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Small is Mighty

The visionary behind Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, shares thoughts on paring down, living lightly and gaining happiness in the process



The visionary behind Tumbleweed Tiny House Company has lived in dwellings as small as 89 square feet and designs homes ranging in size from 99 square feet to 874 square feet. Here, he shares thoughts on paring down, living lightly and gaining happiness in the process.

What inspired you to start building homes that are smaller than some people’s garages?
Tumbleweed Tiny House Company is born of my personal desire for a space that accommodates my needs without saddling me with a lot of extra debt and maintenance. I’ve always tried to create a sense of meaning for myself and link that to the rest of the world. Nothing does that better than home; it’s like a self-portrait in the end. So I built a house that was 89 square feet and just kept on building after that. 

Tell us more about your idea of home.
I believe a real sense of home comes from being surrounded by the things that are essential to your life; anything that’s unessential diminishes that—and makes life less meaningful. 

So how have you edited such modest floor plans down to the essentials?
I’ve looked at what people everywhere have found to be homey. If you break it down, that usually includes a gabled roof and four walls, a prominent front door, a bathroom and kitchen, and a living room and sleeping area. I don’t believe much in dining rooms. I grew up living in 4,000 square feet with four people, and we used the dining room twice a year, but cleaned the space about 50 times a year and heated it all winter long.

What does the process of acquiring a Tumbleweed house look like?
When we build a house for someone, it arrives fully built and ready for folks to move into. We don’t build that many houses, though; we sell far more plans than we do homes. I’ve stopped doing custom designs because everyone wants to accommodate the Jacuzzi tub or the pool table.

A lot of people who buy our plans and houses seem to want to do something for their lives besides work for a mortgage. Many are artists and creative types, folks who are fairly frugal and figure they have sweat equity to work with. They build their house themselves from plans they buy from us.  

How do your tiny homes hold up in the high country?
When I’m designing, I try to design for any environment, but it turns out that living in a small structure actually makes living in a very cold or hot environment much easier because you don’t have much space to heat or cool. Beyond that, the philosophy behind a home this small is that the outdoors becomes the living room. 

How do you help your clients find the right-sized home?
I try to keep my nose out of it because it’s a very individual thing. Some people may need 4,000 square feet between two people to be happy. Some people use the home as a freestanding addition to their existing home, and others use it as a full-time residence. It’s always up to them. Though I always imagine that most people need a lot less than they think to be happy. 

What are the challenges of designing such small houses?
Getting people comfortably into a space that’s very small is a lot different than just fitting people and their stuff in there. I’m always looking to create elbow room wherever I can and make sure things feel as open as possible. There’s not much margin for error when you’re designing a 100-square-foot house.

What’s your advice for people who want to pare down?
It’s a lifestyle choice, not a house choice. Living very simply is about knowing what really makes you happy. And that is a huge change for a lot of people, because for most of us Americans, if we’re unhappy, we take an additive approach. We go out and buy more stuff.
Ultimately if something is functioning for your whole life and makes your whole life happier, then it’s making the world better. It all comes down to the microcosm that’s happening at home.

We’d love to hear your two cents about sustainability.
It’s hard to know what is truly sustainable in a world where there is so much "green-washing," and what’s sustainable in one situation may not be in another. If you happen to have vinyl windows lying around, then using those might be the best choice. I’ve found that the best thing one can do is just use less of everything. You see 15,000-square-foot houses that are LEED certified and they’re considered sustainable by some folks, but that would certainly not be sustainable for me. I don’t need that much stuff. 

If living with less wasn’t your mantra, is there another message you might advocate?
I love to change people’s minds about things that are so common we often overlook them. I’d probably reinvent the toilet. I’d love to face the marketing challenge of trying to get Americans to use a more sustainable toilet. 

What do you love most about your work?
I’m the guy who people see doing the presentation, but when it comes down to it, my favorite part is designing houses. It’s a challenge. I’m kind of addicted to it, and it’s a good way to avoid having to answer emails. tumbleweedhouses.com

Jay Shafer's Top Space-Saving Tips

Think vertically “I try to take advantage of vertical spaces and maximize every cubic foot with storage. Putting a bed in a loft saves a lot of floor space and a tall, narrow Japanese ofuro bathtub makes great use of vertical space; you’re immersed up to your shoulders.”

Make furniture multitask “Choose furnishings that do double duty, like a couch that turns into a desk or a dining table that serves as a workstation. When it comes to transformer furniture, the fewer moving parts, the better.”

Reclaim wasted space “Use spaces like hallways and stairways—throughways of any kind—for storage, or even turn them into functional rooms. You could turn a hallway into a library by lining one or both sides with bookshelves, or put storage under the stairway. I like to put little drawers in the risers of a staircase.”

Go for a hike “The best thing you can do to figure out what you need is to go backpacking for a week. The things you wish you hadn’t taken along are the things you probably don’t need, and that’s the way all of life is.”

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