Raleigh seminar shows a big appetite for tiny homes

jneff@newsobserver.comMarch 9, 2014 

— Eliza Bordley and Jacqueline Lawrence have decided to build a life and a home together. Their foundation: an 8-by-20-foot flatbed trailer.

The couple are building a “Tiny Home,’ a snug, full-fledged house with kitchen, bathroom, bedroom and living area in less than 200 square feet. When it’s complete, they’ll tow it to their farmland in Durham County near Falls Lake.

While many may find the prospect of living in a kiosk-sized home confining, these two find it liberating.

“It forces you to get rid of all that stuff you don’t need or don’t use,” Bordley said.

“We want to be as self-reliant as possible,” Lawrence said during a break Sunday at a tiny home workshop in Raleigh.

They were two of 60 people who spent the weekend at a Raleigh Holiday Inn learning the nuts and bolts of tiny homes, which have been inching up in popularity in recent years.

The crowd was not just made up of young do-it-yourselfers like Bordley and Lawrence. People from a wide variety of occupations and ages showed up. Some couples looked to make their looming empty nests cozier and more affordable. Others wanted space for a mother-in-law or a boomerang child.

Bill and Deb Lentz of Greensboro used a phrase often heard at the seminar: a simpler and more elegant life.

They live in a 3,200-square-foot double-wide on four acres of land near Greensboro. They don’t like paying $500 a month in utilities, and they don’t like a lifestyle of accumulating things.

“We’ve always wanted a hobbit house,” Deb Lentz said. “I’d like to pass a different way of life on to my kids.”

The couple have a homestead mentality; they keep goats for milk and chickens for eggs. She makes her own soap and dehydrates the ample produce from her garden to feed her children, ages 16 and 12.

Bill Lentz likes the idea of tiny utility bills, no mortgage and no debt.

“If the economy takes a dive and goes down, it’s easier to survive,” he said.

“Full of useful beauty”

Sarah Susanka of Raleigh is an architect, author and champion of the Not So Big Life, with homes free of foyers or formal rooms that sit unused.

Susanka typically urges a client to pare down a 3,000-square-foot-house to 1,600 square feet. That’s a far cry from the 160-square-foot tiny home, but she sees the appeal, especially after living in a 100-square-foot house earlier in life.

Susanka compared the tiny home to a beautifully designed sailboat.

“They are elegant, small and full of useful beauty,” Susanka said. “In order to live in that small a space you have to think of where everything goes. Everything is compact and has a double use.”

Big utility savings

The weekend seminar was put on by the Tumbleweed Tiny House Co., which sells tiny home designs, parts and even fully built homes. The lead instructor was Art Cormier, who built his 100-square-foot tiny home in Lafayette, La.

The house is clad in old cypress; he sleeps in a cozy loft snuggled under his sharply gabled roof. Cormier said his house is the opposite of claustrophobic: with windows on all four sides, he feels like he’s living in a bright airy space.

“It makes you come to grips with what you need versus what you want,” Cormier said.

Cormier spent $8,000 building his tiny home; now he pays about $20 a month in utilities, versus $750 in rent and $200 in utilities in his previous home.

A rock climber by passion, Cormier spends from one to four months each year climbing the cliff faces in Yosemite.

“I unplug my house, lock the door, and I’m worry-free,” he said.

Cormier led the seminar through the details of home construction: vapor barriers, subflooring, king studs, bottom plates and window flashing. There were debates about when to use self-tapping or self-drilling screws, and whether to opt for a flush or composting toilet.

Bordley and Lawrence, the Durham couple, have meager experience in construction; they’ve helped on a number of Habitat for Humanity houses, and they’ve each worked on different farms.

But the recent college graduates are confident they can construct their own tiny house.

“Tumbleweed makes it pretty idiot-proof,” Bordley said.

While the plans and instructions are incredibly detailed, Lawrence said their goal is not: “Elegance is that point at which nothing else needs to be removed.”

Neff: 919-829-4516

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