THE small HOUSE CATALOG

Custom plans, drafting + Design

tiny houses

Place: You can't live without it.

Shawn A. DehnerComment

(From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Emily Fox of Michigan Radio reporting).

This four minute radio segment is about a couple who built a tiny cabin in the woods of a northern Michigan town named Cedar. It's perhaps slightly bigger than a typical "big" tiny house. Both the health department and zoning officials say their home is too small and deem it uninhabitable. The story expands my caveat from two posts ago about not only having a place to build, which is so important, but also comprehending the legalities of your place.

At its very best a house successfully joins a place; at its worst it ruins it. Whether it's a traditional house or a tiny house on wheels, a house designed to not be a part of any place risks being a mistake. Plan carefully because there are many legal obstacles. On a good note, however, some places are beginning to open up to new ideas, so don't be gloomy - be realistic. Know your situation. And remember: place is vastly important; place is the starting point. Don't go (building a) home without it.

Tiny Homes on the Move Book Review

Shawn A. Dehner1 Comment
Click to buy this book direct from SHELTER PUBLICATIONS

Click to buy this book direct from SHELTER PUBLICATIONS

This year SHELTER PUBLICATIONS released a new book, Tiny Homes on the Move, written by Lloyd Kahn, celebrating houses that, well, move! With more than 200 pages of color photographs and words detailing a variety of portable houses - from ones that are towed to ones that roll on their own or even float - one finds an eclectic mix of converted buses and pick-up trucks, pop-up trailers, hand-made RV's, sailboats, tiny houses on wheels, vans, motorcycles, bicycles, gypsy wagons, and more. It's definitely a fun book to browse.

In addition to tons of photos, there are plenty of entertaining stories to tell. Lloyd often finds people (and their "homes") in unexpected, out of the way places. For example, while swimming off the Costa Rican coast, he stumbles onto an Argentinian couple living in a converted VW van, traveling Latin America and selling hand made jewelry to fund the adventure.

Worthy of note too are wholly unexpected structures like the Chinese Tricycle House, a polypropylene "house" that unfolds like an accordion and uses a modified bicycle as its foundation. The entire structure is "human powered and off the grid." Or how about a horse-drawn house like the Whinny-Bray-Go  (you'll have to get your hands on the book for an explanation of that one!). And, if you're a gardener, Eliot Coleman's Veggie Wagon will make you smile.

Tiny Homes on the Move is an amusing book that's part documentary, part-journal. If you know and enjoy reading Lloyd Kahn's works then I bet you'll you'll like this book too. If you're less familiar with the author and expecting to find a collection of portable full-time houses or tiny houses, then this may not be the book for you. While I enjoyed browsing the great photos and reading some free-spirited stories, I found few "homes" in the traditional sense of the word, and by that I mean houses, structures where people actually live. Most of the book is comprised of temporary structures designed more for short-term travel and weekend getaways. There's much more attention given to the portable nature of the featured structures than to, say, their livability or enduring quality or craftsmanship.

To be fair, there are liveable structures - homes - in this book. And there are some cool hand-made, well-crafted ones to boot. However, there's plenty of cobbled-together trailers and just downright poorly built structures as well. Featuring a 5' x 8' trailer built of recycled plywood and calling it a "home" is to me, well, a bit silly. It's perhaps even a bit disingenuous since no one actually lives in the ones featured in the book. Besides, building something of value from recycled materials is one thing; but jerry-building something with recycled materials and junk for the sake of doing it is little more than entertainment (I guess) or a goofy sales-pitch (which it is was in this book).

So, if you're looking to add to your library a new book detailing progressive houses or if you're hoping to see pages of how-to information then I recommend checking out some of SHELTER PUBLICATIONS other books, like Shelter II, a DIY classic, or the stunning Builders of the Pacific Coast, one of the first au naturale architecture books I ever stumbled on, and passing up on this one.

If, on the other hand, you love nutty, whimsical and adventurous boats, vans and trailers, liveable or not, and the people who own them, then I think you'll find this a very cool book.

By the way, if you're looking for a portable house, why not check out our FREESHARE PLAN, it's free and can be downloaded here.



