Tiny Home Dwellers Challenge Conventional Wisdom On Comfortable Living (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Tiny Home Dwellers Challenge Conventional Wisdom On Comfortable Living

MR. JONATHAN WILSON

00:00:11
Welcome to "Metro Connection." I'm Jonathan Wilson, in for Rebecca Sheir, and this week we're going in search of wisdom. Now, the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines wisdom as knowledge that is gained by having many experiences in life. That's pretty straight forward, but we wanted to get a bit more specific. So this week we sent "Metro Connection's" Steven Yenzer out to the streets to ask Washingtonians about the last time they got a really wise piece of advice.

MR. STEVEN YENZER

00:00:47
So if you could just tell me how you would define wisdom.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1

00:00:50
Wisdom is having experience and know-all in life.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1

00:00:57
Want me to define wisdom? The ability to understand your surroundings and circumstances and to know what's going on in the world.

YENZER

00:01:05
Have you ever received a piece of advice that you found particularly wise or helpful in your life?

#1

00:01:11
One thing is to always treat everyone the same, whether it's the janitor or the president.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2

00:01:21
Yeah, I mean the biggest thing I think is just to do in life what actually makes you happy.

#1

00:01:25
The trouble is that you get wise advice and then you go home, pick up a newspaper and forget. But I get lots of good advice, very good advice.

WILSON

00:01:39
Those were Washingtonians talking with "Metro Connection's" Steven Yenzer. And over the next hour we'll be hearing from lots of other folks sharing their thoughts on wisdom from D.C. gardeners…

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2

00:01:50
I think she must know every single plant in her yard.

WILSON

00:01:54
…to kids, who've spent time in juvenile detention.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3

00:01:58
Don’t let your past hold you back. Like that's cool, right? When you hold onto your past, you do it at the expense of your future. Let it go.

WILSON

00:02:08
But first, as we begin our show about wisdom we start off with some local residents who are challenging the conventional wisdom about space and comfort and the relationship between the two. They're part of the tiny home movement -- a trend that's gaining momentum across the country. The local collective calls itself Boneyard Studios and created a sort of tiny home showroom on a triangular, back-alley lot just off of North Capitol, in northeast D.C.

WILSON

00:02:37
Walled off from the alley by a picket fence on two sides and a wire garden fence on the other, the plot currently holds four trailer-sized homes, and plenty of room for a shared front yard and a good sized garden. Jay Austin, the owner of one of the tiny little houses, is meeting me for a tour. He ushers me in the door of his take on the tiny house, a decidedly modern vision framed with dark wood slats on the outside, and gray plaster on the inner walls. He calls it the Matchbox.

MR. JAY AUSTIN

00:03:08
So back here is sort of the office, bathroom over there, up top is the bedroom.

WILSON

00:03:13
You get to the lofted sleeping space via ladder that simply leans against the wall when not in use. Austin has also installed a flat screen TV in his tiny bedroom. He even has a skylight with a shade he can open and close with the flick of a switch.

AUSTIN

00:03:29
Personally, I love the skylight. I sort of -- when I started designing the house, I just drew a box for the skylight and drew the entire house around it. It's just wonderful. It's right above the loft, so it's great to sort of look up and see the few stars you can see over D.C., see the rainfall, the snow.

WILSON

00:03:42
Underneath the loft, Austin's work desk holds a full-size Mac computer monitor and keyboard. Towards the center of the house, along one wall is an ample countertop holding a sink and faucet, operated with a foot pedal. On the opposite wall is a floating table, a surface anchored to the side of the house, without any legs. It could comfortably accommodate Austin and a few guests and he can store his full-sized barstools right underneath of it. He's done a lot with just 140 square feet.

AUSTIN

00:04:11
Really what I've cut down on here isn't so much workable space as just walking space from one room to another. You know, my office to my dining room is two steps, but the office has a normal-sized desk, and the dining room has a normal-sized table. So I find that cutting out a lot of that walking space really allows you to downsize dramatically.

