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Tiny houses

Locals share ways to go small, while living large


Nestled in the middle of a pine-studded hillside in Potomac sits a 138-square-foot cabin made of reclaimed fir, pine and spruce. On a frosty February afternoon, cabin builder Charles Finn stands in a pocket of sun that streams through a west-facing window as he explains what draws him to create tiny houses.

In addition to being a craftsman, Finn is a writer. At first it was a desire to keep expenses low and devote more time to literary pursuits that prompted him to downsize.

“I didn’t want to be working a 9-to-5 job just to pay my rent and utilities,” Finn says. “So, I found myself moving to these smaller and smallee places.”

After he built his first small cabin in 2002, visitors were impressed by its simplicity and style and encouraged him to build more of them. Since then, Finn’s crafted nine of the tiny houses, selling them to locals who, like him, feel compelled to buck an American trend marked by ballooning home sizes.

  • Cathrine L. Walters

In 1950, the average family, then composed of 3.37 people, lived in 983 square feet. By 2010, the average home grew to 2,169 square feet. Yet it accommodated only 2.58 people.

In the 1990s, a variety of forces, including a growing awareness of the impact residential and commercial buildings have on the environment, sparked the emergence of what’s now called the Tiny House Movement. When espousing the value of downsizing, small home proponents often note that, according to the U.S. Energy Administration, 39 percent of this country’s annual energy consumption is devoted to powering structures.

“My God, the American way is such a waste,” says “Lavender” Lori Parr from the Missoula-based Rocky Mountain Lavender, who in 2005 bought a 77-square-foot cabin from Finn.

As with Finn, affordability at first drew Parr to the microhouse. During the past nine years, however, she’s taken increasing pride in the fact that her lifestyle draws limited resources. Smaller spaces simply require less energy.

Parr’s cabin is powered by solar energy. Finn’s Potomac cabin, too, remains off-the-grid and contains no indoor plumbing. His cabins, depending on the size, cost between $15,000 and $25,000. Microhouses, however, are not monolithic. There are plenty of options for those who want to downsize. On the high end, small houses made of glass and steel, fully plumbed and wired for electricity, can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. To satisfy middle-income earners, builders such as the Sonoma, Calif.-based Tumbleweed Tiny House Company sell homes that cost between $50,000 and $70,000 and, with a kitchen and a bath, come in at less than 200 square feet. Tumbleweed delivers its small homes anywhere in the continental United States and Alaska.

Regardless of whether one is eyeing a microhouse or not, Parr and Finn say the experience offers invaluable tips.

Parr calls her microhouse experience a “fascinating experiment in simplified living,” and quips that insights gained while living there have led her to contemplate a new career as a personal organizer. “It literally began to occur to me how people misuse or don’t use the space they have,” she says.

  • Cathrine L. Walters

For starters, Parr recommends using a “beer refrigerator” in the kitchen, rather than a traditionally sized one. She also suggests putting a stop to stockpiling. “You don’t need to buy 24 rolls of toilet paper at Costco,” she says.

At Finn’s Potomac cabin, a 40-square-foot sleeping loft offers a prime example of how to maximize space. The perch includes a large window that opens to a view of the forest and makes the space appear deceptively roomy. Windows like this help spaces feel less confined, Finn says, as do skylights, mirrors and light-color wall paint.

Building a loft made of posts, boards, plywood and drywall screws is something that just about anyone can do to add more living space. For extra help, check out the myriad tutorials and diagrams available online. Finn notes that homeowners deliberating such a project should first measure ceiling height. He prefers a loft that’s at least 5 feet tall. It’s not unusual, however, to see them come in at less than 4 feet. Be sure to use untreated wood, because treated wood contains chemicals that can be harmful with extended exposure.

Minimalism is key when furnishing small spaces, Finn says. He points to a rocking chair inside the cabin as an example.

“Lighter furniture with even more air in them, with more space,” Finn says, motioning to the area between the rocking chair’s wooden slats, “instead of these big, solid chairs, gives the whole room a lighter feel.”

Similarly, Finn installed wall-mounted shelves above the rocking chair, in the sleeping area and under the stairs leading to the loft to avoid bulky bookcases and dressers.

In addition to using “airy furniture,” buy or make a bed with drawers or an area underneath that can be used for storage.

In the kitchen, use an island countertop for culinary preparation. Such portable furniture can be moved out of the way when not in use. Store pots and pans in overhead racks. Rather than keeping kitchen knives in a bulky wooden block that consumes valuable counter space, or in a drawer, Finn hung his on wall magnets above the cabin’s propane cooking stove.

From inside the cabin, Finn motions to his clutter-free space and predicts that those who decide to purge their surroundings of unnecessary things will feel liberated. He says there’s nothing quite like the feeling of being freed from the things that unnecessarily occupy our daily lives.

“You really begin to appreciate how nice it is,” Finn says. “I think more and more people, if they find out about it, will discover that it’s a really great way to live.”

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