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Q&A: How Do You Design Tiny Houses for Cold Climates?

This question comes from Kathy J. D. who wants to know about tiny houses for cold climates.

So if you’re interested in designing and building a tiny home for somewhere really cold…

This page is going to give you a good idea on how you’d be able to do that with some basic design and build tips.

Question: Do Tiny Houses for Cold Climates Exist?

And…

Is it Even Possible to Live Tiny in Harsh Cold Winters?

From: Kathy J. D. (thanks Kathy!)

“Hi, I enjoy your postings. I want to have a tiny house someday on land in northern Michigan. I’ve noticed that most of the tiny houses featured are in the south or the Pacific northwest, milder climates than we have here. I was wondering if you’ve come across anybody who lives in a tiny house in a harsh winter climate and how they heat their house, especially if they use a small electric space heater, if that’s possible, and how much that costs. I also wonder if tiny houses would be designed differently for long cold winters, like not so many big windows and skylights or a double door entryway so all the cold doesn’t get in every time you open the door, things like that.”

Photo Credit Tiny Tack House

Photo Credit Tiny Tack House

Kathy thank you so much! This is a great question and you are not the only person who has wondered the same thing.

So continue reading because I’m going to show you the pros and cons of living tiny in the cold.

Along with absolutely crucial suggestions on how to ensure you stay warm and safe all winter long in a tiny home (or any home, really).

Tips for Designing, Building, Living Tiny and Staying Warm in Harsh Cold Climates

  • Add as much insulation as you can to your flooring, walls, and roof when you build.
  • Since heat rises consider putting extra insulation in your roof.
  • Use water resistant caulk around the cracks of all of your windows and doors.
  • Make your windows air tight for winter season (see 1st video below).
  • Ensure that your heat source is properly maintained and serviced.
  • Use radiant heating in your floors when building your house.
  • Invest in double-pane windows.
  • Wrap your pipes, water hose and plumbing with heat tape, pipe wrap, and/or foam insulation.
  • Wrap a heating pad around your water pump.
  • If you have a ceiling fan, reverse its direction to circulate more warm air.
  • Eat warm foods.
  • Dress warm.
  • Add extra blankets to your bed.
  • Be sure to have a carbon monoxide detector in your home.

How to Make your Windows and Doors Air Tight for Winter

More Tips to Help You Prepare for Harsh Winters

How to Prevent Frozen Pipes in Foundation Homes

This video is dedicated to owners of foundation homes but there are many tips in here that are also relevant and helpful.

RV Living in the Winter

This video shows you how to find heat tape for your pipes and how to prevent your water hose from freezing. Very helpful and potentially life saving info here for you if you’re living tiny during the winter.

Useful Items for Winters in your Micro Cabin

Warning: Consult a professional to help you design and build a tiny house that can handle harsh winters. Your safety is of upmost importance.

People Living Tiny in Cold Areas And Other Helpful Articles

Do YOU Have Any Tips for Living Tiny in Harsh Climates?

I hope this has helped answer some of your questions regarding living in a tiny home in a harsh winter climate.

Do you have any suggestions and tips from your experience on properly winterizing a tiny home for winter? Please share in the comments below.

If you enjoyed this Q&A there’s more here and you’ll also love our free daily tiny house newsletter with even more tiny housing goodness!

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Alex

Alex is a contributor and editor for TinyHouseTalk.com and the always free Tiny House Newsletter. He has a passion for exploring and sharing tiny homes (from yurts and RVs to tiny cabins and cottages) and inspiring simple living stories. We invite you to send in your story and tiny home photos too so we can re-share and inspire others towards a simple life too. Thank you!
{ 41 comments… add one }
  • Jay Olstead May 5, 2014, 1:06 am

