Home & Garden

Tiny house movement now has roots in Charlotte

Some homes have area rugs with more square footage than these houses.

Yet, there’s a sliver of the nation’s population that sees living in 500 square feet or less as a smart, alternative version of the American dream.

A faction of that population came to Charlotte last weekend for the Tiny House Conference, a $300-per-ticket, two-day event at McDowell Nature Preserve.

The event brought speakers, model homes and workshops on how to become tiny-house warriors who will one day hammer and saw their way to a mortgage-free life. It wasn’t a fleeting moment of idealism. Given the serious interest of those who attended, the movement seems to be taking root here.

The conference was organized by Ryan Mitchell of Charlotte. For the past year, he’s been building a 150-square-foot house on wheels that he plans to locate in the University City area. His house is one of at least three planned or under construction locally. Mitchell expects the costs to total about $25,000.

“I looked at my budget and I noticed the bulk of my income was going to housing,” Mitchell said. “That’s when I started looking for options.”

The journey to a downsized life started for Mitchell in 2008. He was a renter who was abruptly laid off from his six-month-old job as an executive recruiter. The business closed as the economy tanked.

“Luckily I found a job, but that feeling never left me,” he said. “I wanted to be more in control.”

In 2009, Mitchell, 30, started blogging at thetinylife.com and traveling to conferences. He met others who shaped and shared the ideals that he now embraces: that having more square footage and stuff than you use is wasteful and unsustainable in the long run.

Mitchell doesn’t know how many tiny homes are out there, but he’s identified about 2,600 people living in them through his blog and conferences. He believes that number is growing exponentially based on visits to his blog, comments, and other interactions.

Yet, for all the charm that tiny houses might hold, there are obvious questions.

1. How much do they cost? Maybe $15,000-$25,000.

2. Is a house built on a trailer or on land a better option? Depends on size, location and other factors.

3. Are they legal? It’s not always a simple answer, because these structures may not align with local zoning codes. Do your homework.

4. What about utilities and plumbing for the bathroom? Lots of different options. Talk with a builder; read books and blogs.

With interest growing, it was easy enough to find about 170 people – regional and from longer distances – to come to Charlotte for the sold-out conference.

“I’ve pretty much made up my mind,” said Linda Mason, 60, who traveled from north of Winston-Salem for the conference. She said she is making plans to sell her 1,500-square-foot farmhouse to pay for a much smaller home. “I would like to make my life much more meaningful.”

Mitchell wanted this year’s event to be bigger than any he had attended, so he signed 13 speakers as well as a few vendors.

Even in this tiny world, there are for-hire builders looking for opportunities to show model houses. Asheville-based Wishbone Tiny Homes brought a 120-square-foot model that sells for about $45,000. It has a composting toilet, artistic details such as a decorative inlay on the front door and stylish light fixtures inside.

Visitors also could tour a do-it-yourself abode made from a shipping container.

One of the most anticipated guests was keynote speaker Dee Williams, author of “The Big Tiny: A Built-It-Myself Memoir,” available April 22 from Blue Rider Press, $26.95.

Williams has lived in a 7-by-12-foot house on wheels that she built herself for $10,000 about 10 years ago. The house has no shower, and she doesn’t think it’s big enough to share with a second person.

But a catastrophic health event caused her to re-evaluate the overtime hours and constant repairs and upgrades needed to maintain her 1,500-square-foot bungalow in Washington state.

With a diagnosis of congestive heart failure, she learned she had possibly one to five years before her heart stopped working adequately. Suddenly, the 1920s house didn’t matter so much.

“Beside the simple allure of this really cute cabin image, there was something attractive about this ‘simpler time’ connotation,” said Williams, 50. “All of a sudden, (after) being hemmed in by my big house and being captured by bills, I could see a way out.”

She has surprised her medical team by living so long. And she has adapted well to a life with different thresholds. She can shower at work or at the gym, and she can be available to pick up her nephew from school. She also was there for a close friend’s final days.

“What I want to offer is that it’s not about the house,” she said. “It’s the relationship that you have with space and the natural environment and your community – and yourself.”