Saturday, April 2, 2011

Tumbleweed Tiny House Building Workshop

“Once you lose everything, you’re free to do anything.” At the utterance of these somehow familiar words, the room becomes charged. People turn from their narrow conference tables to crane their necks toward the man speaking. He looks like a Nashville native, which is to say, he’s got that shiny brown country rock-star hair that falls to his shoulders, the chiseled CMT face, brown hoodie sleeves rolled up just a hand’s width above his wrists. He might be 30, 35. He’s got that voice, too, voice like a musician—clear tone, unwavering. But in a room like this, you never know what a person’s back story is, how they got here. Soon it’s clear that I’m wrong about the musician thing. He’s an artist, a glass blower—used to be hooked up with an art gallery in Santa Fe, made good money there—until the economy bottomed out and not enough people were buying pretty things any more. “2008 comes along and suddenly all this equipment that was making money before is an albatross around my neck…it takes a forklift to move everything. I moved everything to Tennessee in two 24-foot trucks…The stuff has become an anchor. I can’t leave all this stuff, I have to pay for the storage for the stuff, and now I’m finding myself paring things down. What is essential? You know, what do I really want?”

John’s is just one of many stories of overconsumption present in this room. In fact, attending a Tumbleweed Tiny House Workshop is kind of like being in a support group. No one’s shouting Amen or patting people on the back to urge them to share their painful stories, but the coffee’s just as bad, and if you look around the room, people are nodding their heads, often unable to keep from verbalizing assent with the things they’re hearing. They’ve pored over websites dedicated to the benefits of living small; clicked through pictures of tiny rolling houses, Airstream conversions, hobbit houses, and gypsy wagons; and they’ve probably even decided which small-house architect they feel has the best designs. But there’s also a good chance that this is the first time they’ve been in a room with other people open to these ideas, and it hasn’t happened until this weekend when they’ve come from their homes in many different states to learn how to design and build their own.

Tumbleweed Tiny Houses is one of the oldest small-house companies around, and its owner Jay Shafer is the most well-known proponent of this lifestyle. For years, he has been one of the core people demonstrating how to take the next step in finding a path out of wanton American overconsumption, first in stories about his house, then in designing homes for others, on to open houses, building workshops, tours, and finally in a book. On this rainy Sunday in March, at an Embassy Suites on the edge of Nashville, Jay pauses in his discussion of design principles to acknowledge the common philosophy that has brought us all together in this place: “Scale is something I don’t have to talk to you guys too much about, except those of you who were dragged here by friends, who don’t really want to be here, and you need to convert still. You can drink the Kool-aid, it’s at the back.”


Jay Shafer is the equal and opposite reaction to the American culture he was raised in. Jay grew up in sprawling Mission Viejo, California in a 3000-square-foot Mediterranean-style home.  Although most people would internalize the environment in which they were raised as the norm, Jay grew progressively more sure that this standard was flawed as he grew older. In high school, while his parents were renovating their home, Jay had to choose whether to sleep on the floor of his dad’s office or outside in a truck. He chose the truck and hasn’t looked back. Over the years, Jay has lived in a camper truck, an Airstream he renovated, a commune (which he claims had a dictator just like most other communist societies), and various other small houses. While Jay was teaching art at the University of Iowa in the mid- to late-‘90s, he began work on his own tiny home. The art he was creating more and more was comprised solely of sketches of little houses, and he began to apply the philosophy he’d learned from his art teachers to the world around him: “Composition in art is always about what is necessary, and eliminating everything else. If it’s not contributing to the composition, it’s weakening it. So I just figured that the same thing goes for every work of art, and every life. If it’s not contributing, it’s weakening.” At the time he constructed his first home, 130 square feet was all that he viewed as necessary for its composition. Eventually, he whittled it down even further to 96 square feet—about the size of your average parking space. Jay himself is not a large man, probably about 5’8”. He says that few humans are capable of taking up more than 18 square feet of space at any given time, though, and he uses that concept in all his designs. The Japanese have long designed structures in this way, by using the Tatami mat (3x6 feet, or roughly the size an average person) as units of measurement.

Never much for activism, even now Jay considers his lifestyle to be one of “aggressive pacifism” rather than activism. He lives by example, and because people are so fascinated by his extremely small space, he and his home have received inordinate attention since it was built. Natural Home magazine bestowed upon him the “Philosophy and Innovation” award in its Natural Home Contest in 2000. Not long after that, Jay coined the term “Small House Movement” in response to the growing number of people consciously choosing to reduce their consumption both in home size and lifestyle. Together with Greg Johnson (who works in technology and computers), Nigel Valdez (a photographer), and Shay Salomon (a natural home builder and teacher), Jay established the Small House Society as a forum for people aspiring to live smaller. For many years, the Yahoo! group for the society was the sole connection for small-housers trying to figure out how to get around minimum-size requirements, how to live off-grid, what counties and states were the friendliest for small living, what kind of appliances worked best for minimal energy consumption, and many other topics. The minimum-size laws are by far the most prohibitive element in small-housers’ quests to reduce impact and consumption.

