When Brian and Caroline Setliff of Raleigh began planning a weekend home on 10 acres of land in Saxapahaw, they knew it would be something small, to fit both their budget and their desire to get their young sons outside as much as possible.
The couple’s 450-square-foot get-away house up a hill from the Haw River is what has become known as a “tiny house,” dwellings that aren’t just small but are thoughtfully designed to optimize the use of space.
In thinking about the house, the couple drew from a number of sources of inspiration.
Brian, a lawyer with a solo practice, remembers seeing cool trailers and camping pads in Outside magazine and seeing how a friend converted a storage shed into a livable space in his backyard in Durham. Caroline, a sales representative for Merck, recalls a friend going to a “tiny house convention” and telling her about how cool some of the houses were.
Now the Setliffs are in a position to inspire others. The story of their house was featured in an episode of the cable TV show “Tiny House Nation,” which aired on Saturday and can be found online at www.fyi.tv/shows/tiny-house-nation.
Whether as a lifestyle or simply a way to avoid a mortgage, the “tiny house” is a counter movement to a prevailing trend toward bigger and more. The median size of a single-family home completed in the United States in 2014 was 2,453 square feet, up from less than 1,500 square feet in the 1960s, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
To make a comfortable and functional living space of less than 500 square feet requires some clever design, which attracts builders looking for a challenge.
Carpenter Jim Valesey of High Point says he has worked on plenty of big houses over the years, but the Setliffs’ is his first tiny one. Among other things, Valesey made the cabinets for what serves as a kitchen, in the corner of the house’s main room, fitting in a sink, a mini-fridge and microwave oven.
“It’s definitely a different perspective,” he said. “But it’s more creative, because you have to use your space more efficiently.”
In the end, though, the “tiny house” movement is less about the house and more about living with less. Less appliances in the kitchen, but also less stuff in general. Watching people decide what they can do without makes for good TV, said Tennessee Edwards, the executive producer of “Tiny House Nation.”
“If you’re building a tiny house, you have to sacrifice something,” Edwards said. “That’s part of the adventure of it – figuring out how building a house like this fits your lifestyle.”
The TV show is one of several media sources for information and inspiration on going tiny. There are websites like thetinylife.com and the Tiny House Blog (recent posts: “Choosing a wardrobe fit for the tiny house life,” and “Tiny Floating Homes,” which is another way of saying living on a boat).
Tiny is perhaps the most extreme wing of an older, broader movement to slow down and simplify our lives whatever the size of our house. Raleigh architect Sarah Susanka emphasized quality in design over quantity in her 1998 book “The Not So Big House,” from which she has built a career on preaching mindfulness. Her 2007 book “The Not So Big Life” is a sort of psychological version of letting go of stuff.
And William Powers, who wrote a book about living in a 12-by-12 cabin off the grid outside Siler City, followed up with “New Slow City,” a book about how he and his wife rid themselves of 80 percent of their stuff and left a 2,000-square-foot townhouse to live in a 350-square-foot apartment in Greenwich Village.
The Setliffs aren’t doing anything that extreme. After all, the house in Saxapahaw is a weekend one; they still have their 2,700-square-foot home in Raleigh.
But the idea behind the house included giving up stuff, most notably the electronic gadgets that can keep kids and their parents from getting off the couch. The couple wanted their sons, Jack, 7, and Rivers, 10, to get outside on their bikes and on foot, to explore the 10-acre property and the village of Saxapahaw.
The “Tiny House Nation” crew ran with the idea. When the family mentioned the possibility of a zipline, the show arranged for Beanstalk builders, a zipline and treehouse company out of Morganton, to donate one that runs from the back porch to a platform in the woods, about 200 feet.
Zack Giffin, one of the show’s two “renovation experts” and co-hosts, built a mountain bike trail with ramps and jumps around the house, as well as a wall between the boys’ bunk beds in the loft that folds down into a ping-pong table.
Most of the work was done, though, by the Setliffs’ builder, Paul Young of Greensboro, who designed the house and with his crew built it in 10 days under the constant watch of GoPro cameras mounted on the trees and a drone camera overhead.
Young’s touches include an aluminum garage door that opens the main room onto the back porch, which wraps around the side of the house under a 20-foot cantilevered roof that makes the house feel much larger than it is.
Young said the demands of maximizing the use of space dictates a modern, innovative design.
“They’re very fun to build,” Young said. “You can do a lot of fun stuff with them.”
The Setliffs can easily think of things that would have been nice in their weekend house. A full kitchen. A big-screen TV for watching sports. A bath tub.
But so far, the house is working as a launching pad for outdoor activities for their sons.
“They love being here and riding their bikes and going into town,” Caroline said. “People know them now.”
The theme of the show is going smaller and unplugging, so if we can motivate any parents out there to get their kids outdoors and away from ‘screen time’ that would be great.
Could the couple live in a tiny house full time? In the future, with the boys grown and gone, “I could live out here, absolutely,” Brian said.
Then turning to his wife: “Could you live without an oven and all that?”
“Yeah,” she replied emphatically.
The challenge, the couple agrees, is getting rid of “your stuff” and the memories it holds.
Brian mentioned a box of trophies he won as a kid that had been at his parents’ house in Reidsville until recently, when his father brought it to Raleigh. Now they’re in the Setliffs’ basement.
There would be no place for them in a tiny house.