Update on tiny houses in DC

Happy Winter!

Wait…what Winter?

It’s hard to believe the photo below was my tiny house just a year ago here in Washington, DC.  We are getting ready for some changes that we will announce soon on the site, but in the meantime I wanted to give you all a few resources for staying engaged with the tiny house community in the DC/VA/MD area since I’ve noticed many new subscribers to our site in the New Year. Welcome!

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Before shoveling. Tiny House in DC winter storm. 2016

Now that we have been living in our houses for a couple years, there isn’t as much to blog about regularly, but we continue to stay active in the tiny house movement.  Jay blogs about his travels and minimalist lifestyle in addition to hosting open houses in the warmer months.  I, Lee, am busy working with the Tiny House Collaborative, a nationwide organization that empowers individuals and organizations to transform their communities and cities through innovative housing and lifestyle choices and provides the resources to design, build, and dwell efficiently.

It seems 2017 may just skip Winter altogether and move right into Spring, which is fine by me.  In the tiny house world Spring is our favorite season since it’s the beginning of build season! So, if you’ve been thinking about building a tiny house or just want to know if the lifestyle is a good fit for you, consider some Spring tiny house events.  Join the Tiny House Collaborative for our Tiny House 101 workshop in mid-March in Washington DC.  Or if you would like to see a dozen owner-built tiny houses all in one location come down to Dallas in April for the nation’s largest Earth Day event.  Not only is there a tiny house community that gets set up for tours over the weekend, you can also take a workshop on how to set up tiny house communities.

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Tiny House Expo at Earth Day Texas 2016. Photo Credit: Tiny House Expedition 

Finally, if you’d like to keep informed of local tiny house-related events and connect with other tiny house enthusiasts there are numerous ways to do so:

I hope your 2017 is off to a great start, and we will be in touch soon with news about our next ventures and adventures!

 

 

Introducing the Tiny House Collaborative and DC Workshop!

The last six months since I posted about the Tiny House Jamboree have been busy, and I’m excited to announce a new resource for those of you wanting to learn about tiny houses. The Tiny House Collaborative officially launched a month ago, and our first workshop will be held in DC at the end of March.  Come and learn from tiny house designers, builders, and advocates from across the country.  More information is available here.

When we started Boneyard Studios we did so because we didn’t want to build our tiny houses alone in isolation but rather within a community.  Even though 3 of the original 4 of us have all left the property where we began we have still continued on with community efforts.  Elaine Walker has been instrumental in getting the American Tiny House Association off the ground, Jay Austin and I have continued to host events around tiny houses here in DC in collaboration with Old City Farm and Guild where the Matchbox house is located, and I have been busy working with a great group of folks on a resource-sharing site for tiny house enthusiasts, builders, and cities.  This past fall Vina Lustado of Sol Haus Design brought me out to Ojai, CA to lead a workshop with Lina Menard on tiny house communities for city planners and community members, and this winter I met up with fellow collaborators in Orlando, FL where my colleague James Taylor has helped to grow a tiny house community of 12 houses and counting!

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Tiny House Community Workshop participants in Ojai, CA. 

You can learn more about the Tiny House Collaborative on our website, but a little about us here: We are designers, builders, and advocates, most of us living in our tiny houses full-time and we represent all regions of the U.S.  We met at the 2015 Tiny House Jamboree and instantly came to the same conclusion. There was so much excitement and possibility in the tiny house movement — so much need for education and outreach. We knew we didn’t need yet another tiny house business just trying to make a buck on the growth of tiny house popularity. Instead, we wanted to offer a place for more resource sharing and more connectedness! The word “synergy” described our vision perfectly: the interaction of elements that when combined is greater than the sum of its parts.

We’ve seen countless friends and colleagues try to offer tiny house products and services alone. But we had a different idea. Collectively, no collaboratively, we can contribute much more. Clearly, our combined knowledge and skills vastly outweighs that of any of us individually.  Come learn with us at our DC workshop or just check out the site where we will continue to post resources like our map of tiny house builders!

