Micro Homes Move To Mainstream’s Fringe

Micro Homes Move To Mainstream’s Fringe

The tiny house movement has gained steam since the late 1960s and early 1970s when counter-culture types with no money made due with what they could and built homes out of whatever they could find.

In fact, it’s almost mainstream. For instance, students at Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vt. have come up with a home design not much larger than an extended cab-over camper mounted to the old Ford F-250 pickup. Their “tiny house” measures 8 feet wide and 12 feet long and cost a paltry $1,927, school officials said.

“The $20 per square foot cost is pretty low compared to the $80-$200 per square foot cost of new construction,” said senior Todd Sirak of Poultney, in a statement.

Indeed.

Although still not on every block, this small home trend is getting increased interest as energy efficiency and living with less gain mainstream attention. Elaborate micro homes have even become chic in Japan where even postage-stamp parcels of land cost a premium.

In Japan, it’s referred to as kyosho jutaku, or ultra-small homes. In a recent piece, NPR reporter Lucy Craft said the homes “conserve space by dumping conventional elements like entranceways, hallways, inner walls and closets.”

She said furniture can be folded into the wall, while a bathroom could be separated by a simple curtain. Windows, she said, are often small and “scattered” across a wall.

The practice has gone on for years in this country, too. Look at all the folks who live in travel trailers or recreational vehicles, traveling from one national park to another and following the seasons — or wind. Beyond the RV crowd, there are many other examples, websites, groups and organizations, espousing the wonders of a small house.

In Sebastopol, Calif., Jay Shafer of Tumbleweed Tiny House Co. has received quite a bit of exposure for his designs. He offers plans, kits and completed homes, some on wheels some stationary. His homes range from 65 to 356 square feet. “Every inch counts,” he said.

The concept intrigues me because in 1968 my mother sent me to live with my grandmother in Port Lions, Alaska. I was in third grade and one of two or three white kids in the village of 210 people. At first, I was a pariah. I had red hair and was the grandson of Lowell Wakefield who employed or bought king crab from most of the community. My grandparents lived in a relatively small but comfortable home. I had my uncles’ old bedroom. After the Russian/Alaska Native locals accepted me, it was great but didn’t last.

That summer mom decided she needed to attend the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ anthropology program and moved us to a deserted trail off Happy Road in the middle of nowhere. We lived in a tent until it got too cold. Then we upgraded to a garage for the winter. It wasn’t much better. This experience taught me that people could live with almost nothing. It also taught me that tents don’t repel bears and that bears like to rummage through your food. Not a good way to wake up.

We upgraded the next winter to a 18- by 36-foot log cabin built by Denny Mehner and Bobo. It was great. No wasted space. They built me a barn down from the house with my room in the loft. I loved it but smelled like goat since that’s what we kept on the first floor.

Small houses don’t let you have much furniture. We had one traditional stuffed chair in the cabin next to the wood stove. I spent many hours reading Heinlein and Tolkien in that chair. The only other things to sit on were benches and fat 2-foot logs on end.

Small homes also use less electricity, they cost less to heat and you don’t end up buying so much junk because you have nowhere to put it. I’m amazed by all the folks on A&E’s “Hoarders.” What’s the point? I know, I know. They have issues, but that endless consumerism is a reflection of our society.

We had extra impetus for frugality because mom never held a job and we didn’t have a car. Everything we had, we had to carry hitchhiking. We even hauled water that way as our cabin had no well or indoor plumbing of any sort.

Many of the others in our band of Fairbanks long-hairs also had tiny homes. Denny’s brother built a multi-level tree house. John Hartle built a small geodesic dome on our 10 acres. I believe he paid us rent at some point. Michael lived just down from him in a three-story plywood-sided box. It was very unfinished. He eventually bought the lower 5 acres.

Michael and John took care of me after I caught myself on fire in blazing Human Torch style at 14. I was determined to get a pile of brush to burn and decided to pour gas on it from the 5-gallon can I used to supply my chainsaw. A spark from a previous attempt turned the gas into a ball of flame. Mom was gone that week in Juneau.

Small homes are part of Alaska and U.S. history. Before modern cookie-cutter mini mansions became popular, people lived in a couple rooms. They didn’t spend hours at a time in the bathroom.

My best friend Eric Storms lived in Anchorage for years in an 8-foot wide trailer with a wanigan. Everything had its place. No waste. He’s maintained that philosophy and taken quite a few extended road trips on his Harley and camps quite comfortably, carrying all he needs.

Perhaps the current economic climate — all the foreclosures, layoffs and reduced circulating wealth — will make many reconsider how they spend their precious resources. Bigger homes have bigger bills and debt payments. Cut that and more of your cash stays out of the banks’ pockets.

And coupled with energy efficiency, super-insulation and other green enhancements, small homes could become completely sustainable, gobbling zero fossil fuels.

The 19 Green Mountain College students and assistant environmental studies professor Lucas Brown plan to recoup their investment by selling their tiny house this spring — but not before equipping it with a solar-powered electrical system.