BUILDING A TINY HOUSE in an enclosed trailer: The Interior Build of Our (Little) Tiny-Home - different types of lifestyles and off grid solutions
Back in March, I wrote about the beginning of our Tiny House (minimisation) journey. We packed up our house in Dunedin; sold most of our "stuff"; loaded our enclosed trailer with what was left; and hit the road! We completed our extended road-trip up NZ's SouthIsland in May, beginning the interior build of our trailer-home, on-route. We're now in Asia for the winter and our little "home" awaits its final touches on our return (for the kiwi summer). I wanted to share our interior build journey today though and hopefully inspire others interested in different types of lifestyles and off grid solutions too.
There are compromises that come with this kind of life, but a truck load of freedoms as well. We can only recommend :-)
STAGE ONE: Building the Bed!
I should perhaps begin by saying that neither my husband or I have any trained building skills though. Building a bed was therefore our first big "How To" lesson. YouTube, google searches and perhaps a little Pinterest inspiration, was where this journey began. Basic things that anyone with some basic building skills would know, had to be debated. Some of it was trial and error, but building a bed base is (thankfully), fairly straight forward and we got there in the end - with many new "skills" learned on the way!
The first decision was the height of the bed: we went for 0.5m, so that there'd be plenty of room for storage underneath. The number of legs also brought on debate: 9 was the end decision, with 3 down each side and 3 in the middle; these were attached to three supporting lengths of wood (the length of the bed / mattress). For stability, we then also added 3 lengths under the legs, running across the bed and joining the leg framing all together. Large (long) screws were used to attach the legs to the top and bottom frame wood and we pre-drilled from the top/bottom, into the leg wood. A 12mm (thick) piece of structural ply was then secured on top of the framing, with breathing holes drilled into the ply, to give our mattress some breathability. Smaller screws were used to attach the ply; again pre-drilling the holes.
Sourcing the wood was easy - we headed to the closest large hardware stores (Bunnings and Mitre10 in New Zealand), firstly on some investigative trips, and then taking our measurements in to buy the ply and framing wood. The staff at Bunnings (where we ultimately purchased everything), were really helpful and even cut our wood to size for us. Although we had some tools with us, these were basic and we were still feeling our way; it was a big help getting our project started this way and meant that we didn't waste any wood.
The total cost of wood and screws, was about $130NZ all up.
There are undoubtedly other ways of doing a project like this - certainly, with the skillset acquired since doing this build, we know that we could have done a tidier job than we did. But we achieved what we needed to: a solid bed frame for our very comfortable king mattress to go atop, and we'd do the framing the same way (albeit tidier) if we were to do it again.
STAGE TWO: Lining & Insulating the Walls
Many people might say that lining the trailer would be the first step, before the bed. The bed was a necessity for us though, and kiwi summers are warm enough that the lining wasn't the first thought. For bringing the feeling of home to a trailer, lining makes a huge difference though.
Lining a trailer is a relatively simple, but a surprisingly time-consuming process. We sourced 7mm ply from Bunnings again. This was supplied in 2.4m x 1.2m sheets, which we cut to fit the box section / framing of our trailer. We also sourced recycled wool insulation from Bunnings, which we attached to each piece of ply as it went up on the wall. The only really niggly part, was measuring and cutting the small cutouts where the roof box section lengths, met the wall. Hubby used a jig-saw and hand-saw for these.
For drilling into and attaching the ply to the box section, we sourced a drill bit from Bunnings (a number of drill bits actually, as we broke a few on the way), which made it easier for drilling through metal. The ply was attached down/across each piece of box section / framing, with the screw holes pre-drilled.
We quickly figured out that rushing this process equals messy work and broken drill bits. Our later sheets look a lot tidier than our early ones! We got better at this as we went along though. Or rather, I should say, hubby got better at this: I was relegated to holding the sheets against the wall, while he'd drill them in.
We also attached 12V LED lights, above our bed, while installing our lining and fed the wires out of the wall, ready for attaching to our power source later on. The lights were sourced inexpensively from Amazon. Although we could have sourced these locally, ordering online was less expensive and it was easy to see how these would operate / work best with our power system (discussed below): having the full product description online allowed for easy google research, as part of the purchase decision.
