Saving for the day he can build his own tiny house on wheels

The floor plan for Ben Brown's future home is marked off by pieces of masking tape in a 15 X 12 –square-foot room he shares with a college student in the upper floor of a house on West Walnut Street in Kalamazoo.
"This is the floor plan for my tiny space," says Brown as he points to the tape and discusses his plans for his future residence. "I want a Japanese soaking tub and a big shower because I need a little luxury."
The home will be about 200 square feet and will be put on a trailer with wheels so Brown can avoid having to deal with housing codes and all of the other red tape that goes with building a structure on a piece of land. He says he can't call what he's building a tiny house because of zoning rules.
"If it's on wheels, it's different," he says. "The way the law works with travel trailers is that you can have it parked for a minimum of 30 days at one time and then you have to be gone for 24 hours. The only thing you're paying for is to park the trailer like you'd park a car."
However, the majority of individuals who build tiny houses locate their dwellings on a piece of land and pay taxes. The most likely owners of these houses are retirees, empty nesters, and super independent types of all genders and ages, says Joe Shafer, founder of Tumbleweed Tiny House Company.
"Many build their own with recycled materials and those can cost as little as $10,000 to $15,000, while having one built can range from $40,000 to $70,000," Shafer says.
Brown hopes his is on the lower end of the price range. "If I pay for everything new and perfect it could cost me about $30,000," he says. "But, I plan to look for materials at the Habitat Restore or Goodwill where it won't cost me as much. I'm hoping I can get by for under $12,000 to $15,000. A kid in California paid under $10,000 for his house." 
The trend towards small spaces and tiny houses has gained momentum in the past several years. Shafer says the housing situation for many people has become critical in a challenging economy and a smaller house solves many "painful" problems for the more vulnerable people in our culture.
"The tiny house idea itself, is not new. It's a return to a sensible position that has historically been the base from which the vast majority of people approach housing," Shafer says. "A functional, durable, comfortable shelter is a very expensive thing to create and it simply make sense to live in the smallest house you can manage."
Shafer rents a tiny house for his family of four.
"My two kids share a room and they love it," he says. "Truth be told, the 800 square feet of my house is quite poorly laid out compared to our tiny house plans and I can't wait for the day we can afford to build our very own 500-square-foot cottage."
Pepper Clark, 36, and a mother of two, says she became involved in the tiny house movement five years ago while conducting research on housing construction for a marketing company.
"So within months of discovering them I was sitting in an apple orchard in Sebastopol learning about making my own," Clark says. "But I knew my family of four couldn't feasibly move into one full-time, so I decided to go into business building custom Tumbleweeds for people."
Shafer says he conducts workshops in areas of the country that are more progressive leaning, including Austin, Texas.; Boulder, Colo.; Minneapolis, Minn.; Santa Fe, New Mexico; and Chicago, Ill.
This past fall, Ben Brown attended a workshop in Chicago sponsored by Tumbleweed Tiny Homes where he learned the basics of constructing a small livable space. After the workshop he spent two months developing a floor plan. In December he invited friends and acquaintances to his present home to help him work out the bugs.
About 12 people gathered in a room on the top floor of the Walnut Street home where Brown has mock-ups of the way he plans to configure the space complete with miniature pieces of furniture.
"You have to space within an inch," he says. "You also have to ask yourself, what is the function of the dining room or the kitchen?"
Brown's house plans include a rubberized floor for the shower and soaking tub and a toilet located near the entryway. The kitchen is part of a great room that will open out to a wall with a big window to provide light and give the appearance of more space. He says he plans to have a movable island that will serve as an eating area, among other things, and a specially-designed recliner.
The key when building small is to have furniture and appliances that can be moved to accommodate the changing needs of the homeowner throughout the day.
Shafer says there are sources out there.
"There's a site online called Compact Appliance. Ikea pops up a lot as a source for clever organizational items and a lot of furniture is being adapted or custom-made," he says.  "We're generally not big sofa people." 
Brown likens the ability and need to rearrange furniture and appliances to accommodate the homeowners activities to the machines that transform themselves in the "Transformer" movies.
Such a house may not seem like a luxury to most people.  For Brown, who hasn't owned his own home since the mid-1980's, it will be the culmination of a dream he's been saving for.
When he was in his 20's Brown went to work at a factory while training to work in Juvenile Court. The factory work affected his ability to speak and his sense of balance. He decided to try his hand at farming and purchased 40 acres not far from the farm his parents owned in South Haven.
When his parents became ill, both farms were sold to help cover the cost of medical bills.
"Since that point I've always lived as a guest or Man Friday in somebody else's home," Brown says. "The people who have hosted me have been wonderful. I found them through networking, friends, and church."
In September, he moved into his current residence, known as Fletcher House, managed by a national student cooperative. He says he and his fellow residents have assigned chores each month, including the preparation of meals that are eaten together as often as schedules allow. 
"I pay $370 a month in rent and still have money left over to put towards my tiny house," Brown says. "After I get the tiny house done I'll finish my nursing degree."
Shafer readily admits that a tiny house is not for everyone.
"You need to be practical and independent, appreciate minimalism, believe in the power of individual action to ripple out and positively affect people and the planet, and believe deeply that the quality of life comes from experiences and relationship and not from possessions."
Jane C. Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. 
Photos by Erik Holladay
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