A solid foundation is extremely important for any house. We have this thing called ‘gravity’ with which we must contend. Traditionally, house foundations are made of stone or concrete. I am not a traditionalist. In this case, that foundation happens to have wheels. A solid foundation of knowledge also allows one to build experience. Foundations symbolize beginnings. Up until now, this project has been mostly about a dream, a dream that is about to become a little closer to reality.

I am on my way to Charlotte, North Carolina drawn by forces that feel stronger than the pull of gravity. I’m defying gravity right now in an airplane. One pull, is toward the Tiny House Conference. There will be photographing of tiny homes that I tour, and writing about the people I will meet and skills I will learn.

While in Charlotte, I also will be visiting a childhood home of mine in the Pineville neighborhood. It has been a long time since I lived in that house, some 32 years. That house, in all its 1970’s modern ranch and open-floor-plan glory, helped form the foundation, the seeds from which my desire to become an architect sprouted. I sketched my first ideas of sustainable homes (and Dungeons and Dragons maps) while living there.

I also will be spending time with my good friend and former colleague, Phil Read, whom I have formed a bond with over design, classic cars, technology and a shared enjoyment of discomforting ambiguous political satire. He does not live in a tiny house, and that’s alright with me.

At the conference, in addition to blogging and tweeting, hope to find the right knowledge and camaraderie to help get my project off to the right start. Also, if anyone can help me procure the right trailer to haul my container, that would be an excellent beginning. Here’s one possible example, available through ChassisKing out of Florida. It has the twist locks to receive a standard ISO shipping container. I may need a higher weight capacity, depending on the final design. This is a good start.

Coffee in a Box?

Box O'Joe

Did you know they serve coffee in a box now? No, not the cardboard kind. We’re talking metal boxes. Yes, shipping containers! Why else would I be writing about it here. You see, Illy, Starbucks, la boîte cafe, and a few others have all experimented with concept stores made from the adorable metal box. The press has written a few stories of them over the last few years, in cased you missed them, these are some of my favorites: here, here, and here. Starbucks seems to be expanding their endeavor to look at redefining the drive-thru coffee shack – a uniquely Seattle thing. I say shack, as most of them look like they would fall over. Not these stores. They not only look solidly-anchored to the landscape, they actually have landscaping, rather than a sea of pavement. It’s an object in the landscape. A thing to be experiencedfrom the outside – mostly by car.

Did you know that over 90% of Starbucks customers take their drinks to go? So, why not have a few stores that eliminate the indoor seating and acknowledge that fact? Less is more. On this particular wet Saturday, there were a great deal of cars lined up just before lunch. Personally, I like getting out of the car, and often find the service is faster and enjoy interacting with people directly rather than through a talking menu board. For people like me, they have two standard and one accessible parking space, paired with a walk up window. I wasn’t allowed to take interior pictures, so use your imagination that there were four hard-working baristas in that 160 SF space.

The store seems mysterious, and appears to hold some secrets inside – like what’s going on upstairs? It seems to be an open air sculpture without an interior function. Although I can totally imagine that as an employee break patio. The map on the front is a nice touch, to show you where you are in this part of the city. The upper container has a silhouette of the very recognizable Ballard railroad bridge which I also visited this weekend, just West of the Chittenden Locks.

It’s just so cute. It even comes with matching bike rack and benches. I especially like two things about the mission behind these: the design team decided to use containers that have actually travelled a few trips. They’ve got the scars to prove it. Their reason for choosing this is straightforward: use less virgin materials, and keep the containers out of the waste stream. They say it better than I can, here (click to enlarge):

I like that my camera lens got wet at the end of the shoot. Adds authenticity. I’ll have to return at night, as I suspect that upper box lights up, like the Tukwilla store in the article referenced above.

Iterative fun

A bit more fun on my iPad with FormIt, a free Autodesk app. This took about forty five minutes – averaging 3 minutes each. I cheated a bit using the array tool to get started. I’m getting quite good at it. Anything yellow is new material, versus gray being the re-mixed parts of the shipping container. Growing fond of the ‘low-rider’ in the front row. I imagine it on hydraulics to tilt up at a slight pitch revealing the entrance. I might even do another 15 studies this evening.



Want to experiment? Below is a link to the files, which you can open in FormIt on an iPad, Android tablet or using the Beta online version. Or, you can open the automagically converted Revit (.RVT) or ACIS (.SAT) files from the Autodesk 360 cloud service.

FormIt – Iterative Fun design files – 1.6mb

An Early Plan Concept

While I still have a few details to work out, here’s a possible plan for my project. Some of my friends and colleagues have been bugging me to show something. So, here’s a little sneak peek. It started with a quick sketch, which I’ve had in my head for a while.


Take a shipping container and unbox it by unfolding, opening and pulling out the heavy duty can opener.