    The biggest problem with living in a tiny home located in a cold climate is the obvious….it’s cold out there. How comfortable you will be is in direct proportion to the type of construction, materials used, thickness of the walls, ceiling, and floor cavity. Additionally, the type of windows used, whether they are single, double, or tripple insulated, and. of course, insulation used. Then, of course, other smaller factors come into play such as calking, weatherstipping, etc. Most tiny homes are built with wood studs that are 3 1/2 inches wide ever though they are called a 2 by 4, thus allowing 3 1/2 inches of whatever type of insulation you’re using. By upgrading to a 2″ by 6″ stud, resulting in a net measurement of 1 1/2″ by 5 1/2 inches in width, you can then upgrade to a thicker insulation. However, whatever side wall stud you use is subject to whats called thermal bridging. Materials such as (a wood stud) are considered poor thermal insulators. Thermal bridging , also called a cold bridge, is a fuudamental of heat transfer where a penetration by a highly conductive or noninsulating materials takes place in the separation between the interior(or conditioned space). Thermal bridging is created when poor thermal insulators come into contact, allowing heat to flow through the path of least thermal resistance(R-value: or a material’s effectiveness in resisting the condition of the heat) created, although nearby layers of material separated by airspace allow little heat transfer. Insulation around a bridge is of little help in preventing heat loss or gain due to thermal bridging; the bridging has to be elimated, rebuilt with a reduced cross-section or with better materials that have better insulating properties, or with a section of material with low thermal conductivity to retard the passage of heat through a wall or window assembly called a thermal break. This explains why a wood constructed home is difficult to insulate. If you build with less studs, less corner plates, then you have better insulation. Most tiny home could improve their “R” factor by building with a technique called a California corner as opposed to conventional corners which are cold and therefore poorly insulated. Reducing the size of headers will also aid in providing better insulation.

    Now, here is the good news! If you build with metal SIPs panels you will have a home that is 65% lighter, 35% stronger, and 2 to three times the insulation. Also, the wall is not as thick, resulting in more interior space. How is this made possible? SIP panels, that we use, have no interior studs, therefore, minimal thermal bridging. Quicker installation and wood floors, siding, etc can be added to the surface. A 2×4 wall built on 24 inch centers with fiberglass insulation has a net “R” factor of (r 9.6) even though the rating started out at between (R11) to (R15). A 2×6 wood stud wall starts out with (R19) to (R21) and after thermal bridging ends up around 13.7. Therefore, the (R) factor on the package is subject to other factors that may influence the outcome. At Ragsdale Homes we are now experimenting with custom made Sip Panels with 3/4 VIP Vacumn insulated panels sandwiched in before the skins are applied, resulting in a astonishing insulation factor of (R60). You could almost heat the house with candles….just kidding. In conclusion, you should see the floors I’ve seen on the internet. There are more floor joists, perpendicular reinforcements, braces, etc, with little or no room for insulation. The floor, you should know, is very important to be well insulated. If the thermal bridging were calculated on most of the tiny homes floors that I’ve seen, you would be shocked at the net (R) factor. Most of the builders use 2×4 studs and over use them because they are attempting to gain strength in their foundation, therefore the floor is compromised and poorly insulated. This leads to another subject which is the trailer. This topic requires another article by itself, however, I will close by saying that our new exclusive trailer which is being introduced in about ten days, is the only trailer designed specifically for a tiny house that has adjacent insuluated cold rolled steel tubing to minimize thermal brodging.
    Ciao,
    Jay
    [email protected]

  • Peter May 5, 2014, 12:59 pm

    So, we have gone through 2 winters in our tiny house in Taos, NM. While we are in the southwest we are high-elevation in the mountains and have had weeks at a time below freezing with nights of -23 degrees F. We built our house with 6inches of poly-iso rigid foam insulation in the floor and ceiling with studs on 19 in centers and 4.5 in of poly-iso in the walls. all of our doors and windows are great quality double pane windows from sierra pacific. We use a little electric space heater to keep our house really warm. The biggest electric bill we had was $55. We very often have to open windows in the winter when we are cooking or baking a lot. We used what is called “advanced framing techniques” (google) to reduce the amount of studs to decrease thermal bridging and increase insulation. We also installed all of the insulation with spray foam to fully seal and fill any voids.

