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In living, as in driving, small is the new big thing

By Dani Burlison

“The way I have always defined a small house is any house in which all the space is being used well,” says Jay Shafer of Four Lights Tiny House Company. “Really, a 4,000-square-foot mansion or bigger can be called small if it is being used well.”

But it’s not the large, well-utilized homes that are grabbing the attention of aspiring small house dwellers, it’s the little houses, the ones small enough to fit on wheels, that people are becoming more and more interested in. Tiny houses are about 400 or 500 square feet and smaller—innovative, space-saving designs that are similar in principle to the Chevrolet Spark, and many are just the right size to pull to any location with a Chevrolet truck!

“It took me forever to design my first house,” says Shafer. “Then I camped out for five years in my tiny house in my own backyard and rented out the bigger house, which was a pretty creative urban solution.”

Today Shafer, his wife and two children live in a 500-square-foot house in the front yard of his other, smaller 100-square-foot home. Shafer also designs furniture that works well for spaces in which the bed and kitchen sink might just be an arm’s stretch from one another—and that fits through the small front doors.

More than 300 people attend Shafer’s workshops throughout the year, and the Four Lights floor plans continue to be very popular. “There really seems to be a DIY contingent among people who want to live small,” he says. With floor plans sold at the low cost of $399 and building materials for a 400-square-foot home averaging about $25,000, more and more people are calling tiny houses their homes.

Aside from the floor plans, Shafer’s DIY Book of Backyard Sheds & Tiny Houses and his Small House Book are also sold through Four Lights. Other books are out there, too, like architect Lester Walker’s Tiny Book of Tiny Houses, which has been popular since it was first published in 1993.

“I built my house after reading an article about Jay almost nine years ago,” says Dee Williams, a 50-year-old hazardous waste inspector. “I built the house myself for about $10,000 and it took me about three months to build.”

Williams lives comfortably in her cozy 84-square-foot little home in Olympia, Washington. Parked on wheels in her friends’ backyard, she does odd jobs like yard work and caretaking in exchange for her space. She also only pays about $8 a month for heating with propane in the winter, as the property she lives on relies primarily on solar energy.

“Living without running water is the thing that I think has been the greatest shift for me,” she says of living full time in a tiny house after several years in a larger three-bedroom bungalow.

Though many small houses are able to accommodate running water, Williams lives with the basics—a dry composting toilet, basic kitchen with single-burner stovetop and sink. She uses refillable water jugs and showers at a neighbor’s home or at work. Despite what many believe would be a huge challenge, Williams feels quite content with her life in a tiny house.

“It’s not about a cute little tiny house; it’s about how you are living. Whether you’re living in a 1500-square-foot, 300-square-foot or 84-square-foot house, it’s about how you’re connected,” she says. “How are you moving beyond the four walls you sleep within to engage your world in a dynamic way? It’s not about the house; it’s about what it enables you to do.”

The trademarks mentioned in this story are held by their respective owners.

Dani Burlison is a wannabe anthropologist and a staff writer for a Bay Area alt-weekly. Her writing also appears on The Rumpus and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, as well as in the Los Angeles Review, Ploughshares, Bike Monkey Magazin and other publications. You can find her at daniburlison.com or on Twitter: @DaniBurlison.

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