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How to Design a Tiny House in 3D

Last week I talked about how to draw a tiny house floor plan. (A big thank-you to the many people who have contributed ideas and techniques in the comments!)

Most designs start with a floor plan — but the vertical dimension is what brings the floor plan to life.

Take, for example, the McG Loft, by Humble Homes (pictured at right). Like many other tiny houses, its floor plan is very simple. It’s the carefully thought-out vertical dimension—the stair, the height of the loft—that sets it apart.

Photo credit: Humble Homes

Photo credit: Humble Homes

Knowing how high things are:

To get started, it may help to familiarize yourself with a few standard heights in houses:

  • The most common ceiling height is 8′-0”. A ceiling 7′-0” or lower will begin to feel quite low.
  • Standard doors are 6′-8” high.
  • Standard kitchen counters are 3′ high.
  • Headroom over a stair should be 6′-8″ or more.

There are many more ways to find information about heights and dimensions. For human dimensions, some information is available online or in books on architecture and space planning.

Of course, if you’re designing a tiny house for yourself, then you are the best source of dimensions. Grab a measuring tape and possibly a helper and you can figure out all sorts of things, like your most comfortable table height, your maximum vertical reach, your eye level, and more.

See below to learn how to draw elevations, cross-section, and 3D models of your potential tiny house:

Drawing an elevation


The simplest way to begin designing vertically is by drawing an elevation. An elevation is simply a side view of the house. You can draw an elevation of the outside (an exterior elevation) or an elevation of the inside (interior elevation). You may label your elevations by cardinal direction (north elevation, east elevation…) or by relative direction (front elevation, side elevation…).

To begin drawing an elevation, lightly sketch horizontal lines representing the most important heights in your tiny house. Do this at the same scale as your floor plan. Using either the ground level or the level of the finished floor as a “zero” point, draw lines to show important heights, including:

  • Ground level
  • Finished floor elevation
  • Loft/second floor elevation
  • Height of kitchen counter
  • Top of windows
  • Top of doors
  • Top of wall plate
  • Top of roof

Next, you will project lines from your floor plan. Orient your floor plan so that the side you are drawing an elevation of is down. Now, lightly draw vertical lines to transfer the important features (walls, doors, windows, etc.) to your elevation (see illustration).

You can then try different roof slopes until you find the one that you like best. Most roof slopes are given in terms of rise and run, with run always equal to 12”. For example, a 6:12 roof has a rise of 6” and a run of 12”.

Finally, use a darker line to outline the shape of the walls, doors, windows, roof, etc. The process should look something like the illustration above. You can add color and details to your elevation to give it more realism. It’s also a good idea to add a human figure for scale.

Drawing a cross-section


A cross-section (or simply ‘section’) is another very useful way to study on the vertical relationships in your design. For instance, you may want to draw a cross-section through the loft area to understand how much headroom you will have in the loft and below it.

To draw a cross-section, imagine a vertical plane (the ‘section plane’) cutting through your tiny house. Everywhere this plane cuts through something (walls, cabinets, etc.) you will want to emphasize the cut area by shading or outlining it. Draw a line on your floor plan to represent the section plane (as seen from above).

For the rest, drawing a cross-section is very similar to drawing an elevation. You can project lines from your floor plan wherever the section line intersects a wall, cabinet, or other element. You can also project lines to show elements that are behind the section plane, if you wish.

Drawing a perspective or 3D model

There are several other ways to study your design in three dimensions.

  • 3D modeling software. Many different computer programs are available to help you create a 3D model of your design. Last week I mentioned SketchUp, which is free, and for which online tutorials and a guide to drawing a tiny house are available. One very powerful feature of SketchUp is the ability to study the shadows cast by the sun, which is helpful when you’re working on daylighting and passive solar design.
  • Physical models. If you’re more the hands-on, crafty type, you may prefer making a physical model using cardboard, wood, or other materials. Physical models have a powerful “solar modeling feature” too—just take them outside into the sunlight.
  • Perspective drawings. If you want to visualize how your design will look in real life, a perspective drawing is very helpful. There are many how-to videos and guides available online to explain the process of perspective drawing.