 

 

Tiny House Community: Reflections on the Tiny House Jamboree

I often start off my introductions by stating that I never wanted to build a tiny house.  People chuckle and, a bit incredulously, ask “What do you mean you didn’t want to build one?  I can hear the confusion in their voice, and I understand.  After all I spent the last three years of my life building a tiny house and a tiny house community. 

Yet I wasn’t like many of the tiny house DIY builders that I know.  Sure, I got excited about the design, but I wasn’t all that interested in learning how to build: I had never even held or operated a drill and driver before starting this project, and I certainly didn’t know what a rainscreen was or what PEX meant.  What excited me more than building the house was doing something creative in an urban area to challenge us to think more intentionally about the way we live our lives and about what we can do with unused and vacant spaces.

So no, I didn’t really want to build my own house, but I ended up having to because when I started this project there were no fully-built tiny houses to buy and there were very few plans available.  Fast forward three years and more than three network TV shows, and it seems everyone has caught tiny house fever.  I no longer have to explain to people what a tiny house on wheels is, I can’t keep up with all the different builders, groups, blogs, and shows out there, and what was once seen as a fringe (and tiny) movement has grown into an (almost) mainstream industry.

Given the numbers at the Tiny House Jamboree last weekend you could argue that tiny houses are already a mainstream industry.  40,000 people came pouring into the grounds outside of Colorado Springs to tour more than 25 houses, to learn about different technologies for off-grid living, and to listen to many of us who have already taken this tiny house journey speak about our experiences.

I must admit I was a bit suspicious at first. I think anyone who has been part of a small community or movement feels a bit excited but also protective when it enters the mainstream. I wondered about the integrity of people who are now tiny house TV celebrities. I didn’t fully trust the motivations of businesses who were springing up nationwide to build tiny houses.  Were these folks really passionate about the reasons we build tiny houses? Challenging people to address overconsumption, take control of their finances, live intentionally, learn to communicate and be present without distraction?  Were they committed to changing an industry that builds bigger because it’s cheaper?  Or were they just jumping into this movement because it would increase their ratings and profits?

After a weekend spent with builders, both DIY and professional, I am humbled.  I didn’t meet anyone who was purely in this for the money or the popularity of it.  I shared a panel with Zac Griffen of Tiny House Nation and he started off asking the audience to please not ask him questions about the TV show and then proceeded to give some of the most eloquent answers on sustainability, intentional living, and responsible design of the whole event.  Darin Zaruba of EcoCabins, whose company hosted the event, was passionate about making sure DIY builders knew about code and zoning and the challenges they posed.  And, upon meeting other tiny house builders who I had only before corresponded with online, any lingering fears I still had about small living and never quite being understood by others quickly vanished.  I hadn’t realized how much energy I expend explaining my choice to build a tiny house to people until I didn’t have to explain it anymore.  They just got it – they too had all built their own houses before tiny houses gained popularity. They too had to justify to their friends, family and colleagues why this lifestyle was important to them.  Not having to explain myself and my decisions after three years of so much explaining was perhaps the most refreshing aspect of the whole weekend.

Saturday night panel: Zac Griffen of Tiny House Nation, Lina Menard of Niche Design and Consulting, Andrew Morrison of Tiny House Build, Lee Pera of Boneyard Studios and Darin Zaruba of EcoCabins

Drinking beer on the Saturday night panel: Zac Griffen of Tiny House Nation, Lina Menard of Niche Design and Consulting, Andrew Morrison of Tiny House Build, Lee Pera of Boneyard Studios and Darin Zaruba of EcoCabins.  Photo credit: Gabriella Morrison of TinyHouseBuild

What I most enjoyed after the new connections with other tiny house builders was getting to talk to others about building tiny house communities and creative urban infill – my real passion.   Lina Menard and I presented a very-well received talk on tiny house communities that included 5 models for setting them up and 5 pieces of advice.  After our presentation I talked with a city councilmember, a county planner, developers, and members of community groups who are starting tiny house communities.  I was impressed by the amount of work going on around the country regarding tiny houses and tiny house communities in cities.  Stay tuned for more information regarding those initiatives soon. In the meantime, check out some of the photos from the Jamboree.