From Giants to the Fairy Tale Cottages of Carmel (Carmel By the Sea, California)

Jamie's MusingsJamieComment

Part of what is so appealing psychologically about these places is that houses keep a particular similarity to one another and yet are quite unique, each and every one. That seems to be what we want to find reflected in our human community, too. Closeness and connectedness without the sense that uniqueness and individuality have been lost or controlled.

CNN: Tiny Homes Hit the Big City

PressJamieComment

Jamie Talks About Living Small in “Tiny Homes Hit the Big City”

This week we got a tiny bit of press when CNN did a telephone interview with me for inclusion in the following article:

Tiny Homes Hit the Big City by Emanuella Grinberg, CNN

In Point Roberts, Washington, Jamie Dehner was surprised to learn that while there are no limits on how big you build a home, the same isn’t true for building small. To get around Whatcom County regulations requiring a permit to build their 160-square-foot home with plumbing, the Dehners built their home on a trailer bed, subject to different regulations as a recreational vehicle.

DSCN7658-2.jpeg

The Dehners stayed there while working on a bigger home on their property, which is nearly done, she said. At 700 square feet, it seems like a mansion. But they enjoyed their time in the smaller dwelling for a variety of reasons.

“A small space is easy to clean, heat and there’s a wonderful coziness about it. You are all tucked in with the things you need and use the most and that’s appealing psychologically,” Dehner said.

“It’s a fantastically liberating experience to live in a small space that is also hugely fun and entertaining, not just for you as the builder and occupant, but for others who pass by and just want to peek inside. And whether you stay in a tiny house permanently or end up building, you’ve got a perfect guest cottage that you can share with friends, family, sell or rent out.”

Read the entire article on CNN LIVING…

The Many Uses of Tiny & Small Houses (Port Townsend, WA)

Jamie's MusingsJamie3 Comments
 

To start, we had always intended to build a small home to live in full time. We weren’t sure it would even be in Point Roberts, but we always thought of the “rolling house” as a temporary solution. Who knew (at the time) that it would be so comfortable for us that only county regulations would fully entice us to leave it?  Since Shawn and I have begun construction on The Beekeeper’s Bungalow, a lot of passersby have begun to ask the same question that we considered between us when we decided to build a larger small home, What are you going to do with the cute little orange house?

Anyway, the questions we asked ourselves and the questions being posed to us by curious neighbors are what I’m going to use as the jumping off point for this blog entry:

What can you do with a tiny house if you aren’t living in it full time any longer?

One option, of course, is to sell the tiny house. If you’ve built on a trailer bed, the issue is a very simple one (well, as simple as driving a house down the road ever is…mechanically easy but psychologically a bit nervewracking). However, if you’re thinking ahead about the selling option and you’re building on a “footed” foundation, consider putting the house on skids…small buildings, like sheds, have been moved this way for ages.

What about other options? I thought that I would just share a few of the many that I’ve heard from people in town. I’ll start with our own decision. We are keeping our tiny house and it will become “office central” for THE small HOUSE CATALOG. Shawn’s drafting work will probably benefit from my not bopping around the room doing my thing while he is calculating loads and headspace.  Since it’s hooked up to septic, etc. it’s also going to become an enticement for friends and family to come up and stay awhile. And it looks pretty cute on the lot and frankly would be hard for us to let go. It’s become a nice part of our memory. It’s a great place for guests to stay as it’s fully contained, kids love it and adults do too.

Here are some other creative options: One woman stopped by and said she would make this a kitchen that she could put on her land as an accessory building. She is a chocolatier and needs a commercial space separate from her home kitchen where she can do all of her prep work for sales. A little mobile kitchen on her property would free her up from having to rent and drive to commercial space (to satisfy health department regulations, someone selling commercially cannot prepare foods for sale in their home kitchen) Very convenient!