STAGE THREE - Building the Essentials: Water Tank & Toilet
Water is a fairly obvious essential; the goal was to have enough on-the-go for drinking, cooking and (ultimately) simple showers. After much research, we decided on a barrel to go on the front of our trailer. I sourced a $45NZ, 115litre (40 gallon), food-grade barrel from TradeMe (New Zealand's equivalent of Ebay). We also investigated electric and hand pump solutions; as well as the possibility of inserting a tap into the bottom of the barrel. Ultimately, we determined that a hand pump at the top (using the existing sealed hole), would be the most cost effective and easiest solution for our needs. The hand pump we sourced on Amazon for $63US. Even after shipping costs were added, we saved $40 on the closest NZ price (it took 10-days to arrive, via New Zealand Posts "YouShop" postal-redirect service).
Using free off-cuts from some recycled rimu wood that we'd sourced earlier, hubby then built a platform on the trailer draw bars. To do this, he simply measured and cut the four lengths of wood needed. Large bolts (again sourced from Bunnings) were then used to secure the planks to the draw bar. We had to get a larger metal drill-bit for this too, necessitating a second visit to Bunnings that day.
To secure the barrel itself to the trailer, we drilled four holes (two on each side) into the box section framing, attached galvanised eye bolts (filling the holes with sealant when we realised the potential for leaks) and then secured the barrel with ratchet strops around it and through the eye bolts.
Caravan Composting Toilet
People would laugh when I talked passionately about my caravan composting toilet project. We'd already spent a couple of months on the road (without the trailer) that summer and the lack of toilet was a definite issue! I hated the idea of a chemical toilet though - this is what most caravans / motorhomes use, but it really goes against my enviro / non / limited chemicals principles. The obvious alternative was to spend a horrific amount of money installing a complex composting system, but then I hit upon a really simple solution. This isn't for everyone, and for best (non smelly) results, requires emptying every couple of days (3 at most!), but it is a really simple, clean and affordable solution.
In essence, there is a wooden toilet box, a plastic bucket, compostable bags for inside the bucket and coco peat (which is wonderfully compostable) used to cover what goes in the bucket. Coco peat is wonderful stuff! And stops any smell as long as the bucket is emptied regularly. We found every 2-3 days best, with the plastic bucket removed from the box, to take to the compost site / RV disposal site or even a rubbish bin (needs must). The bag is simply tied and removed there, with the bucket then returned to the wooden box, a new bag inserted and some fresh coco peat put in the bottom.
To set up, you need:
1. Wooden box with a lid, that will hold an adult's weight
2. 20L plastic bucket (preferably with lid & handle)
3. Toilet Seat
4. Compostable bags
5. Coco peat
For our wooden box, we reused one of the storage boxes that had been sitting beside our couch for a number of years. This was a tidy square, about 0.5 x 0.5m, with a latch. Hubby cut a round hole in the middle of the lid-top using a jig-saw (there might be a better tool to use, but thats what he had on-hand). Indulging my desire for an aesthetically pleasing toilet, we then also purchased a new rimu wood toilet seat, again from Bunnings. If you're not fussed about these things, you can prob find a second hand one online or from a building scraps / second hand store though.
The plastic bucket, we then also sourced from Bunnings for $20 (you can probably find a second hand paint bucket if you're after something free though). We secured this in the bottom of the box, immediately under the hole, using wood scraps to create a frame around the bucket. This means that the bucket cannot move from under the box hole. When we realised that there was a bit of a gap between the top of the bucket and the hole, hubby then also added some (nailed in) wood underneath the bucket, to raise it as needed.
We then purchased a large supply of compostable bags from Amazon. You can buy these in New Zealand, but they are expensive. Even with shipping costs added, Amazon still offers the cheapest solution in this respect and you can easily buy them in bulk this way.
Coco peat we have sourced locally. This is delivered in large compacted blocks, which we then break up ourselves. Initially we were breaking these up into large lunchbox sized containers. On our return to New Zealand, I think we will source another 20L bucket for storing the coco peat in though, as to keep a hygienic / non smelly toilet, you do need to use quite a bit of coco-peat daily. Just a small scoop or two is needed after each toilet stop, but this quickly adds up!
Total set up cost for us, including initial supplies of composting bags and coco-peat, was around $120.