The Small Space Directory – tiny houses, mobile studios, and small spaces

The tiny house world is scattered, and sometimes it’s difficult to get a good sense of how many of us there are, where we are, and the different technologies we’re using in our homes and studios (art, office, etc). This community-owned directory is here to change that: it’s free and viewable by anyone. Connect with others by viewing the directory here (http://bit.ly/1TruEOo) and add your own tiny home project via the form below.

NOTE: THIS DIRECTORY IS ONLY FOR PROJECTS THAT HAVE BEGUN (OR COMPLETED) PHYSICAL BUILDING OF THE HOUSE OR STUDIO. If you’re looking to start a build, for builders, or for other tiny house enthusiasts, there’s a great listing of others over at tinyhousemap.com.

WHY THIS DIRECTORY?

For the last three years we’ve been answering questions from people wanting to find other tiny house or small space owners to learn about the technologies they use in their spaces and to find similarly – minded folks in a certain region.  While the tiny house map exists and is a great resource, it doesn’t have much information regarding the technologies used in small space projects. It’s also hard to query specific information about a project – for instance, show me all tiny houses that are on wheels and are less than 20 feet.  Or show me all tiny houses in California with off-grid water systems. This tiny house directory will feed an online interactive map which you will be able to query by project attribute: location, technology, design features, number of inhabitants, art studio, on foundation or on wheels, etc.

Because this directory is an open data project it also means any of you creative types will be able to use this data to create your own apps or maps for your site.  For instance, perhaps you take the data and create a map for your region or state or for your meetup group – symbolizing it however you’d like – there are many possibilities and the more folks who contribute to the directory the better data we all will have access to.

So, if you have a tiny house or small studio already (or are currently building one) – on a foundation or on a trailer – please fill out the directory form and come back in a few weeks to check out the map!

Any questions about this project or data, please email us at support@boneyardstudios.org.

Link to directory: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1Mf2hrUSf6ymHEaZrzXjYLkE-QKY1_fUocki2hgbYjdE/viewform

NOTE: this is a community resource and open data project meaning anyone will be able to see the data and use it, so please only fill out information about your project that you feel comfortable sharing.

No one builds a house: what we dreamers and procrastinators need to learn

“Small is Beautiful” revolves around the anger, the frustration, the doubt, the defeat, the hopelessness, the heartbreak and the raw emotion that they all experience during their unique journeys. It would be unfair to call “Small is Beautiful” a cautionary tale but it shows that tiny house building isn’t the proverbial walk in the park that it’s often made out to be. It’s hard…One goes as far to state that: “I feel like I have a lot in common with Captain Ahab. It’s like me versus my tiny house — and I’m trying to build this thing and this thing is trying everything it can to not get built.”

I enjoyed reading this review of Jeremy Beasley’s new documentary Small is Beautiful as it realistically portrays the challenges of building a tiny house. As someone who has written openly about my struggles with building my house, I appreciate reading pieces that don’t simplify the process. As my house nears completion (finally…photos to come soon), I am reposting a piece I wrote last year for a tiny house magazine about the importance of project planning in the tiny house construction process – something I think many DIYers like myself are not as prepared for as we could be.

“No one “builds a house.’ They lay one brick again and again and again and the end result is a house. Procrastinators are great visionaries—they love to fantasize about the beautiful mansion they will one day have built—but what they need to be are gritty construction workers, who methodically lay one brick after the other, day after day, without giving up, until a house is built.”

Through the process of building my tiny house I have had to learn to transition from that visionary, big-picture person (who procrastinates and fantasizes way too much) to the gritty construction worker. It’s been a constant challenge, and I have resisted laying those bricks more times than I care to count, but I’ve also come to appreciate how structure and constraints in a creative process lead to better design and easier, more efficient work. Like many tiny house enthusiasts, the images online and the marketing that told me I could build a tiny house with just 14 tools and my time on the weekends sucked me in to thinking that because it’s a very small house, the effort and planning involved would be a smaller commitment as well. Not true at all. As a woman with no building experience prior to this project, I was expecting a physical challenge. What I wasn’t expecting was how mentally exhausting building can be with all the decision making involved and figuring out how those decisions impact one another (often through trial and error).