  • Sheila May 5, 2014, 2:17 pm

    We have been living tiny as a family with children, for 10 years now, in a Northern climate. We find that investing in insulation has been money well spent. We heat with wood, which we find to be a most economical and pleasant dry heat source. Condensation can tend to accumulate in corners and against walls where there is no air circulation. Your design should take this into consideration. If spaces are open to the wood heat, they will stay dry and not get moldy. Insulated skirting is a must. Plumbing can be a problem in freezing weather. We have found that the best solution for the black water is a sawdust composting toilet. Keep the buckets inside and empty them right away, or they will freeze. For fresh water, DO NOT put plumbing in the walls. The best thing to do is to run the plumbing inside the room, and insulate it. If it is not insulated, it will condense and drip all over. There should be a drain valve at the lowest point of the system so you can shut off the water and empty the pipes if you will be gone and the inside temperature will fall below freezing. If you are rural, the best thing to do with gray water, is to water the vegetation via a large diameter pipe (be sure to use natural soaps and cleaners). Small pipes can freeze, especially if food particles stop in them. If that isn’t an option, insulating the drains well, under the insulated skirting should work. I recommend not relying on heat tape to keep anything from freezing. When the power goes out, everything freezes solid! You will likely find a point for your particular system, where you will need to keep the faucet(s) running to keep the water flowing. For us, that happens when the temperature is below about 10 degrees. We do use a blow dryer in winter to thaw out frozen pipes, but as we fine-tune our system through all kinds of weather, we are having to do that less often. Another consideration is the size of your wood stove. Make sure that your wood stove can keep up with the size of the structure at your insulation level. It is good to have the loft windows on each end be able to open for ventilation and temperature regulation.

    • Heide Norton-Rennie September 22, 2014, 7:29 pm

      We have a small fan which sits on top of our wood stove and just the heat of the fire moves the blades. These come in different sizes and can also be hung from a hook, which frees up the top of the stove.

  • Jazz May 5, 2014, 2:25 pm

    I live in Fairbanks AK and tiny home living is common here, even though I don’t believe I ever heard anyone call it that. It’s so much less expensive to heat a small cabin than a house. Yes you need to heat tape your pipes etc. When we first moved here, we lived in a 8×20 cabin with a loft, there were 5 of us. We had a Toyo heater. It was hot in our cabin, we actually had a hard time keeping it warm without being too warm. We had water, a lot of the places here are dry. This was not a log cabin, it was a small house. Some people even live in buses here, it can be done.

    • Rowan July 16, 2014, 11:19 pm

      I’m in Saskatchewan, but interested in doing a bus conversion. I’m wondering what people do about the windows in the bus. Do they take them all out and cover/insulate them, or do they have a better method of insulating them without losing all the light? I’m having a hard time finding solutions.

  • alice h May 5, 2014, 5:12 pm

    The best thing about that heat shrink window film is when you take it off in the spring it’s like an instant window cleaning – a whole winter’s worth of grime just peels right off. Not as environmentally friendly as getting decent windows to start with though. If you’re in a really cold climate you might need to wrap some insulation around your propane tanks, regulator and pipes outdoors, especially the smaller tanks. We used to use an old sleeping bag. Usually not necessary until down around -25 F or colder. Actual temperature, not wind chill. If you don’t have an enclosed porch you can rig one up using a tarp or build a separate winter airlock porch that bolts together and comes apart for storage when it gets warm again. It may be ugly but it can make a big difference. Skirting in the bottom of your house for the winter makes a difference too. Watch out for mice and other critters making themselves at home under there if you use hay or straw. Even blocking it off with cardboard and heaping the snow up around it helps.

  • Celeste May 5, 2014, 7:58 pm

    I live in Northern Saskatchewan, where -40 winters are the norm. I’m guessing living in a Tiny that is built for “warmer” climates will be a lot like living in a house trailer, u insulate, insulate & insulate again!! I plan to go with SIPS, the company I found makes the floors & roofs! The building codes state that windows have to be triple pane low E…

