How I built my tiny house for under $1,500 with 100% repurposed materials and near zero waste
How I built my tiny house for under $1,500 using nearly 100% repurposed materials while creating only 30 pounds of trash.
The tiny house movement has caught on like a wildfire over the last decade, and there’s a lot of positivity coming out if it. I’m very excited about tiny houses and see them as a very useful tool in working towards a more sustainable and just world. I lived in a 50 sq. ft. tiny house in San Diego in 2015-2016. I’ve produced videos about tiny houses to spread the movement through my social media. I’ve visited tiny houses around the United States and in a few countries, and I have even been to a tiny house festival. I’ve made friends with the creators of some of the biggest tiny house pages. Now, I’ve built my first tiny house. Needless to say, I really love tiny houses and am very excited about them. And I’ve become fairly knowledgeable on them.
Through all of this, I’m confident that tiny houses are not the solution to all of problems, nor is the movement without its imperfections.
I often find tiny houses to be very inaccessible. At the festival I went to in Oregon there were plenty of houses in the $40,000-$80,000 range and even some as costly as $150,000. Don’t get me wrong, they were amazing tiny houses, but I know many people just find that idea to be totally absurd. There’s no way I could afford a tiny house that expensive, even if I wanted one, which I don’t. I love simple living, and living far more simply than most tiny house dwellers even.
There is a whole spectrum of tiny houses, and my goal is to show the opposite end of the spectrum from the super expensive, high tech, tiny houses that are inaccessible to so many people.
I built my tiny house with the aim to be an example of what can be done with very little money, causing minimal environmental destruction, and keeping it super simple. That also means being able to build in a very short period of time and with minimal skills. With that being said, this tiny house is exceptionally small and exceptionally simple, even for a tiny house. This won’t be a match for nearly everyone, but that’s exactly the point. I’m here to be of service to those who have similar goals as I do when it comes to living accommodations, to live simply, sustainably, and with very minimal money.
The primary purpose of this article is to cover the process of building my tiny house, including the sustainability aspect of building it. Future writings will go into more depth on living in it.
Building the Tiny House- The Pre-Build
I mentioned that I lived in a tiny house in San Diego in 2015 and 2016, but that house I bought on craigslist for $950. I didn’t build it and did only minor, mostly aesthetic, work on it. This is my first time building a tiny house. I have very minimal building experience. I wouldn’t go as far as to call myself a building dummy, as I can build very basic things, but nothing even close to a tiny house. I have a hard time cutting straight lines and correct angles. It’s just a place where I tend to lack, and in building a tiny house like mine, you generally need to have that stuff down. (Note: in natural building there are plenty of ways to build without straight lines.)
When I set out on the mission to build my tiny house in late 2017, I just had a good general idea of what I wanted to do, but no experience to back it up. Of all the stages of building the tiny house, this may have been the most time consuming. Wrapping my head around it and trying to figure out what to do was a bit daunting. What materials I’d need, what tools, skills, etc. all were unknowns at the time. Having minimal clue what I was doing and access to hundreds of thousands of articles and videos was also pretty frustrating at times. I would often find myself overwhelmed with too much information.
But I continued learning and the more I learned the closer I got to being able to build it. But equally or more importantly, my plan was never to do it on my own. My plan was always to do it with community, with the help of skilled people.
Once I decided that I was going to build it (which wasn’t until July of 2018 after a lot of postponing) I reached out to the community. One of my main goals in life is to live in the service of others. I do this because I find a very deep purpose in giving to others. It brings me great happiness. I may appear altruistic to many, but in reality, I am not truly altruistic. One great benefit of living in the service of others is that they want to return the service to you. This is the foundation of a sharing economy or a gift economy. We don’t need money to meet each other’s needs. Humans can do that with our skills, our resources, our time, and our love and caring for one another. That is the world I want to live, so that is the world I have been creating around me. When I put it out there that I was going to build my tiny house, I was delighted with the response. I organized volunteer days and people showed up.
People showing up wasn’t necessarily altruistic either. Most of the people showed up for the purpose to help, but also because they were very interested in tiny houses, simple living, and sustainable living. They came to learn. They also came to be with a community of likeminded people. My goal wasn’t just to have these volunteers build my tiny house with me, but to give them a worthwhile experience where they’d learn skills and meet new friends that could add value to their life. I’m pretty sure that’s what happened on our volunteer days. New friends were made, knowledge was gained, and inspiration was spread.
Designing the house
I decided on this design based on many factors with the main factors being environmental impact, cost, climate, location, ease of building, and simplicity. Each of those factors played into each other to result in this design.
