Thursday, August 12, 2010

Shack Plans

Alright, the time has come to reveal what has been the source of my insomnia for a few days last week. The tentative plan to build and live in a tiny house in Austin! I've written about this topic before. At least this is how it plays out in my mind:

Build a tiny house on a trailer bed using this plan and these guidelines. Materials will cost less than $10,000. (Save up first.) Find some friends on the Eastside who would let us park the house in their large yard. Get rid of most of our stuff, except for some clothes, books, camping gear, and kitchen essentials. After everything is paid for, pay no rent!! And only like $20/ month in utilities. Feel good, clean less, and spend more time with other people outside.

Yeah, yeah?? I ran the idea past B and he barely batted an eye. (His remained glued to his iPhone.) It's hard to let go of private space. I even pointed out that he only truly uses like 100 square feet in our duplex: the couch, his computer chair, the area in front of the stove, the bathroom, and the bed. I also have no idea how the two cats would fare in a dramatically reduced space. Anyway, I wanted to put that out there, as an alternative to buying a house or renting regular (poorly designed) properties, because just think about how much money you could end up saving. And an exercise in minimalism could really help our engorged appetite for material stuffs.

I was chatting up C today at work about housing. Usually it's just the two of us in a small office suite, and we let loose on whatever is going on in our heads. I am generally not great at opening up to coworkers, especially ones who are older (her kid's in college), but the work is so dull that I can't help myself. C lives in a suburb of Austin and commutes 30-40 minutes to work each day. I was relaying the benefits of small communities and small houses, and I got to see the wheels start turning in her head. She agreed with me that living in a 3000+ square foot house was a waste of energy, and having a car per person in the family was also supremely wasteful. "So much of our political issues are tied to oil, we use so much gas and I'm not sure I want my money to go there." As a consultant, C used to travel extensively for her work, and thus lived in hotels most of the time. The idea of tiny houses resonated with her because she knew that she could live with a few number of possessions and still be happy. It's heartening to see someone so mired in living out the American Dream rethink their priorities and needs. I know there are more people like that who live in Austin... it's just that so much has to change here for it to reach the standards of green, minimal, community-oriented living. I am definitely not willing to wait a lifetime for this to happen. In the back of my head, there is an Austin exit strategy waiting to emerge once conditions get fairer.


erinhazel said...

Cool idea! I like your desire to live a minimal, environmentally friendly and community-centered lifestyle.

A few questions:

Are there legal problems if you put your house on someone else's property? On a purely financial level, I know that the City raises the property taxes significantly when there is more than one house on a residential plot. [aside: The City of Austin skyrocketed Vince Hanneman's taxes because they said that the Cathedral of Junk could be considered livable space, even though nobody ever lived there, and it was merely yard art.] So, you might have to pay your friends rent that would at least make up for the increase in their property taxes. Also there might be strict laws as to what is allowed in this regard, especially if you're planning to hook up your plumbing and whatnot. I've known people who had their trailers in people's yards and the City kicked them out for not complying with certain rules (I'm fuzzy on the details).

Are you concerned about claustrophobia/cabin fever/etc?

How is this different/better than living in a trailer? Would the same issues as owning a trailer arise, such as decrease in property value over time?

Does this promote more community/relationships if there isn't so much of an option to host guests in the home? Or would hospitality just look different?

This is all very exciting, and I hope my questions don't seem too negative. I'm just trying to understand the concept a little better, since it's something I'm not so familiar with. Keep us posted on what you decide to do! Enjoy brainstorming and planning!

Fern said...

Hey, good critical thinking there, eh. I have NOT heard about the city raising property taxes on plots with >1 properties, nor have I heard about there being issues with hooked up backyard trailers. There seems to be a scant amount of info online, or I'm not searching using the right phrases. Those restrictions could be an issue for sure. Because I had not heard anything about this in Austin, I just kinda assumed that it would be cool, since I read about the lady in PDX who lives in her friend's backyard and just does chores for her every once in a while for compensation.

This is all still very much in my head and we have no set plans to move forward with this. The idea has merely excited me for a long while. I honestly cannot say for sure how I would feel in a tiny home until I set foot in one. However, as I have perused tons of galleries of tiny homes, they seem livable to me. Or maybe they used a wide-angle lens to create camera magic, I don't know. I am definitely wary of the space, especially with 2 cats. I know that I could definitely do it if it were just me.

Trailer and RV parks definitely have a low-class, sleazy stereotype attached to them, unfortunately. I really don't think it has to be that way. I think it's quite possible for a tiny home "park" or "community" to be built in Austin. To me, the houses would remain stationary, as most people who are interested in them like the minimal aspect, not necessarily the mobile aspect. It's still too early in this stage to tell the long-term interest of Americans in this trend, but resale values for now seem pretty good. If anything, tiny houses are more well designed than traditional trailers and RVs, because they actually look like houses.

I think with some layouts, there could be enough seating to host guests. Traditional trailers can fit a handful of people, right? And whose to say that small is negative? All a body needs is a place to sit, and as long as everyone isn't moving about at the same time, it should be fine. Again, I feel that with good design, a small space can feel less small. But I would really need to find some tiny houses to test the limits of that theory. None exist around Austin, to my knowledge. I guess what I was thinking about promoting community is that you would be less likely to spend all your free time indoors in a tiny house, if it was viewed as a place to sleep, bathe, and cook. Instead of crafting your own kingdom, you are limited by space. It seems like it would be cozy, but not always comfortable, in a way that would eject you. I think that's a fine line as well.

OK, thanks for the questions, insights, and interest!

erinhazel said...

It would be cool to go tour some tiny houses. Where are the closest ones? Also, I like the idea of the tiny house "park", though perhaps tiny houses could park in pre-existing trailer parks such as the one lesley clayton lived in (pecan grove?).

SuzyFormager said...

Maybe the tiny house lady here in Portland would show you around her digs when you visit?

Another possible option for green/ community minded folks is cohousing. Portland has a number of cohousing communities, such as the ones mentioned in this article:
I kind of doubt that Austin has anything like this, but I don't really know.

If you do build a tiny house, maybe a comfortable outdoor living space (such as a deck or a nice yard space) would help offset the space limitations as far as guests are concerned.

Fern said...

Ah, thanks for the link! That cohousing community is intriguing. The units and fees are pretty high (imo), but I am attracted to the option of communal meals and lots of outside space for kids to run around in. I don't think there is anything like that in Austin yet.