Then fill in the resulting space with wood, steel and glass.


There will likely be a loft above the bathroom, and I have yet to settle on a roof configuration. This plan may change a bit, or a lot, however I would very much enjoy your feedback and comments.

Before I forget, I wanted to leave you with this last bit of advice:

Plan, but don’t plan too much. Don’t be afraid to fail fast and often. Dive in and do it. You might be surprised what you can accomplish when the fear of failure is overcome. Own the process. Don’t let it own you. Then, appreciate your accomplishments.

This past weekend I spent time with a few folks from the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) industry as well as some tech folks at a ‘hackathon‘. I’ll write up my impressions on my other blog – Paradigm shift, if you care to hear about it. Hanging on the walls in the Facebook headquarters was this:


Tiny House Typologies

imageI’m going to explore the different layouts often found on the many tiny house websites out there and try to explain why none of them suit me. I’ve hand-sketched them from memory as simple diagrams, to protect the identities of each.

First, let’s just get one thing out of the way. I’m a designer, and it’s in my nature to want to create something new. This in no way is to say that the options available out there aren’t valuable.

Knowing something fits with your lifestyle, your values, and appeals to your senses, is what makes a house a home. “Commodity, firmness and delight”, words said by Vitruvius over 2,000 years ago were then, and are still today, the foundations of what makes good design and good architecture. The combination and weighting of these and the aspects of each differ for many people.

Of the varied floor plans of tiny houses on wheels available and examples of built work from the last ten to fifteen years, I think I can organize these into varying typologies. These are in no particular order.


Type #1
With this plan, you’ve got a good deal of flexibility. I’ve seen these often with a full-width front porch, shown hatched. The living and kitchen are a shared zone, which may be a problem for some who like watching television and relaxing on a couch. What’s gained by this configuration is a whole extra room, as compared with option #3 (arguably the original of the tiny house on wheels layout). This room could be used for a twin bed, a den for that TV watching, or possibly an office.

Like many of these houses, there’s a loft that can comfortably fit a queen-size mattress above the bathroom and smaller bedroom/den. This arrangement of spaces could even allow additional storage above the kitchen or front porch.


Type #2
Version two has large space in the middle, flanked on each end by the bathroom and kitchen. This arrangement provides the largest possible open space, while at the same time dictates that the largest windows are on the sides. What I don’t particularly care for in this layout is the necessity to enter directly into the living space. Within the confines of the box, there’s no journey or transition, no sense of discovery. This could be mitigated by a temporary porch, although when entering in the middle of such a large space, you can see everything the home has to offer. This also means there’s no room for separate contemplation, other than the bathroom.

If views are important, the orientation of the home must be considered carefully, ensuring there is enough maneuvering space to position the home on the site. This may not be possible when using the home as a proper RV in a park. In the RV park configuration, you would be looking only at your neighbors.

A loft is possible while sacrificing part of the potential for a high-ceiling living space. I’ve noticed a few that have accomplished this in clever ways, some even with the loft on sliding rails over the bathroom – which when pulled back, make for showering in a light-filled tall space very pleasant. Just make sure if someone is in the bed, they don’t mind going on a little magic carpet ride.


Type #3
Business in the Front, Party in the Back – or perhaps a better name would be the plain studio apartment model. In this plan, regardless of where the entrance is, the kitchen, bath and storage are aligned along a common corridor in a galley style configuration. This is very efficient, and allows a loft above, while leaving the majority of the main level for a large open area.

I would say this is very appealing, as the open area can serve as a multi-purpose space for living, sleeping, eating and work. If I were to expect living alone, this fit the bill. However, this model requires a lot of negotiation with a partner or spouse. Like type 2, this layout makes it a challenge for two adults to be doing separate activities.


This type is often associated with a deck over wheels configuration, similar to what I’m planning.  The entrance is on the long side, again directly bringing you into the living room, flanked by the kitchen and bath, and the bedroom. This is another very efficient layout, as it eliminates any corridors. To save even more space, one model I’ve seen with this configuration introduces the wet bath concept and a shared sink with the kitchen.

For my tastes, entering into the living room in a way that your seating area looks back at the front door feels off. It’s probably bad feng shui, if you’re into that – which I consider to contain wise principles, even without necessarily understanding the spiritual thought behind them.

Breaking from the pack
What I’d very much like to do, and have explored several versions of, is to break free of the boundaries of the box. Unfolding panels, pop-outs and pop-ups could be some of the strategies for making the spaces better suited programmatically to my needs. For instance, a room could expand as needed for a given activity such as dining, versus a desk for a laptop. Rooms could combine for larger gatherings, or furniture could transform from a banquette or couch to become a guest bed. Many of these ideas have been used in the RV and boat design for decades.

