It is totally possible to build a tiny house with no building experience – here’s how.
Neither Carl nor myself had ever built anything before we built a tiny house.
Actually, that’s not true – we had built a gate to keep our dog on the deck, but it fell apart shortly afterwards. So that didn’t bode well for building a house.
That was one of Carl’s biggest concerns – that we had no building experience, skill or even knowledge. Was it even possible?
You might be wondering why I say it was Carl’s concern and not ‘our’ concern. I’ve always been good at the big picture stuff, and having great faith in wild ideas. I saw other non-builders online and thought, if they can do it, we can do it. That was about where my thinking stopped.
Carl, on the other hand, is more focused on the details. We balance each other out that way – I have the crazy plans and he figures out how to make them work!
Getting started was tough, because back in 2014 when we were beginning our build, no one had really heard of tiny houses – not in New Zealand, anyway. We spoke to several different trailer companies who thought it was a ludicrous idea and weren’t prepared to help us. That really discouraged us for several months.
Then I stumbled across two New Zealanders who had built tiny houses and, despite being totally jealous that they had gotten to it before us, I was inspired. We visited with both of them and got to stand inside a real tiny house – it was SO COOL to finally be inside one! Their inspiration and enthusiasm was infectious, and we soon got back into feeling really positive about it.
But still one thing remained: we didn’t know how to build a house!
Here’s what I now know: you don’t have to know how to build a tiny house to build one. Here’s why.
You learn how to build a tiny house by building a tiny house
We wanted to know if our tiny house friends had any building experience before building their houses. Mostly, it was none.
However, one of the people we visited said he’d never built a house before, but he had built a boat. So I thought, oh so he had building experience. But as he pointed out – he’d never built a boat before that, either.
The lesson? You learn how to do it by doing it.
Sounds simple and probably a bit obvious, but how many of us don’t do something because we don’t know how?
Think about it like this: how did you learn to drive? To swim? To ride a bike? By doing it.
It’s a bit like parenting, really: you can’t learn how to parent, until you parent. You can read about it, think about it, talk to others about – but until you’re actually at the coalface of parenthood, nothing can prepare you for it. And once you’re in it, the lessons come hard and fast.
We didn’t know how to build a house, and now we do – because we built a house.
And there is a LOT to learn: skills like framing, cladding, roofing, flooring, insulation, making it weather-tight, cabinetry, plumbing, sanding, finishes – and then there’s learning about all the different tools and what they do: saws, drills, planers, routers, sanders, levels, clamps – to name a few. But you learn these things by doing them.
You learn as you go
There is no ‘how to build a house’ book or class that teaches you every single thing you can know, along with how to deal with any issues that crop up with your build (if you see someone promising you that – it’s bullshit). You cannot just learn everything, and then apply it, in two separate acts. It doesn’t work like that.
You learn where to start – for us that was the flooring. So then you learn what you need to know about flooring: what wood makes good floors, how to attach it to the trailer, techniques to get it straight, how to use the tools to do these things, and you get the floor down.
Then you encounter the next bit: for us, that was framing. So then you learn about framing a house… and on and on it goes, until you learn each step, apply it, and learn the next.
It’s like going on a long car trip. You don’t have to see the whole road to get to the destination. You know where you are going, you know where to start, and the road unfolds before you. You deal with each part of the road as you get to it.
Some parts of the build will take longer or be more difficult than others, because they are more complicated. Sometimes you’ll make massive mistakes and have to spend time fixing them – but that again is how you learn. And often there is no way of knowing what issues will come up as you go, because each build and each situation is unique. You just have to roll with it, learn, apply and move on.
You have faith and self-belief
If you believe you can do something, then you can. As Henry Ford famously said: ‘whether you think you can or think you can’t – you’re right’.
I believed we could learn how to build a house because A) we are reasonably intelligent and B) I’d seen other people with no building experience do it. I believed if they could, we could. If I didn’t have that belief then we wouldn’t be living in our tiny house today, because it took me believing that to convince Carl to believe it, to us actually building and making it a reality.
But it started with me daring to believe we could do something we had never done before, and had no evidence we could actually do.
You learn from everyone and everywhere
We live in a glorious age for doing this because you can learn pretty much anything on the Internet. Like, pretty much ANYTHING. We watched endless hours of Youtube videos, read many articles and asked questions in loads of forums. If this is all you have to learn how to build a house, you can still do it pretty easily.
We got a lot of help on the build from my dad. He’s not a builder (he works in software) but has done many handy things around the house. He knew how to use most of the tools and had some other knowledge. So we used that to help us (luckily he was very forthcoming with his help). But he learned a lot on the build too.
People at hardware stores are always helpful too. We struggled with some of the information from online, because it was aimed at an audience in the US, and didn’t apply in NZ. But usually when we went looking for the wrong thing in a local hardware store, we were pointed in the right direction.
You get help when you need it
We did most of the build ourselves – with my dad’s help – but when some friends offered to come and help us paint, we jumped at the chance. Many hands make light work and all that.
There were some things we didn’t do ourselves because we felt it was better to pay a qualified professional. For example, the plumbing: while we ran the pipes ourselves, we got a plumber to connect them up and test them. Better to do that than have it leak.
Same with the gas – we didn’t have the skills required to fit the copper pipes and weren’t prepared to learn them. Plus, you know, gas isn’t something you want to mess around with.
And the electricity was done for us too – again, not something we wanted to mess around with.
Each of these things cost more money to get someone to come and do them for us, but we felt it was money well spent. Now I don’t spend my time worried the pipes are leaking in the walls.
And that’s it. Mostly what it boils down to is self-belief. Because if you believe you can, then you will learn what you need and you’ll make it happen.
Got self-belief? Good. Then get started.