Several years ago I designed a tiny modular little home that I still find interesting today. I have worked on it off and on and thought about it very much, using different layouts and configurations of it for a very small yet very efficient little home that could be easily moved long distances and wouldn’t take much in terms of materials or time to build. I called it an M3Q. M3 because there are three M’s – the first of which is for micro because the primary unit is very small at only 8x8x8 feet. The next M is for modular, because I wanted anyone using it to be able to expand it by adding additional adjacent modules to serve other purposes. The third M is for mobile as each module is designed to be quickly and easily loaded on a trailer for transport long or short distances.
I have long studied all kinds of housing – especially small efficient and affordable things that can be built or bought and owned for very little and do not require much at all to heat, cool and maintain. Things that can be lived in full time on an ongoing basis for as long as desired – mortgage and rent free. I especially love boats as well as very small RV’s and I have a fondness for many other unusual designs and materials too. The thing about boats is that boat designers, good ones anyway, are masters at squeezing efficiency out of every square inch. They also design their craft to be very sturdy to handle the abuses and stresses inherent with vessels that venture upon water in all kinds of conditions. So all well designed boats are very sturdy.
In my search for various things people can live in I found shipping containers modified into all kinds of homes. I always liked the overall Idea and the space available – but there were a few challenges I didn’t like. For one these things are heavy and require specialized equipment to safely move typically. Then you have to buy the thing to begin with – usually for a few thousand dollars for just an empty shell. Next is that you will probably need to do metal cutting and welding to put in your windows and doors and other things – though not an insurmountable problem, it would still be a pain in the ass for most people.
So I started thinking about something similar to a shipping container – but better, and made from wood and plywood that is commonly available just about anywhere these days. Wood is easy to work with and the only tools needed are available everywhere pretty much and are not expensive. In fact most people already own them, and anyone that doesn’t can pick them up at any big box store or online as well as flea markets and yard sales for even less.
That was the beginning of my M3Q Independence as a design. I’m not going into any interior layout details on Independence in this article, but as I designed it and thought about it, it occurred to me that it would be nice to have something that would work well for a single individual and be even simpler and less expensive to build and easier to move. So I started thinking about how much interior space a person would need to live and comfortably do essential tasks. Of course that is a subjective thing, but I went with what I considered to work well but not waste space either.That was the beginning of M3Q Solo.
As I worked on my design I realized that I would need to include a place for possible holding tanks, a fresh water tank, batteries, and other things – I first thought of putting them in the floor between the inner and outer skins, but really just didn’t want to do that – I wanted them more accessible for starters, and for other reasons I decided they needed to go elsewhere. I had already been thinking about additional storage space for larger bulky items – and I remembered having a dock box on our dock next to our slip when we lived aboard our 39 foot boat many years ago and how nice it had been to have that space. So I thought I would make a dock box for an M3Q but that a different name to call it might be in order – so I decided to call it either a pod or an s-pod and I eventually decided I liked s-pod better. I don’t know why, I just do. The s stands for support.
After a little more thought, I thought to myself why can’t I put everything – tanks, charge controllers, batteries, propane tanks (properly vented of course for propane and certain battery types), and any number of other things all in an s-pod and just put it near the M3Q. Maybe even have two – if needed – with part or all of the second one being for storage.
Each one would have a different interior layout as needed and desired and would be only a few feet away from the primary module. The whole system is designed around three main things – an M3Q Solo which is the base unit mentioned, another unit that is 8x8x18, which I mentioned earlier and I called Independence. Both units would have one or more support pods (s-pods) as needed.These support pods are basically plywood covered with fiberglass and epoxy boxes that serve as support pods to hold such things as water tanks, batteries, generators, and other systems and supplies as needed.
These would be placed outside and adjacent to a primary module if needed and as needed. The interior layout of a primary module could be anything from wide open to having all critical amenities such as a place to sleep, prepare food, eat food, do work, keep belongings, and bathroom facilities including a shower and toilette all in a single module unit or separate modules could be used for each function independently. That makes the system expandable to any capacity needed and very flexible and portable as a result. One M3Q could be used alone or in combination with another unit adjacent to it or however many would be needed to meet needs and desires.
