Advice from a designer and builder of tiny homes-from concept to design to the building process
Shawn Baird   Resilient Shelter Group Facebook Page

Columbus, OH 

We are designers & builders – & creating shelter solutions that improves your life and increases your resiliency is our passion.
From storm proof container homes that can both weather the storm as well as help you and others get back up and running after the storm, to vehicle based shelter that enhance your over-landing adventures, to more traditional custom homes, our homes and products are designed and built for life, anywhere.

I shared this on some tiny house groups, but this applies to shipping container homes more than anything. So here you go.

There are more and more posts about having someone draw up plans for a tiny house build, which is awesome. From just a lack of experience to naiveté and ignorance, a lot of people don’t know how much is involved in constructing a home. And from what makes good design that looks good as well as works well, to the amount of material it takes and its costs, to the pieces and parts and sequence of assembly, to implementing all of the aforementioned in a cost effective manner – both design and construction are widely misunderstood.

It gets a little more confusing when modern design software makes it look so easy! Just like HGTV has made construction look completely unrealistic, so has inexpensive and even free software and apps made design unrealistic. Being able to draw pretty pictures and generate amazing images has very little benefit when it comes to the actual build. The sort of Building Information Modeling (BIM) software that actually does help with construction rather than concept development is tens of thousands of dollars and nowhere near free.

Having said that, the best houses do start with design. And design starts with a concept. So being able to effectively and even accurately convey the concept has value. Just know that it’s a place to start, not a place to end.

So – if you are looking for someone to “design” your tiny house, or even work up “construction documents” so you can build it yourself, here is the sort of information you should provide, and what information you should be looking for in return.

Information needed from you:
Intended use –
Will it be on wheels or on a foundation? Do you intend to travel with it a lot? How often do plan on moving it? Do you intend to be off-grid? Where do you plan on using it? Designing for Maine is different than designing for Florida, Etc…

Number of occupants –
Is it just you, you and your spouse, a family with kids, etc…?

How you live –
Do you actually cook real food, or do you microwave meals? Do you work a lot, then go to the gym, go out to eat, and are basically home to sleep and clean up?

Restrictions –
Do you want a first floor bedroom? Are lofts an option? If you have a host site, what utilities are available or not available?

Budget – be honest here. If you have a $30,000 budget, don’t expect a $90,000 house.

Information the “designer” should give to you.

Conceptual development –
This is a basic arrangement of your needs and wants in a schematic form.

Floor Plan –
this is how the space within the house is arranged, presented in a 2d format. Its everyone’s go-to, but for a builder, it’s the least used sheet in the set of prints.

Foundation Plan –
this is super important because everything starts here. If this is right, the build will likely go smooth. If its wrong, you’ll fight every subsequent step. From what the foundation is, to where its located, to how it is installed, do not short-change this step.

Framing Plan –
Framing doesn’t just include walls, but floors and roofs too. From framing member sizes and spacing, to any sort of structural gymnastics that are needed to accomplish what is being done, this is very important.

Roof/Drainage Plan –
what material and pitch and how different aspects of the roof intersect with walls or with other roof planes, and since the purpose of a roof is to keep the weather out, directing water from a roof to somewhere is important.

Mechanical Plan –
this is more important than it sounds, because there is such little room for “the trades to figure it out” in the field, so it should be figured out before hand. How do you plan on heating and cooling your tiny house? How do you plan on moving and exchanging air?

Plumbing Plan –
How do you plan on heating water? How do you plan on getting water, storing water, supplying water, etc…?

Cabinetry Plan –
What cabinets are being installed, and where? Remember that kitchens are the most used room in the house, the most expensive room in the house, so pay attention to this one. Also remember that all kitchen specifying starts with appliances. The appliances will be the known and fixed element that the cabinets are based around.

Exterior Elevations—
What does the house look from the exterior. An elevation isn’t just a line drawing either, but should convey information like what material the cladding is, where any thru-wall penetrations are, doors and windows should be labeled and match what is contained in the floor plan and the door/window schedule, the pitch of the roof, labels and sizes of any trim, etc…

Interior Elevations –
What does the house look like from the interior. I admit interior elevations are probably the least completed drawing in a set of prints, but the smaller the space and the more you are trying to fit things into a smaller space, the more important these drawings become. And one area of interior elevations that cannot be skipped are cabinetry elevations. Those are a must to make sure that what you’ve drawn in plan also works in elevation.

