Step 2: Planning the House

Selecting a design: tiny vs. really damn tiny?

The property is located 2-1/2 hours away. We knew that we would need help building the shell of the structure in order to build on the weekends and have the house complete in under a year.

"Tiny Homes Simple Shelter" by Lloyd Kahn became our go-to guide for design inspiration. We narrowed down the list of builders featured in the book and made some calls.

After researching cabin designs of all shapes and sizes we focused in on floor plans in the 200 to 400 square foot range. Costs for structures we looked at ranged from $20,000 glorified sheds to $75,000 mini modular homes.

We considered trailered options, like the well-known tumbleweed homes. Buying the iconic tiny house in the 100 to 150 square foot range was never our first choice. At $60,000 to $70,000 these finished homes were also over our budget. Their radically small size provides no extra space to host friends or family. Building one ourselves from their plans was an option to get the cost down. In the end, we would not take advantage of the portability of this type of tiny home so it was not the most practical option.

We decided that our goal was not to prove to ourselves how small we could go. Our goal was to find the right balance between function, character and cost. 

Looking to the higher end of the size range, we considered several Pennsylvania builders offering small cabin-style homes. The local options offered simplicity and practicality. Builders like Cozy Cabins came the closest to what we were looking for. They provide complete "turnkey" code-compliant homes. The floorplans in the 400 to 600 square foot ranged in price from $45,000 to $75,000. This exceeded what we could spend up-front, not including the foundation and other site work.

We went with a tiny house style that provides the flexibility to do much of the work ourselves.   

We chose to build our tiny cabin with Bungalow in a Box, a Maine company owned by Raoul Henin and his family. After initially reading about them in the Tiny Houses book, we visited their website and Photoshopped a photo of one of their cabin designs onto a potential building site on our property. It just felt right.

This is our Photoshop mockup of the Bungalow in a Box "Waterford" cabin. It looks right at home nestled on our hillside. 
After a couple of calls with Raoul to discuss our project, here's what sealed the deal for us: 
  1. A small, family-owned company that builds just a few cabins each year. Working with Raoul allowed us to customize every aspect of our design, from the building's orientation on the site to the window layout, porch size, roofing and siding. This takes time, patience and a lot of discussion. Most builders simply won't go to those lengths for a building in this size and price range. From the first phone call with Raoul, it was clear to us that he is just as interested in the people he works with as in the building itself.
  2. They provide a weathertight shell of the building but there's still plenty for us to learn to do ourselves. We have never accomplished or attempted a construction project of this scale before. We realized that if we wanted to finish the house this century, we'd need to get help for the framing and outer shell. But once there's a roof over our heads, completing the blank canvas interior ourselves seems a lot more manageable than starting from scratch.
  3. Super efficient construction, in both energy and materials. Bungalow in a Box offered us a hybrid cabin concept that blends SIPs (Structural Insulated Panels) with heavy timber framing and panelized wall framing. This method gives us an extremely tight envelope - specifically the roof - where buildings can lose most of their heat. The timber frame porch and interior rafters give this house a unique style. The timbers are truly massive -- like you would find in a ski lodge or soaring great room. 
  4. They could actually deliver to our mountainous, rough site. Our driveway has a portion that feels almost vertical as you near the top. The idea of getting a cement truck up there to pour a foundation or deliver a fully assembled modular home on an 18-wheel rig seemed dicey. The Bungalow in a Box house arrives in pieces using a traditional lumber delivery truck. There is a compact boom crane to lift individual components of the house into place rather than a monstrous crane that moves the whole house at once.  

Recreational cabin or code-compliant permitted house? 

Pennsylvania has a "recreational cabin exclusion." Basically, you can build a cabin on your land and the only code requirement is to confirm that there are smoke detectors and a fire extinguisher. You do not need to follow the residential building codes. 

The idea of building a "rec cabin" was really tempting. We could have a simple and inexpensive composting toilet, bring in our drinking water, and use a small solar panel and battery system for electricity. This would allow us to build the whole house for under $40,000. 

However, rec cabins have a few important limitations that are enforced by attaching a restriction to the property's deed: 
  1. They can never be used as a place of residence for any period of time 
  2. No renting or commercial use
  3. Cannot be an address for vehicle registration, voting or mailing purposes
In other words, if we built a rec cabin as our home, it could never be our home.

We decided to go legit (code-compliant)

The floor plan that we designed in the iPad app for our building permit submittal. 
The simple decision to build a code-compliant tiny house put us in a whole new world of challenges and cost.

At this tiny size, average cost per square foot just goes out the window as a reference. We received advice from our builder and local contractors to budget by taking the price of the home shell and doubling it. Then, add the cost for the well, septic system and getting electricity to the house from the road.

There was no choice. If we wanted a building we could actually call a home, we needed to build it to the residential building code.

We knew the first step was to obtain a building permit from the township. Using the 14 x 20 foot "Waterford" model on the Bungalow in a Box website, we drew up our floor plan using an iPad app called Floor Plans Pro

The residential building code is not written with tiny houses in mind.

