Living tiny

Chico couple find big reward in a small space

Ally Muller (pictured) and her husband, Priyan Nithya, built their 120-square-foot house for about $8,500 with no previous construction experience.

Ally Muller (pictured) and her husband, Priyan Nithya, built their 120-square-foot house for about $8,500 with no previous construction experience.

photos by Melanie MacTavish

When Priyan Nithya and Ally Muller settled in Chico in 2012 after marrying overseas, they realized the only way to realize their big American dream was to build it on a very small scale.

“We wanted a greenhouse to start seeds to grow our own food and do canning, chickens running around, big green gardens, fruit trees and lots of space for a bonfire to hang out with friends,” Muller said. “We basically wanted a kind of micro, postage stamp-size, mostly self-sustaining homestead.”

With finances and space an issue, the couple began discussing building their own “tiny house”—a style of small-scale home that has become so prevalent in the last few years that devotees are heralding a “tiny house movement.” The trend has caught mainstream attention through fansites like Tiny House Swoon, which features pictures of tiny houses from around the world, and a reality television show—Tiny House Nation—which premiered Wednesday (July 9) on the A&E Network offshoot FYI. The show will focus on homes smaller than 300 square feet, though some sticklers—such as the crew behind the documentary Tiny—cap the square footage at 200.

Nithya, a native of Singapore, is an architect who wrote his thesis on repurposing shipping containers (train car-size metal units used for overseas transport) into green dwellings. Free-spirited Muller, who grew up in Chico but spent several years backpacking around the world and met Nithya in Malaysia, is a jill-of-many-trades whose skills include tennis and yoga instruction. Despite Nithya’s theoretical background in building, neither of them had ever swung a hammer before breaking ground on their 8-by-15-foot home, located in the backyard of a regular-size Chico house, in April 2013.

While designing the home, the couple attended a workshop hosted by tiny house innovator Jay Shafer, whose Tumbleweed Tiny House Co. in Sonoma was one of the first to market the homes, and who also co-founded the Small House Society in 2002. Other than what they learned there, the couple relied mostly on YouTube videos to learn how to build, insulate and install plumbing and wiring in the house.

“The hardest part was getting over the mental hangups [regarding construction],” Muller said. “Your mind comes up with a lot of reasons not to do it, but it’s not rocket science. You don’t have to have a construction background, or be a creative person or a technical person.

“Another problem was chronic lack of funding,” she continued. “We had a little money to start with, but overall we had a budget as small as the house is, so we had to get really creative.”

Using largely repurposed and recycled materials, the couple were able to complete their home in February 2014 at a total cost of about $8,500. In keeping with the green spirit of tiny building, the house is solar-powered, positioned with south-facing windows to help climate control, and filtered gray-water is used to irrigate the home’s large gardens. The chicken coop and outdoor entertaining area are all that remain to be built, Muller said.

“After the first night we slept here, I climbed down from the loft, took one step to the fridge in the kitchen and made breakfast, then took another step into my living room-slash-dining room and ate it,” Muller recalled. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow, that was elegant and simple.’”

While building a home from scratch is a big undertaking, some would assume two adults maintaining their lives in a 120-square-foot space is even more difficult. Muller said living out of a backpack and “learning to only carry what is absolutely essential” was good training. While some tiny-home dwellers use ingenious building tricks to store more possessions in hidden cubby holes, Muller and Nithya instead rely on further simplification.

“Our most valuable tool is the shed,” Muller said. “We have a rule that if we don’t touch something for five days it goes to the shed, and if we don’t need it again in a reasonable amount of time we get rid of it.”

Muller admitted tiny living can be challenging sometimes, noting the house seems much smaller in the wintertime, when weather doesn’t allow the use of outside space. She also said they may need to build a bigger house if their family grows, but plan to maintain their commitment to small, sustainable and offbeat living, perhaps making use of shipping containers.

“I like the idea of appropriately sized space, and this space is appropriate for our lives now, and fits like a glove,” she explained. “The point is to design the space around the people who will live there, instead of just designing the space to house a bunch of stuff.”

The couple are working on starting a consulting firm to help others design and build their own small, custom spaces, and they currently maintain a Facebook page called Palm to Palm—Alternative Dwelling Design, Build and Consult. Their home also will be featured on an upcoming episode of Tiny House Nation.

Advocates of tiny-house living believe the buildings have applications far beyond single-family homes. Members of the Chico Housing Action Team (CHAT), for example, are looking into the possibility of building one or more small-house communities for the homeless.

CHAT spokesman Dan Everhart said the group is actively looking for a piece of land to build tiny housing for about three dozen people, a goal he said could be accomplished before winter for under $250,000. CHAT members have visited other communities where this is already being done, including Portland and Eugene, Ore., and Olympia, Wash.