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But when he went to look for condos, Johnson discovered that as in many cities, local Iowa housing codes declare it illegal to build a small “efficiency house” (meaning a dwelling connected to water and electricity for more than 30 days), calling them “uninhabitable,” even though equivalent apartment units are legal.
He circumvents this problem now by putting his tiny house on wheels. It is then considered a camper.
Despite the logistical difficulties, there is a market for teeny-tiny homes. People find ways to get basic services into them — for instance, a small house will often share land with a larger home. Shafer builds about five houses a year and has sold 50 sets of Tumbleweed house plans.
The guys have booked a room at the luxurious Hotel Angeleno on Sunset, just for a change of pace. In the gathering dusk, the pair stop to take pictures of the little house in front of the big columnar hotel. Ascending to the hotel’s penthouse restaurant, Shafer remarks that the elevator is bigger than his house. Johnson, wearing shorts, a sweaty T-shirt and his backpack, ambles into the swanky restaurant and plops down on an ottoman facing the panoramic views; he pulls a granola bar from his backpack and begins to munch.
“I think I’m going to stay for a while and dance,” says Shafer, after the two polish off their grilled portabella mushroom sandwiches.
If your house is as big as an elevator, you want to spend as little time in it as possible. Johnson, who is a computer consultant at the University of Iowa, puts in a 16-hour workday. He showers at the gym and avails himself of the toilet facilities. There’s no bathroom in his tiny house — you can install a waterless composting toilet, but he doesn’t feel that he needs it.
Johnson goes downstairs to check on the house. The upper-story attic is like a sauna, but he props open a window and a nice cross breeze begins to waft through. The house is made of raw pine, and it smells a bit like a forest. For cold days, there’s a gas boat heater on one side. Tables and surfaces seem to tumble out of the woodwork when needed, then fold away when not.
“Jay has what I would call a Ph.D. in the science of design. Your peripheral vision always has line of sight to the outside. There are no drapes to absorb light.” Johnson is a big guy, but he squeezes in nimbly via a ladder and rolls onto a futon. When they were designing Johnson’s house, Shafer would ask the right questions, such as when was Johnson happiest in his life.
When he was a teenager on family vacations, staying in a cabin with no electricity or running water, he answered. He would schlep buckets of water from a nearby stream. You can do electricity in a Tumbleweed house, but influenced by the Amish (and to steer clear of potential housing-code violations), Johnson opted not to.
He pulls out his laptop and scrolls through pictures of his house, currently parked in his dad’s backyard, where it’s been for the past five years. The house has a tiny desk, with tiny stocking-stuffer books on dreams, angels, Irish blessings.
“I picked all the topics,” he says.
Like a dollhouse, everything is proportionally small. A little bonsai. A little teapot. He’s just pulled up a photo of his little cheese grater, when a security guard arrives to inform him the house is about to be towed — it’s blocking a delivery zone. He’ll have to park it elsewhere.
“I wonder,” Johnson asks, “can they valet-park a house?”