TMA’s Tiny House is symbol of national trendWritten by Caitlin McGlade | | firstname.lastname@example.org
The quaint wooden house that sits atop the grand steps at Toledo Museum of Art (TMA) might be tiny, but it stands for something much bigger.
These little homes on wheels are making appearances across the country in increasing numbers, from the depths of mountainside forests to the backyards of residential lots. The idea is to decrease one’s carbon footprint, avoid lengthy mortgage payments and embrace mobility.
“It does speak rather universally to the time we are living in, where we are living in the middle of an economic downturn that came on the heels of a huge housing bubble, that saw a huge growth out of proportion of what people needed,” said Amy Gilman, curator of the “Small Worlds” exhibit and TMA’s associate director. “There is a movement in the other direction.”
The museum’s tiny house — to be auctioned on eBay starting March 8 — is 65 square feet. It stands 12 feet, 6 inches tall and is 6 feet, 4 inches wide. Two space heaters are all it takes to warm the interior to a cozy climate. A futon sits against one wall below a window, facing a counter with a desk chair and rows of storage racks.
Step a couple of inches forward and you’ll see the kitchen counter, inlayed with a sink and sitting above a small refrigerator while tiny frying pans dangle from the ceiling. If you turn around, you’ll see the bathroom: a miniature toilet facing a showerhead. A ladder leads to a loft where a queen-sized air mattress rests.
Collapse provoked growth
Jay Shafer, who owns Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, said the housing market collapse helped his business grow, as hundreds of new clients disenchanted with the traditional housing industry flocked to buy his floor plans.
He started out in the late ’90s, when he built one for himself. During his first year he sold two or three plans but now he is selling at least 100 a year. He will speak at the museum’s Peristyle, at 7 p.m. March 8.
But he and other designers, homeowners and prospective tiny house dwellers are running up against a wall of regulations. Just where would you park one of these things? And just how legal is it?
When Shafer first moved into a tiny house, he bought a small home, rented the house out and parked his 89-square-foot home in the backyard. He lived there for five years.
This, however, would be illegal in Toledo, according to building codes and zoning laws. Regulations forbid someone from living in one of these tiny houses on the lawn of a property, even if the property belongs to the tiny house owner, said David Golis, chief building official for the city.
One could theoretically move a tiny house into a mobile home park. Most of these places require that mobile homes on-site are Housing and Urban Development approved, which would mean that tiny house owners would likely have to ensure that their homes comply, said Tom Lemon, administrator of planning.
The tiny house living conundrum has not presented itself to many mobile home communities in Toledo. Blog sites about tiny houses contain a few posts from individuals looking for tiny houses in Northwest Ohio, but the posters have not responded for request to comment.
Ella Jenkins, a 23-year-old living in Southern California, worries about where she’ll park her tiny house when she finishes building it. She has been working on it in her parents’ backyard for months. Her little wooden home has a 10-foot high ceiling and is 6 feet wide. The wheels were the answer to another regulatory roadblock, Shafer said. Housing codes in many areas forbid people from living in something so small.
According to Ohio residential codes, legal dwellings must have at least one room no smaller than 120 square feet and no room can have any dimension shorter than 7 feet. Golis said the size regulations are to control odors, moisture and disease transmission.
Moving off the grid
Roadblocks aside, these little dwellings are becoming popular among young couples, singles, retirees and environmentalists. A wealth of tiny house forums span the Internet, with commenters writing about simply “moving off the grid” in tiny houses.
Think Walden Pond, only imagine Henry David Thoreau retreating back to a little wooden cabin with a tin roof, furnished with a propane-fueled stove and a shower inside.
Tiny Green Cabins, a Minnesota-based company that started in 2008, posts photos of cozy cabins nestled beside streams and snow-capped mountains. “Simplify, Simplify, Simplify” — one of Thoreau’s popular quotes — is Founder and CEO Jim Wilkins’ mantra.
Wilkins said some clients use the tiny green cabins for a writing hut or an outdoor office space. But those who actually live in his cabins full time tend to have jobs for which they need to move frequently. He’s even receiving a lot of requests for three to five member families.
“Especially with young people, they don’t want to have debt put into a structure,” he said. “They can buy a tiny house and take it with them so it’s a one-time investment.”
Jenkins can appreciate that. Having just graduated college, she is tired of having to pack up and move from lease to lease every year. When she moved back to California, she started apartment hunting but balked at the prices. Perhaps investing in a tiny house would be cheaper in the long run, she thought.
“I have to keep telling myself that, but it gets a little hard when you spend $1,000 on a water heater,” she said.
She’s put about $13,500 worth of work into the house and has barely finished the inside. Plans from Tumbleweed Tiny Houses can cost anywhere from $99 to more than $850. Add in all of the construction expenses and you’re looking at tens of thousands of dollars.
But here’s the kicker: Utility bills are practically nonexistent. When Wilkins moved into his tiny house, the winter electric bill was $25 a month or less. During the summer, he was charged the minimum fee.
There are other ways to get crafty with appliances. Jenkins will use a stove that operates on denatured alcohol. Shafer used solar panels on his roof. That fact gets to the root of why so many people wish to move out of big homes and into tiny ones.
“Perhaps what you have is a beautifully designed space and it doesn’t need to be 25,000 square feet,” Gilman said. “I think that’s a dialogue people need to have and we encourage our community to have that conversation.”
Struggle to build
Gilman sought to bring a tiny house to TMA’s Small Worlds exhibit to extend the art outdoors, to show how art and design can influence the real world. The museum bought plans from Tumbleweed Tiny House Company and The Lathrop Company constructed the house, while modifying some details. The Andersons donated at least 90 percent of the materials, even down to the eating utensils, said Julie Payeff, community commitment manager for The Andersons.
Construction was a struggle that took six to eight weeks to complete, about four weeks longer than expected. The Lathrop Company had to have every piece of the project custom built, from the trailer that the house sits upon to the couch cushions to the ramp that workers cut to fit the art museum steps. Only one worker could fit inside at once, said Paul Lulfs, general superintendent at Lathrop.
One worker had to lie on his back and drill every ceiling board in its place above the loft, Lulfs said.
But looking back, Lulfs, Sofia Eich, assistant engineer on the project, and Raymond Benjamin, manager of special projects, laugh about the amusing challenge that the task became.
The trio said they’d probably do it again — as a hobby.
“It would be hard to lose something in there,” Lulfs said. “It’s so small you have to go outside to change your mind.”
Benjamin added, “You’d have reduced belongings — you’d become a minimalist immediately.”