ALBANY — A resurgence in minimalist tiny homes has blossomed among those eagerly adapting to a not-so-new American Dream. The desire for self-sufficiency and simple living has echoed throughout American history from Thoreau’s “Walden” to Lloyd Kahn’s guide to tiny homes published in the 1970s.
The average home in the United States was about 2,600 square feet in 2014, according to the Census Bureau. That’s the largest American homes have ever been, outsizing homes during the housing bubble years. Today, according to Zillow, “The median price of homes currently listed in the United States is $235,000.”
A lack of affordable housing has forced people on a budget to get creative and downsize. A typical tiny home generally ranges between 100 to 400 square feet. Though the average cost of building a tiny home is somewhere between $20,000 and 25,000, the cost can range anywhere between $5,000 and $40,000.
East Greenbush native, 23-year-old Jeff Wager, has devoted much of the last year to building his own tiny home. Wager spoke with the Daily Gazette about what taking on such an ambitious project entailed for a recent college graduate.
Q: When did the idea of building your own tiny home first occur to you?
A: Summer [of] 2015. I entertained the notion just before leaving for a short-lived attempt at graduate school. After watching the Dick Proenneke documentary “Alone in the Wilderness” the idea of building an off-grid house became even more appealing. Two weeks into grad school I became disgusted by the thought of being bound to chair and desk for the upcoming year and solidified my desire to build a house. I withdrew from the MBA program and made way to Cherry Valley, NY to pursue a timber-framing apprenticeship, which would provide me with the skills and discipline needed for building a house of my own.
Q: What about tiny homes is so appealing?
A: The aspect that gives me the biggest smirk is its legal classification; being on wheels, a tiny house is considered “personal property”, rather than a trailer or mobile home. This, generally, allows the house to circumvent most buildings codes and zoning laws. A tiny house also requires much less material, labor, and maintenance than an average home, giving the builder a little more financial leeway in personalizing the house to their liking.
Q: Would you ever want to live in an average-sized home?
A: I wouldn’t want an average size home until I get a family going. There just wouldn’t be any need for me to have all that extra space.
Q: How old were you when you first got into carpentry? How did you learn?
A: My dad usually had some weekend home-repair project going on and I often helped out. He isn’t a carpenter by trade, more of a weekend warrior DIY type. My first year in high school, he and I completely renovated our then unfinished basement which sparked my interest in carpentry and woodworking. I discovered what a reward it is to see immediate and tangible results of our efforts. I took woodshop in school every chance I had and started building little crafts of my own.With knowledge imparted from my father, shop teachers, trials and errors, I started making skateboard ramps, bedframes, and even rudimentary electric guitars.
Q: How did you go about planning your tiny home project?
A: The original plan was to build a stationary, timber-framed, cabin out in Cherry Valley. Impending student loan obligations rendered this plan unreasonable. I figured a tiny house was the closest affordable option. My more than generous friends, the McIntyres, were gracious enough to allow me to park the eyesore of a camper in their driveway where I spent two months tearing it down to the frame. Once the frame was exposed I spent the following three months hand-tooling the the timber frame for the house. Once the frame was raised and mounted on the trailer I began to visualize a design. Save for a couple scribbled on napkins, I haven’t been working off of any written plans or blueprints. The theme of the project has been one of “put things where they make sense.”
Q: What will the final layout look like on the inside?
A: The layout will be typical of most other tiny homes, kitchen and bathroom in the back, living area in the front, loft up top. A few things I did differently were adding a cantilevered front porch as well as two foot cantilever from the loft for water storage. Aesthetically it will look like a hunting camp. Unfinished and exposed beams pegged together, pine floors, minimal cabinets and shelves.
Q: Do you know anyone else who has built a tiny home? Have you seen any others in person?
A: I’ve seen a couple model homes in Vermont, as well as a beautifully built custom DIY home parked in Troy. Picked up a hitchhiker last summer who claimed to have built one on the back of a flatbed. He tried selling it to me.
Q: How did you balance this project with your job?
A: Very unequally. I was fully enthused and immersed in the project for the first eight months and didn’t place too much focus elsewhere. The job I had when I started gave me great flexibility in scheduling, allowing me to dedicate four to five hours every weekday to build, but the pay was not great. I took another job in June that paid better, but with better pay I had to sacrifice flexibility and found myself building only on weekends.
Q: How much did you expect to spend on the home when you began?
A: Going into the project I was confident that with some second hand purchase savvy I could get away with a $6,000 budget. I haven’t been keeping tabs on what I’ve been spending, but I imagine the finished product will cost me between ten and fifteen thousand. Though I’m past my original $6,000 projection there’s still quite a bit of work to do. Several windows need to be installed, all electrical work needs to be done, and interior finishes are currently not present. I’m hoping I’ll have this done and plopped on my land by May.
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