Another couple came and surprised me when the teenaged daughter and her mother told me that this would be a perfect accessory building for their cottage in town. The cottage is small and with the kids growing up, they wanted a little more space for the teens to be able to do their own thing with the family but also be “on their own.” What surprised me was that the daughter immediately began pointing out what she wouldn’t need…no bathroom necessary, no kitchen necessary…just space to have friends hang out together and sleepover. Parents of teenagers might or might not press more for the bathroom than the kids!

A rental space is another option I have both seen in person and heard passersby mention as a desired outcome. When we’re visiting Port Townsend, WA we stay with a man who has a small cottage called Hammond House on his single lot in the backyard that he rents out as an accommodation. It’s low maintenance for him. He hires a local cleaner to come in and clean up the space after guests leave and the cottage is self sustaining. It has wifi, cable, a sauna, full bathroom, big bedroom area and an enclosed patio/seating area all in a very small space. It’s roomy and perfectly comfortable. The in-city location is perfect – you can walk everywhere. He has located the cottage in such a way that his own house doesn’t look over into it and vice versa. Privacy for everyone and a boost of income for the owner. I can think of a lot of ways that something like this might be a benefit for a variety of people, including guests.

The Hammond House Guest Cottage in Port Townsend, WA. Nestled in the single city lot sized back yard of the main house, this little cottage is tiny and a perfect size for visitors to the fun and artsy waterside town.

The Hammond House Guest Cottage in Port Townsend, WA. Nestled in the single city lot sized back yard of the main house, this little cottage is tiny and a perfect size for visitors to the fun and artsy waterside town.

Another closely tied option to this one would be to rent the space out on a regular basis. A tiny space that is well designed offers a perfect living space for single people, couples or people with young families…everything would depend on the people wanting to rent. Depending on your location, you could easily rent out your tiny house or cottage on a full time basis if that was your wish. It would pay for itself quickly in that case and might pay you back in other unexpected ways as well (e.g. as a chance to meet interesting people). Call me biased, but people interested in these small living spaces seem to be pretty interesting people… 

Meeting as many people as we do (something about the house being so tiny, along with the bright orange color must wear away at the inhibitions we sometimes have about just walking up to people and starting conversations), we’ve heard a variety of other ideas for small houses. An architect we met last weekend had entered a sustainable urban development contest and submitted a fantastic idea for compact urban living in Vancouver, BC using railroad cars as the basis for construction. These cars are compact, recycled, and can be stacked for vertical rather than horizontal living; critical in an urban area where space is at a premium. Using color and creativity, he had designed a little urban oasis of tiny living spaces made even better by the incorporation of green growing spaces outdoors that could be enjoyed by all the residents as well as passersby (who doesn’t like green spaces, especially in cities?). The storage containers were boldly colored, stacked several stories high and made a real statement visually. It was fantastic and suited the urban landscape perfectly. While not applicable for most of us, this is just another example of how only our thinking about things limits the potential use of small space.

Another advantage of a tiny house or small cottage on a lot or piece of land is that they are never so large that they take up a tremendous amount of space. In and of themselves, they provide a focal point of great visual appeal in the home/garden landscape. Cute, cozy and inviting, they make a statement about staying in place and enjoying what’s around you.

I’m only touching on a few ideas here. There are obviously many many more and in many ways, our imaginations are the only limitation to what can be done with a tiny house once it’s not being used for full time occupation. Once a home, always a home of some sort!

Please feel free to share your own comments on using tiny and small houses, I’m eager to hear what you have to say!

Sounds Like an Oxymoron: Building Codes & Sustainable Building

Shawn A. DehnerComment

Musing about sustainable building codes, Meyers writes that it:This is a quick plug for a great blog. Feel free to read our short recommendation below or go to Tom Meyers’ Sustainable Building Codes now.

sounds like an oxymoron…this blog is intended to provide a little insight on green and sustainable building practices from a building official’s perspective. I tend to be a little more “liberatarian” than my counterparts. I am actively working to see that innovative housing is not inhibited by excess regulation and overzealous attempts to dictate “individual safety”.

Mr. Meyers is actually a building code regulator and active in the revision of modern building codes. He comments that he’s “concerned about the effect regulation has on the production of affordable and sustainable residential construction in the US.”

