What is a tiny house? Here’s what I think.

Pictured above is my finished tiny house

When talking to friends it became clear that there was a surprising amount of confusion about what a tiny house actually is.

Pictured above is a tiny house on a trailer
Tiny house on a trailer

Living in Scotland, and rarely watching TV, I was only vaguely aware of the phenomenon of the USA style tiny houses which are built on trailers and can be towed around.

When people talk about tiny houses, I suspect it is this sort of house which people now think of.

I sometimes find it helpful to refer to my tiny house as a cabin. It’s easier than saying “tiny house” all the time and people know, more or less, what I am talking about. Though while cabins could be lived in full time and may be even quite large and comfortable, I think they are generally perceived as being somewhat rudimentary.

Pictured above is a wooden chalet
Wooden Chalet

In France, when I talked about my project to the neighbours, they would say “oh, like a chalet?”. They mean a small alpine or Scandanavian style building typically with from interlocking wooden walls. These are quite a common sight and people would often assume I was going to buy such a house in kit form.

Pictured above is a typical garden summerhouse
Typical summerhouse

In the UK people are quite familiar with the idea of a summerhouse. As the name implies, these are small buildings (probably at the bottom of the garden) that would typically be enjoyed during the summer. Perhaps somewhere to read or relax when the weather is nice. Construction wise, they are likely to be made from wood and unlikely to be insulated. As they are something of a feature, they look a bit prettier than a garden shed.

In his introduction to “The tiny book of tiny houses”, Lester Walker said the book began when he wanted to illustrate “affordable build it yourself vacation homes”.

OK, so here is my take on it …

My definition is that a tiny house must be:

  1. Tiny
  2. A house!

By that I mean, yes, it is very small but it must also be a real house too. In other words you should be able to live in it all year round, just like any other house. So that means good insulation and glazing, some means of cooking and washing and somewhere to sleep and sit.

It could be on wheels (though mine is not) and could be made of any material. It could be cheap or expensive, self-built or built by others. It could be used for holidays or lived in full time.

My own tiny house looks a bit like a garden shed because, according to my planning application, it is! (more of this later). But it does have (or will have) the previously mentioned features of a real house.

So that’s it. Tiny House = Real House but smaller. Simple!

Tiny house kits, plans or build from scratch?

Pictured are some house plan drawings

This was a question I had to answer before even submitting a planning application. In fact, the local planning regulations dictated that the roof should be a certain angle and it must be tiled (traditional roman canal tiles or similar). Even though the tiny house would officially be classed as a garden shed, it had to have the same visual impact as a house.

Pictured is a typical Dordogne Tobacco Barn
Dordogne tobacco barn

So that was the first design constraint. Furthermore I didn’t want it to look like a log cabin (or chalet, as the French call them). Instead I wanted vertical weatherboarding (aka batten on board cladding or siding). My inspiration for this was the typical tobacco drying barn that is still a common sight in the Dordogne.

So, what were the chances of finding a kit that met my requirements?


No chance, is the short answer.

From an aesthetic point of view, I couldn’t find anything that was small (less than 20m2), simple, with vertical weatherboarding and a proper tiled roof.

Pictured is kit-built Chalet
Budget chalet from a kit

Yes, I guess I could have got something custom made and shipped from who knows where, but at what cost? Even the most basic standard ‘chalet’ is surprisingly expensive. For example, the cheapest sold by euro-chalet.fr (pictured) costs 3990 Euros for 19m2. But for that price you only get 44mm uninsulated wooden walls and an imitation slate roof (which I can’t even use). If I just wanted to upgrade to double skinned walls, the price jumps to 7900 Euros.

It’s a similar story with other manufacturers. Often the price seems low but soon goes up with unavoidable ‘extras’. Typically they have a lightweight roof of corrugated steel or bitumen shingles. The insulation (if there is any) won’t necessarily be great and I suspect the timber is treated because it isn’t naturally very durable. It all seems a bit flimsy and not really what I’d call ‘house quality’.

The advantage of a kit should be a faster build time as all the parts are pre-cut. Personally, I’m not too sure about how to fit windows and doors, so having this worked out by somebody else would have been a bonus.

But there just didn’t seem to be an affordable kit that suited my needs.


To be honest, I didn’t spend a great deal of time considering this option.

Pictured is a tiny house that was built from plans
Tiny House built from plans

A google search for tiny house plans came up with some which were ‘trailer style’ – no good to me.

