Living small as the family grows
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.