Tiny Houses Find a Friend on the Gulf Coast Bigger is not better for a growing number of homeowners who live in, or use, tiny homes. The storm-ravaged Gulf Coast — where much of the housing is gone — is one place where miniature homes are trying to take root.
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Tiny Houses Find a Friend on the Gulf Coast

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Tiny Houses Find a Friend on the Gulf Coast

Tiny Houses Find a Friend on the Gulf Coast

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

Some homeowners are turning the old adage bigger is better on its head. They're living or working or vacationing in some really small houses. And I mean really small houses, 70 square feet small. It's called the tiny house movement.

And as NPR's Cheryl Corley reports, advocates are promoting small homes in the Midwest and along the Gulf Coast, where much of the housing was destroyed by hurricanes.

CHERYL CORLEY reporting:

As a technology consultant in Iowa City, Greg Johnson is surrounded by computers during his day job. But his life at home is much simpler.

Mr. GREG JOHNSON (Small House Society): We're in a hallway right now, and…

CORLEY: We're also in the kitchen.

Mr. JOHNSON: We're also in the kitchen, and we're also in the study. So, it's very compact.

CORLEY: Greg Johnson's home is tiny, about 70 square feet. A custom built cedar cabin, with a cathedral ceiling.

Mr. JOHNSON: I call it the mobile hermitage.

CORLEY: Stretching his arms wide, Johnson can almost touch both sides of the space. On one side there's a sink with two canisters of water, a toothbrush and toothpaste on the ledge, on the other side, a desk area. There are also small closets and cabinets where Johnson stores clothes, tools and a foldable ladder, which helps him get upstairs.

Mr. JOHNSON: We can probably take a peek up there, actually. We'll go ahead and unfold the ladder.

CORLEY: Ah, this is your bedroom?

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah, so up there's the loft. It's the bedroom. And the ceiling is all pine wood. There's a window at the head of the bed. It's a queen-sized bed, so it's plenty roomy.

CORLEY: Throughout the home, there are electrical outlets, powered by battery and shelves, which pull down to make additional workspace. On a shelf above the kitchen sink, there's a tiny cheese grater and a miniature tea set. It's an efficient use of every inch of space.

Johnson used to live in a larger apartment, but he put stuff in storage and decided to downsize. For Johnson, who is the president of a group called The Small House Society, his latest home is a way of life.

Mr. JOHNSON: It is tiny, but I have had people, of course, come as visitors and I'm not currently in a relationship, but my girlfriend of a couple years would come and visit. And we found it very adequate. It's sizeable enough to accommodate two very compatible people.

CORLEY: Johnson says technology has helped. He has his music, more than 3,000 selections, stored on computer, along with his photography collection. He also says since he's not hunkering down in a larger house, he has to be more social.

Mr. JOHNSON: So you go to the Laundromat or for your exercise, you don't have a treadmill, so you go to the gym. And you end up being a more social person, because your private areas, such as that you'd have in a home normally, are now overlapping with that of society. And so you're sharing common facilities with people.

CORLEY: Johnson's house sits on a side lot full of trees and tiny, blue flowers, next door to his father's much larger home. He showers and uses the bathroom there or at work to allow for more storage space in his house.

At the back of his home, there are several propane tanks, which are used to heat the place. The roof is a solid sheet of metal. The siding is cedar, both sturdy materials which require little maintenance. With its small front porch, Johnson's house is a traditional home in miniature, except for its wheels and its trailer base.

Mr. JOHNSON: One of the advantages to using a steel trailer is that it gives you a solid frame to build your home on. And you know then that it's all lined up and it's all true, so you don't have to spend that time and money building a foundation for the home. And also, because it's a trailer if, you know, there's a threat of a hurricane or something, you can move it.

CORLEY: And instead of paying real-estate taxes, Johnson simply pays the fees for his license plate. The cost of the house was $15,000 three years ago.

Artist and architect Jay Shaefer, who lives in his own 70-square-foot home near San Francisco, designed and built the house when he lived in Iowa City. Shaefer is the owner of the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company. He sells plans and builds tiny homes of varying sizes, from an extremely small 50 feet to 500 square feet, pared down versions of traditional houses.

Mr. JAY SHAEFER (Tumbleweed Tiny House Company): I really enjoy just creating, houses that look like the sort of thing you'd want to come home to.

CORLEY: In a country used to ever growing jumbo homes, the tiny buildings might seem like some whacky honey-I-shrunk-the-house idea. But Shaefer says besides living in them as a primary residence, people use the tiny buildings as a backyard retreat, for business offices or vacation cabins.

Mr. SHAEFER: It's not easy pushing through the idea of a smaller house. A lot of people still associate small with lower quality. That's far from the case because, you know, a lot the money saved on quantity is put into quality in these houses. So they wind up being really sort of an asset to the neighborhood where they have come up. I'm hoping to build a little neighborhood of them within itself at some point.

CORLEY: Along the Gulf Coast, where the fierce winds and the storm surges from Hurricane Katrina flattened thousands of homes, the idea of small homes is attractive. For four months, Julie Martin lived on a FEMA ship in Pascagoula. After finding out about the Tumbleweed Company, she called Jay Shaefer and worked with him to develop what she calls a Gulf Coast model. She hooked it up to her pickup and brought it into a shopping mall parking lot in Gulf Port, Mississippi, to show it off.

CORLEY: So, you just drove your house down?

Ms. JULIE MARTIN (Owner of Tiny Home): I just drove my house down. It's portable.

CORLEY: We're in front of the Barnes and Nobel bookstore. We're in a parking lot.

Ms. MARTIN: I can go anywhere.

CORLEY: Martin used to restore historic houses. Her former home, the three-story Spanish customs house built in 1787 in Bay St. Louis, was reduced to a pile of rubble when Hurricane Katrina trashed the Mississippi beachfront. Her new home, which measures eight by 20 feet, arrived in February.

Ms. MARTIN: It was an answer to prayer. I'd lost my home and it wasn't that I'd just lost my home, I'd lost my whole town. I had offers to live with people all over the country. I could have gone anywhere. But I wanted to be here and to be part of this. And I didn't know how I was going to do it. So it was just joy, just utter joy, when the house arrived.

CORLEY: It has plenty of windows, nine of them. There's a small countertop stove, a dorm-sized refrigerator, a walk-in closet and a bathroom with an old fashioned porcelain sink and a composting toilet.

Ms. MARTIN: One thing I wanted, since it's just myself and we could put it in, was a full tub and a full shower and have that luxury that's just so hard to come by these days.

CORLEY: Martin powers her home simply by plugging into an electric outlet. She can get water by hooking a garden hose to a faucet. She calls her house the anti-FEMA trailer and has been able to live in the yard of a friend's home and now on some wooded property her father owns not from the shopping mall.

She's also back in business. After working out a licensing agreement with Jay Shaefer, Martin is offering three different versions of her tiny Gulf Coast model home to others who need to rebuild. She's calling her new company Martin House To Go.

Ms. MARTIN: As you know, it's going to be years before we can truly have our communities rebuilt. So I wanted something that I could be comfortable and happy in for years, if needed. So this has made it possible for me to come back to the coast, to start a business here, to help with the renewal and the rebuilding. So many people don't have a place to live.

CORLEY: And don't know where they will live because of so many changes along the coast, which may make a tiny house on wheels all the more practical.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News.

BLOCK: You can see photos and a floor plan of the tiny houses at NPR.org.

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