Building a 'tiny house’ is no small feat
Drive to Nicholette Codding's childhood home, and you'll weave through an especially tony part of Caughlin Ranch. Houses here are impeccable without being cookie-cutter, and every spongy green lawn is just asking to coddle some bare feet. The trees are stately, the ponds look real, and there's nary a clunker in any driveway.
A black Mercedes is parked outside Codding’s place. It’s not hers. Neither is the big house, actually. But the tiny house—the one right in front, on top of a flatbed trailer —is very much her own.
You can’t miss it. Not here.
The 160-square-foot abode is a work in progress the fine-arts photographer shares with her long-term boyfriend, Mitchell Mast, and it’s only parked at the parental-units’ place because it’s under construction. Soon the couple will haul it to the right patch of farmland, a to-be-determined spot where they can earn their keep by working outside. There they hope to grow food, install solar panels, find a supportive community, and send the material world packing.
This is no flight of fancy.
“This is our life savings,” Codding, 30, explained. And it was hard-earned.
She and Mast, 31, whose master’s degree and background are in behavioral science, spent years working in the service industry. Before leaving Portland, where they lived most recently, the pair also found landscaping odd jobs, occasionally with creative parameters and handsome compensation. Other times, “we drove around with a lawn mower” looking for work, Codding said with a chuckle.
They believe a house that’s microscopic by most standards is the ticket to a clean, untethered life—one with no mortgage, fewer work hours, and scant room for waste or overconsumption.
Permitting is murky. As far as the county knows, the couple has a 20-foot-utlity trailer, carrying a haul that happens to look exactly like a wee house. Thankfully, it’s materializing in the small area between Caughlin and Juniper Hills—a sliver that lacks the covenants, conditions and restrictions of those neighborhoods.
“We’re in the freedom zone,” Mast said. “It’s absolutely a legal gray area, but for us it’s an important one, because the permits are absolutely crippling.”A tiny tour
First is their “great room with a little 'g',” as Codding called it, which abuts an ingenious bookshelf/pantry/sliding wall that's also part of the kitchen. Next is a bathroom with charming tin wall panels and a perfect little sea of retro tile.
Hardwood and natural light abound, and a sleeping loft top off most of the space.
Every last building material is natural and nontoxic, and any DIY feel is absent, despite the builders being newbies to construction work. The fruit of their labor seems solid and sound, with no creaks, odd gaps or cheap fixes.
It’s just enough space for the couple and their dogs, Bailey Roo and Cooper Dean.
Codding’s art will stay, as will a few essentials, but not much more.
“We have so many experiential ties to things,” she said, “but one thing we realized is that you don’t have to have the thing to have the memory. Instead of identifying those memories through things and through commercial objects, you can know they live inside of you, and they are a part of who you are.”
But back to the bathroom, namely the composting toilet. It’s not half as bad as it sounds, Mast said, and “there’s absolutely no smell.”
Brave souls.A movable movement
Micro homes aren't surprising anyone in cities like Portland, where the “tiny” community is, funny enough, growing quite large. Press, TV shows and films are catching on, too. (An Australian filmmaker's forthcoming documentary, Small is Beautiful, will include Codding and Mast.)
“More people are becoming disillusioned with having a big house, and having to figure all that out,” Mast said. “Millennials coming out of university and being saddled with a large amount of debt, and not having that same dream of working all week long just to be able to afford the house that they don’t really get to spend a lot of time in.”
In turn, “tiny house” has come to mean more than a given person’s opinion of relative size.
Blueprints are online, and you can even buy a pre-made model from the popular Tumbleweed company for around $60,000 (which amounts to a fortune per square foot, mind you). Building seminars and workshops are taking hold, too. And tiny-house blogs—written by “tiny housers,” naturally—are all over the web. Codding and Mast even have one of their own, at www.ourtinyhome.us.
No one’s taking credit for the idea of living in small quarters, of course, or they shouldn’t be.
“It’s something that’s very old-world,” Mast pointed out. “People have been living in very small dwellings for hundreds if not thousands of years.”
Shoot, Abraham Lincoln grew up in a one-room log cabin.
“For centuries and centuries,” says real-estate developer Kelly Rae, who’s half of Haberae Homes company, “tiny houses have been around. They’ve just come to the forefront [again], and a lot of it was due to the economic downturn, when people lost everything, and they were like—excuse my language—’fuck.’”
She paused for emphasis, then drew another breath.
“We need to change our lives! We’ve lost everything. We don’t have any money. We need to downsize.”
Style matters, Rae added, because without beauty “a tiny space is just a rat hole. But if you make it cute and modern with beautiful aesthetics, you can have a two-burner hotplate and a convection oven and a sink, and be ecstatic.”
So what about people in mobile homes and RVs? Aren’t they “tiny housers,” too?
“They’re putting a hell of a lot more storage in those travel trailers than the hipsters are putting in their tiny houses,” Rae said. “People have been doing this since forever out of economic necessity, and they got a bad rap as ’trailer-park trash.’ They’ve lived just fine in small spaces, and nobody’s interviewing them. Nobody’s intrigued by how they live.”
Maybe it amounts to a new beginning.
“People who need to wipe the slate clean in their lives are typically drawn to smaller spaces,” says Rae. “You have to purge yourself of all those things you’ve been carrying around your whole life—good, bad or ugly.”
Codding and Mast echo her words. And they’re infinitely grateful for their support network, from the friends and mentors who helped them get started to Codding’s parents, Deborah and James Morgan, who’ve been kind enough to put them up in exchange for repair work around the (bigger) house. Carpentry, which they’ve picked up along the way, is a skill they hope to pass on to others.No detail spared
From plumbing and heating, ventilation and air conditioning to finish-out, the intricacies of a miniature building can so mimic those in larger homes that they've even become part of the curriculum at Reno's Academy for Career Education High School.
The charter school, which emphasizes construction and engineering, is requiring students to work collaboratively on three Tumbleweed houses this year. Two will be sold upon completion (and yep, they’ve already had inquiries).
“The kids are really getting a lot of experience in terms of problem-solving,” said principal Bob DeRuse. A forgivable error—a slightly miscalculated angle, say—could visually blend into a big house, but in a miniature one, the flaw gets compounded.
But the beauty of a small space is hard to miss, too.
“They’re very cool,” says DeRuse. “It’s hard to wrap your brain around it, but when you do, [you realize] most people could live in a house like this.”