WILSON

00:04:30
You can build a tiny house for as little as $10,000, if you're not above salvaging some material from junkyards. Austin spent between $30,000 and $40,000 on the Matchbox. He says the first tiny houses were really just miniaturized versions of traditionally-sized houses, with miniature furniture, miniature appliances and shrunken doorways, but that is changing.

AUSTIN

00:04:53
I think what we've done really well here at Boneyard Studios is have livable houses, like places that are actually comfortable to stay in.

WILSON

00:05:00
There are still many different styles of tiny architecture, and the variety is evident even on the Boneyard Studios lot. Austin unlocks the house next door, which couldn't be more different in its sensibility. Inside, the first thing that jumps out is the triangular stained glass window in the loft.

WILSON

00:05:18
All right. Cool. Stained glass.

WILSON

00:05:20
This house, owned by Elaine Walker, is called the Tumbleweed Lusby house. Unlike the Matchbox, it has a gabled roof and inside, it has separate rooms. It's adorable, right down to its diminutive three-piece bathroom.

WILSON

00:05:34
Oh, yeah, and you do mean small. A tiny toilet.

AUSTIN

00:05:37
Yeah.

WILSON

00:05:38
A couple of the Boneyard Houses actually have incinerating toilets, which burn black water -- that's dirty toilet water -- at about 1,200 degrees, evaporating most of it and leaving behind just small traces of ash. That gets to another goal of tiny homes, leaving a tiny environmental footprint. Austin takes me around the back of his house to show me the guts of his rainwater catchment system.

AUSTIN

00:06:04
So the shower, once it's hooked up, I have a very low-flow, half gallon per minute shower head, which is about five times less water per minute than the average shower head. So if I were taking a five-minute shower that'd be about two and a half gallons of water, maybe about seven, eight gallons of water a day for cooking, dishwashing.

WILSON

00:06:22
That adds up to about 10 gallons a day, or 300 gallons a month. Austin says his rainwater system can catch about 100 gallons of water for every inch of rain that falls, and D.C. averages right around three inches of rain a month. So sustainability, affordability, simplicity -- could tiny homes solve all the challenges of modern urban living? Well, not even Austin will go that far.

AUSTIN

00:06:49
I would not, in any way, advocate for putting tiny houses all across D.C. in places where you might be able to put a little bit more denser housing. That said, there are many spaces like ours. It's kind of a triangular alley lot that is too small to actually put a structure on, where you can kind of use tiny houses as a great example of urban infill.

WILSON

00:07:10
There are also zoning and safety laws that make living in a tiny home tricky. None of the Boneyard homeowners actually live in their tiny homes full time. They aren't big enough to meet current D.C. requirements for permanent dwellings. The Boneyard homeowners would like to see some of those rules changed, but Austin, who actually works at the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, acknowledges that there are reasons to be careful about changing regulations governing the size of residential dwellings. Federal and city officials are worried about unsafe housing and property owners looking to make money off of cramming as many people as possible into small spaces.

AUSTIN

00:07:49
There's some rationale behind some of these laws, but it would be great, as this movement continues to grow, as different cities adopt kind of different ways of dealing with this, to see what works and what doesn't and move forward from there.

WILSON

00:08:01
But Austin also says he really isn't trying to convince people that his tiny house or any tiny house is the answer to all of their problems.

AUSTIN

00:08:11
We have open houses every month, and I always say that my hope in doing these open houses is not to convince a single person to build a tiny house. It'd be great if a few folks did, but really just to have people come into these houses, come into these 150, 200 square foot structures, look at them and realize maybe I don't need the 2,000 square foot house, maybe I don't need the 5,000 square foot house. Maybe next time that I'm looking for a new place to live, I find what I need to suit me, not what I can afford with my budget at my disposal.

WILSON

00:08:44
That was Jay Austin, owner of the tiny Matchbox home. If you'd like to see pictures of Austin's home and the other Boneyard Studio's homes visit our website. You can also watch a quick video tour of the Matchbox. It's all at metroconnection.org.
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