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Tiny homes getting to be a big deal

 Posted by on July 28, 2009
Jul 282009

Tumbleweed Houses for the Road and Home Sweet Home

Jay Shafer is a pioneer in the business of home downscaling. Shafer started living in a tiny home in 1998. Based in Northern California, he is spending this summer giving building and design workshops around the country, from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco. Shafer’s Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, based in Sebastopol, Calif., designs two types of homes – “tiny houses” range from 65 to 140 square feet and are built on wheels; and small homes ranging from 250 to 837 square feet.

Shafer’s reasons for extreme downsizing are all about the environment. “I don’t like spewing gas into the environment or consuming non-renewable resources,” he says on his website. He also likes the fact that dusting and vacuuming are kept to a minimum.

Besides his website, which includes a variety of design plans, Shafer has published “The Small House Book” ($36.95). In it he covers the basics of small house living with great detail given to utilities. Shafer’s advice is to keep it simple. And despite the sparsity of space, his homes have hot and cold running water, and can accommodate a TV, VCR and CD player.
A Tumbleweed house uses a simple, gravity-fed plumbing system, he says, and the sun to power electricity. A 2 .5 gallon pot on a shelf above the stove pipe in the kitchen cabinet, drains into the sink or shower. “The best source of heat,” says Shafer, “comes from the sun. I build homes that have windows on all but the north side for the best solar gain.”

Shafer prefers gas over wood-burning because it saves on space and is cleaner.

For most people, probably, the toughest part of living this small might be the composting toilet. “The toilet consists of an air-tight bucket and sawdust, and a couple of nearby compost piles,” Shafer says. Composting human manure may not be for everyone, but Shafer believes it’s worth it for a cleaner environment.

Not Everything’s Big in Texas

Brad Kittel is another advocate and builder of the smaller home. He began as a collector of antiques as well as other recyclable items. His Tiny Texas Houses got started in 2005 and are made in Luling, Texas. All of them utilize recycled materials. Kittel is a believer in what he calls “salvage building.” He says that his Tiny Texas Houses are nearly 100 percent salvage – “everything from the doors, floors, windows, lumber, porch posts, glass, door hardward and even the siding,” he says on his website, “have been saved and used to create houses that we hope will last for a century or more. “

These homes work well in rural settings, becoming weekend or week-long cabins in the woods, alongside creeks (see photo, right). The interiors make use of natural light and loft spaces for bedrooms. Some are left largely open inside, to maximize walking-around space. (See interior, left.)

Like Shafer, Kittel believes that people can live in less space and downsize their carbon footprint. His houses have also appealed to boutique users. One serves as a chapel in Austin; another is a tiny Bed and Breakfast (for one family), also in Austin.

In Provincetown, Massachusetts, general contractor Kevin Bazarian, employed a similar concept in building  the Gulf’s Nest Project. The 2007 development is made up of 12 affordable two-story housing units ranging from 430 to 1000 square feet. These units feature energy-efficient appliances and decks that are made from recycled milk jugs. All the units are LEED-certified, according to Ashley Katz, communications manager for the US Green Building Council. However, these homes, says Matt Root, spokesman for the Conservation Services Group which oversaw the project, are less driven by environmental idealism and are more about affordability and reality.

Extreme down-sizing may not be for everyone and certainly a family might have trouble adjusting. But the concepts of living a simpler life without all the “stuff” we’ve become accustomed to has its appeal — as does the ultimate goal of lessening our impact on the environment.

Roxbury’s Hare says he’s always been interested in taking advantage of the environment. “Growing up in Israel, our neighborhood was restricted in the size of its homes. But every home was guaranteed solar access. In Israel, they are very aware of the sun…and the same sun shines in Boston.”

(Photo credits: Pratt House street view and heating unit, courtesy of PlaceTailorInc.;  Tumbleweed Tiny House company; Tiny Texas Houses.)

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