Make way, McMansions…here come the Tiny Homes
Somewhere in Chattanooga, not too far from where you live, there’s a neighborhood. In one of the houses lives a farmer, and in his backyard a 50-x-40-foot garden grows okra, kale, lettuce, spinach, and collards. On the far side of the garden, the farmer’s property continues, and if you follow the rock steps, planted firmly in the ground, you will arrive at a 180-square-foot Airstream.
“Say something about this being my clubhouse,” Spencer Connell laughs and then takes a sip from a glass of red wine. “I like to reference The Lost Boys and this is my Ultimate Clubhouse.”
Connell, who has lived inside the Airstream for one year, is sitting between two bookshelves with a white-and-brown puppy resting comfortably on his lap. The books range from classics like Orwell’s “1984,” to works of fiction produced by local authors such as Sybil Baker and Thomas Balazs. And the puppy? Well, it arrived last week.
“He just showed up, and I think I’m going to keep him,” Connell says as he gently pets his new housemate. “He decided that this place has a magnetic attraction.”
Born in Nashville, Spencer moved to the Scenic City after being accepted into the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Now a senior, he plans to graduate in April with a degree in English: Creative Writing. He writes poetry on a daily basis, and for a source of income, sells spoons that he whittles himself and plays the banjo at contra and square dances.
But what could make someone want to shun the traditional-sized house and, instead, strive for something smaller? For Spencer, the idea began growing in his childhood. “When I was younger, my parents separated, and left a house in the middle of construction. The house was very large, 3,000 to 4,000 square feet, and it was always messy,” Connell says as Pete Seeger’s “American Ballads,” rotates on the record player. “I do think that played an influential role in my moving into a really small and manageable space…so as to have a physical footprint that is smaller and to maintain the quality of life that I enjoyed.”
Up until a year ago, Connell’s rent cost him $475 for a shotgun house on Dodds Avenue. Ready to make the transition to tiny living, he wrote a formal proposition to his father, who paid his rent while Connell paid for his education, and asked for a year-and-a-half advance. After a series of negotiations, his father consented, and Connell bought an Airstream, freshly delivered from Maine, on Craiglist. Within days, he moved in and never looked back.
“I saw [the move] as conducive to be able to pursue my craft while also pursuing a frugal lifestyle that focuses more on joy than finance,” he says.
That move has turned out to be a financial and joyful success. He agreed to an arrangement with the farmer in which he would pay a $100 a month for the opportunity to park his home on the farmer’s property. Connell runs all his electrical energy into one 200-foot extension cord, and pays the farmer the difference for the bill, which averages out at $15 per month.
Although Connell seems perfectly content with his living situation, he acknowledges that if he finds a significant other sometime soon, changes will need to be made.
“If I were living with a partner, then I would build something bigger,” Connell says and looks around his home and nods his head, as if to reassure himself of his decision. “I would build a formal tiny house.”
And he wouldn’t have to look far, because the Tiny House craze has developed into a movement, and people all over the world have decided to live tiny so they can spend less on rent and utilities and more on what truly makes them happy.
As most things tend to do, the idea for the Tiny House movement started with a book. In 1997, Tiny House pioneer Sarah Susanka published “The Not So Big House.” In the book, Susanka preached her idea that “quality should always come before quantity,” and showed how Tiny Houses can promote comfort, beauty and detail even in a small size. The book dominated the bestseller charts for the Home & Garden category, and after spreading her beliefs on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “The Charlie Rose Show,” and NPR, she found herself at the forefront of a worldwide movement.
From reality television shows (“Tiny House Nation” on FYI, “Tiny House Builders” on HGTV),to documentaries (“Tiny: A Story About Living Small”), and even a lengthy profile by The New Yorker, the Tiny House movement has gained momentum in recent years.
The New Yorker profile, titled “Let’s Get Small,”written by Alec Wilkinson in July of 2011, introduced the world to Jay Shafer. Shafer shifted the idea of Tiny Houses when he decided to build his 96-square-foot home on wheels. The add-on quickly became essential for most members of the Tiny House community, and Shafer took the idea and founded Tumbleweed Tiny House Company and Four Lights Tiny House Company. The businesses, which provide the materials needed for building your own Tiny House while also selling premade houses built by Shafer himself, found success, and Shafer has become a key figure in the Tiny House movement.
On a more local level, Chattanooga contributes to the tiny party with Wind River Custom Homes. The business, founded by Travis Pyke and Jeremy Weaver, designs, builds, and delivers Tiny Homes all over the country.
Tiny House-Chattanooga, started by Hannah Shadrick and Mary Ann Twitty, focuses on building a community of Tiny Homes in the Scenic City. Their dream: five to 10 Tiny Home owners that would live as a community. This means lending a hand with the garden while also sharing storage space for cars and bicycles. Hannah Shadrick believes the need for a Tiny House community in Chattanooga is high.
“Our first event, we had 50 people show up,” says Shadrick. “Then our next event, over 80 people showed up.”
However, there are a few obstacles facing the project.“We need land to make this happen,” Shadrick says.
Before the community can really begin to establish itself, it needs a place to park its roots, and the founders are searching for someone who can help with this cause. Shadrick encourages anyone interested in the project to contact her immediately.
Money, of course, also presents itself as an obstacle most Tiny Home dreamers must hurdle before achieving their aspirations. Unfortunately, most banks won’t finance one’s plans to build, or buy a Tiny Home, but the Tiny-House Chattanooga website encourages prospectors to ask their local creditors about obtaining a RV loan. Another problem facing a potential influx of Tiny Houses in Chattanooga: issues with legality. Tiny Homes don’t meet the square-foot minimum to be considered a house in Chattanooga, and they can’t even be classified as an RV. Shadrick believes that she has the resources needed to change the law, and she plans to challenge the zoning regulations sometime in the near future.
As for right now, Spencer Connell lives on the lam. He’s a man who keeps his watch out for the authorities, and although, he consents to the use of his full name, plans to keep the location of his home a secret. When asked if he’s living “the American Dream,” Connell thinks for a moment before responding.
“There is no ‘the’ American Dream, there’s just ‘an’ American Dream,” says Connell. “Without debt, I can move my life toward my fundamental happiness: spending a lot of time with my community and in my garden. Spending time playing music with my friends, and baking biscuits every day.”
Connell can’t speak for the rest of his life, but he knows that he will keep on doing whatever makes him feel content.“I’ll continue to live in a small, intimate house for as long it makes me happy,” says Connell. “I not only believe in the Tiny House movement, but I also identify with it.”
Asked to give a quote which summarizes his lifestyle choice, Connell, the poet, pauses for only a few seconds and quickly responds, “Helen Keller once said that ‘Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.’” He cracks a smile. “It’s between that, or, I can’t remember his name, but a baseball player from the ’50s said, ‘If there’s a fork in the road, take it.’”
The quote belongs to Yogi Berra. Last year, he put his 4,502-square-foot home on the market. Who knows…maybe he plans to move into a Tiny House.
How to Learn More
If you wish to learn more about the possibilities of a Tiny House community in Chattanooga, visit tinyhousechatt.com
Also, check out tinyhouselistings.com for a complete and updated list of Tiny Homes all across America.