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.

tony the tiny house builder in DC: week in review

I’ve been lagging on blog posts because the build hasn’t felt real yet.  I am hiring Tony – a friend from my Oregon days – to build mine for me, and he just arrived in DC this week.  So now, all of a sudden, it feels quite real and very exciting!

We’ve been doing preparatory work this week meeting with other tiny house builders, scoping out materials and prices, looking at designs we like, and helping Brian out on the lot and garden beds.  Making decisions usually stresses me out, and all the decisions that go into a tiny house have been overwhelming me, so it felt good to already decide on a couple things while looking at materials.  For instance, I love the look of the interior of the Protohaus and have decided to go with bead board rather than the knotty pine that the Fencl plans call for (saving a significant amount of money as well).  I have also decided I really like the look of cork flooring and many of its benefits and will most likely go with that for my flooring – whew…two decisions made effortlessly!

Bead board in the Protohaus

Knotty pine interior of Fencl

The biggest news this week is that I may end up downsizing even more.  Originally I planned on building on a 22 ft-long x 8 ft-wide trailer, extending the Fencl out by 4 feet in length and one foot in width.  But this week we were out for beers with our new tiny house friends Margaret and Zach – who are building an amazing tiny house in South Carolina – and Zach told us about an ad he had seen for a tiny house shell.  It’s a fabulous deal, but the main issue I had with it is that, while built on an 18-ft trailer, the shell is just 16 feet long and 7 feet 10 inches wide.  Could I really lose 6 feet of interior space?  That’s a lot of room in a tiny house.   Still, the price is less than what my trailer itself will cost, and the seller was excited that we even knew about tiny houses.  Tony talked with the builder/seller and he seems to have done solid work, and Zach checked it out in person for us.  It looks like I’ll be buying the shell all built out!  We will finish the roofing, siding and interior starting in June.

Next, Tony and I went to spend some time hanging out in the Fencl (18 ft long x 7 ft wide).  After spending about an hour, moving about in the rooms, hanging out in the loft, scoping out storage, I think I can make a smaller unit work.  It will require getting creative about storing my stuff (or getting rid of more), but I’m excited about the challenge.   I like to think I adapt easily to wherever I live and the size will be fine, but if it’s too small I can design and build a larger one over time.  It will be useful to spend some time in one first to get an idea for what I really want and need in size and design.  I’ll post more photos of the shell soon.

Lee in Fencl loft

Tony checking out the windows

lee’s tiny house design

I recently bought the framing plans for the Tumbleweed Fencl after attending Tumbleweed’s tiny house workshop here in DC this past summer.  I plan on doing my interior differently than the Fencl and am still in the design phase of the interior.

While I don’t plan to actively travel with my tiny house, I do expect I’ll move it a few times.  Therefore, I want to follow the advice given by Tumbleweed Tiny Homes to keep it within the width and height allowances that make it easy to drive on most major roads in the country without a special permit.  Most Tumbleweed models are 8 feet wide by 16 or 18 feet long and include a loft for sleeping and a front porch.  I am going to build mine out to 20 feet long and not build the porch that is standard on most Tumbleweed models.  Since I don’t plan to move it that often, I will build up my own little deck or patio that is removable so I can use that extra few feet of the trailer as interior space.

Here are some of the interior designs of other tiny houses that I really like:

Protohaus – they have done a great job with the design of the interior and should their plans be available in time for my build I will buy them.  Click for more pictures.

Chris and Melissa’s Tiny Tack House in Washington State.  They have beautiful photos of the interior on their blog.