Australia, the land of the unaffordable house. This is true for so many Aussie’s looking to buy their first home, unusually expensive house prices in Australia can also be attributed to the rise of the tiny house movement in Australia. Owning a tiny house in Australia can be an affordable and self-fulfilling alternative to buying property. So you’ve now decided you’d like to become a tiny house owner, but what next? How do you acquire a tiny house? There are so many unknowns. Do you buy a pre-made tiny house or build your own from scratch? Should you buy a trailer then build or build on the back of a vehicle? And what about tiny house regulations?
The process of acquiring a tiny house in Australia can be daunting, but if you decide to take the plung and downsize, you’ll likely find that you’re able to live a life with much more freedom. Let’s dive in and break down the tiny barriers surrounding tiny houses in the land down under.
We’ll start with regulations, basically, there are no specific regulations surrounding tiny houses in Australia. There are regulations for where you can build your tiny house but they can be overcome by building a tiny house on wheels. If your tiny house is a not a fixed structure you can essentially park it anywhere from your block of land to your mate’s farm. There are, however, regulations surrounding the legal size of a road registered trailer. In Australia, nothing on the road can have a width greater than 2.5 meters or a height greater than 4.5 meters.
When it comes to length there is a lot more room to move, you can work out your ideal house length and a rough weight estimate to utilise the correct amount of axles then check the regulations around that. Most tiny houses in Australia built on trailers will fall into the category of a medium trailer. That is with a weight exceeding 3.5 tons but less than 10 tons. Here is a link to the Australian government’s regulations for trailers.
A good tip for those of you building on a trailer is to upgrade the suspension to airbag suspension. Air bags improve the handling and reduce the force of the bumps on your structure. Take a look at our article exploring the pros and cons of airbag suspension here
As for the build of the structure itself, there are no specific regulations. It’s best just to stick to the Australian building standards. If you’re building your tiny house on the back of a vehicle, make sure you speak with a vehicle engineer to ensure you can have it signed off, and properly insured.
This is probably the biggest decision you’ll have to make when it comes to your tiny house. Personally, I think it’s better to build your own design. It will be far more rewarding, cheaper, more customisable and you’ll learn plenty of new skills. If you’re building on a trailer and want to avoid the metal fabrication, a good option is to buy a pre-made tiny house trailer and go from there.
However, if you have neither the skills nor inclination to DIY it, there are now plenty of tiny house builders in Australia building off the plan tiny houses and custom designs. You can also buy a pre-made trailer then employ a local carpenter to build your tiny house for you. Another avenue to explore when planning your tiny houses is the overhauling of existing vehicles. Gutting and recladding an old caravan with the addition of a few new doors and windows can be a very affordable way own a tiny house in Australia. Fitting out a shipping container then attaching it to a trailer is another affordable alternative, the trick is trying to think outside the box.
No matter your preference when it comes to deciding on a base for your tiny houses, building on wheels is the best option. Even if you’re never planning on moving, being able to avoid the need for permits is a huge drawcard. Whether to build on a trailer or not comes down to what you want to do with your tiny house. For most people, building on a trailer will be the best option.
Tiny houses in Australia that are built on trailers can be much larger than those built on vehicles. Furthermore, a tiny house on a trailer can be moved from the place of manufacture to its final destination by a contractor if you don’t have the vehicle required to tow it.
Alternatively, owning a tiny houses on the back of a vehicle allows you to live a transient lifestyle, Australia has a large community of families living on the road full time. Not towing a trailer and having a shorter wheelbase significantly increases the potential for exploration. I’m building our tiny house on the back of a 4×4 truck and we will tow a small car with us, this is because we have optimised our tiny house for traveling Australia.
Building on the back of a vehicle is a great option for those who want to travel frequently with their tiny house. Australia is a big country with plenty of work available, it makes sense to make your tiny house as versatile as possible. When building on the back of a truck you can maximise your available space by extending the rear overhang of the chassis to the largest possible amount. The largest legal amount of overhang is 60 percent of the wheelbase. As with a trailer, the maximum legal width is 2.5 meters and the maximum height is 4.5 meters. I would also recommend upgrading the suspension to airbag suspension, this will greatly improve the comfort of the ride.
Darren and Lisa from Tiny Houses Australia are currently building custom trailers for tiny houses in Australia as well as custom tiny homes. They have manufacturing plants in Victoria and Queensland. Check out their article on their custom tiny house trailers here
This is something that should be approached with caution. Because of the small amount of regulation surrounding the building of tiny houses in Australia, there are many DIYers giving it a go. Although I personally encourage DIY, if you are looking at buying a tiny house built by an unknown builder, it is a good idea to have their work checked over by a qualified builder. The flashings and waterproofing should be paid particular attention to, especially if the tiny house in question has moving components such as slide-out rooms or an expandable roof.
In most cases, a 24 or 48-volt system, with a 230 volt AC inverter is most suited to tiny houses in Australia. 24 and 48 volt systems can accommodate larger solar modules (more than 500 watts) and can be wired using the same components used to wire any grid-connected household, which helps to save money on cabling costs. By doubling the voltage of your system, you can get double the power (watt) at the same current. for example,
A parallel 12-volt system can also be utilised in some cases for tiny houses in Australia. Mainly in situations where you need low drawing components running constantly, like a small extraction fan for a composting toilet.
Choosing your framing materials for your tiny house is always tricky. You want something that is strong, waterproof, well insulated and light. There are only a few options that I would consider for tiny houses in Australia, being a carpenter I have worked with all of them. These are cool room panel, fiberglass composite panel, and steel framing. I would not use timber to frame a tiny house in Australia, primarily because of the weight and size of timber. Framing with timber will result in heavier, thicker walls that are not as structurally stable as steel.