  • Heather May 6, 2014, 12:17 am

    We are in the building process of our 8×18 Fencl. Almost done. We chose to go with a Sheep’s Wool insulation due to the many positive aspects of wool in itself on top of it being a healthier choice for a smaller space. The smaller the space, the more susceptible you are to the chemicals used to produce the materials in your tiny home. Take a look at Oregan Shepherd. That is where we purchased our wool from. Definitely read closely to all the benefits of choosing this natural alternative to something else. If you decide to use wool for insulation remember though that it is better NOT to PACK the wool tight, it wool lose it’s R-factor due to the fact that it won’t be able to work properly with wicking away and condensation or keeping the temp at the proper degree in your home. Plus the wool is a natural pest Repellant as well as fire retardant to an extent. There are more benefits so I highly suggest looking at that. Currently we are in Maine. We will also be using a mini woodstove and an AC/heating unit when needed. We will be running our home off of solar panels. We are actually camping out in the loft of our tiny house for the first time(before completion) as I write this to you now. We are using a little space heater for temporary. 🙂

  • Jeff Carroll May 6, 2014, 8:48 am

    One method to decrease the thermal bridging caused by the studs is to place rigid foam insulation on the outside of the house, creating a thermal break. Since this will now act as a vapor barrier, place more traditional insulation, such as fiberglass or cellulose between the studs. With tighter houses, it’s important to understand how to give walls/ceilings a path to dry if they do happen to develop moisture.

    However, if you place rigid insulation over sheating, be aware that you must put enough rigid insulation outside so that condensation is not created on the sheathing. The amount of insulation is dependent on the dew points in your area.

    Joseph Lstiburek at www. buildingscience.com has a number of articles about this and many other subjects on house construction. He also has a series of books that describe how to build for specific climates.

    We’re building a tiny house on our property for an art studio and guest house, but we’re also building a larger, passive-solar home using many of these ideas.

    And, Jay, we’re using metal SIPs for that project, so I certainly recommend them for construction.

  • Jeff Carroll May 6, 2014, 9:05 am

    For heating purposes, passive solar techniques can be considered when placing a tiny house in its location, but it’s tricky due to the rules around window placement.

    The goal of passive solar design would be to optimize the amount of solar gain during the winter, while minimizing it during the summer.

    Southern windows – If you don’t have thermal mass in a house, such as concrete floors, then the amount of southern glazing vs floor space square feet should be about 7% and no more than 10%. More than this, and you’re in danger of overheating. That’s not much in a tiny house, which is why passive solar can be challenging.

    While it can be optimal to orient a house so that the south windows face directly south (true south not magnetic), this is not always possible, or even best. You can get within 30 degrees of true south and still gain most of the benefits of passive solar.

    Southern, eastern, and western windows should also have overhangs designed so that they are shielded from the sun during the summer months.
    Here’s a online tool to help you calculate what size those overhangs should be:
    http://www.susdesign.com/overhang/

    Be careful with the windows facing west. It is very easy to overheat a house with too many windows on this side. If your house has no windows on the west, you might consider angling the southern wall of your house more to the southeast to minimize the late afternoon heat more.

    Northern windows are a net heat loss, so they should be minimized, but with a tiny house, we need windows where we can.

    So, in all cases, consider window quilts. On the northern side, these help with the net heat loss, and on the southern side, they help keep in the gains made during the day. These are not just quilts put on windows. They are made to provide a seal around the window. Most standard thermal blinds create a chimney effect, since they are open at the bottom and top, causing air to be cycled through, against the cold window and back into the home.

    These are some of the methods we’re using while building a larger, passive solar house. Our tiny house/art studio will be placed in a location where sun will barely reach, so it’s not a consideration for us in that construction.

  • Dwight May 6, 2014, 12:32 pm

    I would think a pellet stove would be a great heat source in the winter. They don’t have the danger of normal wood stove.

    I would think using closed cell foam on 2×4 would work rather well. I have no idea what the cost difference would be between the foam and SIPS.

    • Paul September 18, 2014, 7:48 pm

      I don’t think a pellet stove is an option for a Tiny House on wheels unless it can be hooked up to an electricity mains supply. These all need electricity to work.

