You're Going To Build A What?

The saga of J building his tiny off-grid house

Archive for the ‘Intentions’ Category

And so to the tiny house

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In the previous post I outlined my idea for a dream home, the reasons behind it and the ways I think I can make it happen.  However, before I get to that point, I need to be able to save the money to get it started. For the past few years, in London, I’ve been renting first a one bedroom flat and later a room in a house shared with others. The least I’ve paid is £500/month. That’s almost £20k in the past 3.5 years. That’s around half of what I expect my house to cost. I need to be saving that, but so far I’ve been only just able to make ends meet, with no money left for saving. I need to get out of the rent trap.

Most of my friends in London are in a similar situation, working hard, trying to make ends meet, but not able to save for their own place due to the ridiculously high costs. A few years ago I came across Jay Shafer’s Tumbleweed Tiny House Company who build very tiny houses. Go take a look at his site, if you haven’t already, it is full of the most beautiful, well thought out yet tiny houses. His site was an inspiration that I’ve carried around in my head for a while, turning over ideas, figuring out how to make it doable on a small amount of money. Then I heard about a customer of his called Dee Williams, an inspiring lady who bought plans from Jay and built her own tiny house for $10k using mostly recycled materials.

Now I’ve been pulling things out of skips for years, furnishing my own flats and rooms mostly from free finds. It always amazes me how people will throw away stuff that is perfectly usable to someone else. The magic of the internet has given us ebay, craigslist and freecycle, all great ways to reuse and recycle things for which we’ve no longer any use, but which still have plenty of life left in them.

Buying a set of plans wasn’t really going to work for me, as that would have meant relying too much on finding exactly the right parts rather than making use of the things that I could find free or cheaply. I wanted to womble as much stuff as I could for the house, so I started just rolling the idea around in my head, figuring out what I needed to have in the house, how to downsize my life to fit into such a small place. It’s a great exercise in going through what’s truly important to you.

I’ve done a reasonable amount of diy over the years, and I’m a hobby woodworker, so it made sense to work with what I knew. I also believe fervently in trying things you don’t know. Last year I needed to do some plumbing, so I sat on the internet for a couple of days and taught myself basic plumbing, enough to replumb sinks and baths and add additional radiators to a central heating system. If I don’t know how to do something, I enjoy figuring out and learning how to do it myself.

With all that in mind, I figured that I could build myself a tiny house for around £5k, while still having some luxuries in there. After all, I’m planning to live in it for a couple of years while I save money for the first chunk of the cottage build, and then live in it while building the bigger place. Further online research unearthed a whole movement in the US, and around the world, based on living in substantially smaller houses. It’s a reaction against the spread of McMansions, those huge cookie cutter houses built in their thousands across the US. When I lived in Texas for a few years, they were everywhere, whole subdivisions of these things, all 3-4000 square feet, and maybe 6 ot 7 different designs replicated over and over again. Huge, empty places where you could spend days hardly seeing the people you lived with. They felt completely soulless when I visited friends living in them. Jay Shafer has been one of the founders and leading lights of this movement, along with Greg Johnson who founded the Small House Society, which has forged a rethink on what we really need in the way of housing. I’ll be adding resource links to the ‘Inspiration’ sidebar on this page if you’d like to learn more (I particularly recommend subscribing to the Tiny House Blog that Kent Griswold runs, to see real imagination and ingenuity at work), along with links to other builders of tiny houses, once I have permission from them to link to their blogs.

So, after my marriage ending, a nervous breakdown, plus my business failing last year, I found myself increasingly unable to pay rent and desperately in need of something to rebuild my life around. I decided that if I didn’t do it now, then it probably wasn’t going to happen.

Of course, right when that happened I was offered a job I couldn’t turn down. I’m now working 3 days a week, doing a job that I’m finding challenging but hugely enjoyable, while earning me just enough to keep my head above water and start building the tiny house part time.

I therefore started spending rather too much time on freecycle and ebay……..

Written by justin

March 9th, 2009 at 11:33 am

Posted in Intentions

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A little background.

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As a great man once said, “I have a dream”. It’s a fairly simple dream, but it’s one that has set the direction for my life over recent years. It’s caused me to change many things about how I live and to make decisions that perhaps could have been better made in other ways.

My dream is to own my own house, somewhere in the mountains and to live a life the way I wish to, unencumbered by debt or mortgage, doing a job I enjoy and with the time and money to travel and do other things, such as voluntary work, when I choose to do so.

Sounds simple doesn’t it. It’s not.

Live in a house without a mortgage. Yep, that’s right, buy your house cash or pay it off fast, can you realistically do that? No, well at least I can’t, not living anywhere in southern England, and not doing the job I’ve chosen to do. With the average first house price going up over £200k it’s a non starter for me, as it is for so many nowadays. how the hell are you supposed to get a mortgage for that much when you earn £20-30k or less. They’re never going to give you a mortgage. People might say that I should find a way to earn more, but I love my job, it has a finite earning ability and to be honest I’ve done the corporate wage slave bit, I’ve earned a reasonably good salary with the ability to take it to quite silly levels had I chosen to stay within that industry and everything that implied. If I had, then by this time I would have been into 6 figures annually. Walking away from it hurt, but I’m glad I did it.