We learned a lot and avoided surprises by speaking with our local code enforcement officer while we were still in the design phase: 
  • You must have one habitable room that is at least 120 square feet
  • There are minimum clearances for plumbing fixtures such as toilets and showers
  • Minimum insulation values require thicker walls and ceilings than we planned for
  • Lofts without full-sized staircases cannot count as bedrooms or living areas
  • The house needs to have a power supply, a well for drinking water and a professionally engineered on-lot sewage disposal system
  • In this area of PA, the clay soil drains slowly and requires an extensively built septic system with a sand mound drain field, holding tanks and electronic pumps

Breaking ground

The first lumber delivery!
After ordering a perc test and system design from the local septic system engineer and sewage enforcement officer, we received our sewer permit. We then filed that permit along with our design specs and preliminary building plans from Bungalow in a Box in order to obtain the building permit. 

The township supervisor initially raised an eyebrow at the tiny size of our permitted home. It was more out of curiosity than disapproval. Most people would choose the recreational cabin route for a structure this small. But everyone was very friendly and helpful about the process once they understood our "build small, small bills for life" goals. 

We received a building permit green-lighting us to proceed with the foundation construction.

Prepping the site for Bungalow in a Box

At this stage we were officially working with Bungalow in a Box. We are responsible for getting the site and the foundation ready before they deliver the house. No problem.

They took a small design deposit and gave us photos and instructions on how to prepare the site. Raoul provided a layout for the location of the concrete piers that we used for our foundation. 

At this time, we also agreed to build the beams and wooden decking structure that the whole house sits on. 

Our excavating contractor placed the huge piers with excellent precision. Each pier is over four feet tall in order to extend below the frost line. After placement, the piers were checked by the building inspector prior to back-filling. 

Piers are the most cost-effective type of foundation for this remote location and building size. A poured concrete slab or full foundation would have cost many times more. Crushed stone under the house prevents standing water buildup. 
Advice: make sure to build up 20 foot long beams very close to their final location. We made the mistake of nailing and bolting all of this heavy 2x12 lumber together about fifty feet away from the foundation. They weigh hundreds of pounds. We had to attach temporary handles and use the slippery mud in order to glide the beams closer to the site.
Beam building tips: 1) Refer to a deck span chart and then go bigger. We upsized each beam to triple 2x12 lumber for extra capacity. 2) Place breaks in beams directly over posts or as far from the center of any span as possible. We have one break that occurs over a span but there are two continuous beams behind it and we used carriage bolts for extra strength. 3) Use heavy duty brackets for the post and beam connections.    

Inspectors want to see connections between each of the three structural elements (pier, post and beam) that will resist uplift and lateral forces. We used Simpson adjustable post bases and post caps. 
With the posts and beams attached, we began to build the heavy duty deck that the first floor of the house will sit on.
Squaring the box frame of the deck is very important. To do this, we used the "3-4-5 method." Measure points that are three feet and four feet from each corner. Connect these points with a five foot string. When all four strings are taught, the box frame is square. With the box square, we attached temporary braces and centered the frame on the beams below. 
Temporarily locking in the wood frame to keep it square. 
Attach galvanized joist hangers every 16 to 24 inches along the rim joists using structural nails meant for that purpose. This is the standard spacing for proper floor strength and will coincide with standard insulation batt widths.

We cut the posts to allow a generous two feet of clearance under the deck. This provides easy access to run plumbing drains, water supply lines and electrical conduits. The added height also enhances the views from the house and prevents moisture from building up between the ground and the floor.

We sheathed the underside of the deck with 1/2" pressure treated plywood. To attach the sheathing from below, we used the screw jack from our car to jack up the frame a couple inches off the beam.

Lots of clearance under the house to install utilities. Later we spray foamed all of the joints between sheathing panels and attached batten strips to the outside. 

Insulating the deck from the top. Kraft faced fiberglass batts fit nicely in the 2x12 joist cavities. Make sure to space the floor joists 24" on center. 

Installing the subfloor. 3/4" particle board with tongue and groove edges. 

Oops, the sub floor should be oriented the other way around so that every seam is over a joist, never over a cavity. We figured this out after getting it all in place so we just had to call it a day at this point and leave the fix for another day. 

We finished the insulated first floor deck a couple weeks before Bungalow in a Box arrived to place the house. It's important not to let the in-floor insulation get wet. To keep it dry we created a makeshift tent over the deck. This rig survived a couple of big thunderstorms.

Our giant 20 x 30 foot tarp tent, to keep water off the sub floor while we wait for the house to arrive. 
Next step: Bungalow in a Box delivers the house.


  1. Bungalow in a Box is building for me also. It looks to me like you are doing a great job and a lot of careful thinking. My first house was on telephone poles and never had a cold floor but they have changed the regulations in Maine and it is only a bit more expensive to have a basement. Pics if you are interested, but we just started:

  2. Very cool! Thanks for sharing your experience. We are trying to do the same thing in PA as well. We want to build a tiny cabin to live in full time! We are also blogging about it :) Thanks again for sharing!