Environmental impact, climate, and location- The environmental impact of the tiny house was my number one consideration. I thought about natural building methods such as adobe, but there were multiple reasons why that didn’t line up. In order to blend into the neighborhood, I decided to build a tiny house that looks very similar to the sheds that many people have in their backyard. Tiny houses are not technically legal here as far as I can tell, so that’s why blending in is a good call. That leaves out most natural building methods such as adobe, earth ships, and straw bale homes. They are unique and really stick out, whereas mine is mistakable as a shed. Location is also key, as those design methods are not lined up with this climate. So, the next best thing for me was to build it out of nearly 100% repurposed materials, that way nothing new was being created in order for me to build the house. I consider that form of building to have a pretty minimal environmental impact. A tiny house has a drastically smaller environmental footprint to build than a large house, because it is that much less materials, transport, electricity used, and trash created. That’s one of the main reasons I chose to have a tiny house in general vs. a larger house.
Cost- I live extremely simply, with a net worth of just a few thousand dollars, and with a maximum income of around $10,000. So, building something expensive is just not an option. I have no debt, no credit cards, no loans, and don’t even have a personal bank account. I have no intentions of going into debt, including taking out a mortgage. That means I build within my means. This tiny house is within my means.
Ease of build- I chose this style of house because it is about as simple to build as can be. It’s the most basic of construction skills for someone who knows what they are doing. It takes no special tools. It is not complicated.
Simplicity- I like to keep things pretty simple. This design has what I need and does not have all the things I don’t. It’s the living situation that I want.
I put windows/a door on all sides of the house to create a strong cross breeze and keep the house as cool as possible. So far that’s been working great.
Note: I do consider this tiny house to be “environmentally friendly” however that is just compared to most forms of building. The reality is that most of the building materials are at least somewhat toxic. Almost all, or all, plywood has toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde and toxic glues in them. It will biodegrade, but it will release these chemicals into our soil at the same time. The plywood is treated with chemicals. The stain, even if low VOC, is toxic. It is NOT environmentally friendly. It is just far less destructive than most modern houses.
If you are not aware of off gassing I would highly recommend looking into it. Our houses can be very toxic environments, from our carpets and insulation, to our pillows and blankets, to our paints and stains.
To deal with that I built the house with excellent natural ventilation and have left all of the windows and doors open for the last few months. There is a constant breeze of fresh air going through the house, so I highly doubt that I have breathed in much off gassing.
I managed to build the house out of nearly 100% repurposed materials. The only things that weren’t repurposed were the stain and some of the nails and screws. They were not brand new though so it’s a bit of a grey area (explained below). However, it is totally safe to say the house is 99% repurposed materials by weight and 99% repurposed materials by cost. Not perfect, but plenty good for me!
One word to the wise, building with repurposed materials drastically increased the amount of time it took to build the tiny house. If I were to have built with all new materials I could have carefully planned out my list and done just one or two trips to the store with a truck. Instead I spent many days searching the internet. This was very time consuming. I had someone, Kendal Wilde, who’d been following me online volunteer to do a semi-internship with me and help me find materials. She spent about 25 hours on this. A lot of that time was consumed by researching materials though, as we didn’t really know what we needed and were constantly re-figuring things out that we thought we had already figured out. Neither of us knew construction terminology, such as the many types of plywood, etc. Just finding the materials was very time consuming. On top of that there was picking up different items in all different directions of town and organizing drop-offs.
Using repurposed materials at least doubled the length of time of the entire process, but it could have increased the time by over five times.
I wouldn’t have felt right buying used materials though. It was the right thing for me to do.
I’m going to list out the materials as well as where I got them for you here. DISCLAIMER- I’m not doing this to give you a blueprint or plan to build off of. As I’ve explained, I am not a builder and I can’t build a tiny house on my own. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense for me to go into the details of how to build a house. Instead, I am here to provide the basic information to help you, as well as some inspiration through my example. I won’t go into the details of how to build a house, but I am going to share almost all of the materials that I used. I am doing this to give you a really solid idea of how to get repurposed materials.
Websites to find used materials locally: Craigslist, Offerup, letgo, NextDoor Freecycle, Freegle, Buy Nothing groups on Facebook, Facebook Marketplace, and local yard sale groups on Facebook. There are a lot more websites and apps out there so make sure you check your local area. These are just some of the sites that I know of. Besides searching the posts on here, I would recommend making a post of your own explaining what you are doing and the materials you are looking for. There are a lot of people who search those sites looking to sell things or get rid of things.
Websites to find used materials online: Ebay is a site that I’ve used a lot and I’m sure there are other ones out there. This is a great resource for buying light weight and easy to ship items.
Habitat for Humanity Restore. There is a network of these all across the country and many of them stock an incredible amount of used materials for building.
Asking friends. People have a lot of stuff sitting around. Check with your friends who have garages full of stuff and see if they have things sitting around that they don’t want.
Go out on garbage nights. Keep your eye open in your neighborhood and you’ll likely see great materials being thrown out every week. Go out the night before garbage day and collect materials that are destined for the dump.
Dumpster diving. Find places where good quality materials are being thrown away.
Discount outlet stores that stock bulk leftover construction materials. Big Deal Discount Outlet is a store that I used in Orlando.
