Your Guide to Tiny House Framing
One of the first and most important decisions you’ll have to make when you start designing your tiny house is how you’re going to build your tiny house frame. There are four main options (and I’m sure many others if you want to be creative) when it comes to tiny house framing and which you choose will depend on your specific circumstances.
We, obviously, only used one of the tiny house framing options for our build but we did a lot of research before making that call and talked to people who had built in the different ways to get a perspective. In the end, our decision came down a midway point between various factors such as cost, weight, ease and sustainability. So here are the options for tiny house framing as well as some key ideas you’ll need to consider before choosing the right one for you.
Timber Frame Tiny House
Timber framing is very normal here in NZ but may not be the first choice in many other countries. Timber is a great material to work with, it’s durable and strong but is also able to be adjusted and changed if you make mistakes. It’s a lot easier to work with than steel and means attaching all your cladding is far less effort than drilling into metal the whole time.
However, timber framing is heavier than steel which is one of the main considerations when building a tiny house. Depending on where you live, timber and steel can work out to be similar pricing although if you’re building yourself, timber will work out a bit cheaper. Timber will move more than steel which gives it a bit more flexibility when you take the tiny house on the road.
Metal Tiny House Frame
Using steel tiny house framing has become the norm for most larger builds and those wanting more flexibility in their other materials. Steel weighs about a third of timber framing and is often put together by a company and shipped to you. This means much less work and can save a lot of time on your build. It is also about the strongest material you can get for tiny house framing.
Some negatives of using steel framing for a tiny house are that it is very difficult to change once it has been constructed meaning that you need to have all your window and door openings set before you build the frame and your layout can’t be changed during the build. It’s also really hard to drill into so attaching cladding can be a long, hard job.
Steel is also less insulative than wood and can mean that cold is transferred more easily into your tiny home. A thermal break is needed between the steel and the cladding to prevent this.
Hybrid Tiny House Framing
This is what we decided on after a lot of research and indecisiveness. We wanted the strength and lightness of steel but the ease of timber, especially considering this was our first building project. So met in middle and decided in a hybrid tiny house frame utilising the best parts of both steel and timber.
The company who custom-made our trailer also partially built our frame from steel and added our roof. We got our tiny house with six steel columns to support the roof and we added the timber framing between. This meant we had a stable structure and could use lighter timber (3×2) for our tiny house framing but we were left with flexibility to change our window sizes (some of which we hadn’t bought). Screwing our cladding on was also much easier when drilling into the timber than the metal so we’re really glad we didn’t have a full steel frame.
We saved a little weight by doing it this way, although it’s still heavier than a full steel frame. We haven’t done a final weigh of our tiny house yet so this could be a decision we regret if we’re overweight (3.5 tonnes in NZ) but during the construction phase we’re really happy with our decision.
Read more about our reasons to live in a Tiny House!
SIPs Tiny House Framing
As tiny houses start to push the size boundaries and people look to maximise space as much as possible new materials have become more and more popular. It’s pretty standard now that anything over 9m needs to be built using SIPs (structural insulated panels).
These panels are basically a sheet of polystyrene sandwiched between two layers of cladding, usually either sheet metal or ply. They form the exterior and interior cladding as well as the insulation and framing all in one. It’s easy to see why these are so popular for tiny house builds and are capable of saving loads of weight.
So what are the downfalls of using SIPs to frame a tiny house? The biggest issue with SIPs is the environmental impact and potential health risks of having large quantities of polystyrene in your home. They come in quite limited varieties so there are only a couple of finishes for the exterior which can make it look quite boxy. SIPs are also more expensive than other framing options even when taking the cladding into account although prices will decrease as they become more popular.
The other things that can be more difficult with SIPs is wiring and plumbing as there are no wall cavities to put them in. Most people simply put them inside the walls and have a variety of clever ways to cover them up or make them into a feature.
This is totally dependent on your situation. If you need to get things done as quickly as possible the SIPs will by far be the best choice. Not only is it relatively quick and easy to install, it also eliminates the jobs of cladding and insulating. If timing is your number one consideration for tiny house framing go for SIPs.
How much work are you willing to put in and who’s doing the work? If you’re doing it mostly yourself I would recommend going with wood or a hybrid frame as this will be easiest to work with across the whole build. However, if you’ve got a professional to do the framing for you they can get the steel framing ready within a few days or have the SIPs panels cut and ready to go. You just have to have a set plan in mind and not change it as neither of these tiny house framing options are easy to modify later in the build.
This was one of our biggest considerations and not only did we want to save money on the materials but also on the labour costs by doing it ourselves. Straight timber would have been the best option in this case but we decided to spend a little extra to make our tiny house frame hybrid and get an engineer to install the main load-bearing columns.
This is a major consideration for any tiny house on wheels but will differ depending on where in the world you are and what your weight limit is for your build. You will also need to consider what other materials you’ll be using in your build. As I mentioned earlier, SIPs is the lightest tiny house framing option followed by steel, a hybrid frame and full timber.
Many people looking to build tiny are doing so to reduce their carbon footprint or live a more sustainable lifestyle. If this is the case, then considering the sustainability of your building supplies will be an important factor. Remember that the most sustainable option is using something that already exists so if you can repurpose or reclaim building materials this will be the most eco-friendly option. But it’s certainly not the easiest or fastest (we’ll write a separate post about using reclaimed materials for our build).
In terms of framing options, SIPs is the least sustainable as it is made from non-biodegradable, toxic materials. Steel can be recycled infinitely and is likely to last the longest of any of the framing options. Wood breaks down naturally but you need to be wary of treated timber and the effect this has on the interior of your home and the surrounding environment.
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