Yes You Can Build Your Own Tiny House

by Anna Pinkert

By the end of this year, I will have moved five times. With each move, I’ve left behind furniture I painstakingly collected, books I promised myself I’d read, and kitchen utensils too grody to justify hauling around the country one more time. Every so often, I fantasize about my life in an alternative universe — a universe in which I don’t have the urge to buy the full DVD set of The Wire or a second cover for my Kindle, and instead live with only the bare necessities in a yurt on a picturesque hill in Sweden. You know the lifestyle I’m talking about — you’ve seen the Pinterest boards. The tiny house movement, as it is often called, has plenty of drooling fans on the sidelines, but who actually lives that way? Who is gutsy (or crazy) enough to give up their carefully selected apartments, their kitchens, and their personal space to live in what boils down to a grown-up treehouse?

Derek “Deek” Diedricksen’s “normal” house is a brick-and-mortar bungalow on an unassuming suburban street in Stoughton, Mass. At 900 square feet, it is about a third of the size of the average American new home. But the other houses on Deek’s property are even smaller. Spread out around Deek’s suburban backyard are half a dozen handmade structures, what Deek gleefully calls his “oompa loompa redneck village of micro-shacks.” Call them shacks, call them tiny houses — Deek doesn’t seem to mind either way. He refers to them by name: The GottaGiddaWay, the Boxy Lady, and the Gypsy Junker. Deek is over six feet tall, and he looks comically large next to these structures, though he has worked painstakingly to make each house light-filled, cheery, and unique. Even the miniscule fish-shaped GottaGiddaWay seems bigger on the inside than the outside, thanks to a window made out of a used washing machine door. Deek’s building obsession started in high school, when he got fed up fighting for the remote with his dad, and built his own cabin in the backyard, complete with insulation and a black and white TV hookup for his Nintendo.

I’m visiting Deek as he shares his love of building handmade houses with 23 people who are attending a workshop in Deek’s own backyard. Under his watchful and sometimes irreverent guidance, workshop participants spend two days working together to build a tiny house on wheels. The atmosphere is like summer camp. Everyone sleeps in tents or in Deek’s houses. Someone has brought pretzels and donuts to share around the campfire. To my right, Deek’s brother demonstrates how to properly use a jigsaw. To the left, Deek is discussing the finer points of hammer selection with an older woman in a fleece vest (“It’s not a tough guy or tough gal situation, use what suits you!”). Ahead, a motley crew of retirees, college kids, skinny vegans, and beefy construction vets are enacting a miniature version of the barn-raising scene in Witness, hoisting the first wall of the tiny house into place.

The workshop house, when complete, will be just over 40 square feet, small even by tiny house standards. So what use would anyone have for a space that small? Deek suggests an office, a guest house, or a yoga shack. Not everyone in the workshop intends to live tiny full-time — but the ones who do dream of living in under 50 square feet are eager to tell me their plans.

College student Mairi McKellup came to the workshop with her dad, Keith. Mairi hopes that the tiny house they build together will serve as her living space when she graduates. I have to admit, it’s a brilliant idea. A rent-free, private house close enough to do laundry in your parents’ basement? Sign me up. Mairi’s dad, however, has other ambitions. Keith’s dream is to build a network of tiny houses that could serve as an alternative to a pricey retirement condo. Deek says the economic downturn has brought new people into the tiny house community. As young and old people struggle to gain access to credit for mortgages, he’s seen all kinds of experiments in home building — whether building with upcycled materials, building smaller than construction industry standards, or building a house that moves with you.

I talk with Brooklynite Sandy Patch as he peels an apple in front of a communal fire pit. He currently lives in an apartment with roommates, but insists, “I still just can’t convince myself that the amount of rent I’m paying is worth the amount of space I get.” It’s a familiar feeling, and I nod along. But while I just grumble on the first of the month, Sandy has a plan to get out of the rental rat race. First he thought he’d live on a houseboat, then in a tent on a friend’s roof. Finally, he decided that the best way to forever ditch the rental market was to build a tiny structure on the back of a pickup, and drive from borough to borough.

I ask the obvious: “Is that legal?”

Sandy says no, but it isn’t legal to sleep on the street, and plenty of people do that, too. Sandy counts himself lucky — despite the 2008 crash, he kept his job as a colorist working on TV and movies. He can make rent every month. But, like many others at the workshop, Sandy is trying to escape from the invisible pressure to buy in to bigger apartments with more amenities, more square footage, and higher price tags.

Tristan and Libby are visiting the workshop as tiny house veterans. They towed their own Whittled Down Caravan here with their tiny white car, which they tell me has the best towing capacity in its class. The Caravan is oddly familiar to me — like something I had a dream about as a child (or something I saw repeatedly on Pinterest). Built like a modified Gypsy caravan, the onw-room structure includes a charging station for electronics, a kitchen area, a sofa (the cushions are stuffed with laundry), and a wide soft bed full of neatly patterned pillows. Handmade instruments hang in a corner. Light filters in through the canvas roof. It’s an Oregon trail wagon as designed by Etsy and Al Gore. I’m kind of in love with it. Clearly, Tristan and Libby are, too. I huddle in close to talk with them, sitting on a stool while they sit on the sofa-laundry. They built the Caravan when they knew they wanted to move from New Mexico to New England, but didn’t know where they would ultimately land. They spent only $1500 to build the whole structure — the equivalent of one month’s rent. But, after only four months of living in the Caravan, the couple bought a brick-and-mortar home in Easthampton, Mass.

I thought that they might have given up the tiny house because it was too emotionally taxing to live in such a cramped space with utterly no privacy. Libby admits that having “one sheet of canvas between you and the world” is a little daunting, but that didn’t deter them. I ask them another tiny house noob question: What do you do when you fight? Tristan says that they considered the outdoors part of their space, and they learned to maneuver around each other. In the end, they bought a regular house because it was more economical than purchasing land without any buildings on it and trying to live out of the Caravan full time. Tristan and Libby now use the Whittled Down Caravan to house visiting friends, or rent it out to tiny house enthusiasts. While she enjoys the convenience of their new home’s indoor shower, and the half acre of land where she can garden, Libby says that they never really gave up on a scaled-back lifestyle. She used to “fill every space” with objects in their past apartments, but is now content to live simply. She and Tristan speak in the calm, hushed tones of NPR radio hosts. Again, I assumed that their lifestyle had granted them monastic-like inner peace — but it turns out that Tristan and Libby actually DID used to work in radio. They made this lifestyle — the lifestyle didn’t make them.

I expected to find a kind of spartan cult when I visited the tiny house workshop, but no one trash-talked us normal people who drool over HGTV and secretly peruse the very priciest real estate listings in the back of magazines. Tiny house builders still fantasize about having a covet-worthy, decadent home — but covet-worthy might mean having all-recycled denim insulation, and decadent might mean color-coordinated hand-painted trim on your upcycled fish bowl windows. In a world of Martha Stewart wannabes, huddled over grosgrain ribbons in their dedicated craft rooms, the tiny housers are refreshingly genuine. And while I’m not going to give up my new (and kick-ass!) three-story apartment any time soon, it’s good to know that, should I need it, I could take my housing needs quite literally into my own hands.

Anna Pinkert lives in Boston.

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