Tiny Living, Big Benefits

By Missy Sheehan | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 03.01.16 – Feature, Lifestyles, People & Places

Tiny homes—you’ve no doubt seen them on TV shows, in documentaries and all over social media by now. These small and sometimes meticulously crafted, but often spartan houses have inspired quite a following—some say a movement—in recent years. Houses designated as tiny can range in size from a measly 65 square feet to a “roomy” 500 square feet, depending on whom you ask, yet they still feature many of the same amenities, including bathrooms and kitchens, as an average-size home.

So what’s the appeal of cramming all the kitchen appliances and other stuff you would normally fit inside a typical home into such a small space? For some, cost is the main driver. For others, it’s a goal to live more simply and sustainably. And then there are those who want movable tiny homes, like those on wheels, so they can have the option to pick up and move whenever they want.

It’s an interesting concept when one considers that in 2014, the median size of a new single-family home sold in the United States was 2,506 square feet, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. “The square footage in homes is definitely growing, not shrinking,” says Denise Jacoby, executive officer for the Frederick County Building Industry Association. “But I still think that we all are fascinated by tiny homes and that there’s a certain amount of people who would really like to live that way.”

Although the tiny homes movement hasn’t made an impact in Frederick County yet, there does appear to be some looming growth for the industry here. In fact, the FCBIA in January began working on plans with the Frederick County Housing Trust and the Frederick County Career and Technology Center to construct a tiny house that will be unveiled at the annual FCBIA Home Show in March of next year.

The diminutive dwelling will be built by students in the carpentry, electrical, HVAC and plumbing, masonry, landscaping and cabinetmaking programs at the CTC. Frederick-based architect Bruce Zavos will help the school’s computer-aided design and drafting students to design the tiny home, which is meant to be a “senior pod,” Jacoby says.

There’s a major need for affordable housing options for the growing senior population in Frederick County, and tiny homes could meet it, according to Mark Lancaster, founder and president of Middletown-based Lancaster Craftsmen Builders, as well as a board member of both the FCBIA and the FCHT. “What we’re hoping to do is create a small senior cottage that people could erect possibly on the rear of their property or even attach to their house, that would be able to house their elderly parents,” he says. “My hope is to combine multigenerational housing, but still give seniors their independence.”

Lancaster says the project’s designers will keep accessibility in mind and estimates the tiny home will be somewhere around 480 square feet in size and portable. While it will belong to the FCHT, “the hope is that we might be able to lease it out to people in need,” Jacoby says.

The FCHT has allocated $40,000 for the tiny home, but the project’s organizers are hoping to garner donations of materials from members of the building community, as well, Jacoby adds.

Living with Less

Lancaster sees tiny homes as an ideal housing option for many younger people, too. “We understand that Millennials are having a hard time finding places to live,” he says. “It might be a nice fit for them when their parents say, ‘We don’t want you in our house anymore, but you can certainly live in the backyard.’”

Younger people who are looking to buy their first home are interested in tiny homes because of the cost-saving benefits, according to Jon Gandy, one of the co-founders of Container Homes of Maryland, a Hagerstown-based consulting company that is poised to coordinate the construction of homes using decommissioned shipping containers. In fact, eight months ago, the company completed its first demo tiny shipping container home, available for showings by appointment near Boonsboro. The total cost to build and place the 160-square-foot dwelling, including hooking it up to existing utilities, is approximately $35,000. “For a lot of people, that’s a car payment—you could pay it off in three years,” Gandy says. “So essentially a young person could be mortgage-free and have a place to live.”

Another reason that both young and old turn to tiny homes is a desire to be free from all the stuff the average person tends to accumulate in a lifetime. “We get contacted all the time by older folks who are downsizing,” says Sue Thomas, who owns Hobbitat, a tiny house building company in Oakland with her husband, Bill. “They want enough room for their grandkids to come stay maybe up in the loft, and they want a main-floor bedroom, but they just don’t want all that stuff they had before.”

