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Tiny Home Dwellers Challenge Conventional Wisdom On Comfortable Living

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The Pera House (left) and the Tumbleweed Lusby house at Boneyard Studios.
Jonathan Wilson
The Pera House (left) and the Tumbleweed Lusby house at Boneyard Studios.

Some local residents are challenging the conventional wisdom about space and comfort and the relationship between the two through 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, on Evarts Street NE. 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.

"So back here is sort of the office, bathroom over there — up top is the bedroom," he says, as he leans against his kitchen counter.

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

"So personally, I love the skylight," Austin says. "When I started designing the house, I just drew a box for the skylight and started designing the rest of the house around it. It's right above the loft, so it's great you can look up and see the stars, the rainfall, the snow."

Underneath the loft, Austin's work desk holds a full-size Mac computer monitor and keyboard. Toward 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 wall, without any legs. It could comfortably accommodate Austin and few guests — and he can store his full-sized barstools right underneath it. He's done a lot with just 140 square feet.

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

Quaint and cost-effective

You can build a tiny house for as little as $10,000, if you're not above salvaging some material from junkyards, but 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's changing.

"I think what we've done here at Boneyard studios is have livable houses — places that are really comfortable to stay in," he says.

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.

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.

A couple of the Boneyard Houses actually have incinerating toilets, which burn black water — 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.

"I have a very low flow shower head, that uses five times less water per minute than the average shower head," he explains. "So a five minute shower is two gallons, plus 7-8 gallons for cooking and washing per day."

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 3 inches of rain a month.

So the houses have sustainability, affordability, simplicity — could tiny homes solve all the challenges of modern urban living?

Well, not even Austin will go that far.

"I would not advocate in any way, putting tiny houses all over D.C. in places where you might be able to put a little bit denser housing," he says. "That said, there are many spaces like ours — a triangular alley lot that is too small to put anything on — where you can kind of use tiny houses as a great example of urban infill."

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.

Regulation hang-up holds tiny houses back

Boneyard Studios 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 about 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.

"There's some rationale behind some of these laws, but it would be great, as this movement continues to grow, as cities adopt different ways of dealing with this to see what works and what doesn't and move on from there," he says.

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 their problems.

"We have open houses every month, and I always say my hope is not to convince a single person to build a tiny house," Austin says. "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 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."

[Music: "Small House" by Michelle Featherstone from Loved EP]

Photos: Tiny Homes


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