Home improvement/building stores waste. I’ve been told that stores like Home Depot and Lowe’s put out their wood scraps for people to take for free. I’ve never looked into it myself, but multiple people have told me that they have success with it.
Construction sites. You could get into construction dumpsters (at your own risk, this can be considered trespassing) and find an incredible amount of perfectly good, but tossed out materials. You could also ask some of the construction workers to set stuff aside rather than throw it in the dumpster.
Construction companies. Call up construction companies and tell them what you are doing. Perhaps they will like your story and be happy to set aside the materials that they would have otherwise thrown out. Or perhaps they are sick and tired of making so much waste and will be excited to have a better outlet.
These are just the resources that I know of, and I’ve only built one house, so I’m sure there must be more resources out there. The best resource is a brain that can implement problem-solving skills. With a resourceful mindset and dedication, you can most likely find the materials that you need.
If you are trying to build with mostly repurposed materials, my recommendation would not necessarily to go for 100%. 80% or 90% may be fairly easy to achieve, but it’s going for that last 20% or 10% that can be extremely difficult. I would suggest trying to get all the large items repurposed and to take it easy on yourself for the small stuff. That way you do a really great job and don’t over exert yourself with that last little bit. I’ve found it’s better to do a really good job with most things than a perfect job with some things and not leave time for other areas of life that could use improvement. But if you want to go for 100% definitely don’t let my opinion hold you back!
Where My Materials Came From
2×4’s and 2×3’s, 1×4’s, 1×6’s- leftover from a build site that I found on an online website. They were unused and would have been thrown away if one of the contractors hadn’t rescued them.
Plywood- Same as the 2×4’s
Doors- Habitat for Humanity
Metal roofing- Leftover from someone’s roofing project. Found them through doing a shout out on social media.
Flooring- Someone’s house flooded so they were getting rid of their flooring. It was in nearly perfect shape. I found it on an online website.
Exterior siding- We pulled apart fences and used the panels. I found the panels by posting on online websites. Most of them were fence panels sitting in people’s backyards, leftover from building a fence.
Pallets- Many pallets are used once and thrown away. This means there are a lot of pallets out there. The key is to find heat treated ones. They will have “HT” imprinted onto them. These are not chemically treated. We found these behind stores. We always asked if the store was getting rid of them if it wasn’t totally obvious.
Foundation cinder blocks- Craigslist, leftover from a build site.
Foundation pallets- These pallets were sitting outside of an apartment complex for many months and my friend Evi told me about them. I called the company to ask if I could have them, and they said yes. They are heat treated and heavy duty. They were used for shipping granite countertop from overseas.
Housewrap- leftover at a massive construction site. Found them on craigslist.
Drip edge- My friend Joe brought some that he had sitting in his garage for fifteen years.
Stain- I had a very hard time finding used cans of stain. I’m sure they were out there, but in the short time I had I didn’t find any. Repurposed Paint is very easy to find because paint shops sell all the discolored paints at super discounted prices. What isn’t sold I’m assuming is thrown away or “recycled”. But stain doesn’t have color mixing so it’s harder to find. What I did find is a paint shop that had a color that wasn’t selling. They were $60-$100 cans and they sold them to me for $3. So, these weren’t technically waste or repurposed, but pretty close.
Hurricane straps- Leftover at a construction site found on craigslist.
Wood that I used as trim- Same as hurricane straps above.
Roof underlayment- I got this from a discount outlet that stocks bulk leftover construction materials.
Silicone sealant- Habitat for Humanity
Radiant barrier- ebay
Roofing screws- ebay
Nails, staples, and screws- Some of these I got at Habitat for Humanity, but most of them were brought by my friend Matt. He said he had tons of extra and was happy to use them. I’m not sure if afterwards he had to go out and buy a bunch to replace what he used with me. If he did that then I would not consider this repurposed. This is the other grey area of whether it’s 100% repurposed.
Those are all the materials that I can think of, but there are probably a few small things left out of this list.
What the Tiny House is Built out of From Bottom to Top:
Foundation- Cinder blocks for the foundation with four 10’ long x 32” pallets set side by side on top of them. They are heat treated and heavy duty.
Floor- Tongue and groove plywood for the subfloor, nailed on top of the pallets. Engineered hardwood flooring on the interior. I was going to use hardwood floors but was advised against it in the heat of Florida, without climate control.
Walls- 2×4’s and OSB plywood as the structure.
“Insulation”- Radiant barrier. This reflects the sun, keeping the house cooler.
Exterior siding- Fence panels.
Interior siding- Planning to use pallets.
Roof- 2×4’s and OSB plywood as the structure, roofing underlayment laid on top of that, and metal roofing on top of that.
I hope that gives you a very solid idea of how I sourced used materials and how you can too. But definitely don’t stop there. Every locality is different. And there are many, many different ways to build a tiny house. This is just my example, and it is one of many examples out there.
