Tiny Houses: An Interview with Pioneer Jay Shafer


You’ve probably seen a tiny house on Facebook and reacted like most people, exclaiming, “That is so cool!” At just over 100 square feet, these tiny homes on wheels are taking the world by storm, providing a more efficient and simple living experience in stark contrast to the proliferation of 4,000-square-foot McMansions that are slowly replacing rural fields and adding to urban sprawl everywhere.

For every person wanting to buy a huge home in this era of downsizing, there is another who wants to limit the amount of energy and resources used in daily life. And an increasing number of people are creating villages of tiny homes to assist those in need. Community First! Village in Austin, Texas, is a 27-acre community under development that will provide affordable, sustainable housing in the form of tiny homes to support the disabled and chronically homeless. Occupy Madison in Madison, Wisc., is creating OM Village filled with tiny houses for the homeless. In Portland, Ore., city leaders are creating tiny house villages to provide affordable housing for the working poor.

Bill & Brenda Campbell
Bill & Brenda Campbell
Fifteen years ago, Bill and Brenda Campbell bought property just 10 minutes south of Mille Lacs Lake surrounded by the Mille Lacs Wildlife Preserve because they enjoy wildlife and nature, and they wanted to create a sanctuary that they could enjoy along with their friends and family.

At that time, they had never heard of tiny houses.

“Tiny houses were brought to our attention a few years ago by our friend, Deanna Reiter, who wanted one built for her on our property,” said Brenda Campbell. “Our goal is to live in a community of open-minded people, living simply and affordably by sharing skills and resources. We would like The Sanctuary to be a place for all walks of life. We will also have events about tiny house living, and a variety of other topics, in The Sanctuary Lodge.”

On July 1-5, The Sanctuary will host a hands-on workshop to support those who want to learn all there is to know about building a tiny house and living in one. Jay Shafer, author of The Small House Book and founder of Four Lights tiny house Co. in Sebastopol, Calif. — credited as the father of the tiny house movement — will be on hand to share his expertise with tiny house design.

In an interview with The Edge, Shafer said he is looking forward to learning how The Sanctuary’s plans to create a tiny house village in Minnesota are progressing.

Jay Shafer
Jay Shafer
How many villages for tiny houses are there now?
Jay Shafer: There are probably a few that are under the radar now, because they are hard to make legal. You have to find loopholes or make zoning changes, and that can take some effort. The villages I know of are in Madison, Portland and outside of Austin. Those are ones that are calling themselves tiny house villages right now. And there are clusters of fairly small houses on the East Coast.

One cool example is Trinity Park, which is an inspiration to me as far as villages of small houses go. It’s on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, and it’s pretty old, established in the late 1800s or early 1900s.

In doing research for this interview, I learned that the challenge is finding places where tiny houses can be placed in communities, that zoning and restrictions actually make it difficult for people to own a tiny house?
JS: Yeah, the rules that are particularly difficult to work with are the minimum size standards. Officially, they are called habitability requirements within the building code, and those prohibit very, very small houses. They do allow for houses that are very small by American standards. You could build a home at 250 square feet and still meet those requirements, but it isn’t easy. The rules prohibit efficient design and efficient living.

If you use a loophole like putting your house on wheels — you don’t have to call it house, because you can call it a vehicle, RV or whatever — then the zoning officials say you can’t live in your trailer in this area or you can’t live in it in an RV park for more than so many months.

Even in mobile home parks, you see restrictions on single-wide homes. They say it’s got to be a double wide, or a triple wide, which is the McMansion mentality.

So the reason for these laws was what — to encourage us to build bigger homes?
JS: Yes, they were developed by the housing industry and people in the insurance industry and a few other private entities that gain from it back when the housing market slumped and they decided, “Well, people aren’t buying many houses these days so at least every house could be bigger and we can make money.” That was the origin, and of course, that’s not the way it is stated in the code. The code refers to the safety and well-being of everybody — and that’s quite a stretch when you look at the facts and see what’s truly doing the environmental damage.

Not to mention the rise of suburban sprawl and its negative effect on nature.
JS: I think most zoning departments and their officials are trying to atone for the sins of their forefathers now, seeing that it hasn’t worked out so well.

So a lot of folks are really onboard with the idea of tiny houses, but we’re really encumbered by our own laws.

What were your challenges there in terms of living more efficiently in Iowa City, where you grew up?
JS: It was agreed that I could not live in my vehicle, but I could camp out in it every night in my own backyard. So I bought a 350-square-foot house –very small by American standards — and then I camped out in the back for about five years.

That was pretty much before the beginning of small house talk, or very much of it anyway. I remember hearing the woman in the zoning department explain, “Well, if we allow for this straight up, it might result in people making a bunch of small houses, like a village of them or something.” That was the mentality back then. And I was thinking to myself at the time, “Yeah! We should do that!”