The International Building Code, zoning regulations, and minimum size requirements all hinder where, and how small, people can build—Jay calls them “mandatory consumption laws.” Most cities across the U.S. require new homes to be at least 750 square feet, and in many places the minimum can be as much as 1600 square feet. These codes were established beginning in the 1950’s through lobbying efforts by the housing industry as a way to justify property values, by making the cost of the built home comparable to the cost of the land it was occupying. Loans are not available for new homes smaller than this, which means that people who want to live in a new small structure must have sufficient funds or personal-loan access, or have sufficient time to find pre-existing materials and build themselves. These problems tend to prohibit people of color and younger renters from obtaining smaller homes. They are also the people most at risk of receiving the kinds of questionable loans that led so many people to lose their homes when the economy began to tank. Much of the reason that Jay builds such small homes is that if it stays below a certain size and has wheels with which it can be towed, it’s not technically considered a house but instead is classified for camping use. In this way he and others who have bought his homes are able to live small without technically violating the rules. Still, the situation is less than ideal.

In 2009, Jay posted an article on his website in response to the housing and economic crisis, entitled “Viva la Tiny Revolution” (excerpted here):

Allowing citizens to live beyond their means is one thing. Mandating that citizens live beyond their means then taxing them again to cover the inevitable damage caused by such unsustainable policy is quite another. Americans should be allowed to live as simply as they see fit. More house than one needs means more time spent on maintenance, more money spent on a mortgage or rent and more greenhouse gasses and senseless consumption of fossil fuels and other vital resources.…As long as the law ignores justice and reason, then just and reasonable people will ignore the law. At this point civil disobedience is not only justified, for many it is the only option. The people of this purportedly free country will live in houses of any size that suits them whenever reasonable egress and land ownership or a landowner will allow. Thousands of Americans are already living beneath the radar in structures commonly regarded as too small to meet code. These folks live largely outside the system of imposed excess, and they do so within the rights granted to all of us by the Constitution of the United States. It now remains for our banks, zoning and codes to catch up.


As in every story, the people here all tend to have Aha! moments when they realized that the path they were on wasn’t the path that made the most sense. For some, that meant they realized their lifestyles were unsustainable during the economic crisis, like John the glassblower. He and his wife had just bought a farm which they eventually realized wasn’t the best investment. Now it sits empty most of the time and they have an apartment in the city, where John has had to get work at a hospital, leaving his glassblowing behind for the time being. For Jay, it happened somewhat gradually, but he pinpoints a trip to Tokyo as the time when his desire to live small crystallized: “That was a very brief experience where I stayed maybe five days in Tokyo itself...I spent a lot of time in my room just being inspired by the 4-foot by 4-foot bathroom. That’s where I spent my vacation, in the bathroom, looking at the dimensions of the bathroom and how they fit a shower and bathtub and a toilet and a sink all in one little 16-square-foot room.”

For others, it takes far longer to get to that point. Kathey Wilson is 52 years old and was born and raised in a “very poor North Carolina mountain family.” She grew up very modestly but contentedly, despite the small wages her father made working at a saw mill. Once she left home, the perspective she’d had on her life was changed: “I really didn’t know that I was poor until I went to college and my suite mates gave me a cookbook that was called White Trash Cookin’… I looked at the pictures and it looked just like my mother’s stove with the salt-shaker box on the back and the grease bucket and the refrigerator.” On hearing this scrap of story while people went around the room to explain why they were here, I couldn’t shake the cruelty and impact such an action could have on a person. So Sunday during lunch, I sat down with Kathey and her friend Rhodes Waite, a 30-year-old woman whom she met during a permaculture class last year. They had come with a cooler and brought down veggies and natural cheetos (chipotle) to the lobby while we talked.

To see her now, Kathey doesn’t look like a woman who would necessarily have lived a life of poverty, but she does seem like someone who would know how to work a garden. She has those character lines in her face and a practical not-too-short and not-too-long hair cut. She doesn’t speak loudly and she doesn’t speak often, but when she does speak, her words are strong and compelling, and you know she means it. “I had this hunger inside of me to be so much more than that, even though I was losing sight of ‘you know you were ok, you didn’t know you were poor, you had a roof over your head, you had food’…But in my travels in life I wanted more, more, more, more.”

In fulfilling that desire, Wilson spent over 20 years getting to the top of a corporation which bought land from struggling farmers who were having trouble sustaining their operations and needed money. Once the farms were shut down, the land was turned into strip malls. “I lived in a 5400-square-foot house on the lake with everything I wanted, and I was miserable. Because I had not been taught how to look inside of myself to see what really, truly mattered. And it’s not the house and all the stuff that you have…As a human being, we don’t feel that we’re in control of a lot of things. So if we can buy all of these things, it’s mine and I can control it. So I realized…that’s what I was doing. That’s the only thing I felt I had control of.”

