Jay Shafer

Tiny House Fair: Day 3

Day 3 of the first annual Tiny House Fair started off with a panel discussion regarding the alegality of tiny houses. To the best of our knowledge there isn't a zoning code in the country that directly addresses "tiny houses." Most municipalities would probably consider a tiny house on wheels a custom built travel trailer (whether or not it will be considered a recreational vehicle by insurance companies and banks depends on certification though). So in many places the only part of town where you can legally live in a tiny house is an RV park and many cities have restrictions on the maximum time you can stay there.

However, people around the world have become advocates of tiny houses for financial, social, environmental, and lifestyle reasons. There's also a groundswell of support for tiny house communities, so many people are working within our existing codes and figuring out ways that we can amend code to better suit our needs. It was, as you might imagine, a fascinating conversation with more questions than answers.

Following the morning panel, some of the participants headed out for a tour of local tiny houses. The folks who stuck around got to hear Dee Williams of Portland Alternative Dwellings discuss some of the sticky wickets of the tiny house world (building code, financing, and insurance). She also covered structural considerations for a house on wheels that undergoes hurricane and earthquake conditions when it hits the road.

After lunch I spoke about code and legal issues, including some of the legal ways people have found to live in tiny houses and some of the next steps we might take as advocates of small spaces.

Next Jay Shafer joined us to talk about Resizing the American Dream. Here are a few of my favorite lines from his talk:

  • "The Tiny House Movement is more than cute houses and quirky people. It's subverting consumerism."
  • "When it was about use value not resale value people built houses according to their needs."
  • "The Small House Movement is about people living in the amount of space they need."
  • "Tiny houses are self-portraits with innovation to meet individual needs."
  • "It's all just about what's necessary. Eliminate everything else."
  • "When necessity is allowed to dictate the form of things, they're beautiful!"

The Tiny House Fair officially wrapped up when the tiny house tour and Jay's talk were completed, but several tiny house advocates continued the conversation over dinner (at American Flatbread - shout out to Billy for insisting that we go there!) and then around the conference table. We are eager to see how the Tiny House Movement evolves.

I'm honored to have spent the weekend in the presence of such fabulous folks. I met people from across the country who are designing, building, dwelling in, and advocating for tiny houses. Our ranks included building inspectors, lawyers, carpenters, inventors, and educators. Collectively we have an enormous amount of knowledge and enthusiasm and I hope we can direct it in the best possible ways to support simple, affordable, sustainable housing options. Meanwhile, my celebrity friend crushes have only been reinforced by discovering how fun these folks are in real life!

I'm already looking forward to the second annual Tiny House Fair which is slated for the West Coast next summer!

Tiny Houses Turn Their Backs on the Street

Dee's Front (Back) Porch I'm confused about why not a single one of the tiny houses I've ever seen has the front door at the front. I've been looking at photos of tiny houses for years and I have yet to come across one. Now, I recognize that in big houses most people use their back or side door more often than their front door. Front doors are formal and tiny houses are anything but formal. But tiny houses usually only have one door so its placement is important.

It's awfully cute to see the front door facing you when the tiny house is rolling down the road. It's even cuter if it has a Shrinky-Dink Porch. But since tiny houses are more home than mobile, they are usually parked, not traveling. Why aren't the front doors over the tongue so that when the house is parked the entrance is facing the street?

Many tiny houses are backed into their parking spots

House Truck's Front (Back) Porch

because it's usually difficult to maneuver a vehicle hauling a tiny house in such a way that the house can be pulled in and disconnected and then the truck moved away. This often positions the door near the garden/backyard/etc. which is certainly pleasant and more private. But by the time the truck pulls away the tiny house's door is opposite the entrance to the parking spot, which means that the house is facing its backside to the street. It seems so anti-social and impolite to turn away from the community. There's always an option to set up a private space on the private side in some other way.

Jay's Front (Back) Porch

Now, it could, of course, make sense to have the door on the side of a tiny house (as most RVs do), but since I plan to move my tiny house periodically I won't know where my tiny house will be parked. The chances of having the door face an undesirable direction seems high. It would be awkward to have the door facing a wall or a bush or the opposite direction as the natural entrance.

