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.

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.

The Search for Space: where do you park a tiny house?

How do I find a place to park a tiny house?  After two years of talking with thousands of people about tiny houses at our monthly open houses, workshops and conferences, that is the most common question I get asked.  Therefore, as Boneyard Studios has started our quest for the next location where the Matchbox and Pera houses will move later this fall, we realized that we should be documenting the process of searching for new space.

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Exploring DC’s alleys

Thus far it’s been an exciting, although exhausting, endeavor as we’ve been having multiple meetings a week with vacant property owners, homeowners, city officials, and community organizations.  Friends and a real estate agent have been sending me ideas for properties.  Of course, most of these leads will not become our next location, but it’s still been fun to explore the city’s alleys and vacant properties and start paying attention to spaces that I have previously never noticed.  As a geographer, I can’t neglect to bring mapping into this quest, so we are also working with a GIS student who is doing an analysis for us using city databases of vacant and blighted properties and alley lots to help narrow down the properties we consider.

Private lot with a shipping container and truck

Private lot with a shipping container and truck

 

The potential properties are everything from backyard space to vacant, very urban (and visible) properties to huge lands that have yet to be developed.  The ownership varies from private homeowners to developers to city-owned property, all of which will affect what we can do with the space.   Both Jay and I have a preference to partner with the city and/or a community-driven organization/business, and we just had a great meeting discussing this possibility and some potential properties. As we continue with this search for new space, stay tuned for posts on the process.  To the extent that we can share our process publicly, we will and hope it can serve as resource to others, both individuals in the tiny house community and to organizations in other cities who are working on similar initiatives.  And, of course, if you have ideas for locations or would like to chat with us about partnerships, please send us an email.

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Boneyard Studios is moving (and needs your help!)

Two years ago, three tiny house enthusiasts got together on a crumbling alley lot in Northeast DC and built the first intentional tiny house community in America. Since its humble beginnings in early 2012, Boneyard Studios has grown to more than just a few tiny homes: it has become a showcase, a music venue, a garden, a bike-in movie theater, and much more. Over the past two years, we’ve welcomed nearly 6,000 visitors to our lot for tiny house tours, tiny house concerts, tiny house book readings, and community work days, and we’ve kept them always—and forever—free. We want to keep fostering that community, to keep providing a free place for people to create and share, a place for more tiny houses, a place for local art, agriculture, and architecture.  We’re going to need more space.

Boneyard Studios, September 2014.

Boneyard Studios, September 2014.

So this year, the Pera House and the Matchbox (and any other tiny houses interested in coming along for the ride) are hitching up and traveling to lands unknown (somewhere in DC; we’re just not yet sure where) to repurpose another unused urban space, and to make it available for everyone to enjoy. But to make that happen (and to keep things free), we could really use your help. Here’s how:

Donate. Here’s a link. Please—if you’ve ever made it out to Boneyard Studios or if you haven’t and just want to support what we’re doing—consider clicking it and donating whatever you can to help us out. As a token of our appreciation, we’re offering the following to supporters:

  • Any amount: tons and tons of love and gratitude
  • $25: a personal thank-you card from Lee and Jay
  • $50: your name (or message) forever enshrined at our new space
  • $100: a personal tour of the houses for you and your friends or family (or both!)
  • $200: a night in one of our world-famous tiny houses (the Pera House or the Matchbox)

Help us find land. We’re looking for land within DC to lease or buy under a cooperative or land trust model—community land owned by the community. So please, keep an eye out for empty, unsightly lots that could use a little creative energy, or if you already have one in mind (or if you just so happen to own one), let us know.

Help us find people. If you can’t give money or land or tips about space in the city, maybe you know someone who can. We’d love to borrow your social network—if you wouldn’t mind facebooking, tweeting, or whatever-ing this page to your friends, that’d be awesome. Or if you know someone who might want to be more closely involved in our Boneyard Studios expansion, please put us in touch.

Expect much more in the coming months, and many thanks for two great years of support thus far.

<3,
Lee and Jay
Boneyard Studios

Fine print: Every dollar donated will be spent toward furtherance of DC’s tiny house community, and not a cent will be spent on the tiny houses themselves or kept by the tiny house owners. Instead, we’ll be using the money for things like community-accessible furniture, firepits, tool workshops, art installations, city permits, and—depending on the land we settle on—cooperative land leasing or ownership. For questions about donating, let us know.

