When they started Boneyard Studios in Washington, DC — what they say was the first public tiny house community in the country — Jay Austin and Lee Pera had no idea the tiny house movement would explode at such a rapid rate. In the last three years, there has been an influx of TV shows, documentaries and communities as "small living" becomes a growing trend.
"I never thought this would be a thing. Now, everybody knows what a tiny house is. Back in 2012, we had to explain it," Austin told Construction Dive in his DC home.
Austin, who works for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said the idea to build a small home first clicked when he saw a photo of one. "I didn't think about it a lot. I was driven by building something really simple, something sustainable that would be fully off-grid."
Both Pera and Austin said the concept of building a home that was more mobile — and that didn't tie them down to a 30-year mortgage — was incredibly appealing. DC's skyrocketing rent and home prices also factored in, as tiny houses offered a more affordable option.
While people often see the limited available space in a small home as a major obstacle, Austin said he lived a minimalist lifestyle even before deciding to build his tiny house. Now, he fits all of his possessions into a 150-square-foot space called the Matchbox, and he doesn't consider that a sacrifice.
"If I had a million dollars right now, I don't think I would build a larger house," he said. "I genuinely enjoy the space, and I don't feel like I’m really lacking for any amenities. The overall simplicity of just feeling like it's all I need and nothing more."
Both Austin and Pera ventured into the tiny house building world with almost no prior construction experience. They said when they started, the pool of builders with small home-specific knowledge was extremely limited. And of the plans that were available, "they were terrible," Austin said. "There wasn't a lot to choose from. That was one of the reasons why I built and other people built custom."
He added that he considers the tiny home market a lucrative choice for building professionals. More construction company owners are starting to find a viable business in tiny homes, and new and innovative plans are continuously popping up.
"I think it makes a ton of sense for people who are building to get into this industry," Austin said. "If you know what you're doing and you have a good assembly line, you could build one of these houses very quickly. I think there's a good profit to be had to sell quality houses to people who don't want to buy something much more expensive."
Due to the lack of available tiny house builders in 2012, Lee and Pera both decided to build their homes themselves. A builder helped teach them the fundamentals of house construction and offered hours of labor to assist with the process. The two houses — the Matchbox and the Pera house — are now in the final building stages, as Austin and Pera are adding their final interior touches.
They both are now living in their tiny houses full-time, and the Matchbox — which has been in four locations and is currently at the Old City Farm and Guild in Northwest DC — hosts concerts, tours and other community events. Although they don't build tiny houses for others, Austin and Pera offer their homes as examples of what's possible for small house construction.
Challenges along the way
The Boneyard Studios team said that, at the time of building their properties, they were unaware of the toll, both emotional and otherwise, that it would take on them. "Everything that you expect it will take, double that," Austin said. His first blog post about the project discussed his "fun summer project" of building a tiny house in just a few months. "That was the arrogant assumption I had," he said.
Now, three years later, his project is wrapping up. "It took more time than I thought it would, more money, more energy. I wasn't necessarily prepared for the emotional investment of it," Austin said.
Pera stressed the "sheer number of decisions" a tiny house builder has to make. And although the interior may be more fun to design, the exterior is just as important.
Austin said he believes that in some ways, constructing a tiny house is more difficult than building a larger house, as each small decision has a major impact on the space. "There are consequences to poor design," he said. "If you're working in an 8 by 20 canvas and you misuse 1 foot of it, that changes everything."
His Matchbox house, which ended up costing between $40,000 and $50,000 total, is now fully off-grid, zero-waste and self-sustaining. To reach that off-grid goal, Austin bought a large solar unit with panels. What he hadn't anticipated, however, was the size of the unit, and the need to find space in the house for such a large item — something that became significantly more difficult in a 150-square-foot space. Solving that problem was just one of a string of unexpected changes, like adding in an unplanned spice rack when the bathroom and counter didn't line up, that occurred during the building process.
Aside from building their own tiny homes, Austin and Pera have also been active in advocacy work for a more tiny-home-friendly environment across the country. "There's a wide misconception that they're illegal, and they're not," Austin said. "Nearly everywhere they're not illegal, but they're not expressly legal." This ambiguity has kept some potential tiny house builders and buyers from taking the leap into the small living market, as they fear having the home taken away.
The trailer that the Matchbox sits on, for example, is registered in Maine and has a license plate. The DMV hasn't been able to figure out how to classify Austin and his tiny home, so he has been unable to update his address to his current location. "I cannot have this house recognized as an address with a certificate of occupancy. It's an issue that's really tricky," he said.
To help improve this environment, Boneyard Studios has been involved with advocating for city codes that are more conducive to tiny houses. In DC especially, the builders have pushed for more flexibility in the current city zoning rewrite, not just for the benefit of tiny houses, but for any other alternative housing and urban land use that may not be a part of the current zoning rules.
"Anything that we forbid people from doing is going to make something more difficult," Austin said. "There shouldn't need to be an exemption for somebody who wants to start a community garden, or start a tiny house community, or something else in a safe, neighbor-friendly way. The fewer things that the zoning rewrite mandates, the better off we will be as a city."
Austin added that, speaking not as a HUD employee but as a small home owner, he believes the federal agency should take a stance on tiny houses and make it easier to own one. Currently, HUD is researching alternative options for transitional homeless communities, and tiny houses are often touted as a possible solution for these transitional housing needs.
However, HUD grants for that experimentation are often written in a way that requires the funding be spent on what the agency considers a home under its standards. Because a tiny house isn't labeled an official house, funding grants can't be offered to people experimenting with tiny houses. "HUD's not doing anything right now to make tiny houses illegal, but it's not doing anything to encourage them either," Austin said.
With the lack of federal advisement, local municipalities and cities are looking to each other to determine the proper way to handle the growing trend of tiny houses. While some have rewritten their building codes to become more tiny-house-friendly — like the city of Seneca, MO's recent code change — most have struggled to figure out the best way to allow tiny homes while also ensuring all structures are safe.
As for the future of Boneyard Studios, Austin and Pera said that for now, they're happy with their tiny houses, but they don't know how long they will continue living in them. With the possibility of growing families and moving in the future, they said they plan to live in their small homes for as long as it makes sense for their stage in life.
They both expect the tiny house movement to continue to grow, as the more people who jump on the trend, the more innovations and creative options will be developed. The two major issues hindering the expansion of the tiny home market, according to Austin, are the questions of available land and the legality of the structures. "When you overcome those two obstacles — where do you put the house and how do you ensure the house won't be taken away — I think this will explode as a concept," he said.
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