West Coast versus East Coast: Tiny Houses

Okay, in all honesty, that title was just to grab your attention.  There’s really more collaboration than competition, and Portland has some great tiny house action happening! Indeed, part of what inspired the founding of Boneyard Studios was to show folks on the East Coast that tiny houses aren’t just a West Coast thing even though it’s where the majority of tiny houses seem to be (up until recently that is…North Carolina now has a whole tiny house organization!).  Having lived for 7 years in the Pacific Northwest, I make a goal to visit often and I just returned from a lovely week in Oregon.  While there I was able to visit with some folks active in the tiny house community, including PAD Tiny Houses, Lina Menard, and Kol Peterson, the founder of the nation’s first tiny house hotel – the Caravan and a great advocate on small housing and accessory dwelling units.

It was wonderful to meet with such engaged people working on code, zoning, building standards, design, and education around tiny houses.  I even was put in touch with a guy who started up tiny house shows in Portland (as blog readers know, I started up a tiny house concert series here on the Boneyard Studios lot this past Spring), so look for some bi-coastal collaboration on tiny house shows sometime soon as well!

Below are some photos from the visit.

Tiny House Fair

We just returned from the first tiny house fair at Yestermorrow Design School in Waitsfield, VT.  Elaine Walker, whose tiny house resides on the Boneyard Studios lot, worked with Yestermorrow for over a year to design and organize the fair, and we were delighted and honored to be asked to speak.

After almost ten hours on the road, Brian and I arrived just in time for dinner on Friday night and then kicked off the fair with a presentation on Boneyard Studios.  While we were exhausted, the audience was not and peppered us with many good questions.  Unfortunately, since we were both presenting, I don’t have a photo of that!

What fun it was to meet and reconnect with so many of the tiny house folks I’ve been following and learning from over the past couple of years.  I was especially excited to finally meet Dee Williams of PAD Tiny Houses in person – even more of an inspiring, lively and generous spirit than I had imagined.

Listening to Deek of RelaxShacks present is always a treat – he and his brother kept the audience laughing with their antics and tales of salvaging materials to make creative and whimsical tiny structures for every possible purpose.

Other folks we were fortunate to connect with and learn from at the fair were Mariah Coz of Comet Camper (she’s just as hip as her camper!),  Abel from Zyl Vardos, who designs very unique and beautiful tiny homes out of Olympia, WA, and Tammy Strobel and Logan Smith who are great tiny house and simple living bloggers. Check out Tammy’s beautiful photos from the fair.  Other tiny house bloggers, builders and filmmakers came from around the country.

If this weekend was any indication, there’s no doubt in my mind that the tiny house movement is growing.  Sometimes it’s easy to get a bit discouraged when weighed down with the building process, but we received such wonderful and encouraging feedback about our project that I’m coming back inspired to keep building and doing outreach work.

final house arrives at boneyard studios

Last Friday the final house arrived on the Boneyard Studios lot – Elaine’s Lusby.  Elaine doesn’t live in DC, but her house will reside on the Boneyard Studios lot.  It’s the smallest of the houses at 8ft wide and 16 feet long and is modeled on the Tumbleweed Lusby.  In order to get her house on to the lot, we had to do a little shuffle of the houses.  It took all day on Friday, and Jay took some nice video and time lapse to show you the whole process (see video below).

The final setup.  From left to right on the Boneyard lot is the Pera house, Elaine’s Lusby, the Matchbox, and the Minim house.

All the Boneyard Studios houses in place

Video of house moving


it’s not about the house…

Yes, bad timing and cliche to draw on Lance Armstrong, but it fits the story I want to tell.  In Lance’s case it wasn’t about the bike, but about the D’s: drugs, doping, deception, denial, and duping his teammates and fans.  For me, it’s not about the tiny house, but about the C’s: creating community, challenging myself to take risks and learn new skills, creatively finding new ways to live with fewer material possessions, confronting (compassionately and carefully I hope) societal norms and policies that greatly influence how we live, and collaborating with others who are interested in making our cities more vibrant through creative use of urban spaces.

Telling the story of our tiny house community idea - Spring 2012

Telling the story of our tiny house community idea – Spring 2012

Because those are a lot of C’s to cover, I’m going to concentrate on the creating community aspect in this post.  The community building is what inspires me, and it also is something I know a lot of tiny house enthusiasts struggle with when first embarking on their projects: how do you find like-minded people and supporters where you live?  So, I thought I’d share my story with you.

When I decided to take on this project in DC, it wasn’t because of an intense desire to build a tiny house. Yes, I had caught the tiny house bug as many do and spent hours gazing at pictures on blogs and in books.  But what really inspired me was the creative challenge of doing this project in an urban space, especially on the East Coast.  For a while it seemed overwhelmingly difficult, and I thought I would need to move back to the Pacific Northwest before I completed a project like this – after all, that’s where all the tiny house builders seemed to be.

