Thinking Small

We've all had moments in our lives when we think about shedding those bourgeois material things and living a life of simplicity and freedom. Footloose and fancy-free, being able to pack up and leave at a moment's notice without a care in the world. Better yet, what if you could pick up your house and take it with you, saving space and money while always having a place to call your own?

Known nationwide as the tiny house movement, the desire to go small and portable has recently made its way to Alaska. More than just an economical way to live while still owning a home, tiny homeowners see it as a responsible, ethical way to reduce their footprint on the earth, using fewer resources without compromising quality of life.

Coley Foster of Tundra Tiny Homes builds custom tiny houses in Alaska. Formerly from Iowa, Foster came to Alaska with the military and decided to stay. Foster said he saw a need for tiny homes, especially for people living off the grid.

"I have a degree in renewable energy and have installed a lot of off-grid power systems for people, as well as living off the grid myself," he said.

With no background in construction, Foster's first project was his own home, which he built on property he purchased.

"It was kind of a trial by fire, since I'd never really built anything like it," he said.

Foster's home, which is about 12×20 feet with a half loft, meets the size requirements of a tiny home but is too tall to be a true tiny house. "A tiny home has to be 13-and-a-half feet from the ground in order to be road legal," he said. "And they have to be road legal in order to be towed safely from place to place."

Foster said he gets a lot of "tire kickers," dreaming of tiny home ownership but not quite ready to take the plunge. He sees a lot of retirees looking to downsize, as well as military families, which, as a former military member, makes sense to him.

"When you get transferred every few years, you have to rent or buy a house, then deal with the hassle of packing up and moving," he said. "A couple or small family could hook a tiny house up to their truck and take it from one duty station to the next."

Of course, the biggest concern with a tiny house is space. "Everything you put in these homes has to do two or three things," said Foster. "One of my design plans includes a sofa that hinges up with storage underneath, and can also turn into a bed. It all has to work and flow together. If you have one room or area that isn't cohesive with the rest of the space, it becomes a problem."

Compared to a full-size house, the homes have an attractive price tag, with Tundra Tiny Home floor plans starting at around $45,000.

"A lot of the cost is in the trailer itself," said Foster. "And we do spray foam insulation in the homes as it can be difficult to heat them while still remaining fully mobile."

Foster said the average size is 8.5 feet by 24 feet, which is small enough to keep the mobility factor so the homes can be hooked up to a full-size truck for transport.

For those who choose to join the tiny home movement, however, the freedom and independence is only part of the allure. Mark Wipfli, who has lived in a tiny house he built himself for just over a year, said that he not only wanted to simplify his life, he wanted to live in a way that went beyond typical American homes.

"I'm not impressed with the standard American home," he said. "It feels so big and boring to me, a big box. I'd been looking for an alternative, something with a smaller footprint on the environment."

Wipfli, who came to Alaska from Wisconsin, lived in Southeast and eventually ended up in Fairbanks, where he is a scientist and faculty member at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Like Foster, Wipfli's own home was the first he'd ever built.

"I've built boats in the past, and I lived on a boat when I was in Southeast Alaska," he said. "I was impressed by the way boat builders utilized space so efficiently. I decided to build a tiny house on a trailer I could take with me, modeling it after the space on a boat."

Wipfli's house, which he parks on his property in Fairbanks, is a petite 200 square feet, including the loft area. By building it himself, he was able to save money on labor and truly customize the house the way he wanted. "I put in a lot of windows, all triple-paned so they are still very efficient," he said. "I wanted to maximize the open floor concept, so it's just one big room with a small bathroom and the loft."

Wipfli recommends that people who want to make the move to a tiny house try it on for size first.

"There are several places in the states where you can rent a tiny home," he said. "Portland has a tiny home village with four or five homes on a lot that you can rent. I tried living in one for a few days so I could get a feel for it and be sure it would work for me."

Those interested in building or having a home built can also attend a yearly tiny house conference, which alternates between the east and west coasts. "It's a huge boost to go to the conference and meet people who have built homes, attend the talks and learn about the process," said Wipfli. "It's nice to have that support."

Foster encourages people to seek out a floor plan that suits their personal taste and lifestyle.

"There are a lot of free floor plans online," he said. "Find one you really like and any tiny house builder should be able to accommodate you. Make sure it's exactly what you want; you're already giving up a lot space-wise."

The loss of space appears to be an okay trade for tiny home residents. "I have financial freedom now and don't have to worry about money," said Wipfli. "We build these big houses and cram them full of stuff, stuff we don't even need most of the time. Now I can travel, invest, enjoy life."

This article was first published in 61°North – The Design Issue. Contact the editor, Jamie Gonzales, at jgonzales@alaskadispatch.com.