Tiny Home Designs

Besides creating spaces dedicated to community gatherings, workshops, markets, and events, one of our aims here at Saba Cooperative is to provide space for a tiny home village. Through imaginative experimentation with a diversity of tiny home designs, ranging from the practical to the whimsical, we hope to be able to offer potential members and guests a wide array of choices when it comes to meeting their needs for shelter.

While all of the following designs take environmental impact into account and are meant to be able to operate independently of the grid, some are more sustainable than others. The following tiny home design concepts may be placed, roughly and imperfectly, on a spectrum from “most portable” to “most affordable.” Those near the “affordable” end of the spectrum tend to be more ecologically and economically sustainable, while those near the “portable” end of the spectrum tend to opt for the greater freedom inherent in dynamic geography. Below we consider a few different conceptual tiny home designs, beginning with the fantastically hyper-portable and gradually approaching the pragmatically earth-sheltered, increasing in detail along the way.

 Inflatable Solar Skysteads

With the possible exception of spacesteads capable of interplanetary travel, nothing else comes close to the high degree of freedom available onaskystead.

Not so fond of the weathe  r? Just float up above those storm clouds and bask in the sunshine. Not happy with the local political situation? Simply ascend into the sky and scour the globe for a more tolerable earthly authority. Or perhaps, if you can grow all your own food, produce all your own energy, and occasionally drift low enough to capture rainwater, you might be able to go months without landing.

The specific design envisioned here is based loosely on the concept of the solar ship, which combines elements of both a plane and an airship. When filled with helium it’s only slightly heavier than air, while the aerodynamic wings and solar-powered motor gives it the additional lift needed for flight. Anticipating more efficient solar power technology in the future, this design incorporates a tiny home and solarium into the center of the aircraft and relegates the photovoltaics to the outer sections of the wings.

Of course, some obvious downsides to skysteading are the extreme expense, technical complexity, and inherent danger of suspending a tiny home and garden thousands of feet above the surface of the earth.

Amphibious Wind-Assisted Seasteads

While certain cultures have nearly always lived on the water in various forms, seasteading is the concept of creating permanent dwellings at sea. These need not be tiny, and variations on the theme may include semi-submersible platforms, artificial islands, submarine homes, or entire floating cities.

However, the specific design concept envisioned here is equally at home on land as on the sea, and small enough to be moved by perhaps a bio-diesel engine on either a solid or liquid medium. At sea, it could even be wind-assisted. Such a design might be ideal for smoothly transitioning between lakesteading, seasteading, and landlubbing.

Some downsides to such a design include the relatively high expense, technical complexity, and many potential dangers associated with seasteading.

Micro-Campers, Tipis, and Yurts

Our hunter-gatherer ancestors were nomads, but even among “civilized” folk, the ability to simply pick up your house and move if local conditions become unfavorable still has many advantages.

The various design concepts shown here are intended to be light enough to be easily moved by a relatively small electric motor, if not light enough to be moved by hand or bicycle. The tipi and yurt are time-tested ecologically sound designs, whereas the tiny campers are more experimental. Taken as a whole, these designs represent a happy medium between portability and affordability.

One potential disadvantage to tiny homes constructed of lightweight materials is their relative fragility; camper trailers are infamously dangerous in high winds, while the canvas walls and roof of a tipi or yurt could burn or be easily punctured. Another disadvantage of such designs is relatively higher seasonal expenses. While being lightweight is a virtue when your goal is to be portable, it also necessarily means a lack of thermal mass, making it harder to maintain comfortable indoor temperatures year-round. Either it costs you more to heat in the winter in cool climates, or more to cool in the summer in hot climates, or you seasonally migrate. Either way, there are trade-offs to be considered.

Cabins, Cottages, and Treehouses

The various designs shown here may be closer to what many people might initially imagine when they hear the term “tiny home” in that they are small stationary dwellings that may utilize fairly conventional construction techniques.

