Why a tiny house and not an RV?

I received a question via email recently asking about our reasoning for choosing a tiny house design rather than a traditional recreational travel trailer. The reader asked:

“I’m a builder so I’m wondering about standard construction used in tiny houses and what kind of weight it adds up to? RV manufactures go to great lengths to minimize weight and tiny houses are a direct opposite of this practice. Just wondering if this is an issue for people who want to travel.

Tiny houses seem very attractive and cozy to me, but I am puzzled why people wouldn’t just opt for a travel trailer. This to me is the biggest mystery associated with the excitement that seems to be attached with tiny houses…”

Tammy and I get variations on this question quite often. To help other readers understand our decision I thought I’d post my response below:

Most tiny houses are built to the international building code. This building code is a robust and well established construction guide. Dee Williams describes this construction process very well in her ebook “Go House Go”. We have never weighed our home but we estimate based on the weights of other stick-built (wood framed) tiny houses that it weighs approximately 5,000 lbs. There are some manufacturers of tiny houses that have chosen lighter weight materials such as steel framing however the purpose behind these tiny houses differ from traditional RV applications. Tiny houses are usually built for permanent use throughout all four seasons. Thus they have greater insulation and are built with traditional materials to stand up to environmental exposure (sun and snow) and the needs of daily living. Further, tiny houses are usually parked in one place for a longer period of time and because the design aesthetic is typically not aerodynamic or lightweight, they are not intended to travel frequently. Although some RVs may also fit the above application of four season use, most are built for 3 season occasional use camping and are built with less robust materials designed to be efficient in gross-weight and aerodynamics for travel.

If a potential buyer were interested in frequent travel I would not recommend a tiny house. Tiny houses are basically smaller, more affordable versions of traditional homes with the added benefit of having the ability to move it.

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Tiny house energy: Heating and Cooking Fuel Choices

Alcohol Range made by Origo - Photo by Tammy Strobel

Alcohol Range made by Origo – Photo by Tammy Strobel

A friend recently contacted Tammy and I to ask about our rationale regarding our choice of fuels for heating and cooking in the tiny house. I wanted to give a thorough reply to him and then post my reply here just in case others in the Tiny House Community are considering similar questions. Feel free to leave a comment below to share your ideas or questions.
Fuel type choices for cooking and heating were a problem that we struggled a bit to decide on, because after considering propane, wood, electric and alcohol we realized they all had potential advantages and disadvantages. Especially considering our circumstances of a no-car, urban living situation. The notes below were our conclusions on the four fuel types that we considered.

Propane:

Propane gas is the most popular choice for tiny homes. Its cheap (~$3/gallon), its ubiquitous, has small storage space, there is minimal cleaning involved, and its easy to fire up. However, for our situation on the bikes, propane was problematic due to the size and weight of the cylindrical tanks. Also we had qualms about the environmental damage that results from fracking and the potential future volatility in that market (peak oil). Further, these systems require powered ventilation systems due to the relatively large amount of oxygen consumption along with carbon dioxide and moisture production.

Wood:

We were very interested in wood stoves since the fuel source is the most sustainable and most resilient. However, we were concerned about size and weight on the bikes again, its messy to clean up, relatively difficult to ignite and install (chimney with guy-wire supports) and puts out smoke that neighbors may complain about in a urban/suburban area.

Electricity:

Electric ovens and heaters are miraculous. They are relatively cheap to purchase, they are clean, and have the greatest ease of use. The biggest drawbacks to these appliances is that they can be expensive in their cost to operate and as cheap appliances, they can break easily. Electric heat in anyform is also a dealbreaker when it comes to off-grid power sources. Solar and wind powered batteries can’t be used for the prodigious electricity requirements of these tools. This being said, small electric space heaters have been a wonderful asset to us. Although not all space heaters are created equal (see this review) ours runs at a minimum of 700 Watts and only costs about $17/month to use. Even this would likely tax a solar system but Dee Williams uses a 400 Watt model that she claims is sufficient heat and runs off her solar array. Also Lina Menard has used a different 475 Watt system that she really enjoyed.

Alcohol:

When we heard about alcohol stoves from Kai and Sheila at 2cycle2gether.com we realized that alcohol fuel offered a good compromise compared to the above options. Although the fuel source was relatively expensive compared to natural gas ($15/gallon vs $3/gallon) it was easy to carry home by bicycle from the hardware store. Further, alcohol fuel is clean, easy to ignite, ventilation was very simple (crack a window), and it has the potential to be renewable like wood. Cooking with ethanol was the best option for us however heating a home with ethanol, although possible, is not ideal mainly because of the cost/benefit ratio of its relatively low efficiency in heating a room.

Can you fit your life into a backpack?

Editor’s Note: The following was a guest post I wrote for my partner’s blog on RowdyKittens

Recently I asked a friend about her moving experience. She replied that she was so sick of moving boxes that she considered downsizing to just a backpack. Her frustration about moving reminded me of our moving experiences prior to downsizing.

