Kim Lewis on tiny homes, big design | Home Front

Kim Lewis
Aug 27, 2015

Kim Lewis, best known as the Lead Designer behind ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," has recently designed tiny homes for FYI’s “Tiny House Nation.” In six years with "Extreme Makeover," Kim designed over 120 homes in 43 states. She is the founder of Kim Lewis Designs in Los Angeles and Austin, TX, as well as a regular contributor to Ply Gem’s Pro Talk Blog. Her clients include Jewel and Tiffani Amber Thiessen.

Every week, Jura Koncius helps you in your quest to achieve domestic bliss. Got a question about decorating? She's happy to whip out her paint chips and suggest the perfect hue, call a retailer to help track down a hard-to-find accent piece or offer some do-it-yourself. Built on years of reporting experience, Home Front is an online conversation about the best way to feather the nest. We invite you to submit questions and share you own great tips, ideas and, yes, the occasional complaint.

Happy to be back from vacation in my tiny cottage and to have Kim Lewis to answer questions today. Love the topic of small houses. Kim is known as the Lead Designer on ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," and has recently designed tiny homes for FYI’s “Tiny House Nation.”  She is the founder of Kim Lewis Designs in Los Angeles and Austin, Tx.

Our prize book for today is the classic work 'The Not So Big House" by Sarah Susanka, the 10th anniversary edition which came out in 2008. I will award it to the chatter who posts the best reminiscence of a tiny house from their past. Describe what you liked about it. So let's get chatting!

Jura, thank you so much for having me this morning! I'm excited to talk about tiny homes!

If you do not have a lot of space, what are the "must have" appliances for your tiny home or apartment?

Appliances are one of the main items we have to make some compromises on in tiny spaces. I suggest under counter refrigerator and freezer drawers, a single under counter oven. The dishwasher is usually the first appliance to get cut from a tiny kitchen.

I am all about downsizing and simplifying and I LOVE tiny houses. I've got two issues with them, though. 1. I've got a bad ankle and at my age, don't think climbing into a loft sleeping space is safe for me. 2. My husband and I are at a point where we really like having our own bathrooms, and yes, stink is a factor! Do you see future tiny houses adapting as we age?

Great question! Tiny homes can be built on a foundation, instead of the gooseneck trailers. This would make for a more accessible home. Two bathrooms would be tough in a tiny home, but anything is possible! For older couples I would not recommend the loft bedrooms. You can get a bedroom on the first floor in under 370 sf. 

The code for today is HF7859

Hi - I live in a small apartment in NYC. My question is: How do I maximize storage in my living space when I don't have a pantry or a hall closet? Looking for budget friendly solutions. -Sarah

Hello! Storage can come in all shapes and sizes. I say let's get creative with your furniture. You can use things like vintage suitcases stacked as your side tables...Each suitcase is a storage space. Storage ottomans work well as a linen closet! For food storage, I suggest a butcher cart in the kitchen, with bins below -- I have a tiny kitchen, and this is what I do! Also acts as a great island when you're prepping food. For outdoor gear, I have suspended a wood palet from the ceiling with eye hooks. 

Is your house tiny? Describe it for us!

Oh I love my little house! It's a 1930s bungalow in South Austin...about 700 SF, so it's not technically a tiny house, but I also have an office in here, so it's certainly living small!  A mint green door greets me -- I love color, so was drawn to the character of this old home...

Our two-story house has light gray siding and dark blue shutters. Also, the front of the house is shaded due to a porch and a large tree. What color would you suggest for our front door?

First off, have fun with the color of your front door! Check out this article I wrote last month: Color Character

For your home, I would look at a canary yellow, or aqua front door! Our front door is often the first impression of the home, so make it inviting and I say go bold with color! 

Bills are a reason for downsizing. But with the house being tiny does a certain siding or roof work better for keeping my bills down but not sacrificing my comfort.