This is a list of the majority of the tools that we used. I’m sure that there are a few tools that we used that I don’t remember, especially if Matt used something from his tool bag that I didn’t really see.
Power tools: circular saw, power drills, nail gun and air compressor, staple gun, and sawzall
Manual tools: hammers, screwdrivers, crowbars, pallet tool, speed squares, line level, staple gun, ladders, tin snips/metal shears, saw horses, tape measures, post hole digger, caulk gun, and paint brushes and rollers.
There is a statistic out there that the average power drill gets used for only half an hour in its lifetime. That may be an exaggeration, but the point is clear. For 99% of the life of most tools, they are sitting and not being used. I have no desire to contribute to this misuse of resources. Instead it makes sense to share tools with people who already have them. All the tools that we used were borrowed from friends in the neighborhood and brought by people who helped. If that had not worked then I would have looked into renting tools as that allows for the shared usage of resources. Another option would have been to buy tools used and then sell them afterwards. This takes more time but is a way to use tools without any new items needing to be made for you.
Building the Tiny House- The Build
Each person brought their own skills. Some people were highly skilled with construction and were able to take on the skilled building. Many of the people had little to no construction skills, so they took on the simpler tasks such as pulling apart pallets to salvage the wood, putting up siding, staining, etc. I am so grateful that my friend Matt Jones came out and dedicated his whole weekend to working on the tiny house. He is carpenter who builds both as a profession and a passion. At first, I was hesitant to ask him to help for the whole weekend, knowing that he works on houses 9-5 Monday-Friday. I thought he might be tired out and bored of building. And after all, it was his wife, and my friend, Sierra Jones who got him involved in the first place. But when I texted him and asked how late he’d want to build to, he responded something to the effect of, “As late as you can go.” It turns out that he just loves to build, and Sierra said he does it seven days/week. This was another example of mutual benefit. This was a new experience for him and he really enjoyed working on it and working with a group of people.
I set the first volunteer weekend as a 3-day weekend, Saturday-Monday. Each day about 10 people came out. My plan was to finish almost the whole house that weekend. We did not do that. It was much more work than I expected. If I’d kept the house even more extremely simple and built it with all new materials from the store I think we’d have managed. But building with repurposed materials is a whole different ball game. More on that later though… The second weekend was a 2-day weekend and at the end of the weekend we had built the majority of the house. I was able to move in within two weeks of starting the build!
In total about 40 volunteers helped out and the total hours that have gone into the house so far is 225. About 75 of that was me, and 150 of that was volunteers.
End of day one with the volunteers:
Day one of the tiny house build and I am overjoyed and relieved at how well it is coming together!I am so incredibly…
End of day two with the volunteers:
Day 2 of the tiny house build is complete!Again, I am so grateful to all my friends who came out to help make this…
At this point the total cost of materials was $903. The house is not complete, but most of the materials I need to complete the project are left over from the materials I’ve already purchased. The cost of materials shouldn’t rise by more than a few hundred dollars. I also paid a friend with a truck to help me pick up materials one day. That was $165 including gas. Lastly, I also bought food for volunteers and that totaled $80.
That brings the grand total of the tiny house build up to $1,138. My plan is to keep the total cost under $1,500.
I only started collecting materials for the build about two weeks before I was scheduled to start building. Because of this I was in somewhat of a rush to find materials. If I were to have collected materials a little at a time for months or even up to a year, it is likely I could have dropped the cost down drastically. A lot of what I purchased was not necessarily the best deal, but I had to take what I could get because I wasn’t going to take months to build it.
If you are trying to build a tiny house for a very tiny amount of money or even for free, then one of your best friends is time. The more flexible you are, the easier of a time you will have finding free materials and really good deals.
The Sustainability of Building Tiny
How I managed to create just 30 pounds of trash in building my tiny house.
I strive to create very little garbage in my life. The average American creates 4.5 pounds of trash per day, or about 165 pounds per month. It’s pretty normal for me to create just a few pounds in a month, or about 80 times less than the average American. It’s fairly easy in my day to day life to create near zero waste, because I’ve been doing it for a while and I have the practices down. Building a tiny house was a whole new challenge though. I absolutely did not want to fill up a dumpster in the process of building my tiny house, so this was a central part of everything I did.
The main way that I knew I could prevent creating garbage was by using materials that I salvaged from waste in the first place. That way any excess materials, shavings, or cuttings would not be garbage that I created, since it already was garbage in the first place. For example, if I saved thirty pieces of 2×4’s from the garbage, and then put two of them back, then that would not be trash I created. I think about it like this, if I take 100 pounds of wood out of a dumpster, use 90 of it and put 10 pounds back, I did not create 10 pounds of trash. I actually prevented 90 from going to the landfill. That’s trash negative. Even with that being the case, my goal was to not put any of those materials back into the garbage, but I wouldn’t be too stressed if I did.
