Building a Virtual Tiny House: Part 1

. 5 min read

I had a plan! Then I built it in 3D... and realized I needed to change my plan. Previously I wrote about designing floor plans for tiny houses. In this article I'll cover how I tested my designs by building it virtually, uncovering serious issues along the way. In a later article I will walk through how I bought the tiny house into virtual reality.

Picking the right software

I knew I needed professional software that could easily create 3D models and allow me to export them to VR. Most architects use AutoCAD but that costs over $1500 per year and takes months to learn. No thanks. Instead I picked SketchUp Pro. It's easy to learn and costs $99 per year. You can get a cheaper educational license or use SketchUp Free, which isn't as powerful but has all the basic features. The thing that sold me was the community of people already creating their tiny houses in SketchUp:

Fresh SketchUp Pro file. It's so user-friendly compared to all the other crazy complex software out there.

I recommend watching these videos to get started:

It's easy to get overwhelmed with all the features, especially if you've never used 3D software before. I consider these the essential tools that account for 90% of my SketchUp use:

  • Orbit, zoom, and pan to view exactly what you want
  • Line, rectangle, and circle create basic shapes
  • Select, move, rotate, and scale positions and resizes items once you make them
  • Extrude pushes and fills geometry, makes surfaces 3D if they are flat
  • Tape measure tool measures exact distance, keep things parallel, and to plan lines
  • Paint bucket applies textures
  • With group you can group similar items and move or show/hide them together

General Approach

Once I figured out how to use SketchUp, this was my process:

  1. Start with a floor plan sketch. It's much faster figuring things out on paper first!
  2. Build floor and walls, cutting out windows if needed
  3. Add interior walls and structural pieces like loft and joists
  4. Download free pre-made assets like appliances and doors from the 3D Warehouse website. Create other furniture and pieces as needed.
  5. Export file to .obj format to bring into VR to test
  6. Create new floor plan sketch with improvements and restart process, recycling content as needed

I love that 3D forces you to consider how something is put together. As I've pinned down the design, I've also added construction details to help with planning of the build with the help of these books: Building Construction Illustrated, Residential Interior Design, and Tiny House Design & Construction Guide.

Virtual Iterations

Since I started using Sketchup this year, I've made over 20 different virtual houses. Here are 5 major versions and what I learned from making them:

My first full virtual tiny house build! I really like French doors but they take up so much space. I wasted 6 feet of wall space. Also coming directly into the kitchen was weird – no place to put coats and shoes. The desk on the master loft had drop space for feet. This was an interesting idea but ultimately was too complex and difficult to build.
I made a foyer area by moving the door and kicking the washing machine out of the bathroom. However, the middle area is still awkwardly crowded. In retrospect, the middle platform was a terrible idea and I wasted weeks trying to make the design work. My window placements and sizes were pretty bad, and the lofts were crowded with needless storage.
The design took a leap forward when I abandoned the middle platform and created a bedroom downstairs. This allowed for a much more spacious center area and a split-level office loft. Killing the couch for an efficient single sided kitchen helped too. I realized the height for the bedroom beneath was too low. The "wings" of the loft were a cool idea, but figuring out the support structure and the angled storage rooms was a headscratcher.
With great sadness I killed the wings and greatly simplified the design. The entrance to bathroom and bedroom became cleaner. To account for the increased height of the bedroom, I cut holes for feet to drop into the space below. I also moved the utility room into the bathroom. I thought it would be awesome to have giant sliding windows, but I totally forgot about the wheel wells! Oops.

I learned so much from modeling these houses in 3D! It's a good thing virtual houses don't cost anything. In my currently revisions, not much has drastically changed. It's more about slight adjustments and layering in more construction details. This is my most current virtual house.

I moved back to the long window, and added the ability to flip the table up or down as needed. I optimized the bathroom layout so it didn't need a vertical closet for utilities. Also the drop space for the office loft elegantly turns into a slanted closet in the bedroom. I also killed two windows upstairs for better privacy, plus computer screens against windows are pretty awkward. There are still design challenges to figure out but overall I feel pretty happy about it.

I hope I've saved you a bit of struggle by sharing my process and mistakes. My next article will be about how I brought the model into virtual reality. It's actually easy to do and definitely very helpful in my design process.

Xin Xin

Designer of healthcare, games, ceramics, and tiny houses. Name translates to spicy happy in Chinese. Currently a senior product designer at One Medical.