Living Tiny

By Amy Newman

  • Photo courtesy of Tumbleweed Tiny House Company (tumbleweedhouses.com) Photo courtesy of Tumbleweed Tiny House Company (tumbleweedhouses.com)
  • Photos on this page courtesy of Clyde Hewitt Photo courtesy of Clyde Hewitt
  • Photos on this page courtesy of Clyde Hewitt Photo courtesy of Clyde Hewitt
  • Photos on this page courtesy of Clyde Hewitt Photo courtesy of Clyde Hewitt
     

Tiny is big these days. Fueled in part by the proliferation of reality television shows focusing on tiny home design and construction, tiny house living is sweeping the nation. But besides reducing one’s amount of accumulated “stuff,” what does it take to transition from living in an average size home to an ultra-small space? Read on for our roundup of advice and tips for this major-downsizing lifestyle.

What are tiny houses?

Tiny houses are just that – very small homes. The average size of homes built in the US last year hit 2,600 square feet, according to the Census Bureau. Tiny homes are typically between 100 to 400 square feet. Many of these small homes can be placed on trailers for those who want to tow it or travel, while other homes are built with a foundation and can be placed on land for a more permanent residency. In some cases, tiny house owners can even use solar panels and composting toilets to go off the grid.

Why go tiny?

Tiny homes first entered the public consciousness in 1999 when tiny home advocate and builder Jay Shafer published an article (and subsequent series of books) touting the benefits of living simply. And while simple, sustainable living continues to be a motivating factor for many who choose to go tiny, it’s far from the only one.

Jason Underhill, owner of Tiny Timber Homes in Big Lake, has heard many of those factors while showing his model tiny home at Southcentral home shows over the past year.

“Simplifying life, being able to enjoy the outdoors more, less debt load of mortgage,” he rattles off. “College kids want to get into something they own – it beats the alternative of paying rent.” There’s also interest in tiny homes as an alternative to the traditional mother-in-law apartment, or as on-site, temporary housing during construction of the homeowner’s normal-sized home, he adds.

For Deborah Schaffer, owner of Tiny Home Strategies, a tiny home design firm, and tiny home owner since 2015, sustainable living was a happy byproduct to her true motivation – freedom.

“It was freedom from keeping up with stuff,” she says. “Freedom from spending lots of money on things instead of traveling, or having fun, or doing something. Having to work just to pay the bills – to me that just sounds insane.”

The price of tiny

While tiny homes cost less than a normal-sized home, it doesn’t mean they come cheap. Expect to spend about $23,000 in materials alone to build your own tiny home, according to tiny house resource website TheTinyLife.com. It’s a different story when you go with a builder. The cost of a custom tiny home runs from about $200 to $400 per square foot, depending on size, features and whether it will be on or off-grid. Tundra Tiny Houses in Wasilla, for example, prices its roughly 225-square-foot model at $45,000 (or $200 per square foot), says owner Coley Foster. Off-grid can add an extra $5,000. At Tiny Timber Homes, a 240- to 300-square-foot home can approach $60,000.

Designing tiny

In many ways, Jason says, tiny home design is no different from designing regular-sized homes, just on a much-smaller scale. There is a greater emphasis placed on making the homes energy efficient and using locally sourced, sustainable materials, but the craftsmanship and options for materials and finishes remain the same.

Where the difference comes in, he says, is the creativity required to design a functional, efficient space that suits each homeowner’s specific needs.

A lot of that efficiency comes in having items pull double or triple duty. A bench in Jason’s model home, for example, doubles as storage (just lift the cushions) and hides a pullout bed, while the loft bedroom frees up space on the lower level. A home he’s currently working on has a murphy bed that, when lifted up and locked away, reveals a closet complete with doors and drawers, providing precious storage and freeing up space during the day.

In Deborah’s home, which she designed with Jason, steps leading to the kitchen double as pull-out drawers, and vertical hanging rods in the bathroom collapse to lay flat against the wall.

“It’s thinking outside the box of space utilization,” Jason says. “How to take a tiny space and really utilize all that in inventive ways.”

Another consideration – whether the home will be on or off-grid. For homes that will be placed on the homeowner’s property and can be tied in to existing utilities, it’s a matter of making the connections (see sidebar). For those living on remote properties, or who want to decrease their energy consumption, alternatives for electricity, water and utilities need to be factored in to the design.

This may include adding holding tanks for gray (shower), black (toilet) and fresh water; adding a composting toilet or building a separate outhouse; installing solar panels; choosing low-draw appliances, or; installing energy efficient lighting to minimize electrical draw.

Ready to go tiny?

Interested in going tiny? Deborah suggests asking yourself the following questions:

What are the non-negotiables? The first thing Deborah discusses with clients is what they cannot live without.

“That’s our starting point, the non-negotiables,” she says. For Deborah, that included a large (relatively speaking) kitchen and bathtub. For others, it may be a closed-off bedroom or built-ins that offer plenty of storage.

How invested are you? For couples, Deborah says it’s imperative that they are both completely invested in living tiny.

“Because you have to like each other,” she says with a laugh. “You really have to like each other – a lot – to be in a small space.”

If you’ve never lived in a small space before, Deborah suggests marking off an equivalent sized space in your home to test whether it’s doable.

How do you want the space to feel? The feeling you want when you enter the home will heavily influence its overall design, Deborah says. Do you want clearly defined spaces, reminiscent of regular-sized homes? Or do you want one long space that lets you see straight to the back of the home once you enter the front door?

Tiny living isn’t for everybody, Deborah says. But for those who want to downsize and simplify their lives, she believes tiny homes are the answer.

“This allows me to live in the way I want to live,” she says. “That’s what attracted me to following this movement to begin with. It’s just more doable.”

In this tiny home (shown above and next page), built by Tiny Timber Homes in Big Lake, a bench doubles as storage (just lift the cushions) and hides a pullout bed, while the loft bedroom frees up space on the lower level.

Municipal code and tiny living

Once you have a tiny house, where will you put it?

While tiny homes are growing in popularity, land use regulations haven’t necessarily kept up.

“Few communities are really ready to deal with the tiny homes movement yet, and we clearly fall into that category,” says Terry Schoenthal, current planning manager for the Municipality of Anchorage. “Most everyone here feels it is a cool idea, but as you might imagine there are some sticking points.”

For starters, mobile tiny homes are only permitted in R-5 zones, which are typically rural, Terry explains. Permanent tiny homes, which would be considered manufactured homes, face fewer location restrictions, but still require a conditional use permit. Building codes, including minimum size for a habitable space and egress from sleeping areas, also need to be considered.

“All of these, I believe, can be ultimately worked out, but they exist as hurdles now,” he says.

Tiny homes on municipal property must also be connected to water and sewer. Each structure can have its own connection, says Brian Baus, planning and development services manager with Anchorage Water & Wastewater Utility (AWWU), but that usually requires adding a second line from the street, increasing costs. A branch service connection allows both structures to share the main line; how the line is shared depends in part on the location and design of the buildings. Connections to multiple structures on a single property require AWWU approval.

Bottom line? Contact city planners and utility companies before committing to living tiny to ensure regulation compliance.