After this I found some rather expensive plans ($600!) on offer from houseplans.com in the USA. The resulting tiny house looks quite good but, again, not exactly what I wanted.

Some sites had free plans but broken links when I attempted to download the PDF files.

Eventually I got fed up trawling the internet for the holy grail of a perfect tiny house plan. I was going to have to design and build my house myself.

Building from scratch

By designing my own house I could get exactly what I wanted. That meant a proper, durable tiled roof, good insulation and weatherboarding that was in keeping with the local style.

Hopefully, the money that wasn’t going to be spent on somebody else’s profit margin could be used on better quality materials. In theory I would have a better house for the same price. The materials could also be sourced locally, which would be good for the environment and the local economy.

Then there was the satisfaction of knowing that I did it all myself, from conception to execution. For someone who once wanted to be a design engineer, this held some appeal!

I had some experience of building timber stud walls in house renovations and I had read about similar techniques for building entire houses. Basically I would be building a big box with timber walls and a simple roof. The finer points of the design were still to be worked out but I had the basic idea and that was good enough to get started …

Buying land in France for the tiny house

Pictured is my tiny house building plot in France

In this article I will describe how I found and bought some land in the Dordogne area of France for my hemp tiny house project and the costs involved.

Finding the land

This was the easy part! Actually, it still took a bit of doing. My plan was to identify a dozen or so possible building plots and then arrange to see them over the course of a few days while I was on holiday in France with the kids.

I used a French website called leboncoin to find land for sale. This is a free ads type website, like Gumtree (UK) or Craigslist (USA) and they have all sorts of ads, not just land. Anyway, should you want to check it out yourself, look for land (terrain) in the real estate category (ventes immobilières).

The search criteria for my ideal bit of land were as follows:


My budget was roughly €10,000, which is about as low as you can get. I hoped to find something that didn’t appeal to most other buyers, perhaps because it was too small, wasn’t flat enough or needed clearing of trees or bushes.

With my tiny house, I didn’t need or want lots of ground. I also thought that a small timber framed house, raised up on piers, would be quite easy to build, even on a slope.

No estate agents

I specifically excluded land that was being sold through estate agents (agents immobiliers) in order to avoid their fees, which could have been up to 10%.

Instead I looked for land that was being sold by individuals (particuliers).

The transaction and all the legal stuff would be handled by a notaire, who does charge a fee, but that was unavoidable.

Cerificat d’Urbanisme (CU)

I restricted my search to land that already had a CU. This meant that, in principle, the land could be built upon. Each community has a PLU (plan local d’urbanisme) within which the local area is divided into development, agricultural and protected zones. Obviously I didn’t want to buy land in, say, a protected zone and find that it was impossible to construct anything later.

It should be noted that a CU is not the same as planning permission (permis de construire). You can apply for planning permission if you have a CU first, but it won’t necessarily be granted. The project still has to comply with, for example, local regulations regarding the house’s appearance.


I chose to look for land near the town of Périgueux, which I knew fairly well. For those who haven’t visited, it’s a charming place with all the best French features: great market, cafés; restaurants, nice architecture and a friendly, relaxed feel. When I lived in France I would often visit the town as I lived about an hour to the north in the neighbouring département of the Haute-Vienne.

Bearing all of the above in mind, I found a dozen or so building plots to visit and contacted the owners before leaving Scotland.

As it turned out, time constraints meant I didn’t see all of them. Of those I did see, most were OK, some were poor but – as luck would have it – the last site site was perfect. It was small (540m2), had some trees, was 40km from Périgueux and Bergerac, was reasonably flat and was away from the main road in a little hamlet. Previously, it had been used by the proprietor’s family for growing grapes (as some of the neighbours still did). Best of all it ‘felt’ right – it’s just a pleasant place to be. The old couple selling it were very nice and the price was right too. At €7,000, it was a handy €3,000 under budget.

The buying process

This process consists of two steps, the Compromis de Vente and the Acte de Vente.

Compromis de Vente

The Compromis de Vente is a contract of sale agreement which binds the seller and buyer. In a nutshell, I promised to buy the land and gave a 10% deposit. The deposit would be forfeited if I didn’t go through with the deal. However, I did insert a clause which meant that, should planning permission be refused, I wouldn’t have to buy the land and I wouldn’t lose my deposit. This is called a “clause suspensive” and is often used to protect the buyer in case they can’t get a mortgage.

So my next task was to get planning permission before I could sign the Acte de Vente. In all honesty, this was quite a challenge – especially as I was in Scotland at the time. Most people would use the services of an architect but this is only compulsory for houses over 150m2. It’s perfectly legal to submit your own application for houses under this size.

