Why, just why?

How did we get here?

When I tell people that I'm building a tiny home there are a lot of things that I have to explain. The first question is always: "Is Tabatha OK with this?" I try not to speak for my wife, but she is generally more excited about this project than I am.  This tends to be very surprising for people. I'm not going to comment on the general overtones of sexism in that question. I just feel blessed to have a wife that wants the same things in life that I do, mainly a little adventure from time to time.  She is a very hard worker, and wants to be knee deep in the project with me at all times. I highly recommend having a partner in crime when attempting something this big (or tiny in this case).

A little personal history

I'm going to be turning thirty in February of 2015.  I've been married for over two years, and as it turns out, where you live is pretty important.  My wife and I have been renting an apartment in Over The Rhine in Cincinnati, OH for the past four years.  The location has been amazing, and we would love to stay in OTR as long as possible, but renting is getting old.  The problem for us is that the perfect place (at the right price) doesn't really exist in OTR.  We originally were planning on renovating a building in OTR for our home. This is where finances become problematic, we're both young, and have student loans, etc.  The capital required for a project like that is beyond our means.  Also, a project like that would be very large and could be very costly.  The hidden costs could also be a problem: historic neighborhood, old buildings with possible water and foundation damage, etc.  There is also the problem of the value of what we end up with being lower than the cost of renovating, making loans very difficult.  And there's the fact that we would be tied down to a single location, for a very long time.

What to do?

When you step back and look at a problem from 20,000 feet, and clear your mind from all the restrictions, things look a lot different.  I think it would be safe to say that many of my peers would purchase a house in a suburb.  That's basically conventional wisdom, stop renting, buy a nice house or condo in a nice neighborhood.  But for my wife and I, this isn't really our style.  We started asking ourselves a lot of questions.  Do we want to be in the same place for 15 years? Do we want to live in a suburb? Are we having kids in the next few years? Do the houses availble meet our needs (mostly about size, design, infrastructure, etc)?  Do we want to spending $100K+ and take on a mortgage?  The answer to most of these questions turned out to be a resounding "NO!".  Since that was the case, what were our options?  I mean, ALL of our options! We knew that we were heading down a path that wasn't conventional. While we were mulling over these questions, we started researching what people were doing unconventionally. I have read a lot of Dwell magazines over the last few years and saw tons of shipping container homes, pre-fab homes, etc. Also, the tiny home movement was really starting to gain mainstream momentum. But like all projects, you need design parameters.


I think we had our first design parameter early, which was mobile. There are a lot of factors in play here.  Both my wife and I have jobs that can be done remotely, she's a graphic designer, and I'm in IT.  We both generally work from home now, the only thing required is a good internet connection and we're set. Since that is the case, we can work from a mobile home anywhere we have an internet connection. We want to travel and see this amazing country we live in.  We have family all over the country including California.  Plus, the weather in the mid-west isn't the greatest year round. I, personally, don't like flying inside the US (internationally is fine, as it's really the only way to get there).  I'm not afraid of flying, it's just very costly, uncomfortable (something about the height of my torso and plane seats), and generally a hassle.  Once you arrive in a new city, you need transportation, housing, and food.  And we have two dogs, and flying with them is basically out of the question, and when you arrive in new cities, hotels tend to be restrictive and add fees for pets. And we felt that it would be very freeing to be able to pack up and drive some place new whenever the mood struck us, and bring our housing, transportation and food (and dogs) with us. I suppose we're doing things backwards, I feel like there are many people who retire and do this, we're going to do it early in our lives. Also, this would allow us to live small in all areas of our life, and really pare our life down to the essentials. I know this will reduce the amount of stress we face everyday.


There was another substantial reason for going with mobile.  We don't own any land.  We had looked into purchasing land, but what would have worked for us ended up being rough.  By that I mean, raw, no driveway, utilites, etc.  Also we would have to take a loan to purchase the land, and rent, and then try to build at the same time.  We would almost be triple paying, and that didn't make sense.  By going with mobile, we can build while we rent, then move in.  Once we move in, our costs will dramatically reduce, and then we can pay off our debts and save for land (if that's what we end up wanting to do).


We really liked the idea of mobile, because it restricted the total size of the home.  It would cost less to build, it would cost less to maintain, it would be easier to clean, the list goes on.  This is where things got a bit complicated though.  What size would we end up with? Originally, I had figured for purchasing a used, 53' high cube steel shipping container.  I had planned on doing all of the renovation inside the container, and leaving it structually complete to allow it to be placed on a trailer and moved.  Why 53', why not 20' or 40'?  Well, I felt that if I was going to do this, I should maximize the amount of space I had, and 53' was the largest available.  There were a few problems with this idea. The first was that I couldn't find a used 53' high cube steel container to purchase. They were just not availble anywhere. The second problem was the actually shipping of the unit. Either I was going to have to purchase a trailer to ship it on, and then it would live on that trailer. Or I would have to implement a self contained system for getting it off the ground so that a logistics company could back a trailer under it. Both options were pretty terrible. There's also the fact that it would be VERY heavy, and shipping it would be very expensive (either in logistics contract, or in equipment and fuel).  I also felt that having the container live on a trailer all the time was probably not a good idea, and also wasteful. Also building a self contained hydralic lifting system was going to be extremely complicated and expensive.

