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Lessons from a Tiny House Build

Updated Oct 18, 2022

Updated Oct 18, 2022

Home > Blog > Lessons from a Tiny House Build

Callie Brauel and Nathan Huening were living in a 1,300-square-foot three-bedroom townhouse in Chapel Hill, NC, when they began the shift to tiny living. It started with downsizing to an apartment a third the size of their townhouse and selling off most of what they own. They took that cash and started what became a two-year build on their 160-square-foot home. Make that 250 square feet counting the two lofts, 450 with the porch that functions as a living room.

In 2015, neither Callie nor Nathan could claim construction in their skill set. It’s 2017 and Callie, who works in higher education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has added tiny house designer to her resume. Nathan is a freelance web maker, and now, an amateur tiny house builder.

The journey to tiny living

As told by Callie and Nathan

I (Nathan) first encountered a tiny at least as early as 2009. When Callie and I met, the idea of building one quickly became an exciting part of our early courtship. We attended a Tumbleweed workshop in Raleigh in March of 2015, which helped us get a clearer picture of what we were getting into.

We located a build site in east Durham and moved from our 1,300-square-foot Chapel Hill townhouse into a 400-square-foot studio apartment. This forced us to sell or give away a lot of our stuff, which not only helped finance the process but also made the final step of moving into the tiny house much less difficult. I definitely recommend doing a step-wise process like that!

Construction

The construction process was much more challenging than we anticipated and also took much longer than we guessed. Partly because we had practically zero building experience, and partly because we scrapped [the original architectural plans] and decided to do a custom build. Nathan’s dad worked full-time with us for about the first quarter of the process, then part-time for another quarter.

As much as we might complain about the build itself, it’s relatively straightforward: people have been building (small) houses for ages, so many of the problems are already solved. But finding a place to park it ended up being one of the hardest things to do. Being on wheels, it’s strictly considered an RV, and in most towns and counties, you can’t live full-time in an RV. Fortunately, a friend who heard about our project reached out and offered to let us park in the backyard of his rental house in the country.

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Even though the house wasn’t totally completed, in April 2017 we decided to move it from the build site, which we had outgrown. That required an enormous effort to clear and level the land, put down a gravel pad, trench a 200-foot run for septic pipe, and connect our house to the existing water and power lines. We hired a tow truck to move it from the build site to its current home, which was a 25-minute drive of white-knuckled fear across Durham.

How long did it take to build your tiny house?

Short answer: about 15 months. Long answer: Closer to 2 years. If we did it again, I bet we could do it in six months for half the cost.

We ran out of money a few times, and there were stretches where we worked only part-time on the house and others where we couldn’t work at all because of scheduling or family issues. The process accelerated as we got further along, owing to getting proper tools and increased construction skills. But everything always, always takes longer than you think.

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One of the main delays was moving into the space too early. That was a terrible idea! If there’s any advice I can give to anyone else, absolutely wait until it’s totally finished before moving in if you want to maintain your sanity.

What were the biggest obstacles in the build?

A tiny house build is really nothing but obstacles. But if I had to pick among the biggest, I’d say:

  1. Not having definite plans. We love that it’s a fully custom design, but we made up a lot of it as we went along, which is great for flexibility, but the flip side is that you end up having to do things over and over again. A lot of the steps are cumulative, building on decisions you make in advance. If you don’t anticipate those properly, you end up having to deconstruct and rebuild a lot.
  2. Managing supplies. In addition to the build site, you need a) a place for raw materials, like lumber and pipes and insulation, etc., b) a place for “finished” goods to be installed like appliances, door knobs, light fixtures, and c) a place to keep all your tools. It wasn’t til late in the build process that I built a decent covered workshop. Sometimes I’d buy something a second time because I couldn’t find where I’d stashed it the first! Good thing Amazon accepts returns.
  3. Building outdoors. It’s not even the heat or cold so much (we built continuously through two summers and two winters) but how wet Carolina can be. It not only slows down the build, but you have to keep everything covered that might be exposed to rain. Plus, finishing work like paint and polyurethane always always attracts bugs and pollen, which will mess up your finish for sure! It would have been much easier to do the whole thing indoors.
  4. Lack of skills and tools. For people who are expert builders, or at least have done a lot of remodels, I’m sure it’s not a super challenging process. But when you don’t really know what you’re doing and add a lot of the unusual space considerations when it comes to building a small house, it’s quite a lot to handle! 
  5. Maintaining enthusiasm. As one year stretched into two, it becomes easy to get discouraged. The build became the central feature of our lives, and it gets old when friends have to ask, Aren’t you done with that yet? Are you sure that was a good idea? Seeing it through to the end when you want to give up is an opportunity to work on your entrepreneurial grit.

