What’s with the porthole? : Common mistakes people make designing and building a tiny house

Tiny houses are on trend—the latest in a long list of architectural and social movements like aquaponics, rooftop gardening, container houses and intentional communities. But like their predecessors, just because they are good in theory, doesn’t mean they will work. Many tiny houses are stinking hot in summer, look like ugly boats, and have too many cupboards. Sarah Coles looks at common mistakes people make when designing and building their home.

You say potatoes I say potato singular

Minimalists don’t have a box of springboard diving trophies from 1986; they don’t own a dozen jackets; they don’t have a good china cabinet, they probably just have some nice plates. These people have form and function down. Given the average size of a newly built tiny house is 46m2, tiny houses make sense for people with minimal possessions.

Regular houses are not small—In 2016 the average size of a newly built freestanding home in Australia was 231m2. Sometimes people think they can squeeze the objects from their former McMansion into their new tiny house through mega-storage solutions. Some tiny houses include big refrigerators and flat-screen televisions that take up half the wall. It is like the owners are living a double life—this way they can keep their crap and be a digital off-grid nomad with a micro-nutrients start-up.

I watched a video of a proud tiny house owner pulling up a trapdoor to reveal an extensive DVD collection. Titanic anyone? Tiny house design is successful when it allows for unfilled space. It fails when every square metre is utilised as storage for Leonardo DiCaprio’s career. Tiny houses succeed when the possessions match the 46m2 space. It doesn’t mean that tiny houses can’t have character. The occasional vintage Japanese robot or a David Shrigley book on the coffee table is fine, but they probably aren’t suited to someone who collects Middle Eastern chess sets from the 7th and 8th century. The philosophy and the house has to match.

Dinky windows

Another way I can tie DiCaprio into this blog post is to critique the idea that tiny round un-openable windows are a good idea. The sort of tiny round window people would have looked out of as RMS Titanic hit the iceberg make a regular appearance on tiny house documentaries, accompanied by the owner-builder saying something like, ‘The porthole has so much character’. The thing about windows is that they have a function beyond letting light in, that is, to let air in and out of the building. In a building that is only 46m2 cross ventilation is critical. I don’t want whimsy I want oxygen. In a building with a bed on a mezzanine there needs to be a way to effectively cool the upstairs down in summer. This means large windows that open on the top and bottom levels of the house. Think horrible, characterless rectangles big enough for a falcon to fly through.

Wood Wood Everywhere

Distressed oak. Reclaimed walnut. Charred cedar…Just because Thoreau wrote “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately” doesn’t mean the interiors of tiny houses have to be constructed entirely out of wood. I get it: reclaimed floorboards don’t lead to deforestation, but must every surface signal your virtue? Why not use the second-hand timber to build the frame, the decking, the stairs, the mezzanine and the interior flooring, and employ some other material for the walls and ceiling?

Coupling long-lasting with the short term

Some build their tiny house on the flatbed of a truck. Their reasons are valid—if a tiny house is on wheels it can evade quite a lot of planning legislation, and also, people like to be mobile. But problems arise when you couple your house with a motor that might konk. It does not make good design sense to weld together two objects with potentially different lifespans. If mobility is your priority, a trailer is a safer bet.

Trendy shit that doesn’t make sense

Some tiny house designers think that they are on the cutting edge. They do things like insulate the walls with mushrooms. But the thing is, mycelium insulation doesn’t offer a very good R-value (an insulating material’s resistance to conductive heat flow) in comparison to say, boring wool. Yes, you will impress people down at the local Bunnings sausage sizzle as you deliver an impromptu TED talk on the wonders of mushrooms as building materials, but a close inspection of R-values shows that when it comes to building science, mycelium isn’t the best choice. One of the fundamentals of a good tiny house is effective insulation. Mycelium insulation is just one example of the many trendy mistakes that the tiny house movement makes. (see also: eco bats made from recycled plastic bottles.)

Hair shirt innovations

On the documentary Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things, somebody folds their bed into a wall. Give me a break. It’s hard enough to make your bed when you get up let alone fold it away into a wall. Also, excuse me for saying so, siestas are great for productivity but probably not if you have to unfold your bed from a wall before you take a nap. These kinds of space saving innovations are a bit hair shirt (an itchy, uncomfortable shirt made of haircloth worn by penitents). I just know that if I had a tiny house with a wall bed in it the first thing people would hear when they come visit is ‘Sorry about the bed. I couldn’t be bothered putting it away.’  You know what? This same goes for unsightly ladders that you can fold away. I don’t want to have to unfold a ladder before I climb upstairs to bed.

Unintentional communities

So, you want to build a tiny house and land is a bit pricey but you know some other people in a similar situation and you’ve decided to build an intentional community? Well guess what? Statistically, intentional communities are doomed to failure. Utopian communities are good in theory and seem great at the start when documentary makers are filming everything using a high contrast filter, but communitarian living is fraught with the same crap as everywhere: power dynamics, noise complaints, differing parenting styles, envy and some prick with a djembe.

Failing to budget appropriately

Even if you are an owner builder, if you want a certificate of compliance to show the council, the electricity and gas in your tiny house will need to be installed by a licensed contractor. Electricians are expensive. Don’t be tempted to cut back on costs by only putting one power point in your house and running an extension cord up to the mezzanine. Budget prior to building. The same cautionary tale applies if you are building a Tiny House On Wheels—roadworthy trailers are costly. Also, if you are building a house on a trailer, remember that you are going to need a vehicle with a tow bar that is capable of towing a few tonnes of weight.

Law and order

Hello zoning laws. Hello planning regulations in your state. Hello intractable boredom. Deciding to build a tiny house on wheels and tucking into the Motor Vehicles Standards Act 1989 (cth) is not as fun as lighting the trial rocket stove. Learning the law is a dry, barren wasteland through which you, tiny house wannabe, must traipse. You must find examples of people doing the thing that you want to do and find out how they did it. Whether they have a house truck or foundations. You have to be ready for curveballs like: Even if you buy that block of land just outside of Castlemaine it might be illegal to build a tiny house on it. Council Planning Schemes regulate how a property can be used, including the type of building that can be built on the land. The laws specify size and materials. Zoning regulations may require a minimum size for residential dwellings. Boring yet necessary.

Paying through the nose

A cursory glimpse around ebay reveals many ready-made tiny houses on the market. A few more seconds reveals that there are some grifters out there ready to charge top dollar for some mediocre products. Some of them look like the transportable buildings my school used to teach us in before it hit 40 degrees and they were legally obliged to cut us loose. If you are going to buy a tiny house buy it from a reputable dealer for a fair price.


In the fairy tale Hansel and Gretel two kids get sucked in by a cool looking gingerbread house. They are lured to it, start eating it, and end up being imprisoned by the homeowner. In a modern version of the story Hansel and Gretel would be a couple priced out of the housing market with a zero waste ethos and some reclaimed timber. They would build their gingerbread house on the back of a Izuzu truck that has done 600,000km, complete with porthole windows, mycelium insulation and an expensive solar array. Then the Old Witch would appear in the form of the Australian summer months, cooking them in their sleep.

Don’t get me wrong—I love tiny houses. I am in the process of designing one. I just want people to build ones that make sense. You can quote Walden all you like, but proper planning and a realistic attitude goes a long way.

Tiny houses lined with pine look how I imagine the galleys on slave ships felt. I get scurvy just thinking about it.

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