After a year of speaking with people about this project, I feel it’s important to clarify some terms. While I’m not militant on the issue, there’s a difference between what people generally call “tiny homes” and the “container home” I’m building. The difference is mainly one of size, mobility, and permanence. For the following discourse, let’s assume “tiny home” refers to a trailer-based dwelling, which seems to be the most common method on TV and in online plans.
It basically breaks down like this for the tl;dr crowd:
Tiny home pros – mobility
Tiny home cons – smaller than a 40-foot container home; more like an RV re: utilities; vulnerable to extreme weather.
Container home pros – larger than most tiny homes; more like a traditional house re: utilities; more permanent but with potential for relocation; durability in extreme weather.
Container home cons – not truly mobile.
Tiny homes are generally smaller
Search the term “tiny home.” It’s likely Tubleweed Tiny Homes is the top result. These guys have been around since 1999 and sell plans for a tiny home that resembles a highly customized RV. Using a flatbed trailer as the basis for the structure, the footprint of the home is generally limited to the size of the trailer bed. At 238 square feet, the Cyprus Horizon is Tumbleweed’s largest floor plan.
On the other hand, the footprint of one 40-foot container is 320 square feet. After framing, insulation, and wall board, the interior of my container will equal about 270 square feet of livable space. Most of Tumbleweed’s plans call for less than 240 square feet, with many falling below the 200 sf mark. While the company does sell a customized 26-foot trailer, this will cost between $6,100 to $6,900 depending on options just for the trailer. Notably, this is comparable to the cost of my foundation walls (which are admittedly over-engineered and could be substituted with a different foundation for much cheaper).
Further, most people use more than one 40-foot container for their container-based projects. This allows for expansion on an exponential scale without necessarily doubling the price of construction. This guy offers a good example of keeping a three-container home within a budget (although it took him several years to complete the work by himself…).
Tiny homes are mobile
As mentioned, the creation of a home on a trailer gives it a mobility similar to an RV. Like an RV, there will generally be utility hook ups for water and electricity (most favor electricity over natural gas, although propane tanks may be used for the cooktop and water heater; don’t run out during a shower or while cooking!). There will also be an RV-style toilet or composting toilet and all the tank and maintenance issues that go along with them. While some people choose to place their tiny home on land with permanent hook ups, thereby avoiding the RV-like maintenance issues, one can see how the trailer-based tiny home is really more like an RV than a traditional “home.” But then again, it’s mobile! Owners can choose their own adventure depending on the seasons.
Meanwhile, shipping containers generally lack wheels, so they’re basically immobile. I would say they’re portable rather than mobile, though, as the box itself was originally designed for hauling via ship, train and semi truck during international transit. While my container is currently welded to the top of its foundation walls, those welds could be cut off and the box lifted via crane and placed on the back of a goose-neck trailer hauled by a dually truck (which is the reverse process of how it was installed). Still, my container home will feature city water and grid electricity (which may change to solar in the future…stay tuned), thus avoiding the RV-like problems inherent in similar tiny homes.
Tiny homes lack permanence
To piggyback on the concept of mobility, tiny homes lack permanence compared to a container home. With axles and wheels separating the trailer from the earth, one need only refer to the idea of a mobile home flung skyward during a tornado to imagine how one of Tumbleweed’s models might fare in Tornado Alley. Unlike an RV, which generally sits covered in a port or garage when not in use, these ornate tiny homes are meant to be seen. They generally sit unprotected to mimic the independence of traditional houses. Also, because they use traditional building materials like lumber, shingles and nails, owners essentially get about 200 square feet of sticks mounted to a trailer on wheels. I doubt the ability of even the best-constructed Tumbleweed house to survive winds like those experienced in the OKC metro earlier this year. Tumbleweed indeed!
Meanwhile, my container home isn’t going anywhere. The crane operator who lifted it onto the foundation informed me it weighs about 10,000 pounds, which is about 10 more pounds per square foot than a mobile home of equivalent size. In addition to being heavier, my container home is “permanently” fixed to the ground. Although it could be moved with some elbow grease and heavy equipment, Mother Nature will likely fail to even dent the exterior should an EF 5 rip through its neighborhood in SE OKC. I’ve also taken some precautions to protect the more expensive glazing, but more on that later…
So, when you’re talking to people about your dreams of living off the grid or owning your own home some day, I hope you keep in mind the difference between the various options available. Both of the above options are small by many accounts, and while a tiny home may satisfy your wanderlust, only a container home can offer exponential expansion, worry-free comforts, and increased durability over traditional building.