Category Archives: Property

But Lo . . . The Perfect Farm

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Ah yes, he giveth and he taketh away. Shortly after discovering a house I hadn’t really wanted had been sold, I began thinking of nothing else, berating myself for the lengthy whiteboard sessions in which I weighed up the pros and cons in pens of different colours instead of  driving into town and handing over the money. I imagined a life in the house, a life that included freshly squeezed orange juice on the terrace, a little sketching, tiling in oversized man shirts and felt wistful.
Anyway, then I had a call saying there was a farm for sale, not too far away: small, habitable, with papers and electricity, and cheap. I went over the mountain and down a bumpy track to see it, and it was perfect: a ramshackle gem. If we bought it, said the farmer, he’d throw in a puppy. Ah well . . . that’s a yes!
Then a price was named that was €50,000 over the maximum, I took some photographs of donkeys and we all drove back in silence.

Interview in The Bone House, Texas

Excerpt from a video interview with Dan Phillips, founder of the Phoenix Commotion at the Bone House, Huntsville Texas. I’ve posted an intro to Dan’s work here.

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The Bone House, Texas

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Someone else I first came across through Lloyd Kahn and Shelter Publications was Dan Phillips of the Phoenix Commotion. Dan’s organisation, based in Huntsville, Texas, specialises in building affordable homes out of recycled and rejected materials.  When I met him at what is probably his most famous, the Bone House, he told me that, when people first hear about the rejected stuff concept, many think it is ‘icky’. However when they see the houses that preconception changes. By not only utilising, but celebrating the quirks and faults of the materials they have, and by being creative and ingenious about how those materials are used, Phoenix Commotion doesn’t make houses that are as good as anyone else’s, they make houses that are better.

The organisation does good on many levels. The first is to draw attention to the amount of viable building materials that end up inaccessible and no use to anyone in landfill sites. One material hits the landfill it is hard to get it back, but Dan has an ever-expanding network of enlightened suppliers prepared to donate ‘waste’ rather than dump it. Obviously the more firms that recognise the potential of their ‘waste’, the better.

They use apprentice labour, providing their workforce with the training and construction skills they can use to get better-paid jobs within the organisation or elsewhere afterwards. The combination of low labour costs and cheap, often free, building materials means the houses can be kept affordable – within the means of the growing category of would-be home-owners who are struggling to get a foot on the housing ladder and settle. All very good, and tidy.

Last but not least, they put some playfulness back into house-building. There’s a Tree House of course, some others have themes – like the License Plate and Budweiser Houses, and all have touches of ingenious brilliance that also make you laugh – like creating bathroom walls out of smashed mirrors, studio walls out of DVDs, floor surfaces out of metal bottle caps, wine corks, sheets of music, and counters and stair treads out of beef bones. Ah yes, the bones: Not sure about the patio suite, but I love the bone stairs and, as Dan says, the only difference between beef bones and ivory is that beef bones are free.

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Tumbleweed

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.

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Reclaimed Space, Austin

And so to Austin (in a tow truck). Not, as I expected, for SXSW and drinking tequila, discussing funding for some kind of self-indulgent, non-commercial film and music project destined to fail and put me off media for life, but to Reclaimed Space and another take on the small, mobile house. The company was started by Texas rancher, founder of the DIRTCO construction company and environmentalist by training and nature, Tracen Gardner.  He wanted to build a house on his ranch but couldn’t afford to take the time out of the city to be in the middle of nowhere during construction. So he hit upon the idea of building one in Austin that was small enough to be transported  to the chosen spot on the back of a truck when finished. The idea of portable housing was so good and zeitgeisty, he turned an inspired solution into a business in 2008.

The buildings are not just small and portable but built using a fair whack of reclaimed materials, as the name suggests, and designed with inherent alternative energy capabilities for sustainable living. I could order a house here off the freeway, and live in style and comfort off-grid on the mountain or beach – or ranch, of my choice. Or I could stick one on a small urban plot, or at the end of the garden for visiting guests, if I had a garden. Small and sustainable is a plus here, not a compromise. Sleekly designed, these are aspirational dwellings, aimed at people who have wised-up, rather than dropped out.

I visited Reclaimed Space and spoke to Eric Bricker, there in an interesting multimedia capacity, about the appeal of the buildings – and there’s an excerpt of that conversation in the video. More to come in due course, including a visit to a site build, and chat with Tracen. In the meantime, there’s plenty of information and pictures at reclaimedspace.com.

Incidentally, Eric made the multi-award-winning film Visual Acoustics,The Modernism of Julius Shulman, a celebration of the photographer and the photographs that created the image of 1950s -60s Californian cool. The late, great Shulman has to be the most influential architectural photographer of the 20th century, introducing the mainstream world to Lautner, Neutra, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Pierre Koenig and R.M. Schindler and all, through photo books best described as building porn. Try reading Architecture and its Photography or Modernism Rediscovered without wanting to pack up and move to Southern California. I don’t know how I missed Eric’s film first time round, but I’m looking forward to being somewhere long enough to order a film and watching it.

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Tiny Texas Houses

Obviously once I find Somewheresville, I’m going to need something to live in. The industrial spaces and trashed duplexes being bought for pennies / cents and lovingly restored in Detroit are tempting, mainly because the people involved in reviving the city are so inspiring. The wooden cottages in Hillsborough, North Carolina are pretty as a picture, with enough quirks and antiquity to make them odd and interesting, creaky and atmospheric. And I do like a porch. And the tropical colours, raised elevation and ornate flourishes, verandas and columns of New Orleans Shotgun houses . . . well, ooh la la. However, none are exactly where I would have them. Hence the fascination with mobile / modular / pod / prefab housing. Our route across the USA has been designed to take us to the workshops of as many of the leading practitioners as possible. The stay in Luling wasn’t just to sniff the oil and meet Thomas, as interesting as that was, but to pay a visit to Tiny Texas Houses and meet the founder and owner, Brad Kittel.

I can’t do justice to Brad’s philosophy, justification, ideas and influence – or his tiny gem-like houses in the space of a blog post, but I’ll be writing and uploading lots of footage on both Tiny Texas Houses and mobile, container and reclaimed houses in general (offline but posting online) at a later point. This is a rough taster. Suffice to say I called in unannounced in the hope of a 30-minute chat and left 8 hours later (partly because the car refused to start) which Brad would say was divine intervention and the Hertz rental people would say was the ignition.

The biggest house in Texas is 42,000 sq. feet. Brad is taking things the other way, hoping to “create the antithesis of what America has become to the rest of the world, which is the epitome of excess”. The houses are architectural gems, and mobile; desirable as off-grid retreats but also, increasingly, as primary dwellings for the growing number of Americans keen to divest themselves of stuff. Aside from providing a different sort of housing option, the houses are made from material that would otherwise be in landfills, and re-investing energy and materials – and encouraging others to do the same – is core to Brad’s mission. As he says:

“Our custom Tiny Texas Houses have been designed and built with 99% Pure Salvage. That means that everything from the doors, floors, windows, lumber, porch posts, glass, door hardware, interior walls and even the siding has been saved and re-used to create houses that we hope will last for a century or more. Our small homes built with salvaged vintage materials demonstrate that it is possible to reduce our carbon footprint, simplify our lives, and live in a healthy house that is energy efficient as well as beautiful. Each Tiny Texas House is a unique piece of House Art that will last for the rest of the owner’s lives and for generations to come.”  (See tinytexashouses.com for more inspiring info).

Brad lived all over before coming to South Texas, but there’s something about this hot, dry place with its big skies that either draws or creates people with anything-is-possible big ideas.

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