So when I build my own tiny house I plan to put the door over the tongue. It makes sense to me for two main reasons: 1) it will be more likely to be facing the street once it's parked and 2) the tongue will be a great support for the deck to rest upon. I plan to make a fold-up deck and a fold-down awning that can latch together to protect the door during transport. When the house is parked the deck and awning will be unlatched, the deck will drop to rest on the tongue, and the awning will be propped up with braces. This will enable me to have a front porch that is nice and big, much better than a Shrinky-Dink Porch.

Gypsy Wagon's Front/Back Door

It seems to me that the front of the trailer, over the tongue, is the most logical place to put the door. So why aren't tiny housers doing this? Are people building their tiny houses with the doors opposite the tongue because tiny house pioneers Dee Williams and Jay Shafer did? (For the record, Dee put her door opposite the tongue because her house was designed for a specific site where her house is backed into a yard via the alley, so her door intentionally faces her community.) Or because is it because that's how the gypsy wagons are designed? (It makes sense for gypsy wagons to have their doors at the back because it allows people to enter while the house remains attached to a vehicle.) Or are tiny housers following in the tradition of house trucks? (Which can't put the door at the front because that's where the cab is located.)

Am I missing something? Tiny housers, help me out here. Why are tiny house's front doors are at the back? Anyone have examples of tiny houses that do have their door over the tongue? If so, let me know. I'd love to see them!

Shrinky-Dink Porch

These rainy days get me thinking about porches... Shrinky-Dink Porch

When I build a tiny house I want it to have a functional porch. In order to accommodate it, the tiny house won't include a porch at all. At least, not within its footprint.

My friend Jacob calls Tumbleweed Tiny Houses shrinky-dink houses because they look like miniaturized versions of bigger houses. Jacob was looking at a photo of Jay Shafer's tiny front porch when he said, "It just doesn't make sense to try to fit everything that you'd have in a big house into a tiny house just by making everything smaller." I completely agree with him and I think Jay Shafer would, too. Jay is conscientious about subtractive design - keeping just the essentials. For Jay, a porch is essential and even a small porch is better than none. I disagree. I think that if it's not possible to accommodate a function well it shouldn't take up precious trailer space!

I understand the romance and the practicality of the porch. I think porches are a great way to transition between indoor and outdoor space. They offer a place to stand out of the rain while fumbling with keys and a bag of groceries. The shelter enables you to sit or stand outside for fresh air even when it's too wet or cold to go for a walk. A porch provides a spot to take off your boots before tracking mud or snow into the house (essential for a tiny space which can get dirty quickly, but is also, fortunately, quick to clean!).  Tiny House dwellers Tammy and Logan do most of their refrigerating by hanging their produce in a fruit basket out on the porch during the months of the year that the temperatures are right (which is most of the year, here in Portland!) Porches are the first encounter with the house so  a plant, a chair, and a piece of art enable the resident(s) to welcome and greet visitors and to share a little bit of their own personality.

Unfortunately, the porch of Britt's Bungalow (and many others built with Tumbleweed Tiny House plans) is too small to be functional in the rainy Pacific Northwest. A tiny front porch misses the mark because it's not able to serve its function of keeping me and my boots dry. It's not large enough for two people to get out of the rain while unlocking the door. My garden shoes left on the porch get soaked by driving rain, even if they're tucked at the inside edge. I could put a very small chair on my porch, but I would have to sit alone. A two foot by two foot porch is a functional failure.

Porch Pile

Besides, one of the magical things about a tiny house is that it encourages its inhabitants to get outside more. When you can stand or sit in one place in a tiny house and see outside through several windows at once, you are more interested in getting out there. I imagine that if a tiny house is on the road most of the time having a porch (even a uselessly small porch) could be nice. And I'm sure that in warmer, drier climates without so much driving rain even a very small porch could be useful. But in the rainy Pacific Northwest a tiny porch is simply inapporpriate design.

So for a Tiny House which will be stationary most of the time, it makes sense to find another way to create a transition between the tiny house and the rest of the world. I've been imagining a porch that will consist of an awning that will drop down to protect the door during transit paired with a wooden platform that  can be tucked inside the house while it's being moved. It will be large enough for that potted plant, a piece of art, two chairs, and a spot to put a glass of ginger beer. If I'm going to do it, I'm going to do it right! Cheers!