Custom fifth wheel

My next idea was to build a custom fifth wheel trailer out of tubular aluminum.  I had found a really cool independent axle that was commercially available: http://timbren.com/axle-less/ that would maximize the trailer interior volume. I did the research, and it seemed that I could build a 8' wide, by 40' long, by 13'6" high fifth wheel that would be legal in all states. This could be towed by a 2.5 ton truck really making mobile possible, because I could tow it places, and then unhitch and have a vehical. Also in many states, I could double tow another vehical behind. I wanted to design and construct it myself because everything that was available commercially didn't really fit my needs and were extremely expensive. I started CAD drawings of the framing but once I tabulated the cost of the aluminum required just for the base frame, it was over $30K.  Plus, there is always the issue of my engineering being flawed, and it coming apart or crashing while towing was a high risk. There had to be a better solution.

Custom mobile tiny home

From my research it seemed that most mobile tiny homes (like the tumbleweeds) are constructed on top of a steel flatbed trailer.  I personally never understood this. First, you have to contruct walls and a roof.  You have to have some kind of siding and roofing. You have to make the whole thing water proof and structurally sound enough to tow (my problem from the above paragraph). In addition, they generally look like mini houses.  My problem with it looking like a mini house is that you are throwing away a ton of interior volume that the maximum towing regulations allow for. I also imagined towing my tiny home quite a bit, and I can't find much data on custom mobile tiny homes that have lots of towing miles on them.

Renovating an RV

By now, I'm on my fourth idea, and getting a little desparate. I thought, well, there are used RV's! This started to seem like a great idea. Here you have a unit that has been contructed for towing, has walls, a roof, windows, doors, and is waterproof (well, hopefully). We looked at the used RV market for 36'-40' fifth wheels, and well, the results were not great. Either the cost was way to high (since I was going to gut it), or the units were falling apart from rust. We even looked at new units, but there are some huge issues with those too.  For one, they are not four season weather proof.  I live in Ohio, and they would not be comfortable in an Ohio winter. Also, they are built terribly, and you're paying for couches and TV's, both of which I don't even want in my tiny home. I'm looking to build something that I could live in for the next ten years full time, and none of this crap was going to cut it.

Dry van semi-trailer

After punting on my fourth idea, I was lamenting to my father about my failures. And he said, why not a dry van semi trailer? My first thought was, no, that won't work, there's no way! Somehow, I had just burned it into my brain that this was never going to be an option. I think it had to do with the ability to tow it.  I thought, it won't be mobile, because how will I tow it with a pickup truck? Luckily I stuck with it, and stepped back a bit in my thinking and realized a few things. First, *I* don't have to tow it! As long as it was registered and road legal, a logistics company would tow it for me. Second, instead of purchasing a 2.5 ton pickup truck, I could just get my CDL and buy a semi cab. I'd only need a day cab because I was towing my sleeper. The more and more I thought about it, this was the way forward. Here's the list of reasons why:

  1. A 53' dry van semi trailer is the biggest road legal trailer available.  It's a 8'6" wide, 53' long, and 13'6" high box.  There's no wasted space, it doesn't curve at the front like most fifth wheel RV's.  It's almost 450 square feet raw.  Also, there is space between the rear axles and the front feet to frame out storage underneath.
  2. Cost! A used late year model unit can be had for under $10K.
  3. There are walls, a roof, and it IS waterproof.
  4. There is enough space to completely frame inside of it for windows, doors, and insulation and not feel small when completed.
  5. Weight isn't an issue.  These trailers are made to carry huge amounts of weight.  Nothing I would build inside of it would ever come close to the capacity of the frame.
  6. These are commercial units, they're made very well, and to last a long time.
  7. There may even be enough space to make the last third into a convertable garage. I could purchase a semi cab, and tow the trailer with my day to day vehical safely inside!

The list goes on and on. But there are definitely going to be a few issues that I was going to have to solve.  Here are some of them:

  1. High center of gravity. There may be tipping potential in strong weather conditions.
  2. How am I going to frame and insulate the interior?
  3. How am I going to put in doors and windows (and flashing?) that don't extend past the existing exterior? I don't want it to no longer be road legal.
  4. Where am I going to park it when I travel? What are the regulations on RV parks and state and national parks?  What are the locality regulations in cities I visit?
  5. What utilities do I need to hook up to? What utilities do I want to be self contained? Being able to off grid for periods of time would be an awesome perk.
  6. Do I need to sure up the structure of the roof? If it snows heavily, is there a possibility of a cave in?
  7. How will I register it? Keep it as commercial? Do I have to register it as an RV?
  8. How will I insure it?

As I find answers to these questions in other posts, I'll link the question to it's post.