Checked and updated on March 9, 2021 by Aaron Barnett
Designing a tiny house can be a challenge as fitting inside all your furniture is hard. You might have to make a furniture sacrifice, because of the limited space between shipping container walls, or the edges of your trailer.
This means you want house design software that is accurate to the point, rather than drawing on paper the computer is quicker, easier, and more accurate. The last thing you want is a couch not fitting in by half an inch.
Walls and furniture need to easily be adjusted quickly, as you will shuffle furniture around to fit. Doing this on paper is slow, as one-thing-not-fitting could mean having to re-design the entire layout from the shell and start over from the beginning.
Tiny house design steps
There are 2 stages in a tiny-house design, first the floor plan, and second considering the layout in 3D.
Unlike a traditional house that generally relies on a floor plan for a functional layout. A tiny house needs design consideration in 3d to make use of space efficiently.
A more efficiently designed tiny house using split-level, and floor storage can save space needed for furniture, and so can a tv wall mount. Of-course with a tiny house, a sacrifice has to be made sometimes, but the overall benefit can be worth it.
Free tiny house design software
I recommend using 2 different programs, the first program is to get the floor-plan right.
You want to be able to move walls and furniture around quickly to get the floor-plan layout how you want it. There are many free tools available for this actually.
Doing a quick draft first
When drafting it’s good to be able to move the walls and furniture around quickly to get an idea of what floor-plan you want before starting with a final 3D model.
Still keep in mind where you intend to have a split level, but don’t draw it yet, wait until later when you have decided on a floor plan.
There are many options but I’m just going to recommend downloading the open-source sweet home 3D it is simple, free and will work, just ignore the 3d part, as google sketch-up is more customizable for 3D images and drawing tiny-houses with split levels.
Do your actual drawing in google sketch-up
Once you know what you want, and have finalized a floor plan in sweet home 3D you can now download google sketch-up, it is free for personal use, and it lets you draw to exact measurements.
This is great for tiny house designs that will have a split level at a weird height and inbuilt furniture. This makes sketch up a popular tool for designing tiny homes.
Google SketchUp doesn’t take long for new users to get the hang of, and it also doesn’t take long to finish a technical drawing pretty quickly, as long as you can see the finished picture before starting with SketchUp.
Designing the floor plan with sketch up takes longer as it becomes complicated if when you start changing the design too much in 3D.
Google sketch-up is great when you know the floor plan, and for checking it works in 3D, and have a final 3D picture. After adding some color, and inserting terrain from google maps in the background.
Although you only want to make sure your idea works and your furniture will fit inside before you start building.
Shipping container vs. Trailer tiny house
This depends, is your tiny house idea a long-term or a short-term thing, are you wanting the cheapest living space or are you wanting something a bit bigger than you can tow yourself?
Think about how it will be transported
The best thing about a tiny house on wheels is that you can get a trailer sized significantly bigger than a shipping container.
A tiny house on wheels can be hard to actually transport if you are not confident towing such a weight, you will need a car that can pull it.
With a shipping container, instead, you can hire a truck cheaper than what you might think, and it could be a lot less hassle than towing a tiny house with just a car, making a container arguably easier to move.
Think about how much space you need
Maximum legal trailer sizes are surprisingly large and provide decent space if you come close to the max-legal-towing-size. Of course the larger a trailer the harder it will be to tow.
Shipping containers, come at 20 ft or 40 feet, but they are narrow at only 7.87 Feet, by the time you add a cavity, framing, and insulation, you will be left with less space again.
With shipping containers, I only recommend going for what is known as a “high-cube” a standard container height depending on the manufacturer is 8.49 feet while a high-cube is closer to 9.514foot.
This extra space is required really because when you bring the floor up to let’s say 3.74-Inchs for framing/insulation and flooring material, and again when you line the ceiling, you’re going to lose more space again.
With a high cube after framing, you will be left with a little bit more than the average stud-height.
Consider the cost of a shipping container vs. A trailer.
You can buy a shipping container today, and it can be delivered to you in a week or so, with a trailer you need a good design and you need to wait for someone to build it, this could take a while.