During the build I became extremely overwhelmed. I was working with all these repurposed materials, which resulted in me collecting way more than I needed to make sure I’d have enough. When working with repurposed materials it can be challenging to know exactly how much you’ll need. With pallets for example you can estimate how many you’ll need, but often pallets will have a lot of broken pieces, making it very difficult to make an accurate estimate.
Back to my near breakdown moment though… The yard was littered with materials in the process of being taken down, and after the volunteer weekends I was left with huge amounts of materials to deal with. I’m naturally a minimalist and have a real hard time with clutter, so this was extremely stressful for me. Being in the peak of the rainy season it was also a worry to leave everything out in the case of a heavy downpour. Because it was my house, I was having a hard time stepping away from it. I just couldn’t get my mind off of the clutter and the mess and overabundance of materials I had in front of me. Of course, what I really needed to do was to step away, relax, eat healthy food, immerse in nature, and take care of my body. But the busy-body type person that I am wasn’t letting myself do that. So, the only thing I could manage was to deal with the mess I made.
End of day 3 of building my tiny house and I just feel so overwhelmed and beat down.It’s turning out to be a lot more…
I had to remind myself that most of these materials were either trash or headed to the dumpster when I got them. I wasn’t responsible for utilizing every single piece. I’d already done a great job by using so much repurposed materials. That did help me relax some. Ultimately what helped me the most though was getting rid of all the excess. It wasn’t until it was gone and the area was clean and clear that I was really able to relax. So how did I get rid of the materials without making trash? Here was my formula:
I went on Craigslist and made a posting with pictures of the used materials that I had. I was blown away at how quickly responses started coming in and how many there were. Within hours, a pretty large portion of the materials were picked up.
What I did with a lot of it was put it on the curb and wrote a title of “Curb Alert: Building Materials” I sat back and watched people take the stuff for their own projects. One important note is that I didn’t put the stuff out when the garbage truck would be coming. Whatever was left on garbage day, I brought it in before the truck came, and then put it back out after I was clear from the garbage trucks.
I also had my friend Katie Soo come and pick up a bunch of the small scraps to bring to her art school. They will paint on the wood pieces and use some of it for sculptures, among other things.
Awesome news!All that worry I had about creating a ton of trash from building my tiny house was for nothing!So far, I'…
After everything I managed to create a mere 30 pounds (14 kg) of trash. I read a statistic that to build an average house in the USA, 8,000 pounds of trash is created. That is many dumpsters full. That is over 250 times more trash than I created in building this house.
The tiny house is in the completion stages and what you see in my hands is all the trash I have created so far. A mere…
Some of my happiest moments of the whole build were talking to the people who came to get my excess materials. I met so many people that I wouldn’t have otherwise met, from different neighborhoods and backgrounds, and the meetings were truly meaningful for all of us.
Meet Kim!My heart is buzzing after meeting her!I listed some excess plywood as a giveaway on Craigslist and she…
Here’s my tips for how to not trash the planet while building a tiny house:
- Use repurposed materials and salvage materials from the garbage
- Plan ahead so that you only get the materials that you need.
- Be careful and take your time while building to prevent mistakes and waste.
- Use your excess materials from one part of your build for another part of the build. Excess 2×4’s from my walls will be used to build my bed, compost toilet, and outdoor kitchen for example.
- Donate your leftover, but usable, materials to Habitat for Humanity and similar repurpose locations.
- List your excess materials on craigslist and other sites.
- Find people doing similar projects who can use the materials.
- Check with any local artists or art schools if they can use your materials for sculptures, painting on wood, etc.
- Put your materials outside with a free sign (but don’t have them where the garbage trucks will take it away)
- Use wood as firewood. Make sure that it’s not chemically treated wood.
- Recycle anything that is recyclable, especially paper, cardboard, metal, and glass.
Building my tiny house was both exciting and overwhelming. I had some of my happiest moments in recent time and some major crashes. It was emotional and mentally trying. Building a tiny house is a commitment and a real challenge. If you are looking to build a tiny house I would encourage you to not take it lightly, especially if you are using repurposed materials. But at the same time, have fun! It is an incredibly rewarding and enjoyable process with the right mindset.
I hope that this guide to building my tiny house has been helpful to those of you reading this who are interested in building your own tiny house. I want to stress again that every situation is different and based on many factors. This is just the scenario that worked for me. I hope you’ll use the tips from here that would work well for you and just remember to create what is right for you, in the place you are in, in the time you are in and in your own shoes (or no shoes if you are barefoot). If you have any questions that I did not address, please ask them in the comments section below. I will try to answer most questions and add them to the FAQ.
