Tag Archives: Tumbleweed


montj prada

The idea of building a simple, rectangular home either from a flatpack or by customising shipping containers sounds alright. I’ve long been interested in pods, partly because of the start-from-scratchiness of it, partly because – done the right way – the completed house would not really be a house per se, but a temporary ‘moveable’ structure, and therefore something that could be perched on sites where other houses can not go.

Driving across the USA was in large part an excuse for meeting pioneers of the small house movement, and people who had for a broad spectrum of reasons decided to buck the trend and take it upon themselves to build the house they wanted, in the way they wanted, and where they wanted. Some of these to my mind looked like gingerbread houses with a suffocating surplus of trimming designed to slot in between normal houses on a normal street. But others were modern, modular, efficient spaces; platforms for a different way of living, and designed to be a more interactive part of the site on which they stood – whether just by orientation and views, or through a much more indoor-outdoor flow as well as a harnessing of what was locally available as in sun, rock and rain with solar panels, natural landscaping and rainwater collection. The houses were fresh and the people building them were as interested in the psychology of societies and impact of environment as in plumbing and wiring. Meeting people doing this stuff was exciting and inspiring. Among the people met, interviewed, featured and filmed in the USA roadtrip were Brad Kittel, exuberant founder of Tiny Texas Houses; Tracen Gardner and Eric Bricker at Reclaimed Space; Jay Shafer of Tumbleweed, and of course, the ever-curious, pivotal figure that is Lloyd Kahn of Shelter

Aside from the finished thing, another part of the appeal of a modular or flatpack construction was the potential to control the design, and to end up with something that suited your taste, lifestyle and budget. I have bought dozens of books (ranging from coffee table pod porn to practical handbooks for the conversion of shipping containers) and I’ve drawn up plans. The notion that I could feasibly create my dream house refuses to go away. However, by virtue of the fact it is quite literally my dream house, I probably won’t do it.

Anyway, that ever present just below the surface interest was piqued by the sight of a glass-sided module in the spectacular setting of Montejaque. Could we buy land and build our own modern home in a cost-effective way? Well, the short answer to that is no. At least, maybe in Ohio but no, not in this neck of the woods. But this thing which I think is an abandoned sales office for a construction project down the hill now on hold until the end of the ‘crisis’, while slightly on the small side, did look quite a bit better than several of the houses we’d so far traipsed around. It triggered a chain of wild thought which eventually concluded with a firm resolve not to travel too far from my own notion of somewheresville.

The abandoned container itself is reminiscent of Prada Marfa. If it was anywhere else people would drive for miles to see it, and read into a message about the topsy turvy world of economics or some such thing.



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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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