click to enlarge A tiny home repurposed from a U-Haul trailer

Photo by Richard Reep

A tiny home repurposed from a U-Haul trailer

Florida's tiny house movement embraces some big ideas 

Let's get small

Adam Money looks deceptively boyish, with a surfer's tan, blue eyes and a ready smile. Now in his 30s, he could be paying a big mortgage on a suburban ranch home, but instead Money is restoring a kitchen in the clubhouse of the RV park he owns, Orlando Lakefront. He's built several tiny houses in this mobile home community, bought a few more, and he gazes at them lovingly, like family, as he tours the property.

From Orange Blossom Trail, Orlando Lakefront looks like any other ordinary mobile home park. But these tiny homes, like the movement itself, are secreted inside the more conventional picture of Americana. The standard American dream is a job and a house and a yard and a dog and a kid or two, but Money would rather build a neighborhood, one tiny house at a time.

Tiny houses are trendy, and yet they're nothing new – wetuash, wattle-and-daub, log cabins and soddies were the original American tiny houses. Giant houses are still rising at a furious pace, and if that's your choice, there's nothing wrong with displaying your success writ large. For more and more people, however, something's missing, and a big empty house is small comfort.

Money's College Park tiny house village started on the western edge of Lake Fairview and is bit by bit spreading inland, back into the park. Money gambled on his intuition that people crave the look and feel of a traditional house; the brightly colored tiny houses strut like tropical cocktails in between weathered old mobile homes.

He pauses at the edge of the lake. "My first tiny house was that one over there," he gestures with pride. It looks like the back of a U-Haul truck – and indeed that's what it is, repainted cinnamon-orange and nestled into an oak-shaded wood deck. "Elaine liked that spot, so I converted a used trailer into a house just for her," Money says.

Cynthia Aimo, a retired attorney and one of Money's early buyers, lives in a sunny yellow tiny house perched on the shore. She's busy cleaning it while her friendly dog watches. "Mainly, I wanted something I could manage without gobbling up all of my time," she offers from the doorway, vacuum cleaner in hand.

Aimo's choice to stay small was deliberate: "It is a liberating feeling, not having a huge house hanging over my head, or a big rent check every month."

click to enlarge Adam Money - PHOTO BY RICHARD REEP
  • Photo by Richard Reep
  • Adam Money

Tiny homes represent an option for people who intentionally downsize and want to live more outside of their homes than within them. Conditioned to want more and more, many have succumbed to the American Dream spoon-fed to us by advertising agencies, but by redefining what is meant by "more," people like Adam Money and Cynthia Aimo are reserving less for big houses and more for their own bigger dreams of the future.

With the exploding popularity of books, websites and TV shows (Tiny House Big Living, Tiny Luxury, Tiny House Nation, Tiny House Hunters, Tiny House Builders, Tiny House Arrest, et. al.) dedicated to the trend, "What's a tiny house?" isn't a question heard very often these days. But for the record, practitioners generally define a tiny house as a livable structure (walls, roof, kitchen, bathroom) under 500 square feet, about the size of a two-car garage.

The concept of "living little" started to rise during the decluttering/minimalist craze of the '00s and gained traction when the recession hit, as a way to combat ridiculous mortgages, endless weekends spent on home repair and lawn-mowing, and the bitter reality that your house value can, despite all your work, drop like a rock when the big boys on Wall Street screw up.

The most common tiny dwelling is the kind on wheels. (Those living the life often refer to them as THOWs.) Tiny houses on wheels can go into RV parks (pending park-owner approval), and sometimes into backyards and other properties, if zoning laws let them – it's all about access to water, electricity and sewerage.

Eight feet wide by 13 feet high is about as big as you can build; the width and height are restricted by the trailer you build on, and the fact that they can't be moved on a public thoroughfare without a special permit if they're any taller or wider than that. But they can be as long as you care to tug around, from a 40-foot-long bus-sized model to a glorified walk-in closet on a flatbed. Literally a mobile home, a THOW offers, well, mobility: If you don't like your neighbors, you can always find new ones.

If you don't want your home to be on wheels, you can build a brick-and-mortar (or whatever material you choose) house on a permanent foundation. And that's when your local building code takes over. Stairs must be easy enough for everyone to climb, the structure must be hurricane-proof, and it can't suck electricity like a vampire. The freedom to be bigger and taller than their little wheeled cousins comes at a price: a host of municipal rules, from window sizes to ceiling height, that differ from state to state and even city to city.

Unlike THOWs, tiny houses on foundations do not face a maximum size limit; instead, they must meet minimum size limits. This was once protection from slumlords building inhumanely small dwellings, but it now serves as property value protectionism. (A street crammed with McMansions is still seen as a desirable and prosperous neighborhood.)

click to enlarge The Lee family - PHOTO BY RICHARD REEP
  • Photo by Richard Reep
  • The Lee family

Most places hard-code a minimum house size; in the city of Orlando, it's 350 square feet per person. Although 700 square feet is not excessive for a couple, it is much larger than the 400 or 500 square feet commonly used as a guideline by the tiny house movement.

Zoning codes usually allow for a small accessory structure on a lot, so long as an actual house is already on the property: think backyard guest cottages, garage apartments, mother-in-law suites. The Fair Housing Act, a 1960s federal regulation, still maintains minimum property standards, but only to guard against cruelly small house sizes: One room must be 120 square feet, with one wall at least 9 feet long.

One thing tiny houses on wheels and tiny houses on foundations have in common is the creative use of three-dimensional space, with lofts and ladders to maximize every square inch. You might find everything you need within reach if you stand in one or two places, and making every space count becomes critical.