STAGE FOUR: Building Benches & Shelves
When you're on the road, having well-organised storage systems is a must for retaining your sanity. It is quite amazing what you can fit into a small well-organised space though.
We opted for four long open shelves / benches, utilising some beautiful lengths of recycled Rimu wood that hubby had salvaged (for free) while working on a demolition site in Auckland, a year earlier. These lengths of wood followed us to Dunedin and then back up the country before we got to using them. As part of our minimisation effort, we'd actually debated keeping them. Knowing that we'd be (literally) building our life again, we did in the end, opt to chuck them on the roof of the truck, breaking our own rule of only keeping things with a specific purpose. I'm so glad we did though! On-route, we decided to use them for our bench and shelves and they turned out to be an absolutely beautiful feature.
Preparing recycled wood and using it to build shelves, requires the development of a whole new set of skills, which hubby didn't have to begin; it is not particularly difficult to develop these, but it takes a fair amount of patience and thought. I am still so proud of his effort and the finished result.
To begin, he stripped back the wood using a hand planer and then sanded each piece. We considered buying the $150 electric planer at Bunnings, but weren't sure how well this would work, and budget conscience, hubby elected to use the available hand one. Having now used a friends electric planer, he says definitely buy the electric one! He did an excellent job with the hand planer, but the job probably took five times longer than needed.
With some beautifully clean, lovely looking lengths of wood, these were then measured and cut to size. Two pieces of wood were then attached cross-wise, underneath the lengths, forming the fully constructed shelf / bench (large pre-drilled screws used to attach). A final run through the electric saw on each end of the new shelf / bench, then also gave the ideal cut at each end.
To attach to the wall, we purchased two large metal brackets for each bench / shelf (again from Bunnings). These were a few dollars each and were again attached to the trailer's box section framing, using metal-appropriate screws. Hubby had positioned the wood supports under the bench / shelves to fit with the box section framing, making for easy, secure attachment points.
Naturally, we also pre-planned the distance between shelves and bench top. Our top shelf, for instance, needed to have enough room between the shelf and the roof, for our small electric oven and cookbooks. Our bench needed to have plenty of room for operating at, but we still needed enough room underneath for another shelf and a small fridge too. Lots of measuring and lots of hoping that we got it right first time and didn't need to re-do anything! We found that patience is the key, as well as not trying to do things too quickly. Anything rushed usually had to be re-done later.
STAGE FIVE: Installing an on-the-move Pantry!
Seeing the first beautiful rimu shelf up, I was already envisaging attaching our pantry jars to its underside and making home! Hubby tends to be very good about indulging my whims in this respect (he frequently makes the joke "happy wife happy life") and after I'd measured out the spacing of the jars, he diligently drilled the lids up into the underside of the first shelf.
A couple of screws in the lid and into the bottom of the shelf, means that the jars can be securely screwed / unscrewed and won't rattle or break when on the move. Plus, they look really cool! An easy way of keeping track of what pantry items need topping up too.
I'd collected the jars at a Briscoes (New Zealand homeware store) sale a few years back, intending to use them for canning; we'd ended up using them for nuts, seeds and other dried goods in the pantry instead. You can probably source something similar at an Op Shop or similar (if you're in New Zealand, the Salvation Army stores often have canning supplies). Otherwise, a Briscoes sale (again, if you're in New Zealand), is a good bet. From memory, these were a few dollars each, on sale.
My colourful collection of teacups (an essential part of my kiwi life!) went up next, using small brass hooks, purchased in a pack of 25 for a few dollars, from Bunnings; these were easily screwed directly into the wall and hold the cups (surprisingly) very securely.
STAGE SIX: Installing on-the-move Kitchen Storage Systems
More brass hooks were used for kitchen utensils, above the bench - I simply measured points on a line and screwed them in. A magnetic knife strip was sourced from Briscoes for $5, to hold all our knives. Rimu wood scraps (cut offs from our shelves / bench), were then used to make brackets for our bowls, plates, pots and frying pans. A cheap plate holder was also attached to the shelf and wall, in one corner, which we've used to sandwich our glasses. Further brass hooks were then also screwed into the front of the bench, for holding tea towels, a lamp and cookbook holder.