While not being especially complicated, there is quite a large ‘dossier’ that needs to be prepared. A form has to be filled in which is supported with drawings and other documents. The worst of these was getting approval for the proposed drainage system from the water authority, which in itself needed a survey by one of their recommended experts.

Anyway, it all got done eventually and my planning permission was granted. Actually, I asked for permission to build two houses. A ‘proper’ wooden house (43m2) and a ‘large garden shed’ (17m2). The ‘garden shed’ was actually the hemp tiny house!

My reasoning was that the shed/tiny house would be a good test run before building the larger house. It would also then provide somewhere to live while the larger house is being built. I don’t feel too sneaky about living in the ‘shed’. I couldn’t find anywhere saying it is forbidden. Furthermore, it gets taxed per square metre just the same as the house does. Whether I will actually get around to building the main house is another matter …

Acte de Vente

The sellers were no doubt very glad to finally conclude the sale after the months it took me to get planning permission.

I transferred the remainder of the money to the notaire prior to the acte being signed. Then we all met again in the notaire’s office and the formalities were concluded, followed by a visit to the seller’s house for a celebratory aperitif!

Regarding costs, the notaire’s fees came to €1,459.

I also had to pay for the services of a “géomètre-expert” who is a kind of surveyor who sorts out the property boundaries. Practically speaking, the final result is that he drives plastic markers into the ground defining the four corners of the land. The cost was shared with the seller and my part came to €561.

The soil survey that was needed to get planning permission cost €580.

So the final cost to buy the land and get planning permission was €9600. Just under my €10,000 budget. So far, so good!

How much did my hemp tiny house cost?

Pictured is a tiny house with some text "how much?"

So far, the total cost of my tiny house is about €23,200. This is somewhat approximate as there are smaller items that I bought that I didn’t keep track of (screws, joist hangers, gloves, etc). On the other hand I overestimated the amount of hemp and lime needed, so I could have saved a few hundred Euros there.

I still have the interior of the tiny house to complete. This means a hardwood floor, bathroom/toilet, kitchen area, some plumbing, basic solar electric system, wood burning stove, sleeping area, table, chairs and some decorative work.

So we could say that the total cost when finished will be in the order of €30,000.

At current exchange rates that equates to around £26,320 or $32,745.

While still a considerable sum, it is probably half the price (or less) of a studio flat in the UK.

It’s worth noting that materials account for only around half of the finished build cost. So if you already had some land, with water onsite and the required tools, you could build a similar tiny house for €15,000. By using reclaimed timber, windows, etc. this could be reduced still further.

Here is where my money has been spent so far.


Building plot, 541 m2 = €7,000

Notaire’s (lawyers) fees = €1,459

Geometre’s fees (to establish property boundaries) = €561

Soil survey cost = €580

Total (land purchase and associated costs) = €9,600


Cost of connection to mains water = €1,556


Mini digger hire, one weekend = €478

Stone, 0-30mm, 12m3 = €757

Total driveway costs = €1,235


Douglas fir for structural frame and cladding = €3,332

OSB for floor and shuttering = €277

Total timber = €3,609

Breathable Membrane

Breathable membrane for walls and roof = €99

Roof tiles

Plain tiles + ridge tiles = €468


Double glazed windows and pine shutters = €732

Lime and hemp

Batichanvre lime = €1,381

Isocanna hemp = €1,084

Lime putty = €17

Total lime and hemp = €2,482

Sand, Gravel and Cement

Sand = €32

Gravel = €34

Cement = €30

Total sand, gravel and cement = €96


Cables, Conduit, Switches, Sockets, Consumer Unit, Earth Spike = €300


Hand tools (including buckets, garden hose, fittings, etc) = €309

Power Tools (bought in France) = €841

Power Tools (bought in UK) = £625 = €710

Total Tools = €1,860

Van hire

2 days van hire = €161


Experienced carpenter for 5 days = €1000


Total spend so far = €23,198


There has since been a second summer of building work. During this time I spent, roughly, another 3500-4500 Euros on a kitchen, chestnut floor, tools (including a petrol brushcutter), plumbing materials, solar panel and fittings , inverter, charge controller, leisure battery, bedding, furniture and other bits and pieces.

At the time of writing I am preparing for another summer building visit. So far this year I have spent another 1000 Euros. This has gone on a log burner, flue system and my home made water heater. There’s not a great deal more to be bought in order to finish the build: some more timber, plumbing stuff to finish the bathroom, a few shelves and perhaps a couple of chairs.

