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What’s the big idea?

For many, tiny houses let them live freely, pragmatically

Greg Parham is a home builder, but not in the conventional sense.

The houses he is building in a pole barn south of Durango are part of the tiny-house movement – tiny, as in a few hundred square feet – that began spreading across the country in the mid- to late-1990s.

Tiny-house websites cite philosophical reasons such as freedom of movement and rejection of acquisitiveness, as well as practical reasons such as high cost of land and unmanageable mortgages, for the open-arm embrace of the concept.

Jay Shafer was among industry pioneers, designing and building tiny houses starting in 2000 in Northern California. He sold his first company and founded Four Lights Tiny House Co. last year. He defines a tiny house as one in which all space is used well.

In a telephone interview, he said the industry is thriving because people are looking for livability in a house.

“People want a house for its use instead of its resale value,” Shafer said. “There are fewer options for mansions.”

The rush toward tiny took hold around 2007, Ryan Mitchell from Tiny House Craftsman said by telephone from Charlotte, N.C.

Mitchell, who builds tiny houses and does consulting, has blogged on tiny-house issues for 4½ years. He offers some statistics:

The size of the average tiny house is 186 square feet; 68 percent of tiny-house owners have no mortgage, compared with 29 percent of all U.S. homeowners; and the average cost to build a tiny house by the owner is $23,000.

Dawn Widen, administrative assistant for the English, history and sociology departments at Fort Lewis College, knows about downsizing.

Widen, her husband and 12-year-old daughter moved from a custom-built, 2,200-square-foot log house in Vallecito to a 780-square-foot, 1950s house with cardboard insulation near downtown Durango.

“The tiny-house movement began with the economic recession a few years ago,” Widen said. “People couldn’t afford big houses and didn’t need all the space anyway. The movement piggy-backed with the conscious decision not to own a car but to use the bus.”

The Widen house downtown is on the upper end of what is typically defined as a “tiny” house, but it is tight quarters. The kitchen doubles as a living room; the lone bedroom lacks a door because a queen-sized bed prevents movement.

The Widens are familiar with economy of size. The couple lived in a Toyota pickup with a camper shell for 13 months before their daughter was born and lived in a teepee while building in Vallecito.

“Our house is a challenge,” Widen said. “But we’ve had up to 20 guests in the winter.”

Tiny is an apt description of Parham’s house. It’s no telephone booth at 151 square feet, but it is snug. The 16-by-7½-foot structure is mounted on a custom trailer fabricated by Hiebco Trailers in Gem Village.

The house has all the amenities – a loft for sleeping, kitchen with stove and water heater that operate on propane. Standalone solar panels outside provide electricity.

If there’s a downside, Parham said, it is the difficulty in getting financing. Banks won’t loan on unsecured property, so it’s cash, build-it-yourself or perhaps a personal bank loan, he said.

If a unit such as his can be certified as a recreational vehicle, which is difficult but possible, a bank might make a loan, Parham said.

Parham calculates the value of his home at $38,000 because of amenities such as the off-grid features, metal siding on the lower half of the exterior walls and the time spent preparing reclaimed wood for interior features.

The house he’s building now is the same size but will be worth about $25,000, Parham said.

“Tiny houses may appeal to people who are trying to simplify their life,” Parham said. “It also frees them from a mortgage.”

Parham, who has a degree in architecture from the University of Texas at Austin, arrived in Durango a year ago. He incorporated as Rocky Mountain Tiny Houses in April.

It took Parham four months working on and off to build the first unit.

Instead of taking a corner of his house for a porch entrance, Parham put a door in the smaller wall, then built a fold-up porch and a fold-down roof that meet in the middle.

The house and trailer weigh 6,500 pounds, which requires, ideally, a ¾-ton truck to pull it.

Proof of ownership doesn’t come from a title company, but from the Department of Motor Vehicles, which licenses the unit as a trailer.

Parham plans to build two models with different roof lines and floor plans. As a one-man show, he figures he can turn out six to eight houses a year.

“If there’s demand, I could hire help,” Parham said. “I can also supply building plans if someone wants to do the construction.”


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