Someone once said that there are no new ideas. Someone’s already thought of everything. While that often seems true, and there’s plenty to be learned from studying other’s work, I don’t think we’ve even begun to examine this typology in any real depth. I want to discover and implement the ideas that are most exhilarating and tickle my funny bone. There’s going to be many other ways of synthesizing these ideas into a new way of thinking about the house and tiny living.

Every time I bring up this project of mine in front of a group, there’s always a large number of people that have never heard of the tiny house movement. We have a long way to go. I want to engage as many people as possible, to help generate more ideas. Perhaps it might make sense to create a design competition. That could help raise awareness within the design community, and be a way to get to my goal of a living laboratory with this project when finally built. I’m really looking forward to that day.

{image top, Etruscan Temple types, from around the 1st century, B.C. by Francis Brenders at www.vitruvius.be | other images drawn (crudely) by sdb.}

A Story of (my) Stuff

© johannes - Fotolia.comFor me, a smaller space will enable a certain kind of simplicity in living. This will also require some tough decisions. We will of course need to begin taking a serious look at reducing stuff.

I’ve never been very fond of moving, and our last move was a very painful and rushed experience, so it will be best to plan ahead now. New beginnings allow a redefinition of what makes a comfortable home.

So here’s the plan: Make a list of all the must haves in the new tiny house, and everything else will be sold, given away, donated, etc. The biggest yard sale (tag sale, rummage sale, garage sale, attic sale, or whatever else you may call it) I have ever had will happen this spring, and the plan is to donate all the proceeds to charity. That will make parting with some things much, much easier.

It will feel really good to reduce the burden of stuff – less to maintain, less to clean, less to replace due to planned obsolescence. Things accumulate over time. Just remember one thing. I am not judging anyone. I am simply evaluating my own situation.

Some people I’ve met have tiny and maintainable junk drawers, while some other folks have a tendency toward hoarding. A few close people to me have series disorders. I still love them, however every time I visit, it makes me rethink my own situation. I’m somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, and it feels exhausting. Even just this week, I needed to prepare to move my office desk to another workstation, and I realized that I have had a file cabinet full of papers a nick knacks accumulating over the last four years that don’t really help me with my job, nor do I appreciate having as many of the decorative items around. So, a lot of it hit the recycle bins.

I’ve seen how little I can get away with – first year of college, I had so little in my dorm room, – snacks, music, clothes, and very little else – and guess what? I survived. In contrast, over the years I’ve also had difficulty keeping things like garages and basements from filling up with detritus. When finally dealing with a mess that gets out of control, it does feel good. The stuff in our houses can be like goldfish in a bowl, regardless of how much wealth someone has, it seems really common to have more and more as the amount of space you have grows.

The smallest apartment I’ve had was about 28 m² (300 SF), and the largest house was about 167m² (1800 SF) – still far under the national average. The smaller places I’ve lived don’t always feel better, and that’s a matter of how they’re designed. Natural light, storage, layout, quality of finishes – all of that will be completely within my control, this time. Oh, and any future ‘stuff’ will be purchased with an eye towards versatility, durability, and environmental impact across all stages of the life cycle.

The last box I should have to pack for a house move will be 2440 x 6100 x 2590 mm (8 x 20 x 8.5 ft), made of steel, and will not require unpacking when arriving at a new destination; wherever in the world that may be. Have a yard you want to sell, or rent or barter? I’ll need a place to park the new container home when it’s finished.

The irony of it all; most of the stuff I have likely arrived on a store shelf by way of shipping container in the first place. This story is just beginning. When the big sale/giveaway time happens, I’ll be sure to share some key stats and photos.

If you’ve not had the chance, I recommend you check out the short 21 minute documentary, “The Story of Stuff” from 2007. It’s free to stream. My takeaway, if nothing else, is that I’ve developed a heightened sense of awareness the next time I buy something. Perhaps you will as well. We’re all in the same closed ecosystem together.

Watch “The Story of Stuff” directly on YouTube.

Small Box Retailers

permit?How do you construct a new shopping mall in 3 months, within the heart of earthquake rattled Christchurch, New Zealand? With a literal boatload of shipping containers, that’s what. The project is called Re:START. Thanks so much to my dear friend and colleague Phil Read of @ReadThomasBIM for… wait, “holding back showing me this”? LOL. It was worth the wait.

I like looking outside, thinking outside the box as it were, to discover inspiration an apply innovative ideas.  This has definitely inspired me to continue to seek ways to incorporate my modern design tastes, while still managing to incorporate a relaxed, cozy environment.

Watch the video – ReStart: Christchurch Shipping Container Mall, or for more information on this project, visit http://www.restart.org.nz

It’s not a Building, or is it?

permit?“Papers, please”.