Who created the first tiny house in the style that we’re seeing now?
JS: I usually get credited for being “the pioneer” of the small house movement, but nothing comes out of nothing. There is a book called Tiny Houses, by Lester R. Walker, and there were a few homes on wheels, but nothing quite like what I have done. I just took the idea and tried to make it look like a real house that people would want to live in and appreciate its merits. So I was their inspiration there, and I’ve seen pictures of tiny houses on wheels from way back when. I built the first of the cedar-clad, metal-roofed, 12/12 pitch-on-wheels house.

How does your personal concept of tiny houses now compare with what it was 16 years ago?
JS: It was very subversive back in the beginning. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I expected my own tiny Waco, waiting for officials to come and kick me out of my home and me fighting them off. Fortunately, that was just a fantasy, it turns out, one I’m glad didn’t come to bear.

Then, Google was barely in existence, and if you googled “tiny house,” you’d come up with 2,000-square-foot houses — 1,500 square foot maybe — and very few extremely small houses. In fact, the term “tiny house” wasn’t anything at all then.

Now, google “tiny house” or “small house” and you see most of the houses that we are talking about right now.

What values are shared by those who are seriously interested in tiny houses?
JS: There are a lot of different reasons people do it, and it seems like they overlap, for the most part. Some people only do it because it’s affordable. You spend less on a small house, of course. Most people are into it for that reason, and for efficiency — efficient living. Other terms used in marketing today are “sustainable” and “green” — using less and getting more out of it. In nature, that is the way things are, but in our human culture, we got away from efficiency in the housing realm.

And I would throw out the idea of living simply, which is becoming increasingly more popular.
JS: Yeah, and when I use the broad concept of efficiency I mean living simply, sustainably and not having to work your butt off to pay off a mortgage. The 2008 housing bust was a good example of how forcing people into more house than they want or need was not for the well-being of folks.

We can even speak of efficiency with regard to aesthetics. A great composition in music or art or whatever is always one that is edited well. Every part of the composition is working for the whole. If you have a lot of extra space or parts that are not working for the function of a house and living in it happily, then I see it as ugly, because the composition just doesn’t work.

In light of the housing bust, is there more desire on the part of homebuilders to build more of these tiny, efficient homes, or are people still wanting to buy 4,000-square-foot homes?
JS: These tiny houses — 125 square footers — I think are a subcultural thing. They certainly have not spread too far. But the extremes have helped to show folks how simple living can be. Instead of moving into 4,000 square feet, maybe they’ll move into 3,000 square feet. I think it’s very clear that most folks are going to live in houses much bigger than tiny houses, I think the movement has had an almost universal impact.

What is being done with this concept in other countries?
JS: These small houses seem to be most popular in areas with very big houses. This movement is said to have started in the United States, but in Japan and some other places you couldn’t call it a movement, because it was always that way. So it makes sense that it would start in the U.S., and Australia’s really into it now. They apparently have the biggest houses in the world at this point. So there’s always a backlash to the overly large houses. People see the ramifications of being forced into too much house, so they choose to live in much smaller houses. I’m just speculating.

But even in Japan, where houses have always been tiny, they are really into tiny houses right now. I was inspired by a trip to Tokyo, where I spent most of my time in my hotel room looking at how small the bathroom was and how cool it was. Japan is an outlier in terms of tiny houses existing only in big-house areas. I guess they have really begun to embrace the philosophy and the concept of it.

Saudi Arabia, where there are giant houses, is into it, too. I was asked to speak there due to their giant housing problem. That’s the most exotic thing I have done, going to Saudia Arabia to talk about tiny houses!

What were the benefits you’ve received from living more simply in a tiny house, perhaps something that you didn’t expect?
JS: The thing I did expect, which I got far more of, was freedom to do the things I love doing instead of having to work for cash all the time. I guess I was surprised by how much of a chick magnet they are, and if you’re into guys, how much of a guy magnet they are.

For me, I thought, “You know, I’m going to live like a recluse here maybe, but at least I’ll be happy living simply.” It turns out tiny houses are not really a turn-off to other people — anybody I’d want to hang around with anyway! You invite them over and they see your tiny house and are actually fascinated by it.

I guess if they like your home it separates those you want to be around and those you don’t.
JS: Yeah, and surprisingly, there are very few people I’ve met who don’t get it and aren’t fascinated by it.

The thing that has really surprised me is how it’s all taken off like it has. Before I built my first house, I was in the closet designing tiny houses. It was my secret way of not having to do all the stuff I didn’t want to do, like laundry or whatever. I never would have thought at that time that not only would it be accepted by our culture to be so OCD with such a hyper-efficient housing design, but it would be embraced by the media at large all over the world.

Why do you enjoy designing tiny houses?
JS: For me, it’s pretty personal, because my psychology is that I lack a sense of home. Focusing so much on boiled down, rarified archetypal homes, gives me that sense. Stewart Brand (best known as editor of the Whole Earth Catalog) in his book said that when people say I’m home, they could be using “home” as an adjective as well as a noun. When you say, “I’m home,” you could mean that you feel that way. That’s what I’m looking for when I work with tiny houses.

