Monday, February 2, 2009


Hand-In-Hand with the Beach Hut post below.

{and from the aforementioned S.W}

NY Times Published: September 10, 2008

In his 20s, Michael Janzen made pottery and lived in a cabin in rural California that he estimates was “about the size of a two-car garage.” After he married, he went into Web design for a bank, and now at 40 has all the trappings of a successful homeowner: in-ground pool, maid service, a yard landscaped with Japanese black pine bonsai trees. His 1,800-square-foot home in Fair Oaks, Calif., a one-story model by Streng Brothers, midcentury builders in the Eichler mold, is of a kind coveted by fans of modern design.

So why has Mr. Janzen spent the summer building an 80-square-foot “tiny house” out of free stuff he found on Craigslist?

There he is on nights and weekends, designing a floor plan whose dimensions are measured not in feet but inches, nailing scavenged wood pallets together for the frame, or fixing up an old trailer to serve as the foundation. The initial reaction from his wife, Julia: “Is this a Unabomber building?”

Not exactly. According to Mr. Janzen, he came to the realization that “I don’t want this life — the life of someone who’s working too hard to pay a large mortgage to live in this house.” The catalyst, he said, was watching the value of his home plummet with the rest of the real estate market, while the time and money required to maintain the property only increased. “The energy cost is enormous,” he said, “and the bigger your property gets, the more there is to do.”

Which is why Mr. Janzen has become interested in the small house movement, whose adherents believe in minimizing one’s footprint — structural as well as carbon — by living in spaces that are smaller than 1,000 square feet and, in some cases, smaller than 100. Tiny houses have been a fringe curiosity for a decade or more, but devotees believe the concept’s time has finally arrived.

“It’s a very exciting moment,” said Shay Salomon, a green builder in Tucson, Ariz., and the author of “Little House on a Small Planet” (Lyons Press, 2006), “because it feels like a chapter of American history might be ending, the chapter called ‘Bigger is Better.’ I’m not the Gallup poll, but I hear the same story over and over: We got rid of that big house, and now I have time to see my husband. Before, we used to work all week and then we’d spend the weekend on the house.”

Gregory Paul Johnson, a founder of the Small House Society in Iowa City, said that the notion of very small houses becoming popular was “an absurdity” five years ago. “But there are so many powerful forces at work right now,” he added, “like rising energy costs and the mortgage crisis. I think people want small homes because they cost less to purchase, maintain, heat.”

In July, Mr. Johnson, who lives in a 140-square-foot house made by the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company of Sebastopol, Calif., took to the road to promote his vision of living small, along with Jay Shafer, Tumbleweed’s founder. The two men drove from Victoria, British Columbia, to San Diego, pulling Mr. Shafer’s house behind them on a trailer. (Tiny houses, which rarely have foundations, are often built on trailers.)

Along the way they stopped to hold workshops and give (very brief) home tours. Some events drew hundreds of people. “It seems like everybody is fascinated by the idea of living in a tiny house,” said Mr. Shafer, who started Tumbleweed eight years ago. “But for a long time, I was just selling the dream.”

His business is still modest, but in the past year Mr. Shafer has sold five houses and 50 sets of plans, up from a yearly average of one house. The houses range in size from about 70 to nearly 800 square feet, cost $20,000 to $90,000 to build, and resemble birdhouses: boxy shape, wood siding and high, pitched roof.

Other builders also report increased demand. Brad Kittel, owner of Tiny Texas Houses in Luling, Tex., said he had built 10 homes this year, up from four in all of 2007.

In recent years, small dwellings have begun to get the high-design treatment, which could attract more people. The London-based designer Nina Tolstrup built the 388-square-foot Tiny Beach Chalet, which has drawn attention on design blogs. One of the stars of the Museum of Modern Art’s current exhibit on prefabricated houses is the Micro Compact Home, a 73-square-foot cube by the British architect Richard Horden.

“When you build small you can spend money on higher-quality materials,” said Jared Volpe, a Web designer in North Ferrisburgh, Vt., who runs the blog Mr. Volpe said he is often amazed at how aesthetically pleasing many of the latest small homes are. In the year since he started his blog he has received increasing numbers of e-mail messages from people interested in small homes — a trend he attributes in part to the poor economy. “People will need to heat their 3,000-square-foot house this winter, and it’s going to cost double of what it did a few years ago,” he said.

For Mr. Janzen, a tiny house is not an immediate solution to his frustrations with large-scale living; he has no intention of cramming his wife and young daughter into 80 square feet. Instead, he plans to use the structure as an office, or park it on his in-laws’ farm as a weekend retreat, a more traditional use for tiny houses. But he will treat it as an “intellectual exercise,” he said, that will allow him to develop “an idea of the other extreme of size.”

“I’ll have a sense of where the balance is,” he added — a sense that he hopes will help his family decide on a reasonable goal for downsizing, something he is eager to do soon. “We bought this house, I think, for prestige,” he said, sounding chastened.

But while Mr. Janzen is dabbling with tiny living, others are plunging in. Tara Flannery, a 25-year-old college student in Seattle, plans to move within the next few months from the Craftsman-style two-story house she shares with roommates into a Tumbleweed house. The decision was largely financial.

“I wanted to buy my own place by 30, and the way the housing market is going that’s not going to happen,” she said, referring to the tightening credit market and the fact that home prices remain high in Seattle, despite the mortgage crisis.

In a way, Ms. Flannery’s tiny house, which will be about 100 square feet with a sleeping loft and will cost roughly $40,000, is a modern twist on the starter homes of the 1950s suburbs; it offers her a way into home ownership, of a sort, without the debilitating costs. “I can spend my money traveling instead,” she said.

It’s an unencumbered lifestyle that Dee Williams, a hazardous waste inspector an hour away in Olympia, Wash., has embraced. Four years ago, she sold her 1,500-square-foot bungalow in Portland, Ore., and downsized to an 84-square-foot house made of knotty pine that she built herself for $10,000 and parked in a friend’s backyard, where she lives free in exchange for helping her friend with chores. (She bathes in the friend’s house because her bathroom doesn’t have a shower, though most tiny houses do have both a shower and a toilet.)

Ms. Williams, 45, said that before the move, “I was an environmentalist, but not a very dedicated one.” She built her house, which she outfitted with solar panels and propane heating, both to “walk the talk” of eco-consciousness and “to unshackle myself from a mortgage and doing repairs.” Although last year, like most Americans, she saw a sharp rise in her monthly energy bill, the increase — from $4 to $8 — didn’t exactly bankrupt her, she said.

Mr. Janzen, meanwhile, worries that an activist like Mr. Shafer, the Tumbleweed founder, “would look at someone like me and say I’m only taking a half-step.”

Asked if that were the case, Mr. Shafer said he doesn’t advocate for everyone to live as he does. “I know 100 square feet is too small for most people,” he said, including his new bride, who lives next door to Mr. Shafer in a 700-square-foot house (although he is planning to build her a 300-square-foot replacement). Instead, he wants to be a living example encouraging people to downsize, even if it’s only to a moderately smaller home.

The Janzens plan to do just that, as soon as the housing market bounces back and they can sell their current home without taking a loss. The couple wants to move back to Mendocino County, where early in their marriage they lived in that 450-square-foot cabin. “I think I would have eventually said, do we really need all this?” Mr. Janzen said. “But it probably wouldn’t have happened until retirement. Now I hope my 40s will be about having free time and doing the things I want to do.”

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