By Hillel Aron
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By Jill Stewart
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“The shower is the bathroom,” says owner Jay Shafer proudly, as people cram into his living room/office/foyer/dining room/library/kitchen/breakfast nook (it’s all one room). Shafer and his friend Gregory Johnson have been driving down the West Coast preaching the tiny-house gospel, pulling the truck behind them on a trailer. The plan is to drive from British Columbia to San Diego to the Mexican border, having “open houses” along the way, sleeping in the house as they go. The house bounces as people clamber in and out.
Shafer’s Tumbleweed company designs, sells and builds these little domiciles. The house is not a sleek Airstream mobile home, or even one of those beige bread-box things actors use on movie sets. Shafer’s house is a Craftsman Gothic — modeled after the one in the background of Grant Wood’s famous painting American Gothic.
“We could park it in our parents house,” says one woman.
“I don’t think we could get our flat screen in there,” says her husband.
A guy driving a Hummer pulls up. “How much is it?” he barks.
Depending on the model you choose, he’s told, depending on the square footage (the houses range from 65 to 774 square feet), a tiny house will set you back some $20,000 to $90,000. The man frowns and drives off.
Johnson, the burlier of the two, is the co-founder of the Small House Society. Of course he lives in a tiny house and was, in fact, Shafer’s first customer. I imagine that after a week of sharing 96 square feet, the men are ready to murder each other. Shafer’s wife lives next door to him in her own tiny house, though these days it’s more like Shafer and Johnson are wedded.
“We’re like an old married couple,” Schafer says amiably, as they pack up after the open house.
“How does it go, the elements required for people to end up killing each other?” Johnson asks. “Tight quarters, limited sleep and stressful circumstances? We’ve got all those right now.”
Soon, the house is on the move. As they drive, people stare. A guy and his girlfriend in a convertible blasting rap music look up. Six schoolgirls simultaneously raise their iPhones to snap a picture. Low-hanging tree branches scrape the roof of the house. Shafer has visions of it collapsing. Stuck in the snarl of L.A. traffic, the tiny house gives new meaning to the saying “If you lived here, you’d be home by now.”
Crossing the border into Canada, they were stopped by police. “We need to talk to you about your house,” said the officer, scruitinizing the thing. “How long does it take to build?” In the U.S., again, they were stopped by police. “Wow, that is some good woodwork.”
They drive through Griffith Park, looking at the multimillion-dollar mansions. They park, and Johnson goes outside to stretch. “Wait, I should set the parking brake,” says Shafer, dubiously eyeing the rig. “It might roll away.”
“Ha!” Johnson guffaws. “Man run over by house! Now that’s a story.”
A guy comes out of his mansion to have a look. “Would you like to trade?” asks Johnson, cheerfully. “This one requires very little upkeep.”
People are always asking Shafer not just how but why he lives in small spaces. To which he cites ecological concerns, the horror of 18 tons of greenhouse gasses emitted by your average home, the romance of Thoreau and monks who live in small cabins. He also doesn’t want to do housework. He now lives in Sebastopol in Northern California, where he rents a patch of land on an apple orchard.
“People find it appealing,” he says, “it’s a very simple lifestyle. The hardest part is getting rid of your stuff.”
“But now, you don’t have to give up much,” Johnson interrupts. “To live small 10 years ago, there was no room for music. Tech is downsizing our lives.
“Activists and Nader-types are like the white blood cells of society, cleaning up after people,” he continues. “In the past, activism was about talking. Now, it’s about living the answer.”
Johnson is a proponent of New Urbanism. He got rid of his car, and bikes everywhere. He shops less and buys less. He’s even published a book called Put Your Life on a Diet: Lessons Learned From Living In 140 Square Feet.
“By 2003, I had reached a point in my life where I needed a change,” he writes. “It didn’t make sense to rent a small apartment, never putting money toward owning a home. I imagined 30 years down the road having spent thousands of dollars on rent with nothing to show for it.”