In most places in the U.S., people cannot legally live in tiny houses.
But that didn’t stop a group of enthusiasts from coming to a two-day workshop a few weeks back at the Craft and Folk Art Museum — or CAFAM — to learn how to build one.
The workshop was helmed by one of the stars of the burgeoning tiny home world, Derek “Deek” Diedricksen, the host of HGTV’s Tiny House Builders.
Participants spent two days of banging, nailing, sawing and learning skills like how to repurpose found materials.
By the end of the workshop this 16 x 8 feet cabin was finished, and it will be raffled off this Saturday — at CAFAM’s House Party — to the lucky holder of a $50 ticket that anyone can purchase online.
The process was a kind of mini barn-raising, which plays right into the mission of the museum, says CAFAM’s executive director Suzanne Isken.
“It’s very important to the Craft and Folk Art Museum both to align ourselves with the maker movement but also to give a participatory hands-on making experience to as many people as we can. . . And it was a very, very sharing environment which we see in craft all the time. Craft artists — as opposed to fine artists, so-called — really want to tell people about how they made it and teach people how to do it and learn from other people.”
Right now tiny houses are a craze, and folks like Derek Diedricksen, who specializes in whimsical designs made of recycled materials, have a following. But he says the attraction goes beyond the cuteness of the structures he builds:
“There’s a lot of people who are just sick of the debtors prison of 30-year mortgages; also they don’t need as much space. They want the lifestyle of experiences instead of stuff and don’t want to work themselves to death for it to pay for a house they’re never in. There’s the environmental aspect as well: less to heat, less to maintain, less to furnish.”
All very appealing reasons, but still, in many places it’s easier to get a permit to build a McMansion than a liveable hut.
So what drew folks to plunk down several hundred dollars for the workshop?
David Wolfe says that he has a fascination with tiny houses combined with an admiration for the early bungalow courts of Pasadena, like Bowen Court, which date back to the Arts & Crafts period and essentially comprise a cluster of mini-Gamble Houses around a shared court.
He is interested in developing courtyard housing but using tiny houses instead.
Shaina Thompson is a co-creator of a cobuilding group called LATCH (Los Angeles Tiny Cobuild Haven) collective — “that means sharing the costs of tools and the cost of the space and having a labor share program and helping people making it more attainable for people who want to do it themselves” — and wanted to network with folks in the tiny world.
She told DnA that she and her wife Tessa Baker are seeking freedom from the usual markers of success: “I want financial freedom that comes from reducing what I consume. I was raised in a way [where] bigger is better and the more you have the better your life is.
“But I’ve just gotten to a point in my life where I realize that I’m working to buy things that I don’t really use all the time and it’s not making me happier.
“I want to be able to travel, I want to be able to go out to eat whenever I want and not have to think about, OK, what’s my budget this month? I want to have experiences, and I think living tiny is an experience in itself.”
Susan Bernardo had brought her 13-year old son to the workshop because he is interested in construction.
In addition, she is a children’s book author about to debut her latest, called The Big Adventures of Tiny House, which was — needless to say — inspired by the tiny house movement and explores the definition of home.
She says one of the other attractions for the Tiny Home enthusiasts is a feeling of being “overwhelmed by too much space.”
Citing the experience of a woman who lives with her husband, two small children and a Great Dane in 200 square feet in Boise, Idaho, Bernardo adds, “They’re on their own piece of property and it’s cozy. You’re in contact and connected to your family in a way that we’re not if you’re in floating around three, four or five thousand square feet of house.”
“It seems in my neighborhood in Encino they just keep knocking down the small ranch houses and building these McMansions. And it’s isolating. Ironically you have this big house and yet you feel isolated. Everybody’s off in their own room doing their own thing on their own devices. It’s inspiring to hear what people are doing in smaller spaces. I think they create that connection.”
Polly Harrold, an antiques and art dealer with Lucca Antiques who lives in Silverlake, said she loves “architectural follies” and hopes to eventually live in a community of tiny homes. In the meantime she’s acquiring the building skills to make her own tiny house and fill it with art and decorative furnishings.
But still the question remains, once you’ve built your tiny home, can you legally live it?
The Pew Charitable Trust concluded in 2015 that while tiny homes are “cheap and energy efficient… lost in the enthusiasm is the fact that in many places, it is hard to live in them legally.”
The LA Times recently reported on a builder who has had trouble selling tiny homes he had thought would fly off the shelves.
And it’s because the rules surrounding tiny house living are at best hazy, at worst make them illegal.
Following two divorces, empty nester Michelle Boyle built her own dinky home on wheels on the site of a former Christmas tree farm in Sherwood, Oregon.
The house sits on “this perfectly level gravel spot with the hose and the electric and everything that I needed,” where originally there had been an RV. “So it was perfect, it’s off the beaten path, it’s off the main roads and nobody can see me back nestled in the Christmas tree farm.”
The legality, or not, of tiny houses, comes down, she explains, “to the federal government’s definition of what’s called an occupiable house. Houses fall under basically three different categories. You have a house on a foundation. You have a mobile home. And you have RVs. So the reason why tiny houses are illegal is because they don’t fall under those three categories. They’re fairly new to the architectural landscape.”
The rules, however, are in flux.
Boyle explains that “some amazing people in the tiny house world have succeeded in adding [them] to the I.R.C. (International Residential Code) and will become effective in 2018.
“We’ve started the conversation. We’re now starting to talk about smaller room sizes. We’re starting to talk about sustainability and egress and stairs and stuff that you wouldn’t find in a normal house.
“Tiny houses are now legally allowed on foundations. Someone will go back and we’ll get tiny houses on wheels legal.”
She adds there are also several towns and cities across the country that have jumped ahead of the federal regulatory process, and made tiny houses legal, such as in Fresno, California.
So how big is Michelle Boyle’s tiny house? “384 square feet including both of my lofts — which gets me almost get kicked out of the tiny house ‘club.'”
And would she share that space with other folk? Turns out her cat is enough company for such a petite space.
“I have to admit cabin fever kicks in pretty fast, even for myself,” she said.
“We had some snow recently and I was kind of stuck in there for a couple of days and I just wanted to go out and roll in the snow. There are some successful couples that do it. There actually are a few families. That’s not my thing. I can’t imagine having a toddler in a space that small. I can’t imagine having teenagers in a space that small. Many people do. But I just enjoy it as my own space.”
The winner of CAFAM’s tiny house raffle will be announced at a house party this Saturday. While the lucky person need not be present at the event, they do have to take responsibility for transporting the house from the museum.