If you ever wanted a playhouse, tree house or fort when you were a kid, the tiny house movement will thrill you. Living in a home less than 400 square feet is exactly like those childhood hideouts, only scaled for grownups, with grownup interests and needs.
Evolution of home
Tiny homes are nothing new. Our forebears lived in caves, cabins, tepees, dugouts and soddies as they moved from place to place or decided to settle in an area and homestead. Most of them had little money and wanted to make the most of what they had.
Settlers used whatever materials were at hand, including logs, sod and sometimes just plain dirt to make bricks. Native tribes established in an area used hogans and wickiups as homes, while the plains tribes took their homes with them as they followed the seasons and the bison herds. If you’ve read the “Little House” books, you know that the Ingalls’ homes rarely contained more than two rooms and maybe a loft for the kids.
We’ve come a long way from using hides and adobe, but the urge to be mobile or to live more simply still lies in our cultural memory. These days, some tiny houses are stick built, while others are made of aluminum and have wheels under them for those who don’t want to be tied down. Still others hearken back to more old-style materials. What they have in common is their functionality and limited space.
Mary and Tom Garland, owners of Junction West RV Park on 22 Road, have just opened two tiny houses in the park—one only 399 square feet and the other slightly smaller—that they plan to rent by the night or week.
“When a local television station ran a story on the tiny homes, the phone started ringing off the hook before the story even finished airing,” Tom said. “There’s definitely interest in them.”
Each tiny house comes with a full kitchen, a full-sized bathroom and either bedrooms, sleeping lofts or both. The lofts are great getaways for grandkids who love the tree house feel of the space.
“Millennials and seniors both love the tiny spaces,” Tom said, “and the younger people don’t mind sleeping in a loft.”
The Garlands believe that renting a tiny house for a few nights is a great way to find out if you want to downsize permanently.
Despite what cable TV shows would have you believe, tiny houses have drawbacks.
Darrell Bay, the Mesa County Building Department’s chief building official, said most have not been inspected, and even though they’re built on trailers, they aren’t meant to be moved like a camp trailer.
“Most have steep staircases or ladders and tiny loft bedrooms with no way out in case of an emergency,” he said. “Plus, state regulations require that, because they’re classified as [recreational vehicles], there needs to be a separate public shower and restroom.”
There are also minimum size and space requirements. Kay Simonson, of the Mesa County Planning Department, recommends checking for land covenants, hookups for sewer, water and power, and making sure that the dwelling is safe, sanitary and doesn’t impact the surrounding area.
“They are considered ancillary dwelling units and require a toilet, sink and shower or bathtub in the bathroom,” she said. “There also have to be cooking facilities, a refrigerator and a sink, or some other way to wash dishes.”
Home on wheels
Tiny Houses aren’t the only downsizing option.
Kim Baum, 70, and her husband, Tom, 62, downsized from a 2,500 square-foot home on five acres to a fifth wheel camper five years ago when Tom was laid off. Kim loves it.
“It’s easy to keep clean, and we’ve weeded out all but the essentials,” she said, pointing to pictures of her sons, their wives and their granddaughter. “It’s allowed us to focus on what’s really important.”
There are no property taxes to pay and no exterior upkeep. Tom built a small porch under the retractable awning, and Kim makes their small yard bright with vines, potted petunias and primroses. A patio table and chairs round off the yard.
Kim works at the RV park, so rent and utilities are free and they can modify their space to fit their personalities and needs. She estimated that about 80 percent of the park’s guests are people who have chosen to live in RVs permanently.
There are a few drawbacks, Kim conceded.
“Where do you store your seasonal clothes? And it’s harder to make the bed than in a house,” she said.
But there are benefits, too.
“You can wake up to a new front yard every morning,” she said.
Life in a tepee
Betty Tanksley, 75, gave up a two-bedroom house on a large lot with a mother-in-law cottage and a garage for a 22-foot tepee, which she painted with symbols from her Native American heritage and some that represent her family members.
Of course, downsizing so drastically isn’t easy.
“I have over 100 years’ worth of family mementos and documents that I have to sort,” she said, pointing to plastic bins bearing her children’s names. “I’m taking care of it so my children don’t have to later.”
Tanksley heats her tepee with a large chiminea and has built-in seating and a sleeping platform around the circle. She’s in the process of sorting, discarding and gifting a lifetime’s accumulation of stuff.
“The worst part of moving has been not knowing what to do with it all and what might be of value to my kids and grandkids,” she said. “I’ll get it sorted pretty soon, yet I have to honor the artifacts. The sorrow of looking back has been far outweighed by the joys of my life.”
Tanksley plans to live in the tepee during the spring, summer and fall, and then travel for the winter, visiting her kids, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
The best part of letting go of possessions is that she now has a sense of freedom, peace and serenity.
“I got the sun in the morning and the moon at night,” she sang, “and it’s real.”
It may seem foolish for adults who’ve had it all, so to speak, to give up most of what they’ve worked all their lives to amass, yet those who have learned to let go and find what’s really important have no regrets. They can be who they want to be instead of just being Grammy and Grampa. They are able to explore, travel and do the things they’ve put off. They’ve become free.
When she isn’t writing, she teaches writing workshops and edits both fiction and nonfiction manuscripts. She facilitates the Colorado West Writers’ Workshop and belongs to the Authors’ Guild. Visit her website for more information and links to her books and classes.