  • Philip Stone May 6, 2014, 1:31 pm

    Hi

    I am currently in the design process for a tiny house to live in here in upstate NY (the Tug Hill region known for its massive snowfalls off of Lake Ontario). I considered passive solar, but I found that the ‘too hot in summer’ for such a small structure might easily become a problem. The solution that I am persuing is to insulate the h@#l out of the place. Under the notion that ‘if you don’t need very much heat’, the type of heat becomes less important. South of Rochester, NY, they built a house with foot thick walls that they heated with a 60 watt light bulb. Putting that much insulation may sound impossible in a tiny house until you consider using ‘slide outs’ like travel trailers have used for years. My design is a little less fancy–with the walls and ceilings sliding out and then putting the floors up under the walls and attached to the trailer frame (stored inside the TT during travel (but most of these homes will be moved very very little)). A post brace in two places along the long side to handle the expected snow load and off you go. My furniture, including kitchen and bath have to be made to be able to move around if travel is desired, but I don’t expect to ever move it off my property. This gives me a possible 20 foot wide space to inhabit (inside the foot thick walls–where thermal bridging can be effectively dealt with). I like getting around the building codes (very strict here in NY (R-49 in the ceiling required)). I am still in the designing stage, but it looks like $10k before putting in appliances (some of which might come with the trailer). VERY good information here and elsewhere about Tiny Houses. I’ll keep reading and watching. Thanks much.

    Enjoy the day, it is all we know of for sure,

    Philip Stone

    • Dennis July 6, 2015, 9:50 am

      Philip,
      Enjoyed your article on NY living. I might be relocating to the Syracuse area and would like to learn from you re: cold weather survival in small cabin.

  • Crystal May 10, 2014, 7:15 am

    This conversation is timely as I was just wondering if radiant floor heating was used successfully in a tiny home. I’m in the design phase and the information on insulation is helpful! Would love to hear more about those SIPs too.

  • Ken September 14, 2014, 8:39 pm

    I recently built 20×20 cabin here in Quebec, but was told after construction was started that I could not use wood to heat because of fire concerns. I would like to use a propane stove that I can also cook on. Does anyone have any suggestions?

    Thank you, and have a good day

    • Heide Norton-Rennie September 22, 2014, 7:34 pm

      We heat our log house with a wood stove (Ontario), and the key was to over-spec on the heat resistant base and back wall panel.

  • Paul September 18, 2014, 7:45 pm

    I believe that the Leaf 2 tiny home (on wheels) handles extremes of cold. It was designed for extreme Canadian weather conditions.

    Contact the designer at http://www.tinyhousing.ca/

  • Glen September 19, 2014, 8:26 am

    There is an alternative, move to Australia

  • Billy September 21, 2014, 7:54 pm

    I have been looking for a bit of discussion on structural ridge beams in snow load areas. I have seen a lot of tiny home with 2×6 ridge beams on the web. Given the long spans and lack of collar ties in the roofs with lofts I think more substantial beams are in order. These are actual structural “ridge beams” not “ridge boards” as in a truss roof.
    Even with a 12/12 pitch and steel roofing a large amount of snow can accumulate if it is icy or sleet before the snow. I am trying to decide on wa size of 18′ LVL beam to use for mine. There are 1 5/8″ x11″x20′ in sstock for $85 locally .
    What do yall have for ridge beams in your homes?

  • Debbie September 23, 2014, 6:43 am

    We are embarking on our first winter in northern Michigan in our tiny house (200 SF). We will be moving it October 1st to a new spot, and one important think to make sure you do, is park it so that your door in not facing the north (here in Michigan, winds from the north, or cold Canadian air, make a big difference). By doing this, our patio door will be south facing to a field, where hopefully we can pick up heat from the sun as well. We have 5 1/2″ of styrofoam insulation in our floor, and 3 1/2″ of insulation in our 2 x 4 walls. We installed a ceiling to ensure that we push heat down from the peaks. We will be trying an Eden Pure heater that we have connected to/wired to a regular household thermostat. The last couple nights have gotten into the 30s, and we have our thermostat set to 65. It only kicks in on occasion and we were very comfortable in the loft. It does not get too warm in the loft with the ceiling. If electric heat becomes too expensive, we are prepared to install a propane heating system and have 100 gal. cylinders. We have lots of windows too, and are not experiencing any leakage of air from them. After we move our house in a couple weeks, we plan a metal skirting and will attach some styrofoam insulation in the inside of each piece before affixing to the house. We will use heat tape for our water and septic connections to the house, which is buried about 4-6 feet under the house. All of our plumbing runs on the inside of the house. We will likely do the faucet drip if we have a cold winter like last year (which is predicted). Since you are in northern Michigan Kathy, please reach out to us. We are on Facebook as the The Ritz on Wheels. We are happy to show you our place and share our experience. Good luck!!!!

