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Thinking big, building small

Friday, July 22nd, 2011 | Posted by | no responses

By SAM SCOTT / The Press Democrat

Like many 16-year-olds, Austin Hay doesn’t know yet where he’ll attend college.

He still has two more years at Analy High School, where he wrestles, plays baseball and excels in math.

Austin Hay, 16, stands inside the mini-house he is building on top of a trailer that he can use as portable housing during college. He currently lives in Santa Rosa and attends Analy High School. (Beth Schlanker / PD)

But whether he ends up at Cal Poly, the University of Oregon or anywhere in between, Hay already knows where he’ll be staying — in the tiny house he’s constructing in his parents’ Santa Rosa backyard.

For the past year, Hay has been pouring time and money into building the 130-square-foot structure atop a double-axled trailer — a mobile foundation that means he could be hauling the home around for years.

“I am going to be living in it in high school, college and hopefully afterwards,” he said, dismissing the idea of a stop in the dorms along the way. “I’m not really big on sharing my room with people.”

Such homes are far from being gimmicks, according to Jay Shafer, the Graton-based godfather of tiny homes who is profiled in the latest New Yorker magazine in an article subtitled, “The rise of the tiny-house movement.”

Hay already is proud of learning to live small.

From the outside, his home looks like a robust shed on wheels. But step inside and it’s clear he is building a house, not a hut.

The floor is neatly laid with oak hardwood snagged from a salvage yard for $20l. A fridge is plugged into one of 13 electrical outlets, chilling bottles of Gatorade. And nearby a stainless-steel sink and oven stove await installation.

Eventually a shower and composting toilet will complete Hay’s domestic needs. But for now he uses his parents’ bathroom at night before climbing into the tiny home’s loft, where he has slept for the past three months.

Shafer’s company, Tumbleweed Tiny House Co., which designs homes as small as 65 square feet, donated plans to Hay on the condition he blog about the process. Most of the plans include trailers, which generally avoid permitting requirements inherent in ground-built structures.

Austin Hay, 16, is building a mini-house on top of a trailer that he can use as portable housing during college. Photo taken at his home in Santa Rosa. (Beth Schlanker / PD)

“The larger reality is more and more people are thinking about living simply,” Shafer said. “Because, well, it’s hard to get more complex that we’ve been for the past few decades.”

Until he married and had a baby, Shafer lived in homes barely more than 100 square feet, though since starting a family he’s up to about five times that. Living small has aesthetic, philosophic and economic appeals for him.

“When I look at extra square footage, I just see heating bills,” he said. “What some people see as luxury, I see as a debtors’ prison.”

Seeing someone living in 150 square feet can help people in homes 20 times larger realize they have way more than they need, he said.

Hay also is big on the environmentalism and husbandry of his house — he proudly shows that the scraps created by his project fit in just two garbage cans. And he’s already mentally preparing himself to forgo the surplus clothing and other possessions he’ll have to do without to live in it.

But he seems more driven by his love of working with wood and by testing himself.

“I just love a good challenge,” he said.

His parents, Teresa and Gordon Hay, are fully supportive of the home, which will cost an estimated $12,000 by completion. Their son is paying for it with money earned as a summer camp counselor and helping with his dad’s landscaping business. Additionally, he’s received about $1,000 in donations from people who have seen his website, he said.

The Hays back the plans to haul the house off to college, though they’re not ready to green-light his desire to relocate to Sebastopol for his senior year at Analy, an idea their son says will slash his commute.

“I’m like, ‘Wait a minute, you’re not supposed to leave just yet,’” his mother said.

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Andrea Granahan is our West County correspondent.
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