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Living small as the family grows

Friday, February 17th, 2012 | Posted by

Jay Shafer with son Emerson, 2, and wife Marty in front of the house Jay uses for his office. They have another child on the way. (John Burgess / Press Democrat)


By ANDREA GRANAHAN / West County Correspondent

Jay Shafer is a self-described “claustrophile.” He loves small, cozy spaces, and has created Tumbleweed Tiny Homes with his partner Steve Weissmann.

When Shafer says tiny, he means tiny. His houses start at 85 square feet, and since 1999 he has lived in one that is just 120 square feet, including the covered front deck. It boasts the world’s smallest bathtub and a tiny heating unit that lets him stare into a tiny fireplace — about 4 by 8 inches.

But now Shafer’s growing family has become a fly in his tiny house ointment.

Three years ago he married his wife Marty, and they got along happily in 120 square feet. A year later their son Emerson was born, and Marty is now expecting their second child.

Shafer eventually capitulated, building a 500-square-foot house for Marty and Emerson next to his original home.

“The baby uses about 340 square feet of it,” he said with a grin. “Babies have a lot of stuff. My wife gets to use the remaining 160 square feet.”

Even so, Shafer is still a firm believer that smaller is better. “It is liberating,” he said.

The smallest space he has ever called home was 60 square feet. He built the tiny house in his native Iowa, put it on a trailer and took it with him to California, like a turtle with its shell.

“It is all about containment versus confinement,” he says. “You need to strike your own balance. I have a stronger need for privacy than my wife since I am an introvert and she’s an extrovert.

“My most crowded living was when I was in Iowa going to the university and shared a single room with 11 others in a temporary housing unit. We hung curtains between beds for privacy.”

Smaller living spaces require less upkeep and are more affordable, Shafer points out. “Why pay a mortgage for space you aren’t even using? Why support it?

“My parents never used to use their dining room since we all ate in the kitchen, for example. When I moved into a tiny house I simplified my life, shed belongings I didn’t really need. That’s the biggest challenge for some people, deciding what you need and don’t need.”

Shafer feels the best training for anyone who is thinking about shrinking is to go camping for a few weeks, especially back-pack camping. “Sometimes I feel if my iPhone had a roof, that would be enough.”

He “outsources” a lot of the family’s needs by doing things such as using the school playground across the street as a place to take the baby. When it rains, they play at the community center.

Shafer said he is finding a ready customer base for his tiny houses. More than half of his customers are women, the younger ones looking for affordability. The older ones are generally socially conscious and want to reduce their carbon footprint.

The oddest requests came from a man in Nevada who wanted tiny houses for his brothel, and another one who wanted his bullet proof with a gun turret.

“Essentially he wanted a tank,” Shafer said. “We discussed them both but didn’t build them. Mostly we sell plans so people can build their own.”

Permitting rules can be difficult, some of which he avoids by putting his houses on wheels.

“There are broad rules in most places that you can’t build under a certain square footage. California does allow for an auxiliary unit. I talked to the county officials about it, and they are excited by the idea as affordable housing and are working with me.

“I have a vision of a place like a lodge, with one large communal space and a lot of tiny houses. We could call it the Napoleon Complex. It’s co-housing for the anti-social.”

Tumbleweed  Tiny Homes now has five employees, kept busy by a lot of clients who are finding the thought of living simply and small very attractive. He said his partner lives in a “mansion” of 750 square feet.

He shrugs when asked about the upcoming addition to his family, sure that he can find a tiny solution.


  • http://www.coup.etsy.com Elektra

    Did I miss something? I want to see photos of their current place! Is there a link to them somewhere?!?!

    • Brian

      Thank you!!! Sebastopol doesn’t exactly ring as a ‘middle income tiny house’ part of the US. It cracks me up with these ‘tiny house’ people that really don’t walk the talk. It’s not a tiny HOUSE if you don’t LIVE in it!! It’s a fancy ‘accessory building’.

      • Len

        @Brian: What are you even talking about? Even if he did move into a 500 sq ft place, that’s still a factor of four smaller than the average US house. He’s still ‘walking the talk’, especially considering they’ll be a family of four soon.

        Also, Sebastopol has an average household income of $46K. Avg HH income in the US is $31K. So, Sebastopol is a bit better off than average, but it’s a long way from being Beverly Hills (avg HH income of ~ $200K).

        • Lisa

          Jay probably would not be able to live there if he DIDN’T live in a small house…its kinda expensive to live there.

  • Jan Dregalla

    So nice to hear you philosophy worked in the realitis of life. I was trying to explain why I’m hopefully building a tiny house (pending code solving) to a friend. She does lots of entertaining and has a big house. I told her it’s about using the space you have and having the space you need…not about excess unused unsustainable wasted space. She’d never thought of it that way and liked the idea. It’s nice that small can be different sizes for different people in different situations or stages of life.
    Thanks for all you do.

  • ER

    The “Napolean Complex”, I like it, ha ha!

  • Jules Verne

    His record of steadily increasing his living space demonstrates that there is hope for claustraphilacs.

  • Elizabeth

    I live in Germany in a 89 square meter flat, which is approximately 957 square feet. I have to say that with a husband, two kids, and all of their stuff, it’s a bit of a squeeze sometimes. It probably doesn’t help that it snows and rains a lot, so playing outside doesn’t always work out well. (Last week we had -18 degree weather all week which didn’t help either.) However, our heating bill is amazingly low and we have fantastic neighbors. There are definitely pros and cons to “living small”. :) 500 square feet though…that is truly tiny!

  • Pat

    They will need to get add ons. Maybe the kids can have their own house next door.

  • suzi

    i wanna see inside !!!!!!!

  • Darcie Hutzell

    I first met Jay in 199 something when we were both working at New Pioneer Coop in Iowa City. I am so excited that he’s doing so well. I helped with the design of the windows in the first house he did. Well, helped is a stretch. I urged him to use the gothic window shape, since being an Iowan, it might mean something to him. Good on you, Jay. I currently live in a tiny apartment, if that counts. :)

  • Jim

    Hammocks! They fill the void in any space. Great for storing all the extra kid stuff. I spent a lot of my youth and early adulthood living out of a Jansport Frame-pack and home was a 2-person dome tent – 30 sq. ft.? Anytime I needed to store extras I used a pocket-hammock with a tarp over it – off the ground and protected from the elements! Hmmmmm…. Maybe you should try soft walls instead of hard ones – a pseudo Yurt. JS

  • Marybe

    I have been talking about starting a small house development that has a community center in the middle with a laundry, large kitchen and a dining space as well as a small gym and is surrounded by a bunch of small houses with a community garage that could house the collective cars, a bike trail that inter-twines among the various houses. Each small house would have its own ‘yard/area’ and would be set along the edges of the larger space and the interior would be a sort of plaza/park/community center. Haveta find the right space. And investors..

    • Judy

      Marybe,What you have described is being built in my small town of Floyd Va.There are 2 different Eco Villages here.One is called Jubilee,and it is a growing concept for sure!

  • Maria Huff

    We have a 400 sqft cabin on the mojave desert with a 26ft travel trailer across the courtyard from the cabin and find it just fine , even when three of our teen age grandchildren visted in the summer .

  • Paul Hirsch

    “My most crowded living was when I was in Iowa going to the university and shared a single room with 11 others in a temporary housing unit. We hung curtains between beds for privacy.” Yes indeed! (Except they were clothes racks I think). This is where I met Jay – temp housing. So happy for his success!

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Andrea Granahan is our West County correspondent.
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