According to his bio, he is the building official for the US Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon (2005, 2007, 2009, and 2011) and sits as the Chairman of the International Code Council’s International Residential Code B/E Committee.

He also serves as one of the co-chairman of the Colorado Chapter of ICC Code Change and Code Development Committee.

More personally, he comments that he’s married with two cats and lives in a 1250sf house built in 1922 that has been modified for energy efficiency. He plans to (someday) build a “straw bale house…or maybe an earth bag, or rammed earth, or cob, or cordwood, or adobe, or earthship,” house. He’s an interesting blogger…check his ideas out at Tom Meyers’ Sustainable Building Codes…read about “Rural Sensibility,” tiny house musings and more.

We encourage small house and other alternative building enthusiasts to keep forward thinking people like Tom Meyers writing about these issues.

Book Review: “Defiantly Homemade:” A Review of Lloyd Kahn’s Tiny Homes Simple Shelter (Shelter Publications)

ReviewsJamieComment

Tiny Homes Simple Shelter is a newly released (2012) offering from Shelter Publications. It builds on earlier publications from Shelter and deals specifically with small and tiny homes. The homes within the pages of this book will most likely delight you. I noticed that on Amazon.com, the book is in the top 500 sellers in their books department, and it’s easy to see why. Here are some of my impressions from reading the book.

For starters, the size is excellent for the material contained within. It’s a large, coffee table book with soft covers and a size that is just right for perusing with friends or a partner or for spreading out on the couch to enjoy with a cup of tea. Inside there are so many pictures (all color) that it’s a real feast for the senses. Each photo essay – that’s really how they come across – introduces you to  real, living people, frequently just regular people who have, for one reason or another, struck out and built for themselves a tiny or small dwelling space to call their own. The homes vary in size from tiny houses built on trailer beds, trucks, or caravan wagons, to tree houses; from natural cob buildings and veritable hobbit holes to architecturally sleek and ultra modern spaces – and back again – to homes framed entirely from hand collected beach wood, recycled materials and modified-traditional stick framing. In location, you’ll find these homes in British Columbia, Austin, TX, San Francisco, the Arizona desert, in places like Mali and Costa Rica, on islands, even on the road and in the water! The stories vary from person to person, just as you’d hope and expect, and they’re all intriguing. The stories are generally told by the builders themselves and are often set into the photo essays as letters written to Lloyd Kahn and Shelter Publications about various projects.

What other things can I say about this book? In terms of inspiration, it’s worth the price. It’s a beautiful looking book and is positively hefty in terms of idea generation, enjoyment and interest. You’ll learn a lot reading it or just studying the photos, and you’ll certainly see things you hadn’t even thought of before! The layout has an interesting, organic feel thanks to a good balance of text and photos, photos being dominant and text being varied in terms of individual writers and scenarios being described. I can’t say how many times I simply felt happy while reading these intriguing stories of people who’ve done what a lot of us imagine doing (and sometimes are doing ourselves)…taking a dream and hammering or otherwise molding that dream into a physical form and then enjoying the fruits of that labor. Many of the stories have similar threads, whether written by a woman in her early 20’s or a man in his 60’s, or even a whole group of people. From the unique homes that ooze personal expression as well as pride of craftsmanship, there’s a strong do-it-yourself energy that emanates from the pages. Authors repeatedly mention the freedom that results from plunging into self-building and from coming up with creative methods to allow more time for personal interests while simultaneously fulfilling two of the basic necessities of humanity: shelter and creative expression. Really, the two go hand in hand and nowhere is that better expressed than in the photos of real projects by real people.