A special thanks to everyone who’s helped make this tiny house a reality:
Lisa Ray, Sarah Robinson, Matt Jones, Sierra Ford Jones, Kendal Wilde, Gabby St.Croix, Ted Gournelos, Daniel Werner, Jim Hanusek, Caitlin Fogarty, Cheryl Davies, Evi Schulz, Momo, Shelby Pickar-Dennis, Tamie Davern, Camila Holanda Greco, Paul Greco, Jen Goodman, Jeff Trapani, Daniel Koenigkann, Yuan Chang, Larry Opoliner, Bambi Laird-Opoliner, Tim Green, Joe Loring, Ashley Raquel Ruiz, Katie Soo, Gabe, Jai Michael Barry, Nathan Brown, Michelle Finley, Yessica Henao, Tati Henao, Luisa Fernanda, Annie Depauw, Louis, Andrea Balaut, Luis, Will Halpern, Krystine Kimes, Luke Bramlett, Curtis Dickerson, Clarissa Trujillo, Michael Lergier, Stephanie Cruz, Hayden, John Swift, Sweetu Shah and Song Seto
Cover photo by Sierra Ford Photography
Frequently Asked Questions / FAQ
I’ve had hundreds of people asking questions about my tiny house, and most of them have arisen due to me creating a video that showed my progress, not the finished setup. Usually, I wait to show my projects until they are finished, so that most questions are answered already, but in this case I wanted to share the progress with the people who follow me online. I didn’t expect the tiny house build video to be viewed by very many people, but it’s reached beyond my audience. The video was really just intended for people who follow me more closely and know what I’m all about. Over the next month I will produce another video, and this will give a tour of the whole space, inside and outside of the tiny house. Below I’ve answered all the questions that I saw commonly asked in the comments on social media and my website.
What’s the deal with codes and permits? Is your tiny house “legal”?
There seem to be very few places across the United States where tiny houses are completely legal. In many places you can make a tiny house legal by putting it on wheels, so that it qualifies as a camper, but still in many places you aren’t allowed to use a camper on property in the city. In many places there are minimal building sizes, requiring people to build much larger than a tiny house. In many places the long list of expensive codes defeats the cost-effectiveness of a tiny house. There are a whole lot of ways that the government discourages tiny houses.
I am somewhat knowledgeable on the legality of tiny houses, but I am not an expert in the slightest. Many localities are quite different from others, so even if someone is generally knowledgeable on tiny house building and living codes, it’s still difficult to keep on top of the many different rules in different places.
My tiny house is not technically within city code here in Orlando. I will explain to you what I’ve done. Keep in mind this is just my scenario, and this works well for me.
Backyard sheds are EXTREMELY common here in Orlando. There are thousands and thousands of them. So, what I did was design my tiny house within city shed codes. This includes things like setback from property line, size, and structural codes. So the structure that is my tiny house is indeed within code. But technically a person is not allowed to sleep in a shed, so me sleeping in it is not in adherence to code.
Because I live extremely simply, this works for me. I did not put plumbing or electricity in the house. This makes it far less expensive and far easier to fall within code. I designed my house to be a shed so that it would blend in to the neighborhood. There are sheds in every other yard, so it doesn’t stand out at all. So, for all those YouTube comments calling my tiny house a shed… I say thank you! That’s what I was going for. When I leave Orlando, and no longer live in the tiny house, it will fall completely within code as a shed.
One reason that a lot of these codes are created is because neighborhoods are designed to be home to a certain number of people. Parking space is one factor when designing a neighborhood. I don’t have or drive a car, so I don’t have any impact in this manner. The sewage systems are designed to handle water based on a certain number of people. I don’t put any water down the sewer. I have a compost toilet, use primarily rainwater, and all of my water is used as greywater to water the plants on site. Again, I have no impact on the infrastructure there. I use a very negligible amount of electricity when it comes to grid planning. I am deeply thoughtful when it comes to how my impacts affect my surroundings. I aim to not only have no drain on my community, but rather have an extremely positive impact. I have planted 43 Community Fruit Trees in my neighborhood, built five gardens for single parent families, and teach free gardening classes. I believe myself to be a positive asset to the community.
Some people think that my tiny house could decrease property values. I think it’s clear that it won’t decrease any property values. By planting fruit trees and working to beautify the community, I would expect my presence to be more likely to increase property value than decrease value.
My life goes beyond city and government codes. Not because I’m selfish and don’t care though. Because I believe that many codes are extremely limiting in that it makes a rigid structure for society when we are an extremely diverse race with different goals and aspirations. Ideal codes to me would be able to look at individual scenario, rather than make blanket statements that often result in the defiance of common sense. The homeless epidemic in the United States is in part a flaw of our code systems. We have the highest population of people who live on the streets in a Western nation. I respect many government codes, but I will never blindly follow them, even if that results in me being taken to jail or being given fines sometimes (to date this has not happened).
I’m following my ethics and morals, harming no one, and living in the service of many. I look to Earth Codes and Codes of Humanity before I look to codes most likely created by a group of privileged white men. I think it is a human right to build a little nest and I will stand by this strongly through my actions.
Whose land am I living on, and how did I find it?
All throughout the United States there are thousands of backyards sitting unused. All throughout the United States there are people who would like to utilize their space better. So that’s the gap that I stepped into.
