I’ve seen tumbleweed (and coyote haunch weaving into the scrub) in Texas and New Mexico, but the tumbleweed catching my attention today is Tumbleweed the N. California based tiny house company who are holding one of their weekend workshops on the UCLA campus. I’ve admired Tumbleweed’s houses and evangelism from afar and have been trying to get hold of Jay Shafer who founded the company (fast forward as I get lost in LA and UCLA and hurry, uninvited, into the lecture room) here he is, in front of a group of 50 attentive would-be tiny home builders, describing how to cut window openings, choose sidings, install vapour barriers.
The tiny, or at least small, house movement is taking off – or rather moving mainstream, no longer appealing predominantly to people looking to get off-grid, but to people keen to scale down and simplify their lives, people interested in the sustainability aspect, revolted by excess and waste, and people looking for a home that they can afford and own rather than spend their lives paying mortgages. There’s also the attraction of custom-building and using money saved on space to buy high-end design furniture and fittings, and as one of the attendees, Rachel, pointed out, the benefit of being able to take your house with you when you move. Another Jack, who has already constructed a number of increasingly small houses, tells me he used to have a huge house which was all well and good until something needed fixing: “Where we live now there are many multi, multi-million dollar homes, and the first thing I think when I see them is maintenance and upkeep. It’s a full-time job.”
Throughout the day, there’s a cooperative sharing of ideas. Whatever the motivation for constructing or occupying a small house (and some here are planning to start their own ventures and build and sell), everyone is united in meeting or beating the outdated building codes and minimum size standards. While the International Building Code (which seems to govern building in only the USA and Canada) can be interpreted differently at local level, say Tumbleweed, they include the stipulation that all houses must have ‘at least one room of no less than 120 sq ft; ceilings of no less than 7ft (except in basements) and no habitable room of less than 70 sq ft, with no dimensions smaller than 7′ except kitchens’.
Back in Texas, Tiny Texas Houses and Reclaimed Space had also discussed their frustration with a system that seemed to reward construction on a grand scale and place obstacles in the way of people keen to reduce their environmental impact.
“When I found out it was illegal to live in a very small space” says Jay, when I corner him afterwards, “I had to do it.” Jay’s a pretty inspiring person, as is Tumbleweed’s new poster boy, Austin Hay, who aged 15, started building his own house and now lives in it, blissfully mortgage free for life. Tumbleweed do make self-build easy by selling the plans and offering a lot of experience and hands-on support although you can buy one someone made earlier if you prefer. The Houses to Go, designed to sit on trailer beds, range from 67 sq ft -117 sq ft, with more spacious cottages ranging from 260 to 880 sq ft.
By the end of the day, I’ve moved on from designing my house to choosing wood-burning stoves and deciding between locations. All pipe-dreams for now. If you want to be similarly inspired, take a look at the Tumbleweed website (images in the video are of house plans available in their catalogue).
Spending a day listening to people discuss building their dream homes was an unscheduled pleasure. It does mean that evening we’re not in Big Sur browsing through books in the Arthur Miller Library, but having a row in a Motel 6 in Carpinteria on US Hwy 1, which, I say, I can not and will stay in because it has wipe down sick yellow walls and not strip lights exactly, but something like it, and which he says is OK and will do.