Jay Shafer, founder of Tumbleweed
Tiny House Company, has been building and living in homes smaller than
120 square feet for more than a decade — and his company is encouraging
others to do the same. Men, women, couples, and even a teenager in California
are purchasing building plans for inexpensive and energy-efficient homes of their own. Shafer's
latest house is just 7' x 16'. Since he got married and had a child, he
and his wife decided to put their two homes next to each other,
creating a total shared living area of 620 square feet. "I like the
relative freedom a small house affords," he says. "The more square
footage and heating I'm paying for, the more likely it is that I'll have
to do things I don't want to do for cash." More: 7 Instant Backyard Getaways
This tiny house Shafer just built is called the Gifford, and is the
fourth tiny house he has lived in. This house now sits next to his
wife's 500-square-foot house on the same plot of land in Northern
California. "I like to call it the bunk house, since we all sleep
together there," he says.
The main room of the house accommodates an office and living space.
A tiny fireplace, two comfy chairs, desk, and lots of hidden storage
all occupy this 6' x 8' room. Believe it or not, Shafer has managed to
have dinner parties for 5 and workshop sessions for 9 here.
The sleeping space is nestled into a tiny nook up above the great
room. The home's superb insulation helps keep this place warm in winter
and cool in summer.
The size and build of these homes makes them
very energy efficient. None of Shafer's home designs have consumed more
than $70 in energy a year in California, and $180 a year in Iowa — a
stark comparison for those of us used to paying that much every month.
The front door opens into a small kitchen and dining space. A sink,
prep surface, portable electric range, and small refrigerator are all
that's needed. Shafer has become the king of storage solutions over the
years. While distilling his belongings down to the essentials is part of
the answer, this home is also full of subtle shelves, drawers and
closets. For example, most of the dishes are stored on a shelf above the
The structure is made out of basic 2' x 4' framing, with pine
paneling inside, cedar siding and metal roofing. Altogether, this little
guy took about 600 hours to build.
Although he's been building houses for more than a decade, Shafer
has never had a formal education in architecture or construction. Mostly
he has learned by doing. His DIY plans encourage people to do the same.
"It seems that we need more people making sustainably scaled houses
that most folks can afford," he says.
This house is 7' x 16', including the porch. "It's important that
every inch is used efficiently in a very small home," he says. "For my
first few months doing this, I spent a lot of time figuring out what
worked and what didn't, and moving my home's layout around accordingly."
This little bathroom might be the smallest full bath in the world.
It contains a sink, toilet, tub and shower in less than 10 square feet.
In most of Shafer's previous tiny houses, he's been completely
off-grid, collecting his own water and generating his own electricity.
But for this particular house, Shafer has opted to hook it up to another
power source with an extension cord. Water is gathered from a nearby
spigot. "I'd do something more elaborate, but my local building codes
and zoning prohibit a structure this small from being permanently
connected to utilities."
"It all depends on your perspective," he says. "In my case, it
makes perfect sense. It allows us to meet my wife's needs for a larger
space, both of our needs for some privacy, and our baby's needs —
without having to buy a larger house."
According to Shafer, these homes aren't just energy efficient —
they're sturdier and safer. "The best thing you can do to make a
building safer in a fire or an earthquake is to make it small," he says.
"Shorter distances mean a more expedient escape, and shorter rafter and
beam sizes with larger corner-to-wall ratios mean far less damage
during an earthquake."
Shafer — shown here in front of another of the Tumbleweed models —
loves his set-up, but he acknowledges that it's not for everyone. "I
wouldn't want to live in a 120-square-foot house as a family of three,"
he says. "I know a lot of folks in this world live in less, but in my
case, the only good company is optional company."