Another reason I can heartily recommend this title is that it would appeal to a broad spectrum of readers. The contents are not strictly high-end architectural works or storybook tree houses; they’re not all tiny spaces that many might have a hard time imagining themselves raising a family in for instance. The homes contained in the pages of this book are tremendously unique. You won’t find any cookie cutter homes in any sense of the word. There’s a fine introduction to dozens of ways of doing the same things: learning to build, building, and loving the end results. If you are like me, you will quickly wonder what new things have happened to these builders. I found that to be my only real issue with the book; the stories seem to request a supplemental publication revisiting these homes and the people who built them. Some of the essays do in fact do that although I found myself sometimes wishing to know more about the people doing the building. I can certainly say that it was pleasant to feel that there is – and really always has been – a community of people from all walks of life, from all over the planet, answering the fundamental questions of What is a good shelter and What is a home in their own, “defiantly homemade” way. That this book has been compiled is a real treat for those of us who sometimes feel out of place or vastly outnumbered in our opinions regarding what we seek in our housing requirements. Sometimes it’s just a nice thing to read about creative, ingenious people that are just like anyone else out there. Maybe they’re a little further along the path than we might be in our own personal building projects, but there’s much to be said for trailblazers.

This is a book I highly recommend. It will appeal to builders, building enthusiasts, small home and tiny home champions, fans of alternative building and ecological building & living, people considering downsizing or wanting to build a smaller space for whatever reason, as well as homegrown DIY’s that love an engaging read that makes us feel like we’re all are part of the solution. All ages will enjoy this one too. I can confidently recommend this book to all sorts of people as well because no one “style” is represented; from earthy to modern, it’s all in the book. It seems as though every taste is expressed and no judgments are made. There are all sorts of building methods represented; timber frame, stick built, cob, and straw bale all make the pages. From an anthropological perspective, what a great peek inside the minds of so many interesting people this book is. You get a little introduction to lots of cool people who are just going out and simply doing it, and doing well as a result. I found this book a wonderful antidote to the evening news. What a nice way to spend a night…leafing through a compendium of smiling faces and great stories.

I’d like to close this review by saying one other thing. Aside from the great stories and structures, the thing that most strikes me about this book is the particular quality of the smiles on the faces of the builders represented. There’s a giddy sort of excitement in the smiles that I recognize from personal experience. It’s kind of a cross between happy pride, settled hilarity, contentment and exhilaration. I love the smiles in this book. Give this book as a gift – to yourself or others.

Technical details:
Title: Tiny Homes Simple Shelter: Scaling Back in the 21st Century
Author: Lloyd Kahn
Publisher/Year of Publication: Shelter Publications, 2012
ISBN: 978-0936070-52-0
224 pages, 9” x 12”
List Price: $24.95 list price

You can purchase this fantastic book online from Shelter Publications or Amazon.com.

Tiny House or Small House?

Shawn A. Dehner

Tiny houses are alluring: they’re cute, moveable and can be built with a set of basic skills, a simple tool box and a modest bank account, minus a whole bunch of red tape. They also have a pleasing scale, a size that just "looks" right. They're still subject to zoning laws but in many places their popularity exists because of a welcome loophole in our building codes, which is to say tiny houses, being built on trailers, are not subject to the same scrutiny as a house built on the ground.

While our building codes have made tiny houses attractive they’ve made more serious small houses difficult, oftentimes impossible, to design and permit. This is poor thinking at a time when smaller houses need to be a viable option again. People  want the choice to be able to live small, or tiny, as evidenced by what’s now a vigorous, if unsustainable, Tiny House Movement. A one-size-fits-all style of building code continues to encourage the practice of bloated mediocrity in residential construction, while at the same time stifling stylistic creativity and diversity. To some degree, the proliferation of tiny houses is revealing a serious oversight in the building codes; and it's putting some wind into the sails of a more sensible, sustainable and broadly appealing enthusiasm for small houses.

Beyond the building codes, tiny houses are making tangible the romance of downsizing. For many people, owning a tiny house means fulfilling the dream of home ownership. Yet, it also does so at a cost. With the little forethought for location, we lose the potential to build fidelity in terms of land and community.

But I like tiny houses. I think they have their place. M wife and I live in one we designed and built ourselves. Our own tiny house provides several benefits while extending us a great deal of comfort. It's been the perfect solution in that we we've been able to avoid zoning and code issues that outlawed a builder's cottage when we sorely needed one. We own land and were contemplating building a small house. 

