Course Profile

Goals of the Course

This course examines the environmental, social and political impact of tiny houses. There are two principal questions being asked in this interdisciplinary design/build studio, 1) Why has the average size of a U.S. home nearly doubled in the last 40 years, while the average size of a U.S. family has fallen? And 2) How can tiny houses offset this growth in square footage as a viable dwelling solution for the masses?

Who is it designed for?

The course is open to sophomores, juniors or seniors of any major, with an interest in the tiny house movement, sustainability, urban studies, and making. The focus of the course is divided between researching methods of achieving sustainably in residential design and learning how to construct a tiny house. The class has included students from Communications, Nursing, Business, Chemistry, Geospatial Science, Appalachian Studies, Art, and Design. Design students must be invited to participate and represent 50% or less of the class makeup.

Learning Objectives

1. To design a solution to a problem in the context of a contemporary national and global issue.

2. To critically analyze different viewpoints of theories about a contemporary issue using reliable sources through investigative research, teamwork, reflection, community outreach and self-evaluation.

3. To demonstrate skill in communicating ideas in written, oral and multi-media formats through diagrams, public presentations, and an ePortfolio.

4. To understand how the role of a designer/maker of the built environment transcends the academic realm and can make an impact on a community.

5. To gain an awareness of construction techniques, and apply them while learning how to manage the process of construction.

6. To gain an awareness of the principles of sustainable design as they pertain to a tiny residential environment.

Maker skills it develops

One essential skill to making is the ability to design and prototype design ideas and solutions. Students utilize design thinking and the design process to research, brainstorm, ideate, rapid prototype, design and create solutions to real problems. The team based design thinking process leads to creative inquiry, hands on learning, prototyping at multiple resolutions, evaluation, re-design and reiteration. As students identify the issues to which sustainable design responds, they understand that they have the power to generate tangible, feasible and viable design solutions capable of effecting positive change.

The interdisciplinary nature of this course promotes innovative thinking, expands critical thinking skills through discovery; students learn design and making by doing design thinking and making. Throughout the process, students develop critical and analytical skills necessary to make the best ecological decision based on form, function, economy and time.

This course plays a significant role in interdisciplinary education at our university and students involved with the project gain a better understanding the processes of design, construction, budgeting and the lifecycle implications of a residential environment. The design/build experience teaches the importance of knowing how to construct design ideas, and provides exposure to a variety of construction techniques for residential design.

Students discover the following processes and concepts as they pertain to sustainable design, small-scale living and making:

• Critical thinking

• Team work and leadership development

• Problem solving through making

• Analytical skills through prototyping

• Applied math skills and science skills 


There are no prerequisites for non-design majors; Design majors are usually in their 2nd, 3rd, or 4th year. Students are admitted to the class based on major faculty recommendations.

Skills, Tools and Technologies Used

Students are formally introduced to low-resolution prototyping, laser cutting, and 3D printing as methods of testing design ideas. When students begin construction of the tiny house, they are taught how to use a variety of hand tools (hammers, pliers, screwdrivers, measuring tapes, and levels) as well as proper techniques and safety protocols with power tools (miter, table, jig and circular saws, drills and drivers). Students are required to pass a safety test before using tools independently.

Key Examples and Prior Work

Throughout the course we use hand making, 3D printing and laser cutting as methods to prototype design ideas. One key lesson from the maker movement applied in this course is the understanding that failure is acceptable, and we sometimes learn more from our mistakes than successes. We have had several instances of assemblies going together incorrectly, and the value of iterative learning in dismantling and rebuilding is immeasurable.   

Key Resources

  • The Critical Role of Higher Education in Creating a Sustainable Future, Anthony Cortese
  • The Tiny House Revolution: A Guide to Living Large in Small Spaces, Michael Holtby
  • Tiny House Design & Construction Guide, Dan Louche
  • Sustainable Affordable PreFab: The EcoMod Project, John D. Quale
  • The Tumbleweed DIY Book of Backyard Sheds and Tiny Houses, Jay Shafer
  • The Small House Book, Jay Shafer
  • The Not So Big House: A Blueprint for the Way We Really Live, Sarah Susanka
  • Micro Green: Tiny Houses in Nature, Mimi Zeiger
  • Tiny Houses, Mimi Zeiger
  • The International Residential Building Code
  • OSHA Safety Standards for Hand and Power Tools

Example Assignment

After an iterative design process, students begin the construction process by building section models through specific areas of the tiny house. Students work in interdisciplinary groups to sketch and create detailed drawings through a particular piece of the house. The prototypes include floor, roof and wall assemblies as well as interior space and explore framing methods, requisite codes, and space standards.

Lessons Learned

Start small: design thinking activities that result in low-resolution prototypes are an effective way to build student confidence with making.

The interdisciplinary nature of this course means that students come to the class with a variety of skills. In teaching a class like this, getting to know the students, leveraging their individual skills to the project and keeping everyone engaged is tantamount. Just because a student does not excel during the construction phases, they may have the organizational skills to lead budgeting and construction phase planning.

The learning curve for someone who has never used a power tool is greater than one might expect, and when that person does become proficient, they still may not be efficient. Allow plenty of time for this learning process and for maker assignments in general.

Have a detailed plan for each making day. When the necessary tasks are laid out to the students, they become more engaged in the project and often develop more efficient methods for completing tasks.