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Yes, You Can Build Your Own Tiny House

by Alauna Yust
February 7, 2018 | I ❤️ PBS

It was 2015, and my husband and I wanted to build a house.

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Alauna Yust and her husband work on their tiny house on wheels. The couple lives in Minnesota. Photo courtesy of Alauna Yust.

My husband has experience in construction, carpentry and set design and a background in engineering. And I have a lot of ideas.

We weathered the Great Recession with student loan debt and facing a difficult job market, so limiting mortgage debt was important to us. Both drawn to the idea of living smaller and smarter, we designed our very own 129-square-foot tiny house on wheels.

But could we actually build a house? Yes, and you can too.

Tips for building your own tiny house

Three years into what we thought would be a year-and-a-half-long project, we’ve learned a lot about what it means to embrace the challenges of building something together. We couldn’t have planned for some of the setbacks and surprises we’ve encountered along the way to a mostly-finished tiny home.

Here are our tips for tiny house builders, home renovators and weekend warriors of all types.

1. Design around your values

The idea of building around what we care about led me to a guiding phrase I thought I had coined (but which is actually an established architectural principle): values-based design.

Partnered with concepts like Marie Kondo’s KonMari Method of de-cluttering, values-based design centers your space around the functions you care about and leaves out what’s not important to you.

For us, the need to welcome people into our space was vital. We quickly determined that a full-sized dining area and space to entertain were our top priorities, so we literally constructed the tiny house around a dining booth that includes built-in storage space for games and entertaining. One of my favorite comments from a recent visitor? “This space is so you!”

2. Find a renewable source of inspiration

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Alauna Yust's husband hammers the door frame of their tiny home. Photo courtesy of Alauna Yust.

With any long-term project, moments of burnout and frustration are inevitable.

We were confident when we set out to build a tiny house that we could complete it within a year and a half. As we approach year three of this build, I realize how invaluable it has been to have external sources of inspiration, especially when steps take longer than planned.

Find a blog, magazine, architect or TV show you love and draw on its creativity to inform your own. I can guarantee you’ll need an artistic boost now and then!

New PBS three-part series “Impossible Builds” explores some of the 21 century’s most fantastical structures and might be just the inspiration you need for your own "impossible build," no matter how small.

The first episode, airing Feb. 7, is all about the making of Miami's Scorpion Tower, also known as One Thousand Museum. The skyscraper is a standout of the Miami skyline—not because it's the tallest, but because its inside-out design turned construction rules on their heads and made it a nearly impossible build.

One Thousand Museum was designed by legendary architect Zaha Hadid as an über-luxurious condo building—the five-bedroom penthouse will go for $20.5 million—and features a mesmerizing curved exoskeleton. The four-year build has been rife with technological challenges and obstacles beyond anything its construction team could have imagined.

But the team overcame those challenges: The building will be completed in less than a year. How's that for inspiration?

3. Buy for the long game

It’s tempting to buy cheaper, builder-grade materials to stretch a tight budget. But another one of our priorities has been building for the long-term.

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Source: The Tiny Life

A budget-friendlier way to buy better is to buy secondhand. We’ve visited countless flea markets, antique stores, building material outlets and Habitat for Humanity ReStores throughout our project.

Buying used items:

  • is kind to our limited budget
  • saves items from the landfill
  • often means higher quality for less money than buying new
  • has filled our home with stories

We’ve collected many one-of-a-kind fixtures on vacations and trips around the world, filling our tiny house with dozens of memories before we’ve even finished constructing it.

4. Make a plan—then recognize that it probably won’t work

Let’s face it. Life happens, and it will continue to happen. Throughout our build, we’ve both changed jobs, paid off student loans and moved three times. That’s nothing compared to the challenges faced by the Scorpion Tower team, but we have had to reassess our priorities and work with and around Mother Nature continually.

Develop a plan and budget, but know that realistically, you’ll need to adjust as you go. And that’s okay!

5. Celebrate your successes

Whatever your long-term project, I can’t overstate the importance of celebrating achievements as you go. The psychology of celebrating can boost your mood temporarily, remind you of your talents and abilities and contribute to a mindset of gratitude.

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Alauna Yust in her tiny home. Photo courtesy of Alauna Yust.

We’ve high-fived over hinges, celebrated successful skylight installations and rejoiced over everything from agreeing on a color palette to finding the perfect cabinets at a great price. Consistent praise has kept us moving toward milestones and has made the process celebratory, even when things moved more slowly than we anticipated.

Constantly celebrating also turns obstacles into significant achievements; what was once seemingly impossible to overcome is now another item on your long list of accomplishments.

There’s no doubt that a 709-foot-tall skyscraper is a different beast than a 129-square-foot tiny house. But anyone that has taken on a build will face challenges and at some point feel they’ve taken on an impossible task. Stick with it and enjoy every step of the process.

“Impossible Builds” will premiere on PBS on Wednesday, February 7. Check your local PBS station’s schedule for broadcast dates and times, or  watch online the day after the broadcast premiere.

Alauna Yust
Alauna Yust has worked in television and radio and currently produces StorySLAMS for The Moth in the Twin Cities. She and her husband are fixing up an old farmhouse while building a Roma-inspired tiny house on wheels. Alauna loves traveling, anything that glitters, and everything about her dog Lola. Most likely a Ravenclaw.
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