With this comes more time and a more expensive option. Designing a trailer that can sit a house on-top requires someone with experience and the skill to do it.
However shipping containers are already designed to take pretty much any weight you can load inside, so there is nothing to worry about in regards to weight even when you cut-out doors and windows from the steel with a handheld angle grinder.
There is more support than you would ever need via the box frame.
Shipping containers are already designed to last 20 years at sea carrying literately tons of weight while being about half to 1/3rd the price in comparison to a tiny house trailer.
Do you care how it looks
A trailer can be nicer looking, as you can build a lightweight structure that can look like a traditional timber-framed house, although a bit UN-proportional sometimes with the height that exceeds the width.
A shipping container is always going to be, and look like a steel box. Can you make a container look better? maybe, you could paint one a clean consistent color, or get some graffiti art done, and have some surrounding trees. Arguably this could look cooler than a trailer tiny house if done right.
But don’t get too carried away, if you spend too much time you might as well have got a well-designed trailer that has ply-wood cladding (transport-bracing) or a consented building.
Tiny House vs. RV
With an R.V or House-truck, you can actually drive it and park it wear you like, living cheaply and being able to travel wherever you want in a country.
An R.V or even a well-designed house bus or van could beat having a batch, but they are not as comfortable to stay in one place VS a timber-framed or shipping container tiny house or obviously a batch.
R.Vs are high up of the ground and generally have a small hard-to-get-through door, this bad entrance-way could be fixed more easily with a truck VS a bus or an RV with the right design idea.
You could build a comfortable “park-up” for an R.V by digging and leveling the ground down lower in the spot the r.v will be parked, you could build a permanent deck with a canopy and BBQ, and a separate garage (for woodworking), and an outhouse.
Tiny house design tips
Use a split-level bed
I recommend a built-in split level bed with enough room under the bed for all your storage, while not being too hard to climb on-to, while keeping decent headroom.
People that design tiny house’s on wheels like to have the bed high enough to have a room like a kitchen underneath, but generally sacrifice good headroom on the bed with also, an awkward staircase sometimes.
It’s good to have enough room to be able to stand on your knees comfortably on top of the mattress thickness. If you want a room like a kitchen or a bathroom under the bed, build with a single slope roof.
Have the high point at the car end of the trailer where the bed is located, this looks better and is good for towing-weight-distribution, and bed headroom.
Alow for some storage space
Don’t clutter yourself with a million hidden storage areas, allow enough room under the bed to fit a set of draws and jackets. Keep things simple, you can’t stay in a tiny house with things not being used.
Position as much as you can off the walls a few high-level open shelves is your best way to have storage as you can see everything.
Build in-built furniture
No matter what place you want to position your bed you should have an in-built custom bed. A custom-made bed means you can build storage underneath. A solid inbuilt bed will be more stable when otherwise it could be heavy and move around in transport.
Using a bed as part of the tiny house structure will add extra support and strength to the walls in timber or steel-stud framed tiny-houses.
With a mid or top-level bed built this extra bracing will help stabilize the framing when your tiny-house is in transport. For a shipping container, you don’t need to worry about any bracing.
A t.v stand would generally take up a lot of floor space and shelf space, instead install an extendable t.v wall mount, so that you can position and tilt the t.v in the direction that’s best while taking up less space.
Having a small viewing distance in a tiny house can make t.v viewing difficult, but with a swing arm TV, you can direct your LCD exactly in the right spot, and push it back against the wall when not in use.
Designing a tiny house shouldn’t take long, the software by sweet home 3D and google sketch up is that’s needed.
Another thing to consider with a tiny house on wheels is that you need to brace it well while keeping the structure as light as possible. You can use light-weight steel studs keeping the unit below the legal towing max-weight but make sure to use plywood and stainless steel screws to brace it.
As for a shipping container bracing isn’t required, but let it breathe with vents and an internal cavity to stop condensation building up, or better use spray-foam insulation.
Don’t go overboard, decide what you want, and start building! And source any recycled materials as-soon-as-possible because their dimensions will affect your layout and design.
For recycling wooden materials, click here to read how to remove paint from wood.
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