Growing Small: An Interview with a Tiny-House Builder

Listen up, apartment-dwellers: no matter how cramped you find your San Francisco studio, I can almost guarantee you it is not as small as Jay Shafer’s house. Propped on wheels in the backyard of his landlord’s property in Sebastopol, the entire wooden structure occupies 89 square feet. He has a tiny porch, a tiny kitchen, a tiny shower and a tiny loft bed under the rafters. To give a tour, he stands in his living room and swivels.

Shafer’s house is an original, and his business, Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, designs and builds similar structures for anyone who wants them. A fully built, custom-made tiny house costs about $40,000; the plans cost $1,000. Anyone willing to put in the time to collect recycled materials, says Shafer, could use his plans to build his or her own house for around $10,000. And lest you worry that 89 square feet is not sufficient for you and your cat, never mind your spouse and children, Shafer has thought of you, too: the largest “tiny house” he offers is 900 square feet, with multiple bedrooms.

“My definition of small house can go up to and beyond 4,000 square feet,” he says. “If a large house is being used very efficiently by a bunch of people, I think that can be very beautiful. And I would still call that a small house.”

Born in Iowa and raised outside of Los Angeles, Shafer returned to Iowa as a teenager and lived there until just two years ago, when he towed his first tiny house back West. Around Sebastopol, he’s one of a few people who design and build tiny houses. (Exact numbers are hard to come by: Most building codes don’t accommodate tiny houses, so tiny-house dwellers don’t always advertise their living arrangements. “Most of them are totally secretive,” says Shafer, adding, “there’s three or four of us who are out of our tiny closets.”)

The trend seems to be catching on: companies like Shafer’s are thriving in Texas and California, and tiny house Web sites exist across the Internet. Shafer’s work has been featured in the New York Times and other major media outlets, and he’s sold houses to people as far away as Australia and Taiwan.

When I met Shafer in late September, the national zeitgeist about housing seemed to be shifting. For decades, politicians had emphasized homeownership as the key to prosperity and the attainment of the American dream. But the collapse of the housing market and subsequently the wider economy signaled to many people the end of infinite credit, and with it, infinite expansion. The shift puts Shafer, who runs a for-profit company, in a unique position. On the one hand, he is offering a small-scale, sustainable vision of what it means to own a home. On the other, he is doing it as part of an industry that by definition requires consumption. Can the two be reconciled?

With that tension in mind, Shafer and I sat down (in two tiny chairs) to discuss the logistics of tiny living, reformed McMansion dwellers, and whether building houses can ever really be green.

How do people respond when they first set foot in one of your houses?

People get really excited about it. I can only speculate as to why, but from my own perspective it seems like in a tiny house there’s just no room for the extras. The superfluous space, the superfluous parts are done away with, and all you’re left with is this essence of home. And I think that’s an archetypal hot button for people. We all love a homey home.

And there’s so much potential. People immediately intuit that a smaller home equals freedom. With a tiny house, you really eliminate a lot of the mortgage payments and vacuuming and what-not. All that time is time then spent on things you actually want to do with your life.

You’ve said that you don’t see a real difference between a big house and a small house, provided that people use the space well. So why not just live in an apartment?

Ideally people would live in apartment buildings. They are more efficient, they’re better for the environment and better economically—because of all the shared walls, there’s less loss of heat, less surface area, less wasted space between structures. But that said, 85 percent of Americans do want a detached house. I’m in that category. I figure as long as people want detached houses, detached houses will have to be built more efficiently.

Doesn’t that limit people to living in rural areas, where there’s space for a number of detached houses? That seems to go against the idea of fighting sprawl.

I actually prefer high-density; if a city is well designed, it doesn’t feel crowded. It’s a balance—if we’re not going to build sprawl we’re going to have to increase the density of our existing built environments. But there’s more than one way to create high-density environments. The most common is to go up vertically with high-rises, and not everybody likes that. I haven’t seen it done yet, but I like the idea of putting tiny houses on rooftops as penthouses. I like the idea of pocket neighborhoods—little villages of freestanding houses.

If you got to design one of these villages, what would it look like?

Variety would be key. It’s great to outsource: I don’t have to have a huge library, I can just go four blocks from here and be at the Sebastopol library. So I do like the idea of small houses being near other functions, near the city. I also think it’s healthy to have private space for every member of the household. I’ve seen a lot of [intentional] communities that work, and I’ve seen a lot that don’t. The ones that worked are those that paid attention to private space. Those that thought they would just go totally against the grain of the suburb and ignore privacy for the sake of community, they don’t do any better than the suburbs. I lived in one of those; it was pretty horrible. I’m just lucky I had my house there with me.

Does the housing market affect you?

It doesn’t seem to have had a negative effect so far. If anything it seems to be good for business—there’s a lot more interest now. The reason I set out to do this was in hopes people might see how ridiculous an exclusively McMansion-oriented culture is. The current situation, both economically and with the housing market and the environment in particular, is perfect for getting people to think outside the bigger-is-better paradigm. So there is an upside.

But if people have no money to buy things with, I suppose we’ll see a sharp increase in the sale of plans, of people building things with recycled materials, and doing things more efficiently than buying prebuilt houses from us.

That’s a very non-capitalist thing to say.

I’m not really into the growth model.

But this idea of voluntary simplicity, of paring away what’s unnecessary, seems like it might ultimately put you out of business. Is that something you think about?

My original goal was to build a tiny house to show people how they could live simply and happily. I hoped that other people would just run with the inspiration, but now that I’ve got a business based on it I still hope they come to me and give me some money. It’s paradoxical. But as long as people actually buy the plans from us, then we’re in business.

Are many of your customers reformed McMansion dwellers?

Our e-mail box is kind of like a confessional. For some people it’s like, “I live in a giant house, but I promise I’ll move into a smaller one someday!” Of course we’re not about that sort of thing, though if that’s what they want to do, that’s great.

People who see there’s actually something else out there besides oversized housing, which is all that has been offered for a long time, they’re like, ‘Oh, wow.’ And they decide to move from their oversized house into a small one. It’s a shift in the way America’s thinking.

Do you consider yourself an environmentalist?

Well, I always like to say that there is no black or white in green. We all can do something no matter what our weaknesses are, so I focus on building small. When it comes to building houses, that’s the greenest thing you can do. The best thing is just not to use materials in the first place whenever possible.

Doesn’t building at all go against that?

Of course, reducing is the best way to go. Recycling is infinitely more wasteful. The best thing you can do is move into pre-existing structures. That said, the second-best thing you can do is build less, use fewer materials, and along the way you might as well use more sustainable materials, renewable stuff. But it’s all a balancing thing. If you’re going to build a house from totally treated lumber, it’s better to do it on a small scale.

So is it green to build small?

Building smaller has never been touted as a really green thing to do. Buying less doesn’t really behoove many businesses. “Less” is just not a marketable thing. But it turns out there are ways to push it.

Say I’m going to buy a house. What’s the first thing I should think of?

Paying attention to what’s actually needed is a good way to start. People don’t even know what they need to be happy, especially in a culture of excess. So they just buy everything and hope something will cover it.

When I see an oversized house, I see a lot of waste, and it’s ugly to me. When I see a small house I see the essence of house, and I see it as very beautiful.

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