If you're planning on building a tiny home to mobilize, we have to consider the weight of materials being installed. For siding, vinyl works well for the light weight requirements, and durability on the open road. Low maintenance products equals less bills... I've worked with PlyGem for siding before. For roofing, pay attention to the wind rating if you plan on taking the tiny home on wheels. Metal roofing or an architectural shingle works. I suggest a skylight for more natural light, and less need for electricity during the day.  

we lived in a student apartment so small that I could plug the vacuum cleaner in one central outlet and clean the whole place in less than ten minutes.

Haha! Love this! least cleaning took less time, right? 

...but how can a working couple actually, you know, *live* in a tiny house? What if you need to keep a set of business clothes? You can't just fold them under a table and take them out ready for the office. It looks to me like the kids who are dong this mostly live in a couple t-shirts and jeans.

Love this question. You are correct that many of the tiny home owners are small business owners, traveling nurses, musicians, artists, so the lifestyle does tend to be more casual. However, the couple in Texas I designed for owns a winery, and have business meetings all the time. We constructed a walk in size closet over the gooseneck, and there is plenty of hanging space for my client's business suites. Check it out here: Tiny House by Kim Lewis


What was it like to work with Tiffani Amber Thiessen?

She is a beautiful soul, a strong woman and incredible talent. I've learned so much from her in terms of having a career and maintaining an incredibly solid family life. (And she has great taste in design, so was easy to work with!!!)

What qualifies as a tiny house?

Typically under 500 Square Feet. 

If you're going mobile, the dimensions of the home are dictated by the trailer size, which is generally anywhere from 8.5ft x 16, 20, 22...up to 30' in length. Height restrictions for mobile tiny homes vary from state to state, but on average you're looking at a height max of 13'6". 

What are the best pieces to invest in if you are living in a tiny space?

1. Small appliances

2. Windows...Windows allow natural light, so the space feels larger. Transoms make the walls feel taller. 

3. Furniture -- Space saving furniture is a bit more difficult to find right now. Honestly I have dreams of starting a tiny home furniture line, because the right size furniture is hard to many homeowners end up custom building pieces. 

4. The trailer - if you're going mobile, the trailer is one of the biggest investments in the construction. 

In terms of design and functionality, are people also using Tiny Homes within their existing property for alternative spaces?

Yes, many couples are adding a tiny home to their property, and renting out their homes on places like Airbnb to offset rising property taxes. I also see self-employed homeowners adding tiny homes to their property to supplement as a home office or studio. Tiny homes can be a great solution for extended family and mother-in-law suites. 

I lived for a few years in an elderly double-wide trailer. But we paid to have it refurbished - new paint, carpet, appliances - and I thought it was the loveliest, coziest nest for a pair of newlyweds. The living room and dining room were one long, open space across one end of the trailer, made visually separate by wall treatments. We had ample room to entertain - in fact, we host more than we can in our dining room today. And I claimed one corner of the living room as my music space - just a chair, a music stand, and my instruments. I practiced more in that corner than I ever had before or since. The kitchen felt huge and open as well; there were three additional rooms. They may have felt small as bedrooms, but they were more than we needed as offices, library, and craft rooms. There were plentiful windows; my only regret was that none were south-facing. Everything was close to hand. Ten steps to get the laundry from the machine to the dresser. It didn't feel cramped; it felt convenient. It wasn't shabby; it was comfortable. I was sorry when we had to move.

This is great! When you live in smaller spaces, you realize you really don't need as much stuff...and I love the idea that having smaller square footage means the family is closer in proximity to one another, and often spending more time outside doing activities together. Thanks for sharing!!

You indicated that your house is about 700 SF. Is that just for you?

Yes, It's under 700 sf, but almost half of this is dedicated to my design for now it's a great home / studio solution! 

I love the idea of tiny homes but I have a question about the legal aspects. Is a building permit required and, if so, do inspectors come out to the job site to do inspections. How is the location of the "tiny home" regulated/taxed? Thanks for taking my question. Ann W

Every municipality is different, so check with your City on the building permit requirements. Tiny homes often fall under a different category and are usually less rigorous than traditional building. I've found that some cities are more open to the tiny home movement than others.

Some tiny home owners own the land, while others choose to move around. Utilities are different for each home, but we often build them like you would for an RV.

