Accessory Dwellings

A one-stop source about accessory dwelling units, multigenerational homes, laneway houses, ADUs, granny flats, in-law units…

My tiny house after 5 years: things I would have done differently

I’ve written here about how well my tiny house is working out — I converted my detached 1.5-car garage to a little “accessory dwelling unit” and have mostly rented it out to my mother in law since then, though it’s occasionally served as an office, guest house, party house, knitting book photoshoot headquarters, and kid’s sleepover palace.  It’s very flexible and useful having a 2nd dwelling on your property, as even the dog recognized:

photo of dog on blanket

photo by Michael Crouser for book Knitalong, used by permission

That picture was taken back when the place was new.  Now it’s been in use for 5 years, and though I think the project was a great decision, with the benefit of hindsight there are a few design choices I wish I had gone a different way on.  If you want to read about all the features of the place that are working, see this post or the site with all the details.

Storage space.   My project was a garage conversion, so we consumed the storage space we had available in the garage.  Though we didn’t need to store a car, we still needed some space to store our bikes and yard tools.  Currently they are scattered in sheltered places around the main house, with some of the more valuable things like bikes in the basement of the main house, but it’s really not ideal.    In a better world, I would probably have sacrificed a little interior space to use part of the footprint of the garage to create a storage closet accessible from OUTSIDE.

The uninsulated concrete floor.  I think this is my biggest regret.  Concrete was definitely the right material for the floor.  In little houses materials need to be very durable and you don’t want a lot of rugs and stuff to trip on.  Concrete takes abuse, looks good (see the picture of the dog, above), and is really easy to clean up.  However, we just layed our concrete right over the original concrete floor of the garage, which was in direct contact with the ground.  That makes the floor pleasantly cool in summer, but unpleasantly cool in other seasons.   The rest of the place is very well insulated, so it’s not too bad, but it keeps the comfort on the ground floor from being absolutely perfect.  At the time we built the place, insulating under concrete was considered rather exotic, and I had a lot of other stuff to worry about, so I didn’t get in to it, but I really should have.  Kol Peterson’s ADU has an insulated concrete floor and I’m jealous.

Skylight size, type, and placement.  Skylights can do so many things in small spaces, and in this 440-sf house we used three: two 3×3 foot skylights in the main area and loft (shown below), and one 2×2 one in the bathroom.

view from the back of the loft in Martin's ADU

photo by Martin John Brown, used by permission

The skylights provide natural light without compromising privacy, add nice ventilation (a sense of air moving in the house in most seasons), and also give a bit more headroom in the loft.  In fact one of the best small-house modification tricks I can think of is using a skylight to provide extra headroom when coming to the top of the stairs.   When the skylight is placed perfectly, you can get that extra 6 or 10 inches you really need for your head, without adding a whole dormer.   I wasn’t really aware of this trick when we built the place, so the top-of-stair skylight isn’t placed quite perfectly.  In hindsight I would have used even bigger skylights: perhaps 4×4 models, to increase the headroom effect.   I also would have gotten at least one “roof window” type of skylight, which actually open big enough to serve as an emergency exit, and can have exterior shades– which serve as a really effective way of reducing heat in the summer.

photo of velux roof windows

photo from

All in all, this is pretty much all I can think of.   3 regrets out of five years  of use — I’d say that’s pretty good.   Hope these tips helps you with your own project!

About Martin John Brown

Martin John Brown is a researcher and consultant on environment and housing. Find out more at

7 comments on “My tiny house after 5 years: things I would have done differently

  1. Donald Shattuck
    March 1, 2012

    Well, I loved everything about your ADU. Maybe some carpeting over thick pad will help insulate the floor. Storage is always a problem.
    I think you have done wonders with a garage. Best of luck, Don Shattuck, Grammie Cottages, Inc.

    • Martin John Brown
      March 1, 2012

      Thanks for your kind words, Donald. Regarding the floor, you’re right, a pad and/or carpet would certainly warm up the foot feel, but my experience living in such places suggests they would very get dirty very fast. The PNW climate is wet and messy, and in a small place like this, all surfaces gets used intensely–for example, there are only a few places to step! Similarly, for better or worse, there are no buffer areas (such as a porch or mud room) where shoes might be taken off. So that’s why I think concrete truly is a good solution in terms of appearance and service. It just shouldn’t be connected to ground. BTW the loft has a cork floor that’s quite nice.

  2. Jane Thompson
    March 29, 2014

    Thanks so much for the article. I’m planning my tiny house now, and these tips help me.

  3. Christine Rufkahr
    July 8, 2015

    I want to convert my 400 sq ft garage to a tiny home. I look forward to reading more of your posts. Can you recommend sites or resources that will allow me to estimate how much it will cost to add elec & plumbing to my garage? I’m assuming that’s going to be the biggest expense as the adjoining room is on a slab with no crawl space. The rest of the house has a basement underneath.

    • Martin John Brown
      July 9, 2015

      Christine, have you seen our posts on “how much will it cost?” — see the menu under “Build your own”. Though you can get ballpark estimates from looking at other people’s projects, every situation is different. You can start by just asking people — contractors, architects, etc — what they think it will cost. Ultimately to get a predictable total price, you’ll need to have a design drawn out in enough detail that the materials, labor, and permits can all be specified. Good luck!

  4. Andrea
    July 17, 2015

    What about parking? Did the city give you grief about converting the garage to living space, and therefore the cars need to be parked on the street?

    • Martin John Brown
      July 24, 2015

      Andrea, Portland does not require homeowners who create ADUs to create new parking spaces. I believe it’s a good policy, because creating a new parking space can really make developing an ADU much harder. Moreover, there is no evidence to date that ADUs cause neighborhood parking problems. I guess someone might say that we were actually eliminating a space, because the garage was changed, but the truth was we never used the garage for parking anyway. 🙂

Comments are closed.


This entry was posted on February 27, 2012 by in 400-599 SF, Conversion, Design & Build, Detached, Garage, Projects and tagged , , , , , .
%d bloggers like this: