TINY HOUSE CASE STUDY: Waterfront “Silver Lining” Cottage Rises from Ashes

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It was a bad day when fire destroyed the 60-year-old heirloom cottage of Mike and Alice Ogden, a bad day indeed. But from the ashes of disaster grew roses of success with a tiny home suited for year-round living. On the same spot today you’ll find a compact, classically shaped, four-season structure that I designed for them. It’s as energy efficient as it is eye catching. The Ogdens’ place is no longer just a vacation home, but they live on their beloved cottage property full-time. How they got from smoldering ruins to where they are today offers pivotal design and construction strategies for tiny houses that can help anyone interested in building small homes that are elegant, efficient and economical. That’s the Odgen’s place abovr.

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`Tiny House Strategy#1: Make Space Count

Insurance company policy required Mike and Alice to rebuild on the same footprint as their old, 20 x 26-foot, 1940s structure – nothing larger was allowed. But this small size didn’t stop them from outfitting their new place for comfortable, year-round living. They may not have been able to go longer or wider with their floor plan, but that didn’t stop us from going upwards, following a design philosophy for small space that allows every cubic inch of internal building space to become useful. In the end, they got nearly twice as much usable floor area, without taking up any additional ground. That’s the kitchen you see below, from the vantage point of the livingroom.

The key to making better use of the small space involved increasing roof pitch to 45º, from the previous 20º slope on the old place. This allowed the creation of a second-floor sleeping loft over the kitchen below, with a staircase going up into an open, cathedral-style vaulted ceiling in the bedrooms area above the downstairs sitting and eating area.

Tiny House That Feels Good

“People often comment on the good feeling they get inside our new place,” explains Alice. “A big part of this comes from the sense of airiness you experience sitting on the couch and looking up at the loft railing. Despite the small size, you never feel cramped.”

Vaulted ceilings like this are attractive, but they’re also technically challenging. At least if you want to build them right, that is. In order to remain free from internal condensation and mold in winter, every cathedral ceiling structure must be ventilated, both at the top and bottom. It’s certainly not enough to stuff fiberglass into the space between rafters (as is commonly done), then seal it all behind polyethylene vapor barrier and hope for the best. You either need to build in eaves-to-peak vent spaces into a wood-framed roof, or, like the design I created for the Ogdens, build using a structural system that’s completely sealed and requires no internal ventilation at all. The entire structure of this tiny house – walls and roof – are made with structural insulated panels (SIPs). You can see a roof panel being set in place below.

SIP construction of this lakeside cabin includes roof panels instead of rafters or trusses. The result is an open and completely useable attic loft.

Lifting SIPs panels onto a roof with a boom truck to create vaulted ceilings is easy with two custom-made lifting lugs. Bore 1” diameter holes one-third and two-thirds along the length of a panel, bolt these lugs into the holes, then hook chains onto the lugs and lift. When the panel is set in place and secured with screws, remove the lugs and fill the holes with expanding polyurethane foam.

Tiny House Strategy#2: Small House Floor Plans

After looking at all the options for building their project, Mike and Alice opted for structural insulated panels (SIPs) for the entire thing – walls and roof – in part because of the slick option it offered for the open roof structure they had in mind.

“We’ve always thought of moving up to the cottage full time some day,” explains Mike, “ but there was no way the old place could ever have been heated properly during cold weather. That’s why we put a lot of emphasis on building a tight, warm and efficient structure.”

SIPs are factory-made sandwiches of wooden sheet goods glued to an internal layer of foam. Oriented strand board (OSB) is typically used for above-ground SIPs, while pressure-treated plywood is glued to foam to make SIPs that are suitable for below-ground foundation walls. Although most commonly used for walls, SIPs also make terrific roof structures, especially on narrow building designs, like this one.

The Ogden project is 20-feet wide, allowing 16-foot-long, 8 1/4”-thick panels to be used as structural roof members, with no need for rafters or trusses underneath. These panels are entirely self-supporting as they form a vaulted ceilings. All that was required was a 5 1/2” x 16” glulam ridge beam running down the centre of the structure, from gable to gable to support the top end of each panel. Built like a big house-of-cards, the roof panels were hoisted up using a boom truck, then anchored in place with 10”-long, large-head wood screws. There’s absolutely no space lost as is common with conventional attics. Everything underneath the roof is heatable and suitable for finishing. Beads of expanding polyurethane foam applied wherever the panels rest on walls and gable ends seal out air, flies, rodents, bats and creepy-crawlies that routinely find their way into conventional cottage attics. Accomplishing the same thing with a ventilated, stick-framed roof is nearly impossible.

Tiny House Strategy#3: Front Porch Transition Zone

With no basement space to accommodate mechanicals (bedrock is just a foot below the surface), the Ogdens opted for an enclosed mudroom front porch at the back of their place. It provides day-to-day entry, while also providing space for the 200-amp electrical panel, washer, dryer and water heater. In order to echo the appearance of the main roof, the mudroom roof, though smaller, is also sloped at 45°. And since it, too, is created entirely with SIPs panels, there’s lots of room up above for a mini loft that’s used for seasonal storage.

“Even though it’s small in terms of square footage,” explains Alice, “ the mudroom gives us space for things that couldn’t conveniently fit into any other part of the cabin. It’s also a place for shoes, coats and hats. Its got its own insulated exterior door, too, before you step into the kitchen, making it easy to keep washer and dryer noise out of the rest of the cabin.”

