Minimalist Homes May Be Antidote to Sagging Housing Market

The American Dream in a 8 x 19 feet space.

December 21, 2010, 2:00 PM

Dec. 22, 2010— -- The long economic downturn has led a small number of Americans to downsize their homes to minimalist mini-cabins, not much larger than the size of the average living room.

When Nicki Evans was house hunting a year ago, she knew she didn't need the 1,400 square feet of space she'd shared with her late husband in Oklahoma. Evans, 61, also wanted to move closer to her family in upstate New York to support her younger sister and brother-in-law, who had just had a stroke.

Living alone since her husband passed away several years ago, Evans ordered a custom-built home that's about the size of the average master bathroom in McMansionland: 235 square feet, or 12 feet by 24 feet.

"It's an energy and money saver," said Evans, who retired from teaching in a church. "It's a home I could really afford."

Evans considered buying a traditional house but said they were either too big or she could not afford to make them more environmentally friendly, using less energy and water. She said her electric furnace warms the entire cabin easily and economically for her and her husky when she's not gardening outside.

"It felt like home the first day I walked in and was there," said Evans, a self-proclaimed "ex-hippie." "It's as close as you can get to living in a tree house because of the site and because the outside of the house is stained, not painted. So it looks like a tree."

William Rockhill, who built Evans' home, has been building cabins since 1991 when he started Bear Creek Carpentry in Woodgate, N.Y. He built Evans' home half a mile away from her sister in the woods, and she couldn't be happier about being a part of the small home movement.

Evans said in the past year she started to read in the media about others, mostly younger people, moving to smaller homes.


"I think it's wonderful because these people are really conscious of the environment and the impact they'll have. Let's face it, most of the 'tiny home people' are doing green things and are involved in a lot of causes because they're not tied up in possessions and things."

Based in the Adirondack Mountains, Rockhill has built 200 homes, mostly for vacationers buying second homes. That began to change in the past few years when the economy tanked, according to Rockhill.

"Most people requesting information now are looking for a simpler, alternative life," said Rockhill, who builds about one home for every 10 requests he receives. "Off the grid is a big thing now."

Rockhill's mini-cabins range from $13,440 for an 8 by 16 feet complete cottage, to $50,400 for a 20 by 24 feet two-bedroom lodge.

Homebuyers interested in a do-it-yourself project can purchase the shells of these homes for $8,320 and $31,200, respectively.

Bear Creek Carpentry may be on the less expensive end of the small-home price spectrum. Jay Shafer, whom Rockhill called the "guru" of the small-home movement, started the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company in Sebastopol, Calif., with homes from $38,997 and up. Shafer's home sizes are 65 to 837 square feet and you can just buy the complete home plans for around $700.

Shafer co-founded the Small House Society, with a mission to "support the research, development, and use of smaller living spaces that foster sustainable living for individuals, families, and communities worldwide.

Gregory Johnson, president of the Small House Society in Iowa City, Iowa, said when the society first began several years ago, about 100 visitors clicked on its website every day. Today, still without advertising, about 1,000 people visit the website on average, though the site has received as many as 70,000 visitors in a day.

Johnson said another reason for the growing interest in smaller living spaces in addition to the economy, is greater awareness about human impact on the environment.

"Living small is a way to reduce our negative impact," he wrote in an e-mail.

Johnson wrote a book two years ago called, "Put Your Life on a Diet: Lessons Learned Living in 140 Square Feet," in which he discusses simplifying five areas: housing, utilities, transportation, technology and food.

Rich Daniels, another small-home builder in Oregon, began building his first group of mini-homes over a year ago in North Powder, in the northeastern part of the state. His company, Rich's Portable Cabins, is building a community of 50 affordable cabins in the style of an RV park. Tentatively called "Heritage RV Park," he said it will be "a little utopia on a very small scale" with a "frontier" appearance.

Around the area, which was formerly a saw mill, is mostly farmland. But Daniels said it is also situated near the I-5 corridor, which is accessible to travelers exploring the Oregon Trail who could stop and stay a while as well. He hopes to attract businesses that would be "like-minded to our business philosophy" of creating a community where people could live and work.

He also has considered traditional "heritage-based" businesses such as weaving and spinning, a quilting shop, a bakery, saddle-maker and an art gallery for local artists.

Daniels said each cabin will be for sale from $30,000 to $50,000 for a space on average of 400 square feet. He is planning to build a community center, high-tunnel green house and small farm. He is selling the cabins, as opposed to sub-dividing the land, with the future option for owners to move their cabins off the property.

Daniels said he intends to continue building specialty homes for customers on the same property as the development. Called a craftsman by his clients, he will customize the home according to his customers' needs. That includes everything from a composting toilet to batteries for someone who really wants to be off the grid.

"I really enjoy working with customers, building custom cabins and making them unique. That's what people like. I'm willing to try to build whatever they want."

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