Framing with cool room panel is a good option for tiny houses in Australia. Its self-bracing, highly insulated, completely waterproof, and thin. It’s also easy to work with. Simply cut the panels to size and use a poly glue to stick it together. It is simple to make openings for doors and windows without the need for lintels and it has high span capabilities. Cool room panel is also very affordable, it can be bought in a range of thicknesses and lengths. I would recommend using 50mm for the floor and 30-50mm for the walls of tiny houses in Australia. The downside of using cool room panel for tiny houses is that it is difficult to run wiring through your walls. One method I have used is using a mapp gas torch to heat up a plumb bob then dropping it down into the foam to melt a tunnel for your wiring. It’s not ideal, but it works.
This material is similar to cool room panel but is much lighter, it can weigh 4 to 5kg less per square meter than cool room panel which makes it a great option for tiny houses in Australia. The downside is that this type of panel is more expensive and is generally custom made with all the doors, windows and penetrations cut in the factory. Walls are made in one piece and are glued together by you at home. This means that you need to have a complete wiring diagram before getting the panels manufactured. One company that is recommended for this type of panel is Styromax.
Steel is my material of choice for tiny houses in Australia. For our tiny house, I am using 35x35mm box section. One reason to use steel over fridge or composite panel is if you require special additions to your framing such as a recess for an awning or internal storage space. Steel framing can be welded or bolted to your subfloor making your structure more secure, using steel also makes it easier to run cable and wiring. It’s also possible to make additions to your electrical system with a steel frame by simply removing the internal or external cladding. The downside of using steel is that you will end up with thinner walls resulting in less room for insulation.
A good, affordable compromise for tiny houses in Australia is to use cool room panel for the floor and roof while using steel to frame the walls. I also recommend framing all internal walls and permanent structures such as benches, bed frames, couch frames etc from steel to help brace the entire structure.
As with any type of framing, once your frame is complete you can clad your tiny house with whatever material you desire.
This is something that many prospective tiny house owners don’t put much thought into in the beginning. Personally, I recommend using a composting toilet. Regular toilets are incredibly wasteful when it comes to saving water. Not only will you save precious water with a composting toilet, they can be easier to deal with than a regular toilet in a tiny house. Because of the limited space available in tiny houses, a small black water tank needs to be pumped out regularly which is a truly dreadful job. Also, because tiny houses in Australia generally have smaller plumbing compared to a regular house, you can run into problems with blockages from toilet paper and sanitary items being sent down the toilet. Composting toilets have come a long way in the 21st century, it is possible to purchase completely odorless systems that only need to be emptied once a month when being used by a family of 4. The trick is to separate the urine from the solids, one such unit that comes highly recommended is the Separett Villa.
When choosing cladding materials, there are four main factors to take into consideration. They are weight, durability, availability, and price. As with choosing a framing material, it is best to choose cladding that is light, especially if you are building a tiny house on a trailer. The good news is that there are plenty of claddings that fit this description.
Many people use hardwood timber claddings for their tiny house. Although hardwood looks great, it’s expensive, heavy and requires yearly maintenance. A good alternative to hardwood is a composite timber cladding such as Innowood’s shiplap cladding. Innowood has several different profiles in several widths and can be installed horizontally or vertically. Composite timber claddings are made from recycled materials, come in a huge range of colours, are much lighter than timber and require no maintenance. There are many companies supplying these type of claddings throughout Australia.
Corrugated iron is a suitable option for tiny houses in Australia. It’s relatively light, extremely weatherproof, comes in large sheets and is fast and easy to install. Personally, I would not use corrugated iron to clad an entire structure due to its heat conductive properties, although using it alongside composite weatherboards can make for a nice aesthetic.
For those who have never heard of alucobond, it is an insulated aluminium cladding consisting of two thin sheets of aluminium with a thin layer of foam in between. It is generally found in a 6mm profile and comes in a variety of sizes and colours. Alucobond is glued onto battens that are fixed onto the framing of your tiny house. Although alucobond has some insulating properties, it can weigh up to 11kg per square meter which is on the heavier side for tiny house cladding.
Shadowclad is a natural plywood exterior cladding with a rough sawn textured finish, it is most commonly found in sheets that are 12 millimeters thick. It is highly durable when painted, relatively lightweight and easy to install. Shadowclad also looks great, think of a quaint beach shack.
How much should you really be looking at investing into this project? I think a realistic figure for someone willing to do the majority of the work themselves is around 50 thousand dollars, I would say that is a generous estimation.
In our case, building a tiny house on the back of a truck, we have already spent 20 thousand dollars and we haven’t even started building the frame yet! The truck cost 14 thousand and I’ve spent another 6 thousand overhauling the suspension, getting custom water tanks made and purchasing the steel for the subfloor. We’re almost halfway through our budget and I am confident we will still come in under 50 thousand dollars.
This is still chump change when you compare the cost of building a tiny house in Australia to buying property in Australia. A new house and land package done by a volume builder in a new subdivision usually costs around 350 thousand and believe me when I tell you that the build quality of those houses is generally well below average.
These are just a few of the hurdles that must be overcome on your journey to owning your own tiny house, I will continue to update this article as my own tiny house build progresses. For those of you who are still on the fence about entering the tiny house arena, just think of the endless lifestyle opportunities that come with a house that can be placed almost anywhere and the freedom that comes with a significantly lower debt. Keep an eye on this thread for more updates. Until then, Farewell.