Small wonders

Chico State professor, students offer lessons in tiny-house villages

This is Boneyard Studios, a tiny-house village in Washington, D.C.

This is Boneyard Studios, a tiny-house village in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Inhabitat/via Flickr

How tiny?
Mark Stemen and his Chico State students ascertained the following building-code requirements for a tiny house in Chico:
• Minimum 220 square feet (two occupants; 100 more per added occupant)
• Separate bathroom with a toilet, sink and bathtub/shower
• Separate closet
• Kitchen sink, cooking appliance and refrigeration (with at least 30 inches clear in front of each, plus light and ventilation)

From TV shows such as Tiny House Hunters to books such as The Big Tiny, the notion of living a smaller-scale life has large-scale awareness.

“People are overhoused,” said Mark Stemen, Chico State professor of geography and planning, noting how the average American takes the same amount of residential space that two generations ago sufficed for an entire family.

The popular—and popularized—approach to downsizing is the tiny home that resembles an RV, with comforts of a traditional residence fitted into less square footage (sometimes even on wheels), sitting solitary on a plot of land.

Another arrangement has begun to draw attention: the tiny-house village.

The idea is simple. Rather than live alone, friends and families come together and build a collection of tiny houses nestled around a common building comprising their kitchen, dining room, laundry and living room. Each residence can be small—in Chico, for instance, 220 square feet (see chart)—and the shared structure needn’t be cavernous, either.

“Having multiple tiny houses is a way to re-envision how people live their lives in Chico,” Stemen said.

The idea has been raised locally as one potential solution for homelessness. While city Principal Planner Brendan Vieg said the city has received no formal proposal, a tiny-house village for homeless people got the green light this month in Sonoma County, where the Board of Supervisors dedicated a piece of public property for this purpose. The move came on the heels of an ordinance in Fresno that classified tiny homes as backyard cottages, thereby codifying (i.e., legitimizing) the buildings.

Even for residents already housed, villages represent an option with upsides from a municipal perspective.

“As opposed to breaking the Greenline or going up into the foothills or just generally growing outward, we have a city policy of trying to maximize infill [development],” Vieg explained. “Of course, we want to make sure things done in existing neighborhoods are done compatibly. I think the opportunity for tiny houses really fits with that vision.”

As opposed to an apartment complex, he continued, a tiny-house village means “you’re getting more units on smaller parcels.” This also means “there are lots more opportunities” for this multiunit housing because of “the way it’s built out,” not just within city limits, but also in unincorporated county areas.

“Tiny-house villages to me seem like a multifamily environment not unlike something we already see,” Vieg added, but all too often “in the form of rundown rental houses that accumulated over time. Those exist in the community, so what would be wrong with having nice, clean microhouses, or tiny houses, linked together and done thoughtfully?”

Thoughtful design is precisely what Stemen asked of his 10 students in Geography 506 (Community Service Practice in Geography) last semester. The fall-term class of mainly aspiring planners featured a project in which each of the three groups created a schematic for a tiny-house village on a particular parcel in Chico that met particular parameters.

Stemen felt it was important to make the assignment concrete, so he crafted a scenario in which a house owned by one student’s parents, where the others rented rooms, burned down and insurance money would pay for new construction. The original house was 1,100 square feet; the group could redistribute that space among the buildings in their tiny-house village.

The class needed to learn about zoning and building codes, but along with engineering, they learned about another key consideration, thanks to a visit from Ma’ikwe Ludwig of Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage in Missouri.

“The social architecture is more important than the physical architecture,” Stemen said. “It’s harder to live with people than live small. [Ludwig] said everyone gets all excited about the ‘eco’ and has to remember it also has a village.”

Young adults are accustomed to shared living quarters and smaller spaces. Dorms, apartments, downtown houses, living at home—all these circumstances place dwellers in confined conditions.

The adjustment for older adults, though, can be more challenging. Village vibe is “not wanting to just be like apartment living,” Stemen added, “in which we live in our own little box. Even though we’re surrounded by a hundred people, we can still feel alone.”

So the archetype for a village consists of private sleeping quarters and the community hub.

“It’s not just economical, but it keeps things fun, and it’s convenient,” said Kiaya Sabolovic, a senior focusing her studies on project management and sustainability. “It’s not so hard to keep in touch with your friends if they live on the same property as you.”

This doesn’t just apply to college students and recent grads; Sabolovic sees benefits for families (“you can afford to work less and spend more time at home … and the community aspect is great in a co-parenting way”) and seniors (“they don’t entirely lose their sense of independence, but there’s a lot less to care for … and if something goes wrong, there are people right around them”).

Moving from a traditional home to a tiny home—whether situated singly or among others—may not be a very large leap. In the class project, Stemen said, “what was radical is the size. We didn’t do anything but downsize.”

Sabolovic agrees, noting that from a technical planning perspective, “it’s not as incredibly complicated as I first thought.” Moreover, smaller-scale living “is just the way things used to be. …

“We’ve already been there; it shouldn’t be too hard to go back.”