If most people have a mortgage, why am I so determined to live without one then, leaving aside little things like the ability to pay one? Well it’s the cornerstone to me of how I hope to be able to live my life my way. Ideally I want to work for 6-8 months a year and be able to take the rest of the time to travel, do volunteer work, ski, pursue hobbies, any of the things you might choose to do if you had the time and enough money to survive in some form of comfortable fashion. None of us really want to work 48 weeks a year, we’d all ,I’m sure, prefer to work half the year and enjoy the rest of it rather than doing a 9-5. However, putting a roof over our heads is the thing that takes more money than pretty much anything we’ll ever do. A house is, for most people, the single biggest thing they’ll ever buy. Taking a mortgage out means paying many, many times the actual cost of the house to be able to borrow the money over 30 years or so. House prices have gone up to a crazy extent, particularly here in London. If you could take away that mortgage and own your home outright, what else do you have to pay for each month? Bills, food, transport, plus whatever fun things you like to do. Think about how much you earn, and how much you pay in rent/mortgage. Now, imagine what you could do with the extra money not having to make that big payment each month. Imagine what you could do with your life.

For years now, I’ve been concentrating on finding a way to own my own home outright, without having to take out a mortgage. Given that I’ve spent 25 years designing houses as part of my interest in alternative energy, I have a realistic idea of how to do this now.

Imagine for a moment your dream home. Think about it, imagine how many bedrooms it has, how many bathrooms, what are the fittings like, how big is that kitchen. Does it have a sauna, a swimming pool, a big garden? Does it sit on the beach in Malibu, or overlook private gardens in Belgravia. Is it richly furnished in the finest silks? I’ve spent my time looking through Ideal Home and watching just about every episode of Grand Designs. The problem with all of these is that everyone wants a big, fancy house with amazing fittings, granite countertops, sub-zero fridges and hardwood floors. They want something that is often so much bigger than they’ll ever need. How do they achieve it, generally by getting massively in debt to their mortgage company.

Now, admittedly they generally end up paying less then if they’d bought something similar, and they have something that’s close to their own idea of perfection, but they’ll spend the next 30 years paying for it. So, what’s the solution then?

Build cheaply.

Easy to say isn’t it. The 3 big keys to building cheaply are

1. Build it small.

2. Build it economically.

3. Don’t make changes halfway through.

Of these though, the biggest is to build it small. Most people have an idea of some grand 4 bedroom, 3 bathroom place for their ideal home. Mine though is a little different. My dream home has a single bedroom, a single closed off bathroom and it’s small. Designed to be cheap to build, easy to build, using simple components, recycling and salvaging as much as possible and to be just big enough for my needs. It will be off-grid, low impact yet comfy, cosy and with the luxuries I wouldn’t want to live without.

I only need one bedroom. Guests will have a pull out sofa or a decent quality inflatable bed. A decent sized lounge, space for a dining table and chairs, a desk somewhere to work at and lots of bookshelves. The kitchen doesn’t need to be huge, as long as there’s a decent amount of cupboard space. The bathroom will be enclosed for privacy of guests, the only enclosed room in the house.

My idea is for a timber framed cottage, possibly earth sheltered depending on the site, downstairs has an open plan living/dining/kitchen/study area and the bathroom. Upstairs is a mezzanine floor for the bedroom and some storage in the eaves, with the downstairs sitting area open full height to the roof. Walls of straw bale will make it well insulated, as will the turf roof. Being well insulated, it won’t require much heating, depending on where I eventually build it’ll probably have underfloor heating (in a rammed earth floor) driven from a panel of evacuated heat pipe solar collectors, or a ground source heat pump, with a woodburner stove for backup along with passive solar design. Water heating from the solar panels and possibly the wood burner should be sufficient for my needs. The whole house will run on 12v with an inverter supplying 240 to anything that can’t run on 12v, supplied by a combination of whatever is most suitable to the area: solar/home made wind-turbine/mini hydro. All lights to be LED or compact fluorescent. Computers will be laptops for low power drain, hi-fi running low power amps with efficient speakers. Water will be rainwater capture and well if needed. Toilets will be composting, with grey water recycled through reedbeds. Wood fired hot tub on the deck. Total floor area for the cottage is around 800 square feet, 75 square meters.

As part of building economically, my design specifies that there is a single ‘wet’ wall downstairs, with the kitchen and bathroom against it, meaning minimal piping and jointing, which makes it cheaper and quicker to put together.

I reckon I can build it for around £30k possibly less, plus land costs which are always the killer. Not everyone’s idea of a dream home, but it’s mine. Oh, and I forgot to mention that I intend to build almost all of it myself, probably over 3 summers. I hope to be able to save 10k a year working and take 4 months each summer to build it, using that money.

So, is it realistic? Well, a year or so ago several people who know about my dream, sent me a link to an article on the BBC website about someone who’s done it for 4k, with a design very similar, though a little smaller, than the one I’ve outlined above.

His own website has much more detail of the build and I’ve spent a fair bit of time following through how he did it and it’s amazingly similar to my own designs in basic concept.

Someone else who did something similar for 3k can be found here:

and for the Grand Design watchers amongst you there is, of course, Ben Laws’ beautiful house:

This doesn’t mean everyone should try doing this, but the concepts are significant. Houses cost much less to build than we ever pay to buy them. Look at the amount of compound interest in a mortgage, it’s astonishing. I believe that we’re getting to a point in this country where home ownership will plummet amongst younger people. Very few people I know actually own a house in London. Maybe we have to wait for our parents to pass on before we inherit the capital to buy somewhere of our own. I know in my case that won’t happen so I’ve decided to look into alternative routes.

If I can build and own a house without a mortgage then I need very little to actually live. I could work for 6 months and take that money to do things that I would otherwise only dream of being able to do. I could travel, I could go do the volunteer work I’ve wanted to do for years, or I could simply read and watch the seasons go by while tending my garden. I would have somewhere for the future, somewhere to last me out.

It’ll be interesting seeing if I can make it happen.

Peace, out.

Written by justin

March 7th, 2009 at 6:47 pm