When I moved to Orlando, I wrote a blog titled Looking for a Backyard for Our Tiny House in Orlando. I spread it through the internet and talked to people in the community. My goal was to find someon interested in living a more sustainable life that I could be of service to. The idea was that I could improve the person’s land and teach them about sustainable and simple living in exchange for being able to build my tiny home on their land.
I had at least a dozen people offer me a space, but most of them were not in the neighborhood that I wanted to live in. It took a few months to find the perfect match, someone with a secluded backyard, right in the neighborhood I wanted to live in, and that could really benefit from my presence. I ended up meeting a local woman at an herbal conference who turned out to be a great match.
Did I buy the land?
No, see above. I don’t ever intend to “own” land. Land “ownership” is delusional to me. We can’t own the land. We are impermanent and will be here for a short period of time. Nobody or nothing can own the land. That’s looking at the much bigger picture. From a much smaller picture, here’s an example. If you fall ill and have no way of paying property taxes for a few years, that land is no longer yours. That’s definitely not true ownership. A vast majority of people who “own” land have a mortgage that they will never pay off, meaning they have a partial ownership at best.
Do I pay rent?
Yes, but it is not paid in monetary form. Instead of exchanging money we are exchanging resources and skills. I have turned her whole front yard into a garden. It was once a lawn and is now a bountiful garden that produces food and provides habitat for important creatures such as bees and butterflies. Since she is older, I am also able to be of service by doing heavy lifting tasks and some maintenance around the house and yard. After I leave, the tiny house will be hers as well. All improvements I make to her space will be hers for the years to come. I hope she will use the tiny house to host people from out of town that will continue to help her with the gardens and add value to her life. It’s been a lifetime goal of hers to homestead, and that’s the dream that I’m helping her achieve.
Alice Walker is known for saying, “Activism is my rent for living on the planet.” This is more along the lines of my thinking.
How did I decide on the design of the house?
See the pre-build section of this blog.
What about the toilet and kitchen?
I have an outdoor kitchen and compost toilet. They are both works in progress, but are near completion. Here is a blog that I wrote with photos of the kitchen and compost toilet:
Does the house have plumbing or electricity?
I have a compost toilet, which means no plumbing is needed for a toilet. I do use a hose on the property for water, but all greywater is used to water the plants, so no sewage is needed for that. My outdoor kitchen is set up with rainwater harvesting, and my plan is to use almost exclusively rainwater in it. The hose from the property is a backup. As I was getting everything setup, I used the hose primarily.
For electricity, I have an extension cord running to my house. On that extension cord, I have three outlets. The idea of having just three outlets is that it drastically limits the amount of electricity that I can use. An average house has dozens of plugs, with likely over 100 electronic items. I have just a handful of electronic items. My original plan was to be off the grid and power myself at home 100% with solar. But after I did the math, I realized it didn’t make too much sense. I am only going to use about $250 worth of electricity in the two years that I’m here. The solar system to create that amount of electricity would have cost thousands of dollars. And I believe the environmental impact would have been greater to get new solar panels and batteries made than to use the existing infrastructure. So, this time around I am on the grid. It’s not my ideal situation, but I’m fine with it.
Isn’t this just a shed?
I do cover this under “What’s the deal with codes and permits? Is your tiny house “legal”?” however there is more that I want to say with this.
Some people call my tiny house a shed in a negative manner. They are looking down on it and almost saying “how dare you call this thing a house, it’s a measly shed.”
It’s not hurtful to me to hear this, but if you zoom out and look at things from a much greater perspective, it’s highly offensive. Billions of people around the world live in much simpler structures and that is their home. The whole world is not fortunate to live in what Americans call homes and think they need for a happy, healthy existence. What I call my home is actually more in alignment with the global standard of a home than the American 3,000 sq. ft. standard of a “normal” size house.
Home is where you make it, and millions of people would dream of having this tiny house as their home.
What am I doing for insulation?
My main issue in Florida is the extreme heat. Our summers are very hot, and most people living here consider them brutally hot. A lot of people leave for the summer and a vast majority that stay use heavy air conditioning. On the other hand, our “winter” is short and in most years, it does not go below freezing. Last winter there were five nights just below freezing though. The annual high temperature is around 80 °F and the annual low temperature is around 65 °F. So, my main priority is keeping the place cool enough. For this I did a few things. First and foremost, I built the house under the shade of a tree. That keeps the house substantially cooler. Second, I put large windows and doors on all four sides of the house. I almost always have them open which creates a nice cross breeze. There’s almost always a cross breeze coming through the house. Third, I used radiant barrier on all of the walls and the roof. This reflects the sun and keeps the house cooler. By doing this, the house has almost never been hotter inside than outside. I’ve seen how drastically sheds can heat up, so I was worried about this when making my plan. But I am happy to say that the scorching hot summer was not that bad for me. I enjoy extreme heat and I swim almost daily as well as stay in good physical shape to keep myself naturally cool. Because I spend most of my time outside and don’t use air conditioning, my body is more adapted to the heat. It’s the extreme temperature differences that make summer heat seem hotter. Walking out of air conditioning into mid-day sun is rough. Waking up to the outdoor temperature and being outside as the temperature rises is much easier on the body. Also being outside day after day adjusts the body to the climate.
