For the last year, I’ve been designing a house on wheels. As my friends will tell you, it has evolved through several iterations, changing form and function with the seasons and my experiences. What started as a cottage built atop a trailer became a long, streamlined wagon, which in time grew an engine and became self-propelled. Complex systems, albeit ones still simpler than in most houses, became minimized to the most basic needs; other systems disappeared altogether. Small measurements became major distances: a difference of two feet distinguished ‘cramped’ from ‘comfy.’
My friend Carrie says that the act of creating of a tiny house is an embarkation into one’s own soul and personality: you design what you need, and no more. The analogy with a turtle’s shell is one that is surprisingly apt. The turtle has a beautiful house, specially built, ultimately functional; yet he has no need for extra bedrooms for a potential future family, or a great room for entertaining, or even a backyard.
Interestingly, a tiny house lends itself very well being on wheels. There are the obvious physical advantages of being small in size, relatively lightweight, and transportable, but beyond that a tiny house seems to encourage a different way of looking at the world: less of domination, and more of interaction. It seems to just make sense to make a tiny house as mobile as a turtle’s.
Even before I started designing this rolling home, I had spent years designing small fixed-foundation houses I might want to live in. Whether constructed of wood, cob, or strawbale, the designs shared common backgrounds, needs, and solutions that came out of my own experiences and dreams. I abstracted these into general values, each of which could be used as both a starting point and a reality check. The intersection of the values is where I try to place my design.
I find most homes, whether fixed or mobile, to be complicated and overwhelming spaces. The spaces themselves seem too large, and time-consuming and expensive to furnish and keep clean. Modern building materials and parts frustrate me with their fussiness and difficulty to repair. Heating and cooling systems drive me crazy with their noise, inefficiency, and tendency to fail. Electricity, water, and gas systems are complex and dangerous, and lock the homeowner into a single provider.
Modern RV/campers are even worse, with poor adaptations of fixed-home systems to a platform that needs to be lightweight and compact to fulfill its mobile purpose. The result is the complexity of many systems implemented with cruddy materials that quickly fail.
In the process of my design, I, too, started with standard concepts such as ‘kitchen’ and ‘bathroom.’ But the more I thought about it, the less I wanted a standard kitchen, with cupboards and stove and sink and refrigerator. I found that I wanted a good place to prepare food, and a place to store it, but I didn’t want a sink that tends to collect dirty dishes and food bits, I didn’t want cupboards that obstructed views of my surroundings, and I didn’t want a humming refrigerator full of perishing food. Instead, I’ve designed a large, clean counter with a big view, some drawers underneath, and a portable dish tub; outside, on the little porch, is a small stove (powered by either gas or charcoal) and a small cooler (gas, electricity, or ice).
Similarly, my design for a heating system started with propane tanks and pipes and wall-mounted heaters, then became a more integrated radiant floor heating system, and finally devolved to a tiny, simple woodstove. The water system simplified to a tank, mounted underneath the frame, with a single hose leading to a hand-powered brass water pump.
I’ve taught myself to ask, ‘Is that necessary? And if so, what is the simplest way to do it?’
I tend to find the soft spots in materials: if it’s wood, I’ll dent it; if it’s fabric, I’ll tear it; if it’s metal, I’ll bend it; if it’s clay or glass, I’ll chip it. It’s as if I’m an active agent of wabi sabi, the Japanese aesthetic of beauty in imperfection and impermanence. I’ve tried to be gentler, but I’ve found that it’s best to just accept this quality, and design for it.
Generally, this comes down to choosing materials and parts that will survive the minor knocks and dings I will invariably give them, age gracefully and beautifully through their lifetime, and be replaceable when their time comes.
For example, my kitchen counter will be a piece of butcher block, which will age well as it is used, and can be replaced when it is no longer functional. A copper tea kettle, bought gently used, will survive a few more years of drops and bangs, acquiring a rich patina as it ages.
It’s arguable whether a mobile house that depends on an internal combustion engine and the public road system can truly carry the ‘sustainability’ label. However, the choice of building materials is wider than one might think. Contemporary RVs use plastics and cheap, lightweight wood in part for production efficiency and low cost, and in part to keep the weight of the shell low so that the interiors can be fully decked out.
Once I moved beyond plastic pieces and specialty parts, it was not hard to imagine using more sustainable materials: a frame of steel (most of which is both recycled and recyclable), insulated with sheep’s wool (a byproduct of raising sheep for meat, and biodegradable), paneled on floor and ceiling with reclaimed lumber, with soft walls made of recycled newsprint, furniture of reclaimed and certified woods, covered where needed with natural fabrics. These materials may be a bit heavier, but a minimal structure with few systems and simple furniture can still chug along safely and friendlier on the road.
Mobility, of course, is about movement: but it is also about lack of movement, of settlement for a while. I have been the one behind the wheel of 14-hour driving days, and I have been the owner of a fixed-foundation home. The pursuit of happiness, for me, lies somewhere in between.
I have always been interested in places, and how people live there. In the past, I took small journeys out to the greater world, brief visits where I gained glimpses of possibilities. Recent years have found me spending more time – say, a month or three – in a place, delving deeper, learning more. The quick trips are easy to spend in hotels or hostels or other temporary lodgings, since I tend to integrate the results after I return home. On the longer visits, it is valuable to be able to process and integrate while I’m there. My housetruck design reflects this, providing a private place for work, retreat, sleep, and sustenance, yet a place that can be ‘on site.’ In other words, a place to live wherever I happen to be.
Practically speaking, the value of mobility involves having handy most things that I need, and being able to both easily move along and easily stop for a while.
The inspirations for my own tiny house have come from a variety of places, over a lifetime of observations of unique homes, both fixed and mobile.
I have a library of offbeat books about buildings, from sheds to castles, but the most influential has always been the book Rolling Homes (see Mr. Sharkey’s review). This book has often been cited as the work that propelled many dreamers onto the road via repurposed buses, trucks, and delivery vans. For years, I’ve traversed the wonderful projects in this book, imagining my own take on the art of making the turtle’s shell.
The other major inspiration has been the British/European tradition of gypsy caravans and ‘living wagons.’ (For a longer history of this style, see my article about showman’s vans and living wagons.) If you imagine an American streetcar or passenger train car from the late 1800s or early 1900s, you’re seeing the shape of my own turtle shell.
And then there have been the small, daily inspirations of a special truck or bus or delivery van found along the way, and the influence of those vehicles’ owners. Those crazy visionary residents of house buses and house boats, horse trucks and milk wagons, converted hearses and limos, rat rods and velocipedes, have kept the dream, for me, alive.