The Postcard Underground – supporters of the tiny house movement

Unless you’ve built a tiny house, you may not realize that it can often be a very lonely and discouraging process.  Sure, it’s fun and exciting, but there are many things that are challenging and frustrating about the build process as well.  Yet it seems that for every challenge, there is something positive that keeps you going through the build.  For the last two weeks I’ve been struggling with this nasty flu – for a whole week I hardly left the house, and then the second week of it, I only made it into my work twice.  Yet those two days that I did make it in to work last week, I was pleasantly surprised to find postcards waiting for me from an organization called the Postcard Underground.

A google search revealed several organizations who had also been recipients of their postcards.  Through this search I found out that the Postcard Underground sends anonymous postcards with encouraging messages to individuals and organizations who they believe are doing inspiring work.  Even though I don’t know who is behind this effort, I feel so fortunate to have been the recipient of a few of their postcards.  They came at a time when I really needed some encouragement, and they made me remember the joy it is to receive snail mail in this age of emails and texts.  The fact that the postal stamps are from Minnesota, my home, makes me even more appreciative of their effort.  Thank you, Postcard Undergound, for your support of Boneyard Studios and the whole tiny house community!

A workshop designed like a tiny house

We believe tiny house workshops should be like tiny houses: small, intimate, and designed to your individual needs.  That’s why a couple of the professionals involved in building houses at Boneyard Studios put together a tiny house design workshop for the DIYer who wants more technical information and planning materials for their tiny house build. Our first workshop this past fall was a success and a lot of fun to put on, so we are redoing it again this Spring at Howard University.  Find out more details about the workshop and watch a video from our past workshop.  Check out our photos and materials from the past workshop below and see why I, Lee, was motivated to help design a workshop with these professionals after my experience building a tiny house.

Throughout my tiny house project, I have realized how much building requires project planning, understanding major decision points in the process, and a knowledge of building code and materials.  I didn’t fully understand how one decision impacted another or what building decisions and techniques were unique to tiny houses.  I had naively bought into some of the promotional materials in the tiny house world that claim you can build a tiny house with just 14 tools or that make it seem like building a tiny house is simpler and easier just because it’s smaller than a regular house.  Our experience has been the opposite: a tiny house actually requires more planning, and a pretty thorough knowledge of building science, health and safety, and codes (International Building Code, RV code (ANSI/RVIA), and city code and zoning) in order to build a structure that is safe, durable, and is an efficient use of space.  Come learn with us again this spring!

 

Insulated at last…Pera house update

What a busy month it’s been.   After I finished up the siding of my house with other furloughed feds at the beginning of October, I built my my kitchen cabinets with a professional cabinetmaker at the Build Tiny workshop that my friend Robin Hayes led. Robin has been an amazing resource in my build.  As a master plumber and general contractor, she has helped me to understand how important project management is in construction and even more so in tiny house construction where every decision and detail matters.

Most newsworthy, however, is that last week my house WAS…FINALLY…INSULATED! (with closed-cell foam by AC&R insulation). Eight months after originally planned and with freezing temperatures descending upon Washington DC, it could not have come at a more appropriate time (unless it would have been installed last winter when I originally planned it to be!).  Insulation was a big step – no longer am I just building the structure of my house, but I am moving on to the interior, a more personal space.  Given that shift in the build process, I took some time the morning of insulation to do a space clearing with some sage that my friend Margaret, another tiny house builder, had given me.  When she gifted me the sage a year ago I had fully expected to be done with my entire house when I used it. Yet I felt I needed to honor this step in the build process to thank those who’ve helped me on this journey up until now, and to challenge myself to finish this project in a timely manner.  I’m now very motivated to move forward quickly with the interior of my house, and I’m excited to be working with some new builders/designers since Tony and Matt have moved on to other full-time jobs (thank you both so much for getting the exterior of my house looking so wonderful).

I look forward to posting our progress on the interior over the next couple of months.  In the meantime, check out photos from the past month, including cabinet making during the Build Tiny workshop, a trip to the Hicksville lumber mill (best prices in the area for lumber), a visit from my mother who helped me to organize my supplies and our shipping container (thanks, Mom!), and my closed-cell foam insulation.