In early 2010, when I first learned about tiny houses on wheels, I started googling “tiny houses and DC” every so often to try and find anyone in the area who was interested in them.  I found Steve who had built one in Florida and now lived in DC (luckily he worked near me and ended up offering me great advice in the early stages of planning).  But for months I couldn’t find anyone else.  Then one day in October of 2010, while sitting on a bus from NYC to DC and feeling optimistic about life, I told myself that I was going to build a tiny house on wheels even if it seemed impossible to do so in DC.  As someone who dreams up many ideas without implementing most, it’s important for me to fully commit to an idea or a project.  Those words, no matter how quietly said to myself on that bus, were still a commitment to this endeavor.  As the mountaineer W.H. Murray said,

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back.  Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too.

And something certainly moved.  Excited about the commitment I had made to myself, I once again googled “tiny houses and DC” when I got home that night and, Surprise!, a blog post had been put up earlier that day about two women building tiny houses in DC.  I couldn’t believe it…excited yet disappointed as well because the women (understandably) didn’t want to share their contact information or go public with their projects.  But then a serendipitous moment : the following weekend I met the blog writer at a community bike workshop, and she put me in touch with the two tiny house women.  From that point on I knew my endeavor would be possible.

That summer I participated in a Tumbleweed tiny house workshop and started hosting regular meetups at my apartment with people I had met there.  Twenty of us or so would get together to discuss tiny houses.  Several months later I met Brian, and we started brainstorming and planning the Boneyard Studios project.  We held a showcase with Wangari Gardens in the Spring, where we met Jay, and since then we’ve held monthly open houses and volunteer work days on the Boneyard Studios lot while building our tiny houses.

Recent open house at Boneyard Studios

Recent open house at Boneyard Studios. Photo courtesy of Josh at myclosetgarden.com

I understand the desire of many folks building tiny houses to be private.  After all, tiny houses exist in a grey area of zoning code, and most people who build them do so as a way of designing a life free from many of the pressures of modern-day society.  Many are in rural or suburban areas.   Yet we’ve found the interest in tiny houses in urban areas to be tremendous, and I see a huge gap in the tiny house movement for physical community spaces and showcases.  Sure, we’ve got a great online community with hundreds of tiny house blogs where people share information about their projects virtually.  And there is a great community that comes together for workshops (like Jay’s, Deek’s and Dee’s in addition to fairs like the one that we’ll be presenting at this summer – join us!).  But, if you’re like me, and have wanted to meet people in your area who are interested in tiny houses, it’s not as easy to find a community.

There is a lack of opportunity to actually see a tiny house or help out with one before one embarks on the adventure of building, and I know how important it is to be able to step foot inside a tiny house and learn from others about mistakes or innovations they’ve made.  For this reason, we have made it part of our mission to try and be as open with the public as possible about what we’re doing.

Meetup group volunteers putting siding on my house

Meetup group volunteers help me with installing siding on my house. Photo by Jay Austin.

In addition to the meetup group I organize where you can sign up for a volunteer workday or come to a quarterly meetup event to talk about tiny houses in the DC area, we also host monthly open houses on the lot.  This is a great opportunity to tour the tiny houses, learn about our motivations for building, and talk to our builders and architects about the details of a tiny house project.  While we love to have visitors, we also want people to respect the neighbors and our space which is why we have implemented a more formal visiting process through the monthly open houses and meetups.

Tiny house enthusiasts treat cedar siding

I understand the reluctance of most tiny house owners to open up their projects as it is a lot of effort, time, and can be risky.  On the other hand, our goal is to create community and a space for others to learn about tiny houses and other creative uses of land in urban spaces through the events we organize.  We hope to meet you at one of them soon. And, of course, please email me if you’re interested in discussing anything related to collaboration around creative use of urban space.

~ Lee


Presenting at Boneyard Studios Open House. Photo courtesy of Josh at MyClosetGarden.com

the deal is done!


After a month of searching and two months of negotiation, we just closed on the lot today!  Thanks to the transfer the DC government received over $3000 in back taxes owed by the seller.  We hope to be much better stewards of this space than the previous owner, and engage neighbors on the project.  The April priorities are to:
  • reach out to the local ANC Commissioner and the neighborhood association
  • stop illegal parking on the lot, which has been an annoyance to adjoining neighbors
  • get a DCRA permit to remove broken concrete around the lot to decrease rainfall runoff and improve the lot appearance
  • stake out the initial site layout based on the site plan
  • get 10+ large fruit trees in the ground before spring is over
  • complete the Pepco power hookup