Tiny House Strategy#4: Low-Impact Plumbing

Although a septic system was technically possible on the Ogden’s building site, it would have meant cutting down a large patch of mature pine and poplar trees to create a big, ugly weeping bed. Since Mike and Alice weren’t prepared to pay such a high aesthetic price for a flush toilet, they saved time, money, disruption and trees by installing a composting toilet.

“Our Mulltoa unit has performed reasonably well”, offers Mike, “even with guests.” Water from sinks and the shower go into a grey water pit, leaving our site looking the same as it always has, with no concerns about harming water quality in the lake.”

If you’ve been watching cottage country for a while, you know that parts of it are in serious decline as they become more and more like suburbia. Large buildings and lavish expectations are sapping the life from what was once a landscape of tranquility and refreshment. Modest, affordable, carefully designed cottages like the Ogden’s show another way, and proves that small can, indeed, be very beautiful.

Tiny House Strategy#5: Warm Floors Without a Basement

Lakeside homes and cottages rarely sit on top of heated basements, and this means that cold floors and feet are a common problem during fall, winter and spring. Common but unnecessary, regardless of whether you’re building new or renovating. The Ogden home includes an insulated subfloor sandwich that is, according to Alice, “ the warmest floor I’ve ever walked on.”

The joists sit 12” to 24” above the undulating bedrock and shallow soil of the site, creating an open crawl space underneath the structure. And while this is usually a recipe for a very cold floor, one simple detail changed everything.

Conventional 5/8”-thick plywood screwed on top of these joists, with 2” of extruded polystyrene foam laid on top above that is the overall design. Everything’s then covered by a layer of 1/2”-thick plywood, all held down with 4-inch deck screws that go through everything.

“You could put just about any kind of floor on top of this insulated design,” explains Mike. “We opted for a medium brown laminate, over top of electric, radiant infloor heating mats for supplemental heat when we’re not using our pellet stove.”

Tiny House Strategy#6: Open Floor Plan & Cool Details

This is the view looking down the compact staircase that’s part of the Ogdens’ place

Interested in moving beyond the ordinary when fitting out your tiny house? You won’t find the design details below in ready-made home plans, yet they add lots of value at minimal cost.

Corrugated steel kitchen ceiling: Instead of drywall above the kitchen work space, the Ogden’s God-daughter, Tanya, suggested unpainted, galvanized roofing steel framed by 1x4s along the edges. Recessed halogen fixtures fit into holes cut in the steel with a jigsaw. It’s functional and reflects the kitchen lights nicely in the evening.

Window frame “shelves”: 4-inch-wide caps on top of each window frame allow for plenty of knick-knack storage in this 750 sq.ft. home.

Overhead catwalk: A 24”-wide walkway above the living room leads from the sleeping loft to a double-hung window overlooking the lake. Although small, this extra floor space ads a unique feature without spoiling the overhead airiness created by the vaulted cathedral ceiling

Wrap-around rim deck: Although small in size (only 48” wide along most of its length), the eastern white cedar deck adds a lot of useful space for plants, dog bowls and deck chairs.

Tiny House Movement Q&A

The tiny house movement is here to stay because it costs less to build and maintain small spaces, while still offering good living space, with natural light, large windows, and all the home features and floor plans that most people need.

Q: Is it cheaper to build or buy a tiny house?

A: That depends, but building a tiny house on your own will definitely save you money. Labour is generally at least half the cost of any new home.


Q: What are 3 negative features of a tiny house?

A: Small houses often present challenges to do with storing things in an uncluttered way. That said, it’s amazing how efficient you can make your own tiny home dream pleasant with a loft, pantry and custom storage options built to fit the space. Another issue could be building codes. Some places don’t allow you to build under a certain floor plan size. These rules often don’t apply to vacation homes, so that might be one way around the difficulty. Some people miss the interior space of a full-size home, but building a tiny office cabin or workshop nearby can do wonders for making tiny home life more comfortable when living with others.


Q: Can you live permanently in a tiny home?

Yes, certainly. The key is to include effective insulation when the place is constructed, allow with all the indoor features found in any full-time home.


Q: Is a tiny house worth buying?

Probably, but it depends on two things. What’s the condition and designs of the small home like? And are you interested in having a more economical home that’s easier to keep than a full-size one?


Q: What is a cozy cabin?

This is a term that’s used in place of tiny house, small home, or even “log cabin”.


Q: How do you make a cabin cozy?

The process begins by giving some thought to what kind of tiny house and floor plan you might like. Next comes the design. If you think you might like to build your own tiny house, take a look at the online tiny home building course and small house plans I’ve created. I call it COZY CABIN, and hundreds of first-time owner builders around the world have followed this course and are now enjoying

Q: What are small houses called?

Small houses or small homes are called different names by different people and in different places. Tiny house, tiny home, cozy cabin are all terms that are applied to a small house, typically with open floor plans


Q: Can a tiny house be 1000 sq ft?

Yes, though this is probably the upper limit of what many people would consider a “tiny house”. Most tiny homes are under 600 square feet.


Q: How much does it cost to build a 500 sq. ft. tiny house?

Costs vary tremendously depending on the level of interior refinement you want, how much of your own labour you intend to put into the project, and where in the world you live. The costs for constructing any conventional new home where I live runs around $200 to $300 per square foot when it’s built completely by professionals. The thing about a tiny house is that it offers many more options for saving money during construction than a full-size home. Less materials are required, of course, and you can make the interior as fancy or simple as you like. The cheapest you might be able to build the shell of a 500 sq. ft. tiny house where I live is probably $6k to$8k in materials. How the interior is finished and whether or not you have running water and an indoor bathroom will affect costs more than anything.


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– Steve Maxwell