How I found inspiration for designing tiny homes in RVs, boats and tents

I have always loved small spaces. Although my current small cabin is partly a product of budgetary realities, the main reason is that I was looking for a small cabin to live in because I like to make the most of limited space. As a kid, I used to make little blanket forts in the little heat press at home.

My favorite toy was not the cute dolls my parents bought me, but the cardboard box that our dishwasher came in, which I turned into my own little house.

Anyone remember Wendy Houses? My cousin and I spent hours playing in this little tent.

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

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

So when it came time to design my home, I turned to boat design for inspiration on how to maximize the space I had. I adopted a mantra from Don Helgeson, an American architect specializing in small space design who went from a 2800 square foot house to a houseboat in Florida: “What I discovered while studying this is is that people need very little space to live in. They just need to feel like it’s more than it really is. And you don’t need a lot of stuff. People talk about it . »

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

LET THERE BE LIGHT

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

Floor-to-ceiling glass doors in Jennifer's Cottage create the illusion of space and connect with the outdoors.  Photo: Moya Nolan
Floor-to-ceiling glass doors in Jennifer’s Cottage create the illusion of space and connect with the outdoors. Photo: Moya Nolan

If you don’t have a view, that’s your cue to landscape the outdoor space to make it as inviting as possible. Looking outside is a great trick to make you forget that you are actually in a fairly confined space. For example, my entire living room/kitchen/dining room/garden collectively fit into a space just over 5m by 5m.

I could have squeezed more kitchen cupboards against the walls, but decided against it in favor of floor-to-ceiling double sliding doors that overlook my garden. This creates an illusion of space and a sense of connection to the outdoors that belies the actual tiny floor plan.

INTEGRATED IS THE BEST

All mobile homes and boats have built-in units to maximize every inch. Yes, that means you need to find an excellent carpenter or joiner – it’s a worthwhile investment. Built-in furniture means you can create storage, for example via bench seats or shelves in that awkward corner. This means there is no more free space and you would be surprised how much storage can be created in the smallest spaces.

Some good examples of smart built-in storage include drawers in the stairs, floor-to-ceiling kitchen units, corner office space, and shelving in those unused crevices. Using built-in units means you can design the space around how you’ll use it, rather than letting standard sizes dictate your capacity.

Jennifer Sheahan in open water.
Jennifer Sheahan in open water.

TO HANG UP

Not everything needs to be hidden away in a press or 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 shelves that safely store items such as plates and cups. Get inspired by having visually appealing items such as your glassware, pots and pans, or kitchen knives hanging on display.

A pouf with storage at Jennifer.  Photo: Moya Nolan
A pouf with storage at Jennifer. Photo: Moya Nolan

RETRACT

Most mobile homes and boats do double duty on some furniture or have items that are easy to store when not in use. First, each item should be considered for its additional storage capacity – for example, ottomans, under beds and in banquettes.

Then there is an increasing amount of ‘transformer furniture’ or dual-purpose furniture available – from the well-known sofa bed to bookshelves that can easily fold up to become kitchen tables. Also folding chairs that can be hung up or easily stored away when not in use.

Extendable dining tables, fold-down desks against a wall, pull-down beds, nesting tables, and even inflatable furniture 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 As If From Nowhere furniture series for clever ideas on how to double the functionality of furniture and store items away when not needed.

AVOIDING MATERIALISM

I’ll be brief because I’ve said it before, but the best way to fit everything you need in a small space is to have no more than you need. That might mean refining your wardrobe, cutting back on your fine china collection, or donating all that unused sports gear.

Jennifer on a boat trip.
Jennifer on a boat trip.

The key is to prioritize what really matters to you, then figure out how to rent or borrow those larger items you don’t use often. Change your mindset about where you’ll store something before you buy it — or if it’s a must-have, think about what other items you could donate or put away to make room for it.