The younger generation of tiny home enthusiasts has a similar mindset. “I’ve always lived by the saying that the freest man in the world can carry all his prized possessions in a bag on his back,” says Sean Mastej, a 27-year-old who works and currently lives at the Blue Moon Rising tiny cabin vacation rental community near Deep Creek Lake in Garrett County. The approximately 250-square-foot cabin he’s living in features a sleeping loft, a full bathroom with a shower (as well as an outdoor shower for the warmer months) and a kitchenette with a mini fridge, an induction cooktop, a toaster oven, and a French press to make coffee. While Hobbitat designed Blue Moon Rising’s 14 tiny cabins as vacation homes rather than for full-time living, “I definitely have everything I need for me and my dog,” Mastej says.

Aside from Mastej, no guest has ever stayed longer than a week at Blue Moon Rising, according to Rob Vanderbilt, general manager of the vacation community, but plans are in the works to build a dozen tiny cabins on the property for long-term rental in the future.

Working Tiny

Tiny houses come in all shapes and sizes. Some are on wheels; some are on foundations. Some are full-time residences, and others are used as vacation homes or even as office spaces. On a seven-acre farm she rents just outside Frederick, professional furniture designer Jodi Kurtz has made a studio out of the 274-square-foot tiny house located on the property along with her 1,000-square-foot workshop. “The tiny house is where I do all my designing and client meetings and just get away from the saw dust and pick up a book or something,” she says. “It’s a nice little retreat.” Kurtz, who lives in Washington, D.C., and commutes to Frederick to work, also occasionally sleeps in her studio overnight and on weekends during big projects.

While the tiny house was not designed for full-time living, Kurtz has added personal touches to make the small space more comfortable, functional and aesthetically pleasing. She painted the pine floor white and used a sander to give it an aged, lived-in look, for starters, then replaced the full-size refrigerator and kitchen cabinets with a smaller model and some custom furniture she made from reclaimed wood to make better use of the limited space. She also added a small library at the back of the house where there’s a small seating area with drawers below for storage and a loft above for sleeping.

Although the tiny house doesn’t have a kitchen or bathroom, Kurtz has a microwave for making lunches, as well as a self-composting toilet outside. She takes showers at a friend’s house nearby when she stays in her studio for an extended period of time.

Living in her tiny house studio full-time would be a challenge, Kurtz admits. “Having spent weekends there, I can say it’s not for everyone. It definitely takes a very specific type of person to be able to pare down, minimize and live in something that’s 274 square feet.”

Aside from the challenge of fitting all your stuff into such a small space, living in a tiny home has other obstacles to overcome, such as compliance with county and municipal building codes and zoning regulations. While Frederick County’s building code does not have a prescribed minimum size requirement for residential dwellings, there are some communities with rules that prohibit smaller houses than what is typical in the neighborhood, according to Gary Hessong, director of the Frederick County Department of Permits and Inspections.

There’s also something of a gray area in the county’s zoning regulations when it comes to allowing more than one residential structure on a single lot, Lancaster says. Currently, in some areas it’s possible to build an accessory structure on a property with a bedroom and a bathroom, but there are limitations on what kitchen appliances are allowed. You’d have to get a special exception to install a major cooking appliance, for instance, he says. “I’d like to streamline that process so you don’t have to get that special exception,” says Lancaster, who along with Jacoby is working with county officials to address zoning and any other regulatory changes that would be needed to allow for the building of tiny homes.

Then there are cost considerations. “A tiny house itself might be reasonably priced overall, but the cost per square foot for it to be built and put on a typical lot around here drives the price per square foot up tremendously,” says Frank Dertzbaugh, president of Green-Living Homes in Frederick. “You might spend $160 to $180 per square foot building a typical 2,000-square-foot house around here, but for a tiny house you’d be looking at probably closer to $800 to $900 per square foot just because the cost of the infrastructure … is going to be the same no matter what size you build around here.”

Despite the challenges, Jacoby and builders like Lancaster and Dertzbaugh are hopeful that the Frederick community and government will embrace tiny homes. “I think it’s going to be an affordable alternative for people,” Lancaster says. “And that’s what’s so exciting about it.”