Minimizing our possessions is the method we used to pursue simpler living. However, my friend’s exclamation of “downsizing to just a backpack” inspired me to consider extreme minimalism. Could I minimize my needs to fit into a backpack? I realized having such a tool at hand could be extremely valuable for more than just travel and hiking recreation.

Miniaturizing your life into a backpack is useful.

Having a minimized copy of your life in a backpack could be very useful in an emergency requiring evacuation. Victims of natural disasters (e.g. fire, flood, etc.) commonly describe their experience as having only enough time to “grab their stuff and run.” Imagine yourself in this scenario and ask:

“Could I evacuate my home in 5 minutes or less and be prepared to have everything I need for at least 72 hours?”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) advises that people should be prepared to be “without assistance” for 72 hours or longer. After hurricane Katrina many experts advised people to be prepared for a much longer response time, ranging from 1 – 2 weeks. By having a backpack organized to meet minimum needs and comforts we can be more physically and emotionally prepared for an emergency situation. We consider our backpack kits essential emergency insurance.

Can I really fit everything I need into a backpack?

Yes. World travelers practice the simplicity of backpack living on a daily basis. Considering the hierarchy of needs, humans require relatively little to live. Our basic needs are shelter, water, food and companionship. To complement our needs acquiring stuff provides us with comfort.

Finding the appropriate balance between need and comfort is a journey all of us face on the path to simpler living. More comfort and stuff does not necessarily lead to more satisfaction or happiness. Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin describe this relationship as the “enough point” in their book Your Money or Your Life. What is your “enough point“? What is the minimum amount of stuff required to meet your needs and be adequately comfortable?

5 Tips to Get Started

In a backpack kit one’s “enough point” is going to be limited to portability (namely size and weight). If removed from our everyday environment you must make accommodations to meet your personal needs independently. Here are some suggestions for items to consider when building “the house on your back:”

1. Pack in consideration of your basic needs first and in order of survival priority: shelter, water and food.

2. Choose items in your kit that have a multipurpose use (single task items have less value per weight). In a future post I will detail the items we included in our emergency backpack kit.

3. Make digital back-ups of irreplaceable pictures and paper copies of important documents (e.g. Birth certificate, social security card, photo ID, etc).

4. Prepare personal skills such as map reading and first aid to complement your pack kit. As your skill level increases your “enough point” decreases. As bushcraft author and instructor Mors Kochanski says “the more you know the less you carry”.

5. Plan your actions for responding to different emergency scenarios that are likely for your area (e.g. earthquakes, fire, flood, hurricanes, etc.).

Many of the items you need to pack you probably already have around your home. All it takes is gathering them into one location. You may need to purchase a couple items such as first aid supplies but relative to other emergency insurance plans these items are very inexpensive.

What the hell does all of this mean?

Preparation of a backpack kit is useful not only as emergency preparedness but also as an exercise in minimalism and simpler living. Being aware of our “enough point” boundaries is very empowering. Upon personal reflection, simpler living has given me an almost indescribable sense of satiety, peace of mind and liberty.

Further Resources…

Non-conformity Musings

Crossing-Bridges

I often feel the pressure to conform in my life story and find myself being who others think I should be instead of who I am. I was inspired by an analogy while attending a “Art of non-conformity” book signing by Chris Gillibeau in December of 2010 (and its taken awhile to sink in). In Chris’ lecture that evening he used an analogy to describe the problem with conforming through a cliche’ children’s tale. “If everyone was jumping off a bridge would you follow (to your peril) or would you choose your own way to live?” He mentioned that we often learn the moral of free-will as children but then forget it as adults. His solution was to adapt this lesson to adult living and embrace non-conforming free-will.

Chris’ metaphor deeply resonated with me and I tried to extend the metaphor by asking questions to myself such as:

If people “jump off of bridges” to conform what does the bridge symbolize?

What does the water under the bridge symbolize? Put another way, what were all my friends and peers jumping into?

What does the land at the entrance of the bridge symbolize?

What does the land of the exit of the bridge symbolize?

These questions made me realize that this metaphor resonated with me so much because the bridge represented all of the doubts, fears, and transitions that were plaguing my life and the lives of my friends and peers. I was depressed and I wanted to cross the bridge to see if I could improve my life on the other side but I was scared. Institutions like schools and governments tell us there are lifeboats below the unsteady bridge of doubt that are much safer. Institutions instruct us to jump off the bridge and into these lifeboats to keep our routines, embrace certainty, and live a predictable life. The problem is, once you are in the “safe” lifeboat you have to conform to stay safe otherwise you risk “rocking the boat”. Put another way, if you “rock the boat” and don’t conform to the herd you risk tipping the boat over and drowning all of those around you.

I realized I needed a forum to explore the problems and solutions to crossing all the bridges of change in my life. Writing seems an ideal way to distill these ideas and provide a focusing lens for all of my unfocused emotions. And so it begins…