CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
I'm Celeste Headlee. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR news. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, we hear from a photographer who chronicled the transformation of Harlem, climbing from a troubled neighborhood to a source of pride for New Yorkers. That's just ahead. But first, you might think going through a divorce and then losing your home to foreclosure would be hard to bounce back from, and they are. But we caught up with a woman who beat the odds and built a new home for herself, quite literally. Macy Miller is an architect from Idaho and she built the home with her own two hands at a cost of only $11,000. She joins us today from Boise, Idaho. Welcome to the program.
MACY MILLER: Thank you very much, Celeste. It's nice to be here.
HEADLEE: You know, I have to ask you, how well is the house made? Are you cold? 'Cause I know it's cold in Boise right now.
MILLER: Oh, no, I've designed it for our temperatures. We've been down to negative four so far and I'm doing good - had some water issues, but nothing I can't fix.
HEADLEE: You made this house from scratch. Describe the house for us. What does it look like? How big is it?
MILLER: Sure. So it's 196 square feet, first of all. It's classified as a tiny house. I tend to gravitate towards a more modern style, so I used a lot of reclaimed materials and made sure to get everything that I want in it without, you know, putting extra.
HEADLEE: I've seen photos. It's streamlined, and you have not wasted even an inch of space everywhere.
MILLER: There is no room for that.
HEADLEE: I imagine, but it was difficult. I mean, number one, it took you a period of years, correct?
MILLER: It took 18 months, start to finish, but yeah. I had a minor injury, or some might call it a major injury in there.
HEADLEE: You broke your back. That's pretty major.
MILLER: Yeah, I did break my back. I'm a klutz and I fell off the roof and it was because I was being incredibly stupid. So I had two months off of construction in that 18 months. So start to finish, it was right at 16 months' time invested.
HEADLEE: So you lived in a - what would be a standard house with your spouse before the divorce, correct?
MILLER: Yep, yep, I came from a 2,500 square foot house. You know, four bedrooms, three baths and, you know, I had bedrooms that I literally never even opened. After years, there was still vacuum marks on the floor. It was a little bit too much. It was not really my style at all and this just works better for me, personally.
HEADLEE: So explain to me that mindset because a little bit too much doesn't explain going from 2,500 square feet to less than 200 square feet.
MILLER: You know, it comes down to - my background is in architectural design and, I think, everyone who goes into that has, kind of, these aspirations of, you know, designing their own house. Obviously, I can't go out after a foreclosure and get a mortgage on $150,000 house. So this is a way that I could do that within my realm. And then, also, I don't have to pay rent now. I just - I do pay rent on the property that I have it at. It's, you know, 200 bucks a month. And so it's a way to minimize my living expenses and paying my mortgage or somebody else's mortgage.
HEADLEE: And your house is, quite literally, mobile.
MILLER: It is. And that is more to do with building codes than mobility. It's a process to move it. A lot of people ask, you know, why not just get an RV and personally, for me, they don't work in this climate. You cannot live in an RV throughout the entire year. They just don't have enough insulation value for the temperatures we get down to. Sometimes it works in other areas. Most places also have a minimum building size, and so if you put it on wheels, you don't have to the follow those rules. So the wheels are more a work around to that minimum square footage requirement than anything else.
HEADLEE: So you've never actually moved it.
MILLER: I have actually moved it. I built it about 15 miles from where I have it now. So it's only traveled about 15 miles to date, but eventually, it will move again.
HEADLEE: So what was the most expensive part of the house to build? And what was the most difficult? Maybe they're both the same thing.
MILLER: No, no. The most expensive component in the house is my toilet, actually. I didn't want to put in a sewer line, so I have a composting toilet. And so to put that through all the tests it needs to go through to be regulated and OKed by jurisdictions, it brings up the price tag on it quite a bit.
So that was my most expensive part. The hardest and probably most daunting part for me was all of my electrical because I had no experience with electrical whatsoever. I never had any building experience either. I went to school for design, which is a lot different than, you know, building. So wiring the house was scary to me because if I did something wrong, I could shock myself and hurt myself or, you know, light it on fire.
MILLER: But I did end up, you know, I just got a book and I read about it. I watched YouTube videos. I did it and then I came and I had a licensed electrician check my work before I covered anything up. So I was happy to find out that I did everything just right. It took me a couple times in some spots, but I got it.
HEADLEE: How does it feel for you when you, say, go visit a friend's house or a family member's house which is large? What's that like for you when you sit down in a couch in a gigantic living room? I mean it must - they must all feel gigantic to you. What is that sense for you? This is too large or does it suddenly feel like, wow, I have all this space?
MILLER: Not at all. I mean my house, honestly, it doesn't feel that tiny. The space is laid out in a way that, you know, I have a living room. I have a bedroom. I have a kitchen. I have a bathroom. They all function. None of them feel cramped. I mean, two people can cook in my kitchen at the same time. I actually also have a Great Dane who runs around in there, which people think I'm...
HEADLEE: Wait, wait, whoa, whoa, whoa, you can't just gloss over that. You own a Great Dane?
MILLER: Yeah, they're really lazy dogs. Honestly, I would not have a Chihuahua in that space. I've owned a Chihuahua before and they need more room. They're more active animals. Great Danes sleep all day long, so.
HEADLEE: How much does your dog weigh?
MILLER: He is 8 months old and he's about 110 pounds right now.
HEADLEE: And he's going to get how big?
MILLER: He'll be between 160 and 180.
HEADLEE: So he'll weigh more than you do?
MILLER: Oh, yeah. He's about there.
HEADLEE: In a house less than 200 square feet. That is really, absolutely amazing to me.
MILLER: You know, I designed it for him, though, too. I have stairs up to the bedroom. So like, a lot of people that live in tiny houses have loft spaces, but I wanted him to be able to get up into the bed. And that's where he spends most of his time, honestly.
HEADLEE: Do you think this is the kind of thing that other people could replicate or is this particular to your personality that you're able to be happy there?
MILLER: Oh, no, there's a whole bunch of people all across the nation right now. There's like a whole - it's kind of a do-it-yourself movement 'cause they kind of get pricey if you have to pay somebody else to build them and it - you know, it costs the same as a normal house. And so if it costs the same, why would you not just, you know, build a normal house. There's people doing this all over.
HEADLEE: If somebody came to you and said, I want to build my own tiny house, what's the single piece of advice that you would give them? Is it something about building or is it something about a change of style of living?
MILLER: I would say look into it more. Research it and see if it's right for you. It's more a change in style of living and there is quite a bit of going against the norm. You get a lot of naysayers - that it's not possible, you can't do it, and you just have to believe in yourself more than that because it's really not that different.
HEADLEE: Macy Miller is an architect, and she joined us today from Boise, Idaho. Thanks so much, Macy.
MILLER: Thank you, Celeste.