Planning the cabinets

Planning the cabinets

I’m a person who likes to research all options and loath making decisions for fear that I will have missed out on an option that would be better. But this is no way to build a house. Being a novice, I often wanted the right answer for a problem and was afraid of making a wrong decision. Even the times I was good at making decisions, I didn’t realize where in the process those decisions needed to be made or how they might impact other decisions or designs later in the build. This meant I had to redo or reconfigure various aspects of my build and spent way more time and money than I needed to simply because I hadn’t planned out the steps or made decisions in a timely manner.

Through seeing me struggle with this process of decision making and planning, the architect involved in my project decided to make a critical path project plan for constructing a tiny house. He developed this plan to use in our workshops, but I wish I had created one when I first began my project to plug in all the major decisions and tasks and have them shift around accordingly when things got off schedule. The creative side of me, and the person who wants the ability to change her mind hates sticking to a project plan, but I now see the utility of it and the benefit of taking the time before beginning a build to thoroughly plan out all the pieces. While it may seem laborious to do that when you just want to begin building, the time spent to organize and structure your process will save you much time and money later. You will have all the nails you need and won’t have to run to Home Depot as often (of course you will still forget things, just not as often!). When your door doesn’t arrive on time you will know what other tasks will be affected because you will have scheduled in your dependent tasks in your plan and those will change automatically when you change the delivery date for your door. You will have a much more efficient process which not only saves you time and money but frees up your mental energy to be applied elsewhere.

Planning the design of a tiny house

Planning the design of a tiny house

While I’m sure I will still wing many projects in my life, I have a new appreciation for structure and planning. They simplify a huge project like building a tiny house into manageable components so that a novice like me doesn’t get overwhelmed and give up out of frustration. My only regret is not having embraced structure and planning earlier in the process. It’s so easy to stay in the visioning and fantasizing stage because it’s fun and creative, but my hope is that future tiny house builders take the time at the beginning of your project to design a critical path project plan and then begin the work of laying those bricks as soon as possible so that your vision of a tiny house transforms to an actual structure in the most efficient way possible.

Managing media’s fascination with tiny houses

I remember how scared we all were to do the first piece of press on our tiny house communal project here in DC.  We were worried how the city might react, we were worried about the safety of our houses, and we were worried about allowing portions of our lives to be on public display. Since doing countless interviews over the last two years though I’ve realized that you quickly must develop thick skin (or refuse to read the press you do which has become my strategy!).

And, no matter what, never read the comments!

You get the purely negative (often political) comments like:

Block the communist revolution in America that is forcing millions of families into shacks.

Will these dressed-up closets be the new McMansions in Obamaville?

You get the funny:

A midget could catch the devil in one of them teeny, tiny little houses.

Instead of an address, you get a Dewey Decimal number.

And you get the personal:

I see many cats, hard candy and quiet time in her future

I wouldn’t even go out on date let alone sleep with a man if he lived in one of these homes. There are certain standards in life you have to stand by and this is one of them

Details will be reported incorrectly, stories will be embellished and twisted, people will send you hateful messages, and, no matter how you try to put on a positive face about your project, the media will search for drama (even if there is none).  Despite these risks, we’ve had a positive experience with most media even if it hasn’t always been the angle we were expecting as was the case this January when Franklyn Cater from NPR called me to follow up about a piece he had started on Boneyard Studios last summer.  Something about those soothing NPR voices just instill a sense of comfort and trust, so I agreed to catch up with him provided he didn’t focus on any drama. Thankfully, he didn’t fail us – producing a well-rounded story about microhousing in the city.