So, my prediction of a final cost of 30,000 Euros, including the land, is about right.

Why I built an eco tiny house in France

Pictured above are my neighbour's vines

There are two main questions: why did I build an ‘eco-friendly’ tiny house and why did I build it in France? I’ll answer them separately.

Why build an eco tiny house?

Why build my own tiny house? and why go the ‘green building’ or ‘eco’ route?

Why self build?

There are several reasons why I wanted to build my own house. Perhaps feeling the need to create shelter is a primal thing (like a primitive attraction to fire, fishing or hunting).

Beyond this, I thought it would be an interesting challenge to design and build my own place. At the end of the project I could say “I made this all happen” and it would be a satisfying adventure. Having lived in rented accommodation for many years, it would be good to do whatever I wanted with my own place.

I also thought it would be a wise insurance policy against becoming homeless. As a 46 year old single father, with a low income, two kids and a rented apartment, I wondered where I would be living in years to come. I don’t have any assets or a fat pension and I didn’t want to be at the whim of private landlords forever, especially as I got older. So I thought it would make sense to build my own house while I still could.

With little cash (and not wanting a big mortgage) the self-build route made sense. Another plus point was that I did have some building knowledge and experience, having worked for about five years in the trade. I wouldn’t say I was a great craftsman but I at least had some skills in most areas.

Why a tiny house and why go ‘green’?

I chose a tiny house for three reasons; low build cost, quick build time and low running costs.

The low build cost is obvious. I didn’t have much money, so I couldn’t build a big house (actually, I did get planning permission for a larger house too on the same site but this is on hold for the moment).

My plan was to build the house during my children’s summer holidays. This meant around five weeks on site. As I would be working mainly on my own I had to keep the project as small and as simple as possible. Otherwise there was too great a risk of not finishing it in time.

If I ever do live in the house full time, I don’t want to be crippled with big tax and utility bills. In which case “small is beautiful”. I’m quite happy to live without too much stuff, especially if I were living alone.

The main reasons for choosing a green building approach were for my own comfort and health. Some years ago I visited an eco centre and was amazed at how pleasant it felt inside the buildings. Whether made from earth blocks, straw bales, timber or lime – it was just a completely different sensation to concrete, glass fibre, plasterboard and industrial paint. On reading about eco-building I learned how natural materials create a more healthy home environment too, with less chemical pollutants and better regulation of humidity.

Furthermore, I would be using a minimum of environmentally damaging building materials. The house would also be an example to other people of what can be done and might inspire a few to do something similar.

Why build in France?

As a Scot, living in Scotland, why choose to build a house in France?


In the UK (of which Scotland is, unfortunately, still a part) the ownership of land is concentrated in the hands of relatively few people. Presumably this is the main reason for it’s relatively high price. Whether there are other factors at play, I don’t know. But the reality on the ground can be illustrated with the following example.

Pictured above is a building plot in Blairgowrie, Scotland
Building plot in Blairgowrie, Scotland

This building plot in a rural area of Scotland (about one hours drive from the nearest large town) costs £57,500 (about €66,140) for an area of 1,200m2. That equals a cost of around 55 €/m2.

Pictured above is my building plot near Bergerac
My building plot near Bergerac, France

The land which I purchased in France, in a similarly rural area, cost €7,000 for 540m2. That equals a cost of 13 €/m2. I.e.1/4 of the equivalent cost in Scotland!

(Note: The above costs do not include estate agents fees, survey costs or other legal fees for either plot)

Quality of life

Pictured is a neighbouring donkey.
One of my neighbours.

The Dordogne area of France is well known for it’s pleasant climate, nice scenery and good food. This is where I chose to build my tiny house. My piece of land is well away from the main road, about 2km from the nearest village, with the towns of Bergerac and Périgueux about 40km away. It’s peaceful and safe and the locals are friendly. As far as quality of life goes, it’s hard to beat.

French affinities

I lived and worked in France from 2003-2014, in the Haute-Vienne area. Consequently, I can speak French fairly well and have an understanding of the local culture and how the country works. My two children (now teenagers) were born in France and they have a half-brother and sister who live in Bordeaux. Having a house in France would make a ‘family reunion’ holiday quite easy to organise. The house could also come in handy if my children wanted to stay there for a while for whatever reason, such as while taking a break from studies or as a base if they did some euro travelling.

So there you go. That’s why I decided to build an eco tiny house in France!