Wilson still has property in two states and has been learning about permaculture and other small living techniques in an effort to live in a way she feels is equitable and makes more sense. “Now I drive by those places and remember the cattle and the horses and the beautiful land that was there before a phone call was made that said ‘Yeah, you can purchase this.’ So I’m on the flip side of that, saying OK, I can’t do anything about that, but how can I repair some of the damage? What am I able to do? And what I’m able to do is start educating people on supporting each other locally, in businesses, how we step up to the plate. Let me teach you, let me educate you on how you don’t have to live in this size house, that you can live in this…we have to join hands and we have to help each other, or we’re totally gone if we don’t. It’s over.” With her friend Rhodes, Wilson hopes to begin learning to build their own sustainable homes and communities and then teach others how to do the same. They hope to establish an “eco trailer park” either in Asheville or another friendly community where people can build their own small homes and share resources.


The idealism of the small-house world is undeniable, but it usually emerges from being steeped in too much reality. Lives of excess, divorce, and jobs taking advantage of other people all bring small-housers around to the philosophy of voluntary simplicity. This phrase was first coined in 1936 and is marked by attention to the following tenets: material simplicity, self-determination, ecological awareness, human scale, and personal growth. No matter how differently small-housers live, they are all concerned with these aspects of voluntary simplicity to some degree, and all believe that living in small homes positively addresses these concerns. My path into the Small House Movement was a little different, in that I never really had that Aha moment. I’d spent time on the Penobscot reservation many years earlier and came to appreciate the way people there treated their resources. Offerings of tobacco were given after successful hunting expeditions, to thank deer and fish for giving up their lives to feed families. All parts of an animal were used, not just its meat; nothing was ever wasted.

When I moved in to a tiny backyard cottage in Santa Cruz, California, it was partly to see if I could handle living small and partly because the space seemed (aesthetically) so lovely and efficient. I was enamored with this little dollhouse that was only 11 ½ by 13 ½ feet with a loft upstairs. It was also the first time I’d lived in my own stand-alone home, and I had no problem with its diminutive size. The entire city of Santa Cruz seemed populated with these little houses, wedged in back yards and gardens on every street. I soon began dating a guy who also liked little houses. We became serious and the next year, he found a house in the next town over from where he grew up, bought it for $2,000, and dragged it to his parents’ land in Steinbeck country, about 40 minutes from where I was in grad school. The house was 12 by 18 feet and we spent months planning how we would lay it out, where on the hill it would live, what kind of porch we wanted, whether to put in eaves, what color to paint the exterior, what kind of flooring to use, etc.

I began documenting our process on a blog, and the two of us moved into a trailer on his parents’ land while the house was being worked on. We heard that Jay Shafer would be driving his little house on a tour from Canada to Mexico and on a Sunday afternoon in July of 2008, we headed to Google headquarters. After meeting Jay, we quickly became immersed in the small-house community, and I decided to start a documentary project on the people involved in this movement. For the next eight months, I traveled to Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Texas, California, Oregon, and Washington meeting small-housers, interviewing them, and photographing their families and homes. I ended up moving back to Santa Cruz in the winter for the duration of my program, as the commute and isolation from my friends and program had become too much for me. In the process of giving so much attention to documenting the small-housers, I neglected my own little house and my partner. We broke up the next summer.


On Sunday afternoon, we all come back in to the meeting room. The table in the back is now covered with graph paper and an odd assortment of pencils and erasers. Some of the paper has the printed outlines of trailers in varying lengths and some are blank. Once I choose an acceptable pencil and grab a couple of sheets of paper, I sit down at my seat and stare. Every time I start to draw a line, I have to stop. Erase. After about 20 minutes, I see Jay lying on the floor at the front of the room, checking email on his laptop. I go over to him and ask him about his new designs, the RV models, a little wider than his previous ones. We talk about how he does those a bit, and then I go back and get more paper, turn a sheet over, start again. More lines, more erasing. Eventually I realize my problem. I’m trying to design the house I’d designed with my ex. In my mind I see the same layout: kitchen on the left, bathroom on the right. The propane stove goes here, little pink formica table here. Now the French doors. Library ladder to get up to the loft. An hour has passed.

I begin to sketch a new outline. I liked one of the designs Jay talked about earlier: two distinct rooms separated by a tiny patio. After a while, I manage to orient myself. I’ll put storage shelves just below the ceiling in the dining nook. Beside the bathroom, one of those cubes where the same chamber is used to both wash and dry clothes. Window above the sink. Petite clawfoot tub. And the other room, steps going up to the loft along the wall, the kind where bookshelves are fit into each rise. Loft of course, maybe a skylight. Picture window. And yes, French doors. I barely have time to finish the layout before we get together at the front of the room and—one at a time—set our paper on the carpet in the middle of the circle as everyone leans forward to peer at each person’s solution. After we’ve finished, Jay asks me to take a look at some of the branding designs they’ve come up with for Tumbleweed. We agree that the simplest and clearest font is the strongest—nothing should detract. He asks how I liked the workshop and the design process, and I confess my difficulty in designing my own little house, how it had made me sad that I was never able to live in the one I’d been working on with my ex. Jay says he understands and that he’s designed many houses for himself that he never lived in. But, he says, each one is useful even if you never live in it, because with each design, you’re getting a little closer to the one that’s right.