Do you have a favorite memory in your tiny house?

Completing the built-in sofa ranks pretty high because it was an especially challenging process and doing so transformed the space.

The design is complex. Nathan built it over a few weekends out of an awful lot of plywood. It sat disassembled on a front porch for some weeks before we’d completed the walls and flooring to move it in. The custom cushions came later and were a journey all their own.

We sourced the foam from a specialty store in Raleigh and the fabric from a warehouse while on a trip to Dallas, which we brought back as checked baggage. Nathan cut the foam to the right dimensions, angles and all, using an electric turkey-carving knife. We dropped it off at the home of a seamstress we found on Craigslist.

Once the cushions were in place, the space really took on a new character. It’s a favorite memory because until that point we’d didn’t have a comfortable place to sit down and relax inside the house—and neither did the dogs! With the completed sofa, we could move the dog beds off the floor, which cleared up a lot of room, and we and the dogs had a place to relax comfortably (that wasn’t the bed). It felt like a proper home!

What do you love most about your tiny home?

The four-burner gas range? The study loft? The radiant heat flooring? The wireless built-in ceiling speakers? The full-size stacked washer/dryer? The glass shower door that doubles as a full-length mirror? The extra-deep stainless steel kitchen sink? The large outdoor screened-in porch? The transforming day bed / sectional sofa? The never-ending, on-demand hot water? The standing desk with giant computer screen? The brand new California king bed? The quiet and dark country nights?

So hard to choose!

One thing you wish you could change?

Only one? Right now, probably the flooring. We love the cork—it’s warm, soft, and has a complex, interesting pattern that contrasts well with the plain maple and white cabinets. But I suspect it was never intended to be used with radiant heat flooring! After the first winter, the heat caused expanding and contracting of the tiles, separating them and making the seams visible. In some cases with huge gaps! In the spring after we stopped using it, they returned somewhat to their original shape, but not all the way, and the seams are still visible. So while cork remains my favorite flooring, if we want to keep using the heat, we’ll need to find a material that’s less resistant to thermal deflection.

Biggest indulgence in this tiny space?

Definitely the dishwasher. [Drawer dishwashers] are fairly expensive, but we got one half-off on eBay because it had a dent on it (in the back, which you totally can’t even see). It’s great not only for cleaning up after parties but for when we’re feeling lazy! Who says you can’t have it all in a tiny house?

What would you tell others considering tiny living?

Have courage! It’s probably a lot easier than you think. If you’re looking for an excuse not to do something, you’ll always find one—so just go for it. Some things you think will be difficult, aren’t. For example, getting rid of most of our stuff (twice) was much easier than we planned. And as long as everything has a place and every place has a thing, you won’t feel crowded—it can still have a spacious, open feel inside (tall ceilings help).

What would you say to someone interested in building a tiny home?

Don’t do it! Save yourself!

Just kidding…(mostly). I would say most people interested in tiny houses would be happier buying a tiny house rather than building one themselves. Building a tiny house and living in a tiny house are two completely different processes, and unless you want to learn building and construction skills, it may not be worth the hassle. 

Also, Amazon Prime is your best friend.

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