Life Edited: The Ups and Downs of Living in a Tiny House
Nichole Schappert considers her current living situation in Iowa City unsustainable. Her space is too big and her rent too high. She lives in a two-story, three-bedroom, 1,085 square foot home that was built in 1900. It’s drafty and sometimes she has to kill a couple mice. The large backyard is dedicated to three hoop-house greenhouses, as well as a large plot for kale and other vegetables. She pays about $600 a month, which is better than typical where she lives in Iowa City where the average rent is $785. However, in the winter her utility bill tacks on another $200.
“I could never afford to retire at the age of 50 and that’s what I want to do,” Said Schappert.
That’s why she’s thinking about building a tiny home. A tiny house is a dwelling that is generally less than 500 square feet – or roughly the size of a garden shed with a sleeping loft. The concept of a tiny home is appealing to many people because it fulfills one aspect of the American dream – to own their own home – by reducing overall costs in building material, mortgages, and utilities. Current zoning and building codes in Iowa City are that same that were originally put in place in the early 1900s in New York to ensure people had proper amounts of sunlight and air. Now it is difficult to see the purpose of such codes as sanitation and city planning have been improved, instead the building codes seem to be contributing to urban sprawl more than anything else because if people want to build new, they have to spread out.
Schappert wants to build somewhere in the country, but codes require 40 acres of land for someone to build without limitations. On the other hand building on a smaller plot of land in town, like in the backyard of another residence, has even more restrictions.
“People have to have a place to live,” said Iowa City Senior Housing inspector Stan Laverman. But even he agrees that subdivisions aren’t the best way to go about providing new housing.
Schappert found some land she liked just north of Kalona but discovered that when developers are involved the provisos are even stricter. The developer informed Schappert she couldn’t have a structure that was less than 1600 square feet on a main floor (that’s nearly twice the size of her current two-story home). On top of this, they specifically said she could not have a shack or a shed used as a residence on the property (and her house and shed had to have matching siding). Also, if she wanted to have a garden, it had to be out of eyesight.
“So that was an immediate no,” said Schappert, whose goal of living in a tiny home also involves living more sustainably in others ways, including growing some of her own food.
Tiny house owners fall into a couple of different camps. Though Schappert would’ve preferred to move farther from town, others want a close-knit community typical of pre-war villages and towns. The common thread, however, is the vision of a more sustainable and simple life.
“The city makes it really inaccessible to live in an affordable way, ” Schappert said.
Stan Laverman says the idea of downsizing appeals to him personally but notes it would be a problem if everyone wanted to do it.
Basic occupancy requirements require 120 square feet of space for one occupant plus 100 more per person. The sleeping quarters require 70 square feet per person. Tiny homes might be nice for a single occupant, said Laverman, but for families, 500 square feet of living space is not ideal. He himself lives in a 1400 square foot two-story home with his family of four, which compared to the national average of 2,600 square feet, is quite small.
American’s didn’t always take up so much space. In 1950 the average American home was 983 feet. And 100 years ago people lived close to one another out of necessity for shared resources and social ties. Today neighborhoods have started spreading farther from the city center. That’s one reason why Iowa City City Council Member Jim Throgmorton has been a New Urbanism advocate for over two decades. He says we don’t necessarily need tiny homes to make neighborhoods more sustainable, but we do need to re-think how we develop new ones.
Throgmortan said that New Urbanism shares many values with the tiny house movement. According to NewUrbanism.com, some of New Urbanism’s main tenets are “walkability, increased density, quality architecture, and connectivity.” The Co-Housing Initiative is a plan in Johnson County that may come to a vote in City Council eventually. The plan outlines a neighborhood where residents would live in a way related to how humans lived before mini-malls and subdivisions existed. Members of these communities would collaborate to plan shared spaces like greenhouses and community centers. They would also take an active role in decision-making and resource sharing.