Building Sections —
Sections are super important and represent what the structural shell of the building looks like if you cut it and looked inside from the cut point. Every set of prints ought to include at least one building section from each direction.

Wall & Roof Sections —
Wall sections are generally more detailed than a building section, but not always. The wall assembly, from what material and sizes its members are made from, whats inside the wall and/or roof, to how its attached to the floor and roof.

Structural and Connection Details—
These details are the nuts and bolts of what actually makes things stand up, or stay together, the behind the scenes information that really matters from a structural perspective.

Weatherization Details—
These details are easy to overlook by volume producers, low-end or inexperienced builders, and the DIY crowd. Don’t do that. Setting a window is not just screwing the window frame to the surrounding jack stud and filling the gap with the cheapest caulk you could find. Failure to correctly flash a roof to wall intersection WILL lead to leaks and rot, and your house eventually falling apart.

Schedules are lists of what pieces, hardware, purchased items, etc… go into a build.

Framing & Beam Schedule –
This is a list of framing material and labeled beams that correspond with the beams in the framing plan, their location, their size, etc…

Door & Window Schedule—
This is a list of doors and windows that contain the label for each door or window, its location, its type, its finish, possibly its supplier, and any special notes about it.

Mechanical Schedule –
What make/model or brand/model of mini-split are you using, and what are its exact requirements? What brand/model of water heater are you using? Do you have an electric or propane fireplace? A small wood burning stove? Whatever the mechanical systems are in the house, include them here.

Plumbing Schedule –
This is a list of all of your plumbing pieces, material, fixtures, etc….Ideally, this isn’t just (1) toilet, (1) kitchen sink, (1) bathroom sink either, but rather a more specific list that includes at least dimensions and type, if not brand and model numbers too. You don’t have to figure up how many ½” cpvc elbows you’ll need for the rough plumbing, but unless you’re doing a full custom shower, you will need to know the size/brand/requirements of the shower stall shell you want before you begin framing.

Electric Schedule—
Again, this isn’t just a list of how many duplex and appliance outlets you have, but also type/brand/model of exhaust fans & ventilation fans, interior and exterior light fixtures, and of course any off-grid items and/or requirements

Cabinetry Schedule –
One of the more expensive schedules here, so don’t short change yourself here. What size is your sink, and sink base? How are you handling blind corners in the kitchen? Do you need a 4-drawer base, or are the typical drawer/door cabinets providing you enough drawers? If you’re planning on moving this a lot, then weight matters, so cutting out wall cabinets in favor of open shelving may seem to make sense at first, until you think that you’ll have to pack and unpack those shelves everytime you move, and then it doesn’t seem to make much sense at all.

Now, I think a lot of people will look at this and think its overkill and unnecessary. “Here’s a sketch on a napkin, just build it! Sheesh, why complicate everything”. Homeowners are reluctant to pay for design… until a big change order comes in that was unseen but necessary, and that they didn’t budget for, and they wish they had figured more out beforehand. Or until the energy use bills start to arrive and they realize that all the “cost-saving” and “weight saving” measures that the builder talked them into had a pretty high cost afterall.

Builders are reluctant to pay for design because “just tell me what you want and I”ll build it” has worked fine for the most part in the past (well, there was that time that you got sued because the “wing it” approach kind’ve backfired… actually that’s happened several times), and because design increases the cost of the project and they’re worried about losing the job. After all, “architects and designers don’t care if what they designed ever gets built – they did their part and got paid, and they’re not affected if they design a $90,000 solution to a $30,000 problem”.


Well, in addition to finding the right builder, apply the same due diligence to finding the right designer. Even better, find a design|build company that can do both, and do them well. Architects and designers sometimes don’t have the real world experience to know what things actually cost, and their beautiful and perfect design is unbuildable because it didn’t match the clients budget. So finding an architect and/or designer who not only understands the pieces and parts and sequence of construction assembly, but has worn a tool belt before, really benefits all involved.

Certainly, the more information the homeowner brings to the designer and/or the builder, the better. Open and continual communication before, during, and after the build process is essential. If your designer is not a builder and if your builder is not a designer, the more times the three of you meet and discuss things together, the better.

Hope this helps. I wrote this quickly on a lunch break and haven’t spell checked it, so any builders, architects, designers, and homeowners, feel free to add to, clarify, and improve this for everyone.

Shawn Baird   Resilient Shelter Group Facebook Page

Columbus, OH 

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