Does size matter in a home?
For an increasing number of Louisville residents, the answer is no.
The tiny house movement has spawned documentaries, a television show, and decorated many a Pinterest page—all focused on people who are seriously downsizing their living space.
The typical American home is about 2,600 square feet. The typical small or tiny house is about 400 or even 100 square feet. Tiny houses come in all shapes, sizes and forms but they all focus on smaller spaces and simplified living.
Only 1 percent of American home buyers in 2010 purchased a home under 1,000 square feet, according to the annual National Association of Realtors Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers. But tiny homes have captured many people’s imagination and interest, in the name of economic sustainability, the downsizing of material possession and reducing one’s carbon footprint.
Those are some of the reasons that led Nancy Bohannon to form the Tiny House Project Louisville. Bohannon, a local healthcare worker, found herself wishing for simplicity in the wake of her recent divorce. Now, she’s building a 200-square-foot house from scratch.
She had started seeing miniature homes pop up on the Internet and in magazines about seven years ago, but at the time, they simply reminded her of her childhood playhouse. She moved on.
Then Bohannon, 56, began thinking about retirement.
“I started thinking that I would be running for the rest of my life to make ends meet,” she said. “You know, I don’t want a mortgage at my age—even a 15-year mortgage is too much. I’ve moved many times over the years, and kept lugging all this crap with me, so I finally thought, ‘That tiny house thing is sounding better and better.’”
Like many people, Bohannon lived paycheck-to-paycheck and hadn’t put much money back to do the things she wanted to do once she retired, like traveling. With her current living situation, she didn’t have the mobility to simply pack up and leave.
She began thinking.
“So what could I do to have a standard of living that I could deal with without having to spend a whole lot of money?” she said.
“Well, have fewer expenses. I could build a tiny house for a small amount of money and not end up with a bill for it at the end, and then I could eventually buy a piece of land to put it on, pay it off—and then in the end, whatever money I get in retirement will actually be able to be put toward living expenses.”
She could also use environmentally friendly technology, such as solar power and water catchment, that would cut down on her monthly bills.
Bohannon happened to have a background in construction, demolition and remodeling. She had never built a home before, but she knew how to take one apart. She felt confident in her “abilities to put one back together.”
But she also knew she needed help securing the materials and workmanship cheaply, which is how the Tiny House Project Louisville was conceived. The concept is to create a collaborative-build effort where interested people would donate time and resources, and Bohannon would give them building tutorials and tips in exchange.
“My friends encouraged me to start a Facebook page because all I talked about was tiny houses, they told me to put the word out there and see the response. I was shocked at how many people were interested,” Bohannon said.
The building begins later this month.
She wants to stress that the home will have everything a normal home does, just smaller—including a bath tub and air conditioning. She said she couldn’t live without either.
But, in addition to some construction challenges, the ownership of the tiny house—Bohannon envisions hers as “a gypsy vardo, with a curved roof and really reminiscent of the Old World”—falls into a legal gray area.
A structure must be anchored to the ground for Louisville Metro to consider it a house, said Jessica Wethington, a spokeswoman for the metro agency Develop Louisville. If someone chooses to register a tiny house as a mobile home, it can only be parked in mobile home parks.
Wellington said the agency has received a few calls about tiny homes. She stressed that if appropriate zoning is attained, and the building is not on wheels, “it would be treated as any other single family house.”
Metro government has other requirements—at least one room has to 120 square feet, other “habitable” rooms must be at least 70 square feet, she said. All habitable rooms have to be at least 7-feet in all dimensions, Wellington said.
“A 400-square-foot house would be as usable as a 400-square-foot apartment,” she said.
But the regulations don’t have to be that way, Bohannon said.
“A lot of cities are allowing them to be put in backyards as an accessory home, and some cities are allowing smaller homes to be built on foundations. I’d like to think that Louisville would be open to that at some point in the future,” Bohannon said.
She also added that she is looking toward more rural options for land ownership.
While the tiny house concept may seem plausible for a single retiree, would it work for a family with children?
Heather and Zach Morgan, who recently moved their tiny house to Shelbyville with their two daughters, think so. When the Morgans first married, they moved into a 900 square-foot apartment in Louisiana—which soon filled up with their combined belongings. This was followed by similar experiences in increasingly larger homes, as they moved with the Army. Along the way, they had fallen in love with the tiny house concept, but they didn’t think it was feasible, especially after their first daughter was born.
Yet Heather’s dream of living in a tiny home never died. When deployed, she lived in a 8-foot by 25-foot containerized housing unit, of which Heather only used about a third. “And it was at that point that I realized, ‘You know, we could do this!’” Heather said.
Zach was living in Washington state at the time, and found a builder online who specialized in tiny houses. With his help, Zach created a customized house that was perfect for their growing family, complete with a miniature master bedroom, a loft for the girls, a full kitchen and bathroom and space for their records and book collection.
Zach said that their tiny home was comparable in price to a Fifth Wheel camper, but that tiny homes can range in price from $5,000—if you are relying on donated and repurposed materials like Bohannon—to $70,000 or $80,000 if one chooses to customize a floor plan from a contractor specializing in tiny house construction.
Zach said they built their home based on the formula—you include an additional 75 square feet per person. It doesn’t leave much room for clutter. In order to keep their home from filling up, as they have in the past, Heather and Zach have become increasingly mindful of what they actually need in their home, and say that the tiny house has really helped them reduce their household spending, too.
“It was really a departure from materialistic ways. If you need something, go get it at Goodwill for $5, instead of buying a new one,” Heather said. “Keep it out of a landfill, you know?”
The Morgan family was forced to downsize many of their possessions—which is still a work in progress—however, the one thing that the family will not skimp on in their new home is books; the interior of the home is lined with bookshelves. “Zach says we need to start the first library after the zombie apocalypse, and when he puts it that way, I have to agree,” Heather said.
The family moved to Shelbyville earlier this summer and is currently living in the Guist Creek Marina RV Park. While they would ultimately like to live on their own plot of land (or start a tiny house community), the Morgans have been overwhelmed with how much they enjoy the simplicity of their new life, as well as their new neighbors.
“The girls really are becoming more in tune with nature, which is something we envisioned when we began this lifestyle. They are outside all the time, but then we also have great family time,” Heather said. “And there are so many great and gracious families living around us who consistently have and appreciate that family time together. That is one of the big benefits of this lifestyle.”