    • Alex September 23, 2014, 9:31 am

      Hi Debbie! Thanks for sharing! I’ve found you guys on Facebook before. Would love to feature your tiny house and story here on Tiny House Talk sometime!

  • Debbie September 23, 2014, 9:31 pm

    Hi Alex! We love your stories and we would LOVE to be featured in one of them. Please let us know what you would like from us.

    Thank you for all you do in perpetuating this wonderful thing called tiny life!!!!

    Debbie & John

    • Alex September 24, 2014, 12:57 am

      Hi Debbie & John, I’d love that! I’ll send you an email now 🙂

  • Barbara October 13, 2014, 1:34 am

    Though not ideal for a tiny house, you may want to consider an arctic entry. For those who don’t know what it is, an arctic entry is effectively a mudroom or foyer with the exterior door and a door into the rest of the home. This double door system blocks ice cold breezes from chilling the rest of the house when a person enters or exits. In a tiny house, it would probably work best for a home with an entrance on the end rather than the side, but even at only three feet deep it would eat up a lot of floor space. Additionally, because a tiny house is so small it should heat much faster than a traditional home lessening the need for an extra room to keep out an icy breeze. Depending on your lifestyle and needs, an arctic entry could be a great place to remove and store wet winter or muddy spring/fall gear or it might just be an unnecessary addition.

  • the K-M family September 24, 2015, 3:14 pm

    My family and I live in the Northeast, in my particular area each of the four season brings a special surprise. The climate here is lets just call it bipolar. We are definitely going Tiny (other wise the 61 items I sold on ebay to help fund this adventure, was for nothing.) We figured SIPS would be a good option as far as insulation is concern, and windows appropriate to our area (some windows that Ive seen in tiny homes appear to be single pain glass, we have triple here in NH.)
    We’ve been learning something new any day, and are now getting to the point to start really finalizing the design, finding the trailer, because material wise, we have it. Any suggestions? Initially we wanted to build ourselves but now, not so much. We would like to aid on the interior…. Anyone know of any Tiny Home Builders in New England?

  • Debbie W October 4, 2015, 10:04 pm

    I have friends who are going tiny in December in Michigan, and we are all trying to help them figure out how to live Tiny, off the grid, and still have water. Does anyone have ideas for how to have an outdoor water basin and insulate it enough to still have running water throughout the very cold winters here in Michigan?

  • edith purvis November 8, 2015, 10:02 am

    These tips are good for winterizing ANY home. I don’t think you addressed the real question – air lock doorways and such.

  • Dick December 6, 2016, 4:49 pm

    Ariel (don’t know last name) lives in a Tumbleweed Cypress in Wyoming. There are two articles on THT:
    http://tinyhousetalk.com/ariels-fy-nyth-tumbleweed-tiny-house-on-wheels/ and
    http://tinyhousetalk.com/womans-triple-axle-tumbleweed-tiny-house/

    Her blog, http://fynyth.blogspot.com, gives a LOT of detail on the systems she uses in her home, how she keeps warm, etc.

    Some more “how I did it” resources for those reading this article, and yes, as of December 2016, she’s been in her home for two years. One interesting post is “54 degrees below freezing”, showing pics of the house after a -22 night.

  • Aggie January 26, 2017, 1:45 pm

    Oh yes, they exist in super cold climates, and much easier than a traditional home does in the cold? I live a few thousand feet higher than Colorado Springs, and CO SP is the place they hold the yearly national/international Tiny House fair for several years now. There are a great many tiny homes here on permanent foundations and mobile. It’s much easier to be off grid for electric/water/heating a small space that’s been insulated for cold climes. It’s so much easier and cheaper to be off grid in cold climates in a Tiny House.

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