 Around town, like tiny houses in general I suspect, our own tiny house is very popular. People routinely park at the street and come up to our house (this is not always a welcome event, especially at, say, suppertime) hoping to get a peek inside. But it’s telling…

Tiny houses have become perhaps too popular, too fast. It’s almost unfathomable that something as simple as people living in tiny houses could become a movement. As is often the case with a many good idea, even one as simple as people living in tiny houses, the Tiny House Movement has begun to lose much of its original good intention. In saying that I mean that the  essence itself might still be there but it’s buried under an obvious consumerism, the modern desire to acquire more stuff, even at great cost, which is what tiny houses are: expensive and/or poorly built. 

Tiny houses are trendy, tiny houses are a fad. The current surge in the popularity of the Tiny House Movement is a result of plain old-fashioned consumerism of the immediate gratification variety. This is strongly suggested by all the name-branding occurring among the ‘original’ tiny house manufacturers who are making sure to set themselves apart (and often rightly so) from the fast-growing, often sloppy, competition.

I've probably met hundreds of people who want to buy a tiny house - the product as  a turn-key tiny house or a building experience (also a product). Most of these people are wealthy too and simply don’t need  a house. What they want is the tiny house experience. The idea of a tiny house has fully become another trendy thing to buy or do.

Does it matter?

The Tiny House Movement will only ever be a VERY tiny part of the solutions (plural) to the collective epidemics of McMansions, subpar building products, lousy craftsmanship and tract style house designs. Why? Because, frankly, few people are going to actually live in a space less than 160 square feet, no matter how finely it’s made, for very long. Even for us land lubbers who are willing to live small on a piece of dirt, tiny is just  too impractical for, say, someone who uses a house for more than sleeping and entertainment. If you listen to the words of the original tiny house founders, you'll hear about how they bathe in a friend's house and eat most of their meals out. It’s telling that even Tumbleweed founder Jay Shafer no longer lives in a tiny house; he has a family and lives in a small house. And that’s precisely my point. Tiny houses, at times, have their uses. But as a solution for affordable housing? I'll leave it to the reader to decide if trailers of any kind have panned out as affordable housing.

Once the media coverage begins to dwindle, many of these tiny houses, often mediocre in terms of quality, won’t be used for much. Unfortunately, in this way, I think the Tiny House Movement is contributing to the problems it earnestly wants to transform. A drive through the countryside (or suburbs for that matter) reminds me we have enough empty houses, condos and neglected trailers around.

However, I find it interesting that even in urban places such as San Francisco, simple old ‘relief houses’ are still being used today. The survival of these small houses is based on an attachment to place  - as opposed to a portability (though many were brought in on wagons) along with a structural integrity resulting from good craftsmanship. In these cases, care in building has allowed for a longevity of material life and usefulness. To me then, building well and with some forethought of place – not just building tiny or small – is an important step in our hope for sustainable development. Along with longevity our houses should be places people want to preserve, which means designing well too.

This last thought brings me to what will surely be seen as a subjective point, and that is of craftsmanship itself. I don’t see too many greater threats to forests and ecology than inferior products and shoddy craftsmanship. Good craftsmanship entails the employment of a high level of skill in doing something, anything really, usually work I suppose. To be a craftsman simply means to produce something of quality using that skill. It doesn’t mean being certified (necessarily) or having an advanced degree; it simply means doing creative, quality work. Anyone can do it. The Tiny House Movement has shown that a tiny house, just like a small house, can be well-built without much training provided there’s an enthusiasm and creativity for good work present in the builder. I’ve seen it done, and I’ve done it myself (with my wife) to great success.  But like the building industry at large, what’s cropping up in the Tiny House Movement are low quality products resulting from cheap materials and poor craftsmanship. Too often we devolve into wanting to buy/make things ‘on the cheap’ and we become unwilling to invest the time to apply a skill properly.

So what’s the answer to housing? Tiny or small? Does it matter? That’s for each person to decide. Having lived in both a tiny and small house, my preference is for a small house on land, and will always be preferable because it fuses life to a place and inspires a fidelity to land in way that a portable house has not. Our preference is for houses planted in the ground and surrounded by plants, lots of them. I’m glad we have the ability, at least for now, to choose whether we want to live in a tiny or small house.