The design includes a slightly elevated bottom with two built in skids to allow a forklift to easily pick up and load any M3Q on a trailer. There would also be two metal tubes embedded in the outer side of each skid rail which would have detachable tubes that would slide inside each one and attach to landing gear. This would allow each unit to be raised up off the ground with mechanical or electric jacks – much like a truck camper is. That makes it possible for an individual with a goose neck or a car trailer to load the units by him or herself relatively easy.
They can then be strapped down and moved across town or across the country for that matter if and when needed. In fact if the trailer was a dedicated trailer a square tube could be run through each of the bottom tubes already installed on the unit and through steel plate brackets that would be permanently mounted to the trailer and then two trailer hitch pins installed, like heavy duty hitch pins use on trucks and SUV’s, one on each side and that would automatically secure the M3Q to the trailer. When you arrive at your destination simply reverse the procedure. Pull the pins, remove the hold down tubes, connect your jacks, raise the unit off the trailer slightly, pull the trailer out and then lower the M3Q to the ground.
You could also easily hire a commercial motor carrier (trucking company) to haul it for you if desired for a modest freight charge compared to what shipping other things – such as boats and RV’s typically cost – not to mention a commercial trailer could easily carry several M3Q’s at the same time.
My original base unit M3Q design has a tiny galley to the right as you enter, a chair to the left, a bunk that folds down above the chair and up out of the way when not needed and along the back wall straight ahead and to your left is a small desk, work area with a built in book case. To the right of it is a bathroom, which is entered through a sliding pocket door. Inside is a composting toilette, and a shower. The whole compartment is coated in epoxy, covered in fiberglass and painted – so it is a waterproof area and basically the whole space is a shower with a toilette in it. Hot water can be provided through a variety of methods coming from the adjacent s-pod just outside.
Grey water can be drained via a hose outside and away from the unit directly onto the ground – in most cases – and so long as appropriate environmentally friendly soaps are used there should be no problems, unless you put it in a communist area that has laws preventing this. Otherwise it can be drained into a holding tank in the s-pod and handled appropriately. You may wish to do this anyway and use it to water plants etc.
Connections for power and water and satellite would be of the RV and boat type and simply hook up to attachment points on the outside at a panel. This panel would be inside a compartment with a cover that could be closed when moving the unit – much like an RV. Ventilation would be provided by small windows and or wall vents as desired and one or more boat type roof hatches and or a roof vent fan – such as a Fantastic fan, as well as the entry door would have a screen – so this is more than enough ventilation. A small rooftop RV type ac unit could be installed and removed as needed or better yet and less expensive, a very small household ac unit could be installed through a wall window opening – though in most cases ac would not be needed.
Heat could be supplied by a small boat type propane heater as is now common in tiny houses as well as boats. Electric oil filled radiators could be used too especially if hooked to shore power. A similar size tiny fireplace is also an option, as would be an extremely small wood stove of the type commonly found on small boats.
So the unit could be a self contained little bitty home – or it could be used as a room. Lets say you have one that is used as a galley (kitchen) – and another that is used as a bedroom and another that is used as a den/living room and another that is used as an office and or shop where you run your business or write your novel from. Maybe you have a large family and you have one as a room for each of your kids – when they grow up and leave home they can take their rooms with them as their first home. Just an idea. The point is that it is a scaleable system – use as little or as much space as you need, and want. Anyone should be able to afford at least one basic M3Q particularly if they build it themselves – which is simple and relatively cheap to do to the point of having it weather tight anyway. Then add to it and improve it as money, needs, time and desires may require.
Construction would be a combination of typical residential framing, boat building methods – including modified stitch and glue, with a few other things mixed in. The structure would be framed using 2×4’s for the exterior walls and roof, and 2×6’s for the floor. The interior bathroom walls would be 3/4 inch plywood with no framing installed using stitch and glue techniques. The exterior walls of the unit would be 1/2 inch ply as would the exterior roof. The bottom exterior sheathing would be 3/4 inch ply and the interior floor would be 3/4 ply as well with floor covering to suit on top of that.