A question for Jura, Kim or the readers. I need a new mattress, and am not interested in a pillow-top or memory foam, and don't want it super deep or it won't fit the antuque frame - just a regular, old fashioned, firm mattress. It's proving a challenge. The last time I bought one was 12 years ago, at a mattress factory in Massachusetts that has since closed (and I now live in DC.) I appreciated the article on mattresses by mail, but welcome advice on where to buy a good, firm, plain not overly thick mattress. Many thanks!

My smart friend Beth swears by a company called Original Mattress Factory .

She says they actual sell flippable mattresses! Does anyone else have a suggestion?

I love the idea of tiny houses but so many communities have a minimum size for houses so tiny houses cannot be build. How to we start combating this?

Great question!  For eight years I ran the design team for ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. We stood before government officials every week, around the country. The bottom line is different cities are going to embrace new movements or push back on them. Tiny homes are no different. It has to start with the individuals. I recently met a single mom in Nashville that wants to build a tiny home in her backyard, so she can supplement her income for her son. These are real people trying to figure out real solutions. With this type of passion and reason, I believe we can shift the municipalities to fit our changing lifestyles. 

I am fascinated by the entire concept of TINY HOMES but, not being interested in down-sizing my living space so drastically at this time, I wonder if there are any lessons people like me can learn from you (in a TINY HOME) that applies to me (in a BIG HOME)? I enjoy your enthusiasm!

Absolutely! The key lesson is downsizing our clutter! Life can feel chaotic, but our home should not. I travel a lot and you realize the bare necessities you really need when you pack your suitcase. I say start with organizing and de-cluttering! 

Secondly, tiny homes often have unique designs, because let's face it... the space you do have, needs to feel as unique as you! For any size home, I say take the cue for designing with that in mind...Be unique and thoughtful in your design decisions! and Have fun!

I lived in a rented corporate NY apartment--500 square feet with a huge bathroom, a kitchen with full size appliances, great closets, and a living room so small I could sit on the sofa and change the TV channels without the remote. The bedroom accommodated a queen size bed, and a dresser in a tiny alcove--but alas, you could only open the drawers above the mattress. But oh, great views and a great midtown location.

Sounds lovely!!! With smaller space in NYC, did you find that you spent more time out and about in the city...exploring!? 

What are the biggest compromises for tiny living? I spent years in a beautiful 300 sq ft studio apartment and eventually I got tired of the restrictions on having visitors and having people over and, frankly, I started to feel caged up. Now, I'm in a 650 sq st townhouse that is just right.

The biggest compromises start with the two spaces we use the most:  1. The kitchen and 2. The bathroom. 

It's all about small, but efficient use of space. 

Enjoyed your thoughts on tiny houses, a really hot topic in the design community. A copy of "The Not So Big House" will be going out to the chatter who posted that they could vacuum their tiny place by only plugging in once. Please email me your mailing address to Meanwhile, please come back next week when our chat guest will be Shazalynn Cavin-Winfrey talking about the design of a beautiful house in Easton as well as lots of other projects.

Many of the tiny homes featured on TV episodes seem to be moved to or plopped down in vacant fields or similar spaces not connected to or near utilities. How do they connect to water and sewage utilities and, if not energy-self-sufficient, to electricity? Also, how do they establish an address in order to receive mail?

Utilities vary, but we often build them like an RV, so you connect wherever you land. Tankless water heaters from Rinnai and composting toilets work well for this application. Yes, they establish addresses for mail or PO Boxes.

This was fun...Tiny homes are really taking the design world by storm. Jura, thank you so much for inviting me today! 

In This Chat
Jura Koncius
Jura Koncius is a Washington Post staff writer who specializes in home and design. Read her daily twitter feed @jurakoncius for the latest in decorating trends, shopping, decluttering, organizing and DC retail.

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Kim Lewis
Lewis, best known as the Lead Designer behind ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," has recently designed tiny homes for FYI’s “Tiny House Nation.” She is also the founder of Kim Lewis Designs in Los Angeles and Austin, TX.
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