As of now, I do not have the house insulated for winter. The way I currently look at it is that our winters are short, so I may not insulate for the short period of time when it is needed. If it does get too cold, then a tiny wood stove is in the plan. I will use salvaged wood from the neighborhood, so I’m not worried about the highest level of efficiency of keeping in the heat since it will be heat created from waste.
Here is Orlando’s climate information, just in case you are interested.
How do I keep away insects, rodents, or other animals from your outdoor kitchen and bathroom?
So far this has not been an issue. I am ok with some level of insects. They are natural. An infestation is a different story, but I haven’t had anything remotely close to that. If rats or mice become a problem, I will set up traps and then bury the bodies to turn into soil. I keep mesh bags over all fruits and veggies to keep away fruit flies from the house. All of my dry food is stored in jars.
Squirrels have been eating my compost and that’s not an issue. So far, no problems. On the other hand, the squirrels have been a challenge in my garden, eating a lot of my seeds before they come up.
Why did I choose Florida?
I have written a blog on that here: Why did I choose to live in Orlando, Florida?
Where did I find the materials to build the house?
See above in my tiny house build section.
How long will I live in this tiny house?
I will be here until at least November 11th 2019 when I finish Food Freedom. My plan is to live in Orlando about two years, and I arrived here December 2017. I intended to build the tiny house right away so that I’d live in it for almost the entire two years, but it took me a lot longer to start it than planned. So it will likely be 1.5 years of living in the tiny house.
Why didn’t I build the tiny house on a trailer?
The entire cost of my tiny house was about $1,500. A trailer costs about $2,000-$3,000 if I got a good deal on a used one. So, this would have doubled or tripled the cost. Also, my intention is to never move the tiny house, so the trailer would be a wasted resource just sitting there. Also, almost every backyard that was offered to me had a solid brick fence or not enough space to move a tiny house on wheels in. The only option was to build the tiny house inside the backyard because it would be too big to get out.
For me, the main benefit of building on a trailer is that it’s no longer considered a house with codes, but rather a trailer, so that makes life easier. That would be nice, but not as important as the other factors.
What did I do with my previous tiny house in San Diego?
I auctioned it for $10,000 to build tiny houses for people in San Diego without homes. See this blog for more information on this.
Did you choose Florida because it’s warm there?
What about doing this in a cold climate?
Yes, I am my happiest in warm places. I grew up in Northern Wisconsin and spent most of my first 23 winters there. In a typical January, it stays below ten degrees Fahrenheit for the entire month. The coldest temperature I ever experienced was negative sixty with wind-chill, and I went fishing that day. It’s safe to say that I know the cold very well. At this point in my life I want to live in a year around warm place. I lived in San Diego, California from 2011-2016. Now I live in Florida.
Living in a warm place does make it easier to live this lifestyle. When it’s warm outside, there’s less of a need or desire to spend as much time in the house. The doors and windows can be open. Less clothes are needed, especially bulky winter clothes. This all can make a small space seem bigger and more open. This is the lifestyle that I choose to live.
However, each region has its challenges and there are millions of people living similar low impact lifestyles in every climate around the world. My suggestion to anyone in a different area than me is to take what you can from my example and adapt it to the situation you are in. I consider resourcefulness and adaptability to be some of the greatest characteristics for success in life. It’s very easy to pick out little things that I’m doing, say that you can’t do that, so you can’t do any of it. But again, the idea is to take what you can to be better to the earth and to live for the benefit of the earth, your community, and yourself.
Of course, my system doesn’t work everywhere. It’s a diverse world and we’ve each got to adapt to where we live. I am just one example of what can be done to live more simply, be less dependent on money, and to decrease our impact on the environment. Many people quickly jump to saying this can’t be done in a cold climate. Most of what I am doing can be done just about anywhere- rainwater harvesting, compost toilets, growing food during growing season, reducing our trash, using resources wisely, etc.. It’s all about doing what we can, where we are. My life is just an example of what can be done in my current situation. You’ve got to be resourceful and adaptable to live like this! I have my home setup for the climate that I live in, and you’ll want to do the same.
Often people say this can only be done in the climate that I live in. Ironically the people here have a hard time believing that I live without air conditioning. Billions of people around the world live in a climate similar to Florida. Much of the world can, and does, live similar to me. I didn’t invent anything here.
People all over the world live sustainably in cold climates. An extreme example like me is Mark Boyle, who has lived without money in the UK. I hear people say it’s not possible there, but he’s a shining example of what can be done. I strongly encourage reading both The Moneyless Man and The Moneyless Manifesto if you are inspired and want to learn how to do something similar to what I’m doing has done this for years in the UK.