For cookbooks and the cutting boards, I used curtain eyelets and hooks, with curtain wire. The eyelets are screwed straight into the wall. Curtain wire was then cut to length, with hooks screwed into either end and stretched between the eyelets. It makes for a very inexpensive storage system. Again, just sourced from the local hardware store (Bunnings) for a few dollars, but you can also source from any sewing store.
STAGE SEVEN: Choosing the Best Campervan Fridge
Having lived with just a chilly bin over the summer, we were eager for the modern comfort of a fridge again. Caravan / motorhome fridges tend to be terribly expensive though and the dilemma was finding an appropriately priced one. Those in New Zealand tend to be up near the $1,000 mark or more. Searching online, we found some fairly well priced ones on Amazon, but the shipping to New Zealand was rather horrific. Looking at the bar fridges from retail stores, the prices are better, but they're made for ordinary domestic use and aren't absorption based (as the RV ones are). Their power consumption also looked worryingly high.
In the end, we found a new, but returned, 3-way caravan fridge, for a third of its normal price. It operates fine off 12V and 240V power, but its gas connection doesn't work. That didn't worry us though; our solar power system is sufficient and we don't intend to use gas inside. We've also heard too many horror stories of gas appliances going wrong and killing people when used in a small space.
For next to the fridge, we also picked up some very inexpensive flat-packed plastic draws from The Warehouse. In the long run, we might build something more substantial here, but we'd run out of rimu (and time!) by this stage and this was an easy solution.
STAGE NINE: Building the Bunk
STAGE TEN: Installing & Insulating the Roof
The ceiling was one of the last jobs, but could have been done sooner. We did it in four pieces, again to fit the box-section framing. The finished job isn't quite as tidy as we'd like and we may revisit it again yet. One thought is to simply put some vinyl wallpaper over it to hide the joins though.
Its definitely a two-person job: we needed one person to hold the ply board up, while the other screwed it in - as we did with the walls.
Of a little concern, is that when we drilled into one of the pieces of box-section, we discovered water in it (dribbling on to our heads as we drilled!). We're not really sure how it got there; we'd been on the road for a number of months and hadn't had any leaks. A quick trip to the local hardware store to buy some sealant (and all ceiling screw holes filled with it), hopefully has fixed the issue; hopefully we won't be coming home to deal with mould in the roof! The caravan is under cover while we're away though, so should be all good.
STEP ELEVEN: Under-bed Storage
Under our bed has housed storages boxes since we began this journey. Adding to the effort though, we picked up some cheap flat-packed "bedside" drawers from The Warehouse for $30 each, as well as some cheap shelves for $10 each. These have provided homes for our small clothes, t-shirts, towels and related items. Various hooks about the place, also provide room for hanging items. At the foot of the bed (in the small space above where the door opens that whole side up), we have also installed a collection of wire baskets, which hold toddler clothes and books, as well as my (favourite) Lonely Planet travel guides. There isn't room for a lot, but the benefits of minimalism are all there!
STAGE TWELVE: Final Touches
We left for Asia at the beginning of June (escaping New Zealand's winter cold!), but the plan is to be back in New Zealand for October, ready for more adventures in our little home, over the kiwi summer. Just before leaving, we made some last minute touches, which included installing curtains, repurposed from those I'd collected to serve in our rental properties over the years. Wallpaper vinyl also arrived just before we left (inexpensively ordered on "Wish", from China), which is waiting to be put up when we get home. Flooring still needs to be thought about too (at the moment, its just thick ply) and consideration given to whether we paint or vinyl the ceiling.
Longer-term plans over the summer, include an awning to go around the lift up door in front (the whole side opens up at the foot of the bed), as well as building a further kitchen bench and outdoor shower to come down from the same lift up door. At the moment, we are using an inexpensive fold-flat table, with this door used for shelter, but it would be good to have something more permanent installed.
Its a very liveable little cabin now though; ready for coming home to when Asia lets us go. Ready too, for our intended Northland, New Zealand summer-time adventure!
Key tools for sustaining our nomadic lifestyle, are a Goal Zero solar panel and a small (sound-less) generator (amongst our first purchases on this journey, was the Boulder 100 solar panel and Yeti 400 generator). These are really high quality products that we highly recommend. If you are thinking about purchasing one of these products for yourself, do click on one of our links below - it doesn't cost anything extra for you, but we get a small commission. This assists with sustaining our nomadic journey :-)
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