That’s the last thing I want to hear from a code official or investigator – after the project begins. So, we’re going to do this the right way. Plan, plan, plan. In order to plan, we must first do a significant amount of research. I do know one thing, (OK, I know a few things, however this one thing is pertinent): Permanent structures require a foundation, which I will not have. So what do we call a shipping container home that rides/rests on wheels then? A travel trailer, like an Airstream? A mobile home? A modular house? Recreational Vehicle (RV)? I must admit, this part gives me a headache. We’ll walk through a few concerns.

For those who have built a tiny house on wheels before me, the question comes up early in the process – What is the legal designation of the home? This greatly affects the permitting process, where it can be ‘parked’, the ability or even necessity to move frequently, ability to travel on the open road, and with what codes it must comply. Certain designations don’t allow full-time living. I must, therefore, determine what it most important to me. What do I want to achieve with this project?

This Will Take a Lot of Energy

The research, that is. The home will use so little, it may as well be considered a shed. Oh, right. Sorry, it’s too big to be a shed in the city of Seattle, as 11 m² (120 sf) is the max size for an un-permitted shed. Let’s talk about the codes for a moment. Building codes are written with very specific concerns – health, safety and welfare, and most states have adopted the 2012 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) to address the growing concerns around energy use. As a building, if that were the route to take, the project would have to meet very stringent regulations, especially regarding energy efficiency of systems and insulation values. It’s still unclear to me whether this is applicable in this situation, however let’s imagine what would happen if more people started building smaller to save on both first costs and energy.

From the ‘Department of Common Sense’: it should not be surprising that a very small structure has less volume of air to heat and cool than it’s more traditional counterpart, so will no doubt use less energy. However, most energy codes are written with a one-size-fits-many approach. Several tiny homes on wheels have proven energy bills – when they’re not off-grid – which typically use about $25-40 per month for all energy costs. So, even for permanent structures, it would simply make sense to build smaller to save money. Many local jurisdictions have minimum sizes for structures which prohibit very small homes, which can artificially drive up the amount of cost for the home. It can take many years of lobbying, however laws and local codes are meant to be altered as society changes.

To illustrate how size does matter, a report by EarthAdvantage that confirms the above assumptions. The report, very lengthily titled “A Life Cycle Approach to Prioritizing Methods of Preventing Waste from the Residential Construction Sector in the State of Oregon”, helps identify the following critical facts:

  • Of all the 30 identified methods of reducing waste or reusing materials in residential construction, reducing the size of a home is the most significant factor in reducing it’s overall energy consumption.
  • Reducing home size by 50 percent results in a projected 36 percent reduction in lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Over 80 percent of greenhouse gas emissions over a home’s 70-year life occur during occupancy and are attributed to electricity and fuel consumption.
Source: {For more detailed information about this report, refer to the official newswire when it was originally released in 2010. Note, the actual research report can be found at this EarthAdvantage.org link. Earlier links in the newswire article no longer function.}

Due to this report’s findings the Oregon Reach Code, an optional green building code, the state of Oregon is now beginning to consider size as an important factor when determining the sustainability of a home. Not that this information helps me directly in Washington State, as I plan to stay here for now.

And More Research

I plan to have a consultation with one of the local tiny house builders, familiar with my region. This should arm me well with the information necessary to navigate the legal waters of not just how to permit the project, it will also ensure I don’t under or over-insulate – as every millimeter of floor space counts. It’s important to nail down these details before completing a design, as 2590mm (8′-6″) is the maximum width of my project to be able to travel any U.S. road without a “wide-load” permit. It might be interesting if the insulation could be on the exterior, freeing up more space on the interior.

There are also several seminars around North America that broadly cover how-to topics around the logistics, concepts and hands-on.

Another good resource is this e-book “Cracking The Code: a guide to building codes & zoning for tiny houses”

If everything works out as planned, I may be attending the Tiny House Conference in North Carolina this April.


An Early Concept Model


I want to share a peek at one of the studies I am working on. While the model doesn’t show the interiors, you might be able to see hints of some of the details. A few surprises are yet in store related to this design… which I’ll refine a bit over the rest of the week.

Yes, there’s something of a loft developing, which is a great way to both provide an additional sleeping area, as well as access to the roof. The maximum height above the road when traveling on a US roadway is 13′-4″. By creating a popup loft, much like a camper van, some additional headroom can be gained – while also not requiring a special permit to take it for a trip.

If you’re interested, this sketch model was created while on my flight back to Seattle. The software is FormIt, an Autodesk app that’s both free, and currently runs on iPad and Android tablets.




OK, I’m inspired.

I landed in Denver a few hours ago for a Design Technology Summit, and noticed this…

20140205-160259.jpg Trade Deficit photo by Scott Beale

From the photographer: ““Trade Deficit”, a series of shipping container sculptures by Joseph Riché located in the RiNo district of Denver.”

Here’s a great article on the sculpture in the Denver post from the 2009 dedication.