and a lot of homeowners are abler to work with a framer and do it themselves.

Q: How do you approach making a tiny home look great regardless of the size?

A: There are so many great options with siding and roofing to make it different. I use a lot of color when I design exteriors, it’s an easy way to make a space look more unique to who you are. Going with larger windows really helps open up the interior and exterior. A lot of people living in these kinds of homes spend a lot of time outside and so I like to use the windows as a way to bring the outdoors in. It's a good way to make the homeowners less claustrophobic, especially in the bedroom. I also like skylights on the exterior because that brings the sunlight in, whatever we can do to make the space inside feel more open.

With exterior materials, when a building is that tiny you can have a lot of fun and give it some character, using trim and corbels and dentil moldings and things like that. You can have a little more fun because the area is smaller.

There are tricks you can use to fool the eye. I like to use vertical siding if the home feels short, you can draw the eye up. We have some really good options on the market with companies like Ply Gem that have great lightweight materials. You can mix in stone and you have to look at the weight issue. On one episode, the owner wanted more a gothic style and we were able to use stone on that one because it was on a foundation.

A lot of the homeowners know what they like and they’re excited to make the home look different and unique. It’s exciting for the designer, too, because you don’t have a homeowners association telling you what colors you can and can’t use and what materials you can use.

Read more about the Tiny Home movement.

Q: What do you see as the future of tiny home living?

A: Tiny living, whether it's in tiny homes or tiny urban spaces, I don’t see it going anywhere. You have people in the middle layers of income, baby boomers living at home with their children, people who want the mother-in-law suite in the back yard, so there's a lot of layers to this that aren’t just about the young couple gallivanting around the country.

The need for tiny living really hits a number of markets, the younger singles, the younger couples, the middle age and elderly who don’t need that much space but still want a place of their own.

From a green standing the numbers don’t lie, you have less clutter, less waste, less energy use and less of a footprint.

I really think the tiny movement is exciting and it feels more socially responsible on our part and I feel like the desire to make the home super unique to the homeowner and that part as a designer I really love. I am passionate about this tiny home movement and where it takes us.

Read more about building green.

Click on the photos below for a look at some Tiny Home designs.

Topics: Building Green, Cost of Ownership, Exteriors, Flooring, Going Green, GREAT GREEN HOMES, Healthy Homes, Home Design & Plans, Interior Design, Lighting, Siding

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