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How I found tiny-house design inspiration in campervans, boats and tents  

How I found tiny-house design inspiration in campervans, boats and tents  

I’ve always really loved small spaces. While my current tiny cottage is partially a product of budget realities, the primary reason is that I looked for a tiny cottage to live in because I get a kick out of making the best of limited space. As a child, I used to make little blanket forts in the tiny hot press at home. 

My favourite toy wasn’t the nice dolls my parents bought me but the cardboard box our dishwasher came in, which I transformed into my own tiny house. 

Anyone remember Wendy Houses? My cousin and I spent hours playing in that tiny tent.

Like many Irish families, we spent most of our holidays in a mobile home, with a tiny kitchen and tiny bedrooms. My grandfather also took us all over Lough Derg on his 17-foot sailboat, which had tiny little beds for overnight trips to Terryglass and Dromineer. 

I was fascinated with all the clever solutions for living in mobile homes and boats — we never seemed to be without anything, and on the contrary, it was freeing to be away from the trappings of suburban clutter and consumerism.

So, when it came time to design my house, I turned to boat design for inspiration on how to maximise the space available to me. I adopted a mantra from Don Helgeson, an American architect specialising in small space design who downgraded from a 2800-square foot house to a houseboat in Florida: “What I’ve discovered studying this is that people need remarkably little space to live. They just need to be able to feel that it’s more than it actually is. And you don’t need that much stuff. People talk themselves into it.” 

So what can Don and others teach us from mobile home and boat design that we can implement in our own small homes?

LET THERE BE LIGHT 

One thing that the best designed mobile homes and boats do best is maximise the outside views. If you’re building or renovating a small space consider large windows, glass doors, strategically placed mirrors, and light-reflecting colours and surface materials. Keep window treatments to a minimum, make the view the focal point of the room. 

The floor-to-ceiling glass doors in Jennifer's cottage create the illusion of space and connect with the outdoors. Picture: Moya Nolan

The floor-to-ceiling glass doors in Jennifer’s cottage create the illusion of space and connect with the outdoors. Picture: Moya Nolan

If you don’t have a view, this is your cue to do up the outside space to make it as visually appealing as possible. Looking outside is an excellent trick to make you forget that you’re actually in quite a confined space. For example, my entire living/kitchen/dining/garden collectively fits into a space that’s just over 5m by 5m. 

I could have squeezed in more kitchen cupboards against the walls, but I decided against this in favour of double floor-to-ceiling sliding doors that look out onto my garden. This creates an illusion of space and a feeling of connectedness with the outdoors that belies the actual tiny floor plan.

BUILT-IN IS BEST 

All mobile homes and boats have built-in units to maximise every inch. Yes, this means you need to find a great carpenter or joiner — it is a worthwhile investment. Built-in furniture means you can create storage, for example via bench seating or shelves in that awkward corner. It means there are no gaps left over, and you’d be surprised at how much storage can be created in the smallest spaces.

Some great examples of clever built-in storage includes drawers in stairs, floor to ceiling kitchen units, a corner office space, and bookshelves in those unused crevices. Going with built-in units means you get to design the space for how you will use it, rather than letting standard sizes dictate your capacity.

Jennifer Sheahan on the open water. 

Jennifer Sheahan on the open water. 

HANG IT UP 

Not everything needs to be hidden away in a press or a drawer! Hanging items out in the open can be a great way to enhance your decor while keeping your space open. 

Mobile homes and boats often have open shelving which securely stores items such as plates and cups — take inspiration by having visually appealing items such as your glassware, pots and pans, or kitchen knives hanging up on display.

An ottoman with storage at Jennifer's home. Picture: Moya Nolan

An ottoman with storage at Jennifer’s home. Picture: Moya Nolan

FOLDAWAY 

Most mobile homes and boats make double use of some furniture items, or have items that are easy to put away when not in use. In the first instance, every item should be considered for its capacity for additional storage — for instance, ottoman footstools, under beds, and in bench seating. 

Next, there is a growing amount of “tranformer furniture” or dual-use furniture available — from the well-known sofa-bed to bookshelves that can easily fold down to become kitchen tables. Also fold-away chairs that could be hung up or easily stored away when not in use. 

Extendable dining tables, fold-down desks against a wall, Murphy beds, nesting tables, and even inflatable furniture items are also great ways to free up space when not in use. Check out the talented Irish designer Orla Reynolds and be inspired by her furniture series As If From Nowhere for clever ideas on how to double up on furniture functionality and store items away when not needed.

ESCHEW MATERIALISM 

I’ll keep this one short because I’ve said this before, but the best way to fit everything you need into a small space is to not have more than you need. This may mean refining your wardrobe, reducing your collection of fine china, or donating all that unused sports equipment. 

Jennifer on a boating trip.

Jennifer on a boating trip.

The key is to prioritise what really matters to you, and then to figure out how to rent or borrow those bulkier items that you don’t use often. Change your mindset to consider where you will store something before purchasing it — or if it is a must-have, consider what other items you could donate or store away to make space for it.