Building a Tiny Portable Home

Kate Fox
Friday, 16th March 2018

From PM96, summer issue, Kate Fox shares the process of creating a small portable home and how it led her to the lifestyle she’d always dreamed of.

It was whilst on holiday kayaking and camping in the Scilly Isles, off the southwest coast of England, just after a small series of incidents in our life (including flood, theft and vandalism), that we (myself and partner Andy) suddenly had the revelation that we could change what we were doing and start again. We could sell our conventional two up two down townhouse in Sussex, build ourselves a small self-contained mobile hut to live in and relocate to an area we’d always talked about wanting to live in: Pembrokeshire.

We had a long term dream of owning a piece of land, building a house, living a simple low impact life alongside nature, and having plenty of adventures in the outdoors. In the life we were living, however, we couldn’t see how we could get there. Here was an opportunity to get onto the right path, or at least a different path! We would have the freedom to relocate without immediately having to find somewhere to live, and work to pay for it, and have the flexibility and time to settle in slowly and tick some of the things off our bucket list that we couldn’t do when tied to a house: like a lifelong ambition of mine to walk the 630 mile South West Coast Path in one go.

Going minimalist didn’t scare us as we had both lived in caravans and vans before and like nothing more than camping and being outdoors. We also had the necessary skills for our project, Andy being a natural builder/carpenter and me having a background in permaculture and sustainability.

Designing

The first thing we did in our design process was visit a huge second hand caravan showroom where we spent half a day in over 50 caravans to get a feel for different sizes and different layouts. We knew that we wanted something small enough to tow and site easily that was not too costly in materials to build, but big enough for the two of us to live in comfortably. We decided 5m (16ft) long was an ideal size. We noticed that all the second hand caravans had problems with damp and mould so we made the decision not to have a shower inside our space. We also agreed that in such a small space we could do without having an inside toilet just a few feet away from where we would be eating, sleeping, working and relaxing!

Next we identified our needs and desires, aware that we would have to make compromises along the way. Our main constraints were cost (£5,500 budget), weight (maximum of 2 tonnes total for our towing vehicle) and dimensions (legal, aesthetics, strength and practical reasons). We sourced a decent strong low car transporter trailer for £1,800 ex lease hire, then we weighed everything we owned that we thought we would like to have with us after decluttering, right down to our underwear!

We both individually drew on graph paper lots of outlines of a 5m x 2m space and sketched in different layouts for our definite needs: bed, sink, woodburner, table, storage, doors and windows. We also had a big discussion about fossil fuels and decided not to use gas in our hut for heating or cooking.

Then we made a large outline plan and cut outs of those elements to scale to move around the plan. It was at this stage that we realised we wouldn’t be able to fit in some desirables like a sofa (which led to the idea of a huge bed that doubled up as a lounging space). There were also complications with a square woodburner: the space needed around it for heat safety, the flue coming out of the back to maximise the cooking space on top and the way it would face, meant too much space would be used. This led to the idea of a round one with an oversized cooking plate that opened facing diagonally into the living space. We also realised that we had to have our bed lengthways in the space because we are both tall and if we went across the width there wouldn’t be room once the walls, insulation and cladding were added to the measurement.

Once we were happy with our internal layout, Andy made a plan on Sketchup that could be tweaked along the way as we had new ideas or hit unforeseen hitches when actually building.

Materials

When deciding on materials and type of construction, we had to consider our constraints as well as our ideals. This led to some difficult decisions. We wanted our build to be low impact and eco using recycled, reclaimed, natural, local and sustainable materials where possible. We also needed something long lasting and strong as we had no idea how long we’d be living in it, and it was to be towed on the highway and off road and possibly sited in exposed locations.

We decided the structural strength would come from top quality marine plywood which would be lightweight, slightly flexible and strong, but full of synthetic glues (as well as being the most expensive thing we bought besides the trailer). We also chose polycarbonate for windows which is lightweight and flexible, but is a type of plastic.

Building

The planning and design stage of our ‘hut project’ took well over a year from first having the idea to starting the actual build. We allocated two months for the build in the autumn and spent a total of 75 full days on it during that time (Andy 47 days, Kate 28 days).

The first week was mostly spent on the phone to suppliers asking the weights of materials and ordering things that we hadn’t already collected. A lot of time was spent cleaning up reclaimed timber, cutting 15 x 5cm (6 x 2in) timbers into other dimensions for the stud work and making the glue-lam beams to support the roof. After the sides and roof were on we would clear out all the tools at night and camp inside so that we could get a feel for how we would use the space and how to finish the interior. Up until this stage we hadn’t completely designed the kitchen or bed area so it really helped to spend time just looking at blank spaces and imagining how it would work best.

Life in our Hut

We lived perfectly happily and comfortably in our hut full time from the end of 2013 until the beginning of 2017. One of our major concerns was not to fall foul of planning laws so we made sure that we didn’t stay in one place too long and never hooked up into mains services. We decided early on in our design process that the best way to live was mainly on campsites where we would have access to water and facilities like a toilet and shower. Once the hut was completed I sent photos of it to The Caravan and Camping Club and got accepted as members so we could use their sites if we wanted to. We spent one winter in a woodland living as seasonal coppice workers, and one winter living on site where Andy was building a timber frame house. We occasionally stayed on friends’ land under the 28 day rule and stayed at Lammas in Pembrokeshire volunteering for a short while.

Living off grid forces more environmentally sensitive choices and we were able to experiment with low impact living through necessity. We generated our own electricity and didn’t depend on fossil fuel for everyday living. We learnt techniques to reduce our water consumption as we carried all our water in a container. We also made our own outdoor shower that didn’t use electricity or gas (see www.permaculture.co.uk/readers-solutions/how-shower-without-electricity)

Living in a confined space together we realised how much strain this can put on a relationship, so we made some ‘rules’ of living to make it easier. We always said ‘excuse me’, ‘thank you’, ‘please’ etc. and had names for different parts of the hut like the bedroom, kitchen and dining room where we could go!

Back to the Land

In 2017, we found a place to buy, and we now have somewhere with land where we can once again be self sufficient in fruit, veg, eggs and herbs, and also experiment with edible landscapes, manage woodland for timber/coppice produce and manage land for nature conservation. We set up a small eco campsite with certification from The Greener Camping Club and our hut is now available to rent for those interested in trying out Tiny Home living for themselves. It is sited in a meadow overlooking our nature reserve and the whole of the wild wooded valley.

Kate Fox lives on the edge of Priskilly Forest, near the Pembrokeshire coastline. See www.intothesticks.co.uk for more information.

For the full article, with photos and material list see PM96: www.permaculture.co.uk/issue/summer-2018

Useful links

Video: The tiny, mobile classroom

How to build a beautiful, energy efficient home in the woods

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