However, after this piece went live I started receiving questions from folks in the tiny house community and the media. It turns out that our old blog was redirecting to a new site with misinformation posted about our houses and the city, and some media have since reprinted that information.  This is the downside of being so public with a project: when things go less than ideal, the media also jump on that opportunity.  At the end of the day what is written about me and my house doesn’t matter as it only impacts me, but reprinting misinformation about city policy and tiny houses impacts us all.*  Many of us in the tiny house community across the U.S. have worked hard over the last few years to show cities that tiny houses can be a (small) part of affordable and creative housing solutions.  And Washington, DC – both the city and many of its residents – have been largely intrigued and supportive of the idea of tiny houses, much more so than any of us expected.

Since we started our projects, we’ve seen the interest in tiny houses boom.  What’s great about that growing interest is that there are opportunities for more projects, each with their unique foci. Working together and supporting other tiny house organizations, companies, and enthusiasts only makes all of our endeavors more successful, and we feel fortunate to have hosted many of you for visits and events, and to have been graciously hosted by you when visiting your cities and supported by you in our transition to a new space.

Yes, things ended on messy terms on the lot where we all founded Boneyard Studios, but I am trying to see the split as beneficial for tiny house enthusiasts overall – there will now be more space to engage with tiny houses: a space for people to build and tour showcase homes at the alley lot owned by Minim Homes, and a new (and hopefully larger) space for Boneyard Studios to continue hosting arts and tiny house events (as we’ve done through our tiny house concert series, workshops, tiny house plays, open houses, and meetups).

While we cannot offer formal, public tours of the Matchbox and Pera houses at this time, we are continuing with our events and appreciate the local businesses who have reached out to offer us space.  We want to thank Wooly Mammoth for inviting us to be a part of their connectivity series with their play Cherokee this past Fall and Winter, and we also are excited to announce that our Spring tiny house meetup will be hosted by Bardo Brewpub.

Although the media’s fascination with tiny houses has grown a bit out of control, I’m hoping those of us in the tiny house community can remind them what we’re all about. We are passionate and engaged people who care about the future of our cities and towns and the increasing lack of affordable housing and arts space. We are innovative people finding ways to create stability with houses built not on a foundation but built on the reality that we live in a society with a diminishing formal safety net but, hopefully, an increasing community safety net. And we are resourceful people building homes that we don’t have to work the rest of our lives to pay for, giving us a sense of creative control over our lives and allowing us the time and space to become more engaged citizens in the places we live.

*I know politicians and government are easy scapegoats; however, our niche (yet growing) movement of small and sustainable living has a hard enough time already with mainstream acceptance to be spreading mistruths about them.  To clarify a few of the main ones that have mentioned the city:

  1. DC did not change its policy on tiny houses (there is, however, a zoning rewrite which addresses Accessory Dwelling Units).
  2. The city did not kick off nor threaten to tow any tiny houses off the property on Evarts St. (where we started the Boneyard Studios community).
  3. We are unsure whether or not a DC council member ever complained about noise from tiny house construction on the property, but there is currently another house being built there now so hopefully not.
  4. There has been confusion about waste.  (The Pera house had an incinerating toilet for almost two years before upgrading to a Swedish Separette toilet last summer (the same system the Matchbox house has). During a meeting with city planners this past fall we learned that an architect/developer proposing a container project in DC is designing his units to use the Separette as well, and we are happy to see these new off-grid options taking hold in the U.S.)

New Year, New Locations for the Tiny Homes

As our search for new tiny house community space continues into 2015, we’ve spent a good bit of the past six months meeting with city officials, developers, and private landowners about some promising potential properties and partnerships. But after thinking hard about our vision and reflecting on what we’ve learned from the experiences of our last location, we prefer to purchase land that we can create and cultivate in a more permanent way.

In the meantime, though, we’ve needed temporary spaces for our tiny house community-in-exile, so we’re very excited and appreciative that our houses found temporary spots in a pair of yards in a Northeast DC neighborhood. Unfortunately organized tours will be on hiatus until we’re permanently settled, but in the meantime, here are some shots of the Pera House and Matchbox moves—many thanks to our friend Robin of Build Tiny for her expert tiny house moving skills.

Pera House move

Matchbox move