Water remains the most difficult problem to solve. Few tiny houses have cisterns, and nearly all of them use various forms of composting toilets. Lacking a sanitary sewer or septic system, one must be ready to deal with the ... er ... compost. Water supply has to come from somewhere, while the shower and sink have to drain somewhere too.

Meanwhile, a major appeal of tiny homes is that energy costs are much lower, and solar energy is attainable on a smaller budget. All-LED lighting is now pretty standard, and many tiny houses sport photovoltaic panels. Thanks to countries like Japan, with its extremely high energy costs, we now have super-efficient air conditioners that easily adapt to tiny homes. Mitsubishi's famous "Mr. Slim" electric model has been knocked off by other manufacturers, allowing tiny-house owners to quietly cool their homes with small ductless units.

click to enlarge Tiny houses at Orlando Lakefront - PHOTO BY RICHARD REEP
  • Photo by Richard Reep
  • Tiny houses at Orlando Lakefront

More than 30,000 people attended the first Florida Tiny House Festival at the St. John's County Fairgrounds in November, proving that this is not just a hipster trend – it's a bona fide movement.

The festival was held on a cool, sunny weekend. Strangers struck up conversations in long lines, waiting to step up into tiny houses parked in a field on display.

Ben and Stacy came over from near Port Orange. Ben's a tall, handsome retired police officer with a service disability, and Stacy is a jovial, auburn-haired traveling nurse. "We live in a condo that's 1,400 square feet, and we detest it," Stacy says. "At our income level, there wasn't much to choose from, and the tiny house offers an attractive solution."

"We've always lived weird," she grins. "Once, on a whim, we just up and moved to St. Croix, where I worked as a nurse. It was fun!" Ben sees tiny houses as "more durable than mobile homes, and we can take it with us. It won't tie us down." Stacy sums it up: "We live for experiences, not materialism."

"Tiny houses aren't for tiny budgets," comments a nearby attendee, as we stand in line for a tour of a Cornerstone model. Cornerstone Tiny Homes, based in Longwood, Florida, is probably the Rolls Royce of THOW builders, offering models from 20 to 32 feet long decked out with details like gorgeous glass-tiled showers, granite countertops, ceiling-suspended barn doors and special recessed niches for flatscreen TVs, which rise on command. These go for around $270-$300 per square foot, as listed on their website.

For one thing, the chassis isn't cheap. For another, tiny homes require the same things that bigger homes do: windows, doors, plumbing, wiring and air conditioning. Building costs aren't just about the amount of materials, anyway; much more of the cost is in the labor, and tiny home builders still compete on quality of design and construction features.

The craftsmanship on display at the festival was high. One tiny house boasted a carved oaken bathtub, which sat beautifully in a tiny bathroom resplendent with tiny tiles. All of these little houses are kind of cute, with their miniature gables, dormers, portholes and front porches. Designs range from shipping-container chic to gingerbready Victorian and everything in between.

These structures are in the most exciting evolutionary phase of all – there isn't a "formula" house yet, so inventive builders at the festival were showing off their most creative uses of space. There were different arrangements of rooms, interweaving kitchens with living spaces, microscopic porches and loft bedrooms. Stairs became armoires, dining tables hinged up and down on the wall, and TVs disappeared into slots. What to put over the bathroom – a big bed, or a storage niche? – becomes a micro-design project, one that the owners can participate in.

click to enlarge rita_hi_res.jpg

Over 90 houses on wheels rolled into the festival to be viewed, poked and prodded like cars on a dealer's lot. Singles and younger couples shopped like first-time homebuyers, rapping knuckles on countertops and running fingers over freshly painted wood trim. Retirees eyed the houses hungrily, gauging their spouses' reactions hopefully. Professional for-sale builds competed with DIY models, which included a few restored vintage RVs, schoolbuses colorfully painted Partridge Family-style, and one rather dour-looking converted semi truck, at best a work in progress.

In another line, we chat with a young family standing in line to see a fifth-wheel model built by Tiny House Chattanooga. Edward Lee, the dad, says, "We're living in a mobile home now." His wife adds, "I'm just fascinated with the TV shows. You know, what I appreciate about these tiny houses is the clever use of space. I want to see one for real and get inspired to use our own space better." Lee says, "Someday we hope to afford a real house." His children nod somberly.

Tiny houses are not aspirational toys for everyone. For the Lees, it was a chance to see new ways of thinking about living. They toured nearly all of the houses and came away impressed. "There are some really good ideas here," Lee says. "I wish the mobile home people would take a lesson from these houses."

Smaller tiny houses can cost as little as $20,000, or about as much as a car. Larger, more tricked-out models get up north of $100,000. When shopping, it's easy to get lured into the old habits of consumption and overfetishize the kitchens and bathrooms. Most people want to live tiny as a rejection of that impulse, and follow through on downsizing, but it's OK to have nice things, too.

Saving the money and buying in cash is what every wise tiny-house guru counsels. If you're living tiny, why continue to support a bank with a mortgage payment? However, loans can be had for tiny houses, and the monthly payments aren't too burdensome – similar to a car payment.

Once the tiny house is parked, it's easy to add decks and other outdoor-life accoutrements. "This is Florida, after all," Aimo laughed, pointing out her new deck facing Lake Fairview, when we visited her at College Park's Orlando Lakefront community.

"I don't want a big house. I want to travel," was the most common refrain at the Tiny House Festival, when we asked people why they were considering them. Richard Skinner and his wife budgeted $30,000 for theirs. "My wife and I just want our home to be base camp," Skinner said. Their place in Flagler County will accept tiny homes, and once it's parked, "We're off!"

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