If you’ve been working on a tiny house design and you have thoughts about headroom, heights, and other vertical issues, share them in the comments! Next week, I’ll zoom out to address a topic that seems to be on many people’s minds: tiny house communities.

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Vincent Baudoin

Vincent Baudoin is a designer and builder with a background in public interest design, sustainability, and integrated design-build.
{ 17 comments… add one }
  • DJ
    March 1, 2013, 11:34 am

    Just FYI, my malware program blocks me from going to the Humble Homes website, saying it is dangerous.

    • Alex
      March 1, 2013, 3:43 pm

      Hey DJ thanks for letting me know.

    • Linda
      July 26, 2014, 5:01 pm

      Humble Homes is a GOOD site. I have been working with Niall to design a Tiny House – and he has some excellent ideas. I think your malware program is ‘off’. Perhaps it is something else linked to accessing that site.

  • alice h
    March 1, 2013, 2:20 pm

    I used plastic dropsheets and masking tape to mark off full size elevations for my tiny house design. They give a good idea of how much headroom or space you have between things, especially when hung on the outer wall of the garage and are easily folded up and put away. I used an assortment of boxes and yard stuff to mock up various components. Also provides amusement for grandchildren and neighbours.

  • jerryd
    March 3, 2013, 1:00 pm

    Normal house sizes are a waste for tiny homes and should not be a guide. Instead use a 90-95%’man’ to size things and if some place are less that is fine too. If we wanted a normal home we would have one and no need to bring outdated rules to this new way.

  • Jerry
    June 21, 2013, 2:08 am

    If your tiny home’s design has an open main room with cathedral ceiling, you can use 7′ or even 6’5″ wall heights without feeling cramped. The one drawback is that you decrease your loft space with a greater roof slope. Of course a dormer in the loft area can help!

  • LaMar
    February 22, 2014, 12:11 pm

    A 3D model helps you to visualize where you want furnishing and fixtures and a framing model greatly helps in construction and material calculation.

    A walkthrough 3D model is what I provide to clients so they can modify and move things where they want them.

    Here are my Sketchup lessons for designing tiny houses and houses on wheels that will get you started right on Sketchup:



  • di
    June 1, 2014, 5:34 pm

    Are there free programs for a Nexus?

  • Jennifer Roberts
    January 15, 2015, 11:00 pm

    I ? ok I’m only 411 in height if I wanted to have only 7 high. The roof over bathroom and loft area even with dormers would I be able to do that to have more room for loft the height down below would still be height enough for taller people that would be fine too right

  • balint
    April 12, 2015, 2:18 pm


    Thanks for the summary. I was wondering if there is a software that is not for rocket scientists? Just to visualize the whole concept and to move objects around? Any suggestion is appreciated.


  • Jessica Lawrence
    July 16, 2018, 2:39 pm

    I have been trying to understand the ‘max height’ for mobile tiny homes. I have found various references to it being 13’6″, which of course I don’t doubt is accurate… my confusion comes from how that height is calculated. I thought I had found information stating that 13’6″ was the max height from the road, but the elevation drawing above refers to the finished floor as 0’0″ and shows the max height of 13’6″ to be 13’6″ above this point (not 13’6″ above the road surface of -2’6″). Is 13’6″ the max height from the floor/trailer bed or from the road? Thanks so much for your help!

    • Alex
      July 16, 2018, 6:18 pm

      Hi Jessica, good question, 13’6″ refers to max height from the floor (road)

  • H
    October 3, 2019, 12:58 am

    2’6″ (76 cm) seems too high for the finished floor, leaves very little room for a loft (4.00 meters max height for vehicles in Europe) … Can it be any lower for an 8 to 10 meters-long trailer?

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