As it stands these higher density communities and tiny houses are illegal. But advocates of this alternative lifestyle aren’t making much of a fuss. There are a few reasons that Throgmorton and Laverman see for this. One is that some people have found a loophole. Technically trailers aren’t residences so many tiny homes are built on flatbed trailers (or actually are refurbished camping trailers) to avoid violating city-zoning codes. Another reason is because the city doesn’t do much when it comes to cracking down on people living in refurbished small spaces.
One such person is Josh Doster, a painter who recently received his MFA from the University of Iowa.
“The Idea occurred to me when the Donkeys moved out,” said Doster, who has converted an old donkey barn on his sister’s farm into his full time residence.
He describes his house as a shanty.
“A shanty is a dwelling that a poor person makes out of whatever they can find,” he said. But Doster doesn’t feel poor. “In America even the most alternative minimal living is still far above much of the word’s standard of living.”
Before the donkey barn, Doster was living in an apartment on the corner of Summit and Burlington close to downtown in a neighborhood where the average house is 25,00 square feet and sells for around $300,000. Now he lives about 12 miles outside of town near Hills, Iowa, in about 129 square feet of space (about eight sidewalk squares worth of floor space). He built his house on the bank of the Iowa River out of mostly salvaged materials.
Construction and carpentry were new to Doster when he began the project and he had no help. He says starting was simple. He built a pole barn with posts. The floor was dirt so he put in floor joists. Most of his materials he scavenged from construction dumpsters: insulation from the University Iowa’s law building, interior walls from the university’s wood shop dumpster, siding from Restore, and when the 109 Painting Building went down he scrounged the stairs, floor, and copper gutter.
Though technically it’s considered trespassing, he didn’t run into much trouble rummaging through trash. Often he’d just ask. Mostly he heard something along the lines of, “if you get hurt, this conversation never happened.” He noted that construction employees are just working class people who understand the value of diverting waste.
And he didn’t settle for second rate either. He simply had to resist the urge for instant gratification. In almost every scenario, he says, the thing he was looking for presented itself.
Some things he did buy. He spent hundreds of dollars on screws and a rain barrel. He also invested in a planar and a metal detector, which he uses to locate rogue nails or staples in his scavenged wood (and also to take his niece and nephew on scavenger hunts). Even with tools, he hasn’t invested that much money because many items were gifted to him when friends heard about his project.
For Doster there is a larger picture than just saving money.
“When you look in a dumpster and its all just being tossed. It’s very insulting,” said Doster. “Institutions resist tiny homes because it gives a potential consumer a way out.”
Doster sees the infrastructure of modern society as unsustainable.
“I see us all in this house that’s burning – I’m getting out before it collapses,” he said. “And if I have to chop wood and carry water, that is a small price to pay. If I have to deal with my own fecal matter, I do that with dignity”
He disagrees with the city’s claim that health codes are important because, he says, a tiny house is easier to clean, but he also notes it might not be feasible for everyone to live like he does.
“Not everyone could do this because there wouldn’t be any waste,” said Doster. “But maybe that isn’t such a bad thing.”
Doster has given up a lot of material comforts but says it is a fair trade.
“If you’re a slave to your possessions you don’t feel free,” he said.
He takes baths in a metal trough under the stars next to a roaring fire. And has a large deck overlooking the river and his garden.
“I’d never seen a 2×4 deck until I made it. And guess what? It’s fucking awesome,” he said.
To Doster it doesn’t make sense why anyone would want to contribute to urban sprawl. He built his house with the help and generosity of others and would never want to live in a mansion closed off to from a core community with which to benefit from and contribute to. On top of this, he sees conflicting priorities in Johnson County’s Land Use Plan.
The 2008 plan outlines goals to “preserve agricultural land,” and “promote the conservation of energy resources,” And while city officials agree that tiny homes would help conserve more land for farming and environmental protection, the other goals outlined in plan are to “protect health and safety,” “provide adequate light and air,” and “avoid undue concentration of the population.” And these items conflict with those would like to see closer-knit communities and more efficient use of living space.
“The rules can be changed,” said council member Throgmortan. “But it’s a slow process and it requires a constituency.” He says, and they’re just not hearing enough complaints from the community to make a difference.