Outside of that, designing tiny houses is just an addiction at this point. I can hardly stop doing it, because that efficient part is very fascinating. “How small could a bathtub be?” It seems like you can always find another inch to save. After all this time, I keep on finding ways to make things more efficient.

Can you go smaller than you’ve gone so far?
JS: Yes, it all depends on where you want to draw the line. Henry Thoreau would design and build something in which he would just survive. But I want my laptop and I want my fridge. So the efficiency of the design hinges on what you want to include. Paraphrasing Socrates, he who needs the least is the richest.

I used to live in the back of my truck before I designed my first house, and that is much less than a quarter of the size of my house. You can always go smaller until you get to a certain point. For most people, that is when it starts to feel confining.

I guess, ultimately, I’ll wind up in a coffin-sized structure.

I guess some people who are claustrophobic might not appreciate the tiny house, so I guess it’s not for everybody.
JS: Yeah, I’d say it’s not for everybody. Secretly, I think a lot of people would be into living in less space than they think they could live in comfortably. It’s difficult to assess your needs. That takes a lot of time, especially when you live in a culture that exceeds your needs.

I don’t know anybody living in a small house that doesn’t like it, unless they are forced into that situation. And usually if it feels crowded, it’s because it’s not designed well and/or it’s just not meeting that person’s needs. Maybe they need a pool table to feel happy. I’d put it outside and put a cover over it. Or you design the pool table in the house and maybe feel happy.

You could sleep on it, I guess.
JS: That just came to mind as we were talking. That’s exactly the right answer. Sleep on the pool table.

I’m actually claustrophobic myself. I get claustrophobic in spaces that feel confining. I’ve been in 4,000-square-foot homes and have felt claustrophobic because I felt the design was bad or there was a bottleneck somewhere and it didn’t work. I get what I call social claustrophobia in an extremely crowded room. But then again, I’m a claustrophile — I like very small spaces. It’s like Goldilocks — too big, too small, it’s got to be just right.

What’s the greatest challenge in living in a tiny house?
JS: As far as living in a tiny house according to my own definition in which all of the space is being used efficiently, I guess the challenge is if you have a need one day that exceeds your size limitations, like you want to have a party with 40 of your friends. I would say just go to the Holiday Inn and rent a party room with the money you have saved not having a mortgage.

I talk to a lot of tiny home people, and it doesn’t seem like there are many challenges. It is mostly liberating!

How does temperature affect tiny homes? Can you live in one year-round in Minnesota where you could have cold weather for five or six months?
JS: Actually, they work very well in adverse climates. I lived in mine in Iowa, which is only about 10 degrees off of Minnesota. I found that I spent about a twelfth on heating compared to what other folks were spending, on average. It’s really easy to heat and cool a tiny space. You could turn it from a sauna into a refrigerator in about 20 minutes if you needed to. A lot of people go with a variety of sources for their heat, like propane or natural gas or wood.

For someone interested in tiny houses but who doesn’t know much about them, what do they cost and are they pre-made or do you need to invest time in learning how to make the home?
JS: There are so many variables. You can build a tiny house for almost nothing, in terms of money, if you’re willing to spend a gazillion hours digging through salvage yards using reclaimed materials. And if you wanted to buy everything new at a lumber yard to build a 120-square-foot house, it would only cost about $17,000 in materials — if you’re not going over the top like I tend to do. In my history, I’ve gotten the most-expensive heater because it looks cool. You see a nice fire in it and it makes it feel cozy. I’m actually trying to design more affordable houses right now, because you can do a lot of really cool things with a lot less money. The most efficient thing tends to look best anyway.

In other words, it really depends upon what kinds of materials and amenities you want. I’ve heard them costing upwards of $100,000 for something that size, which is an awful lot. That someone wanting to build with the finest wood. I’m now trying to aim for something with materials that costs only $10,000, or something a little smaller that is more efficient for only $4,000.

You can buy tiny homes pre-made or you can build one yourself. All of the options are available today.

What trend would you like to see take place for tiny houses?
JS: I’m hoping the overarching trend of the whole thing is that it’s not even a trend.

McMansions were an unsustainable trend. They don’t fit well in the scheme of nature or human sustainability overall, and yet they were on the rise for a few decades. And there will always be McMansions. I don’t imagine that everyone will be living in 120 square footers.

But I think the tiny house movement will be like it always has been in Japan. It’s just efficient design. It’s just good design, where you have taken out all of the unnecessary parts. It’s like buying a car. You don’t buy a car based on its square footage. You buy it for its quality.

For more information on Jay Shafer and tiny houses, visit www.fourlightshouses.com. To learn more about the Minnesota workshop on tiny houses, visit www.thesanctuaryminnesota.com.

The Edge Partner Directory is your resource for festivals, classes, products and services


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.