Welcome to the Dollhouse: From Tumbleweed, a Rolling Home That Gathers No Moss
A bunch of people are standing around in an old Kmart parking lot in Atwater Village looking at a tiny house on wheels. The house is 96 square feet and is hooked up to a truck.
“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.”
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?”
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