Interior walls would be 1/4 ply or typical flooring underlayment which is commonly available and relatively cheap. Exterior and interior walls would be glued (epoxied) and screwed in place. Before the walls, ceiling and floors are sealed insulation would be installed – regular fiberglass types commonly available are more than adequate so long as they are securely stapled in place – otherwise some type foam board insulation would be used.
Water lines would be PEX as would all attachment fittings. If you are not yet familiar with PEX it is basically like running a rigid hose where ever you need it to go and connecting it together with simple fittings that are easy to install – and there are at least three kinds of fittings that I am aware of that all work well. Electrical would be both typical residential and dc as is common in the RV and marine industry to RV’s and boats and easy to install. Since the units are so small it doesn’t have to take much of anything in terms of materials needed, so cost are manageable.
Inside coverings and materials can be anything you wish. You can go simple and Spartan and just paint it all for that matter, or you could put down beautiful hardwood flooring, or marble, bamboo, carpet – anything you want. The space is so very small that even high end materials can be used if you want them since you would need very little. You might even get a deal on damaged and returned items that are too small for a normal home but perfect for an M3Q. Salvaged materials of all kinds are options too.
Outside covering can be any number of things too. Personally I would fiberglass the entire thing – just like a plywood covered in fiberglass boat hull – and then paint it with three coats of high quality exterior house paint. Boat paint is crazy expensive and not necessary – and house paint will work fine. I would paint it semi-gloss white or at least a light silver grey or something that would reflect the sun and help keep it cooler. To spice it up a bit you could have vinyl graphics cut and install any graphic design you can imagine on the side walls – just don’t cover up too much if you want good sun reflection. Or if you aren’t worried about that then paint it camo and watch it disappear into the woods.
The entry door itself would he handmade for the unit – not store bought. It would open outward instead of into the M3Q and would rest on a water tight flange when closed. Personally I would make mine rounded, similar to a watertight door on a ship, on each corner and continue the flange around the bottom – so you would have to step up and over the flange to enter and exit. Not that that would be a big deal since it’s only a couple or three inches. It would help make certain the door was more watertight and airtight than a typical residential door is.
However a more typical door could be built and installed if preferable to the builder or even an RV or other manufactured door for that matter – though personally I see no need for the expense and choice limitations. If you can build an M3Q you can build a door for it too if you really want to. I would also include an inner nesting screen door and a tieback for the outer door so it could be left open to enjoy morning and afternoon coolness when available without the bugs.
I also envision a sectional wooden deck that would be maybe 3 x 3 wooden squares that could be laid out next to each other – and even locked together between longer wooden rails if desired – or just free standing to form a deck that would surround at least two sides of your little M3Q. This would provide a very nice and clean, dry sitting area outside. With a little effort and some material from Sailrite you could make some custom awnings that would attach to the top of your M3Q and extend out on poles to give you very nice shade for your little deck.
When it is time to move, the deck simply comes apart and goes inside s-pods or just in the back of the truck for transport to your new location and then it can be set back up in a matter of minutes.
What would it cost? That depends on many variables. How much work you do yourself determines your labor costs, and you can probably do all of it on your own by yourself if you are reasonably fit and determined. So if you did there would be no labor cost at all. The cost for materials depends on how fancy you want to go. I think I could build a watertight shell that could provide functional shelter for about $1200 to $1500 based on materials costs and availability where I am now.
Epoxy is certainly not cheap but I think its worth it – but if you don’t you can skip the epoxy and used more screws and construction adhesive and just paint the exterior really well. That would probably shave a few hundred off the total cost. Likewise the exterior could be covered with cedar or other wood boards, or metal siding of various types all of which could affect the final costs significantly. If you are really cost conscious – then build it with salvaged materials for almost nothing.
If you use your imagination and dream a little you might enjoy coming up with many different ways to layout, set up and use your own little M3Q.