Simply building smaller can dramatically reduce costs both during the construction process and over the long-term, and by using recycled and salvaged materials one can reduce costs even further and also avoid generating waste. Permaculture principles like stacking functions (many yields from one element) and reciprocity (utilize yields from each element to meet needs of other elements) are particularly helpful when considering tiny home design.

Earth Integrated Structures

Arguably, the single most ecologically and economically sustainable method of tiny home construction is to design your home in a way that integrates it with the earth, whether by building into a hillside, building recessed below ground, or building above ground and then berming earth up against the walls and over the roof.

Mike Oehler, author of The $50 and Up Underground House Book, does an excellent job of explaining how to solve many of the complex design issues associated with earth integrated construction, (most notably, moisture and drainage issues,) in affordable ways.

One of the primary advantages of sheltering with earth is the year-round passive temperature regulation effect John Hait has termed passive annual heat storage. Other advantages include high resistance to fire, wind, and fallout, and minimal disruption of local ecology. Some other notable earth integrated forms of construction include Mike Reynold‘s earthships, Owen Geiger‘s earthbag architecture, and Sepp Holzer‘s root cellars and animal shelters.

saba wofatiThe specific earth-sheltered tiny home design envisioned to the right, described in detail in the following paragraphs, and featured in the video below is designed to meet Paul Wheaton‘s criteria for a wofati (woodland oehler freaky-cheap annualized thermal inertia) structure.

This earth integrated tiny home is intended to be built into a southern-facing hillside in order to maximize passive solar gain. To minimize costs, the post and beam frame can be constructed from rough cut timber grown and felled on-site, likewise for the vigas shoring up the walls and ceiling. The roof is designed so that every drop of water that lands on it has a complete downhill soil path and the layers composed as such: structural wood, followed by a layer of polyethylene plastic (protected on both sides by many layers of newspaper) hugging the structure, followed by a layer of dry earth at least 1′ thick, followed by a layer of inexpensive insulation, (maybe dry wood duff or straw,) followed by a newspaper-protected layer of epdm rubber defining the thermal mass umbrella, followed by a layer of earth at least 2′ thick, followed by rain, snow, and a polyculture lawn.

The 8’x16′ kitchen in the heart of the home has a built in rocket mass heater with cooking and warming areas, a big kitchen sink, lots of counters and storage space, and a bbq window out to the greenhouse for summer cooking. A cellar door off the kitchen leads downstairs to a 16’x8′ root cellar with room for a top-opening freezer/refrigerator and several shelves of passively-cooled food storage. The sunny 8’x16′ living room on the southern side of the home contains the thermally-massive cob bench of the rocket mass heater, built-in bookshelves, and an open space for practicing yoga; and by simply folding out a hidden built-in bed and unfurling some heavy curtains, half of the room becomes a private 8’x8′ bedroom. The covered uphill patio to the north of the kitchen is a 16’x16′ greenhouse containing a bbq-window-accessible area for summer cooking, a large tub/shower with rmh-heated floor, a compost toilet closet, a ladder leading up to a sunny indoor growing area for plants, and an elevated water storage cistern for gravity powered plumbing.

The Saba Wofati is an evolving open-source design that you can freely download and alter as you please, here: Saba Wofati model in the Sketchup Warehouse

The following video briefly tours the design:



At first, a tiny home village at Saba may be composed of just a few yurts or tipis, being as they are some of the most simple and imminently practicable designs. This would enable individuals to live lightly on the land while planning, saving up for, and carefully observing proposed sites for more permanent structures. However, with the understanding of earth integrated structures as approaching the ideal when it comes to being economically and ecologically sustainable, and considering their immobility and durability, it seems likely that over time, a tiny home village at Saba would be composed of increasingly more earth-sheltered structures as compared to other kinds of tiny homes. Such a village of earth integrated tiny homes interspersed with forest gardens could conceivably meet the needs of its inhabitants and also be a highly resilient platform from which to experiment with more whimsical designs in the future.

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