Built to Save
As a young couple, Callie Brauel and Nathan Huening are making plans to build their life together. Unlike most newlyweds, their plans include building their own 250-square-foot tiny house to call home.
The two have quit their full-time professional careers to join the tiny house movement, an architectural and social trend that involves living in minimalistic spaces, usually less than 500 square feet. When the couple got married, they requested money to finance items such as a toilet and wooden beams to build an 8-by-20-foot tiny house trailer in lieu of a traditional wedding registry.
Standing under the temporary tarp roof of the structure that will someday be their future home, the couple happily shares their future plans.
“Long before we got married, we had talked about building a tiny house, and I think it was kind of how I knew I had found the perfect wife,” Huening said with a smile.
Brauel and Huening have rented out their former Chapel Hill apartment and have sold all of their furniture, and they now live with Huening’s father. The three of them plan to finish building the majority of the home by January.
The house, though, is on wheels, meaning it doesn’t neatly fit into Durham’s building structure codes and is only allowed in certain areas. Brauel and Huening expressed concerns about finding a place to park their tiny home trailer.
Steve Medlin, planning director with the Durham County Planning Department, said tiny homes in most cases must meet the same standards to which traditional homes are held.
“We treat tiny houses just like any other site-built structure — it needs to meet North Carolina building standards, it needs to meet the minimum lot size for that zoning district. Modulars are fine, they would just have to be installed and treated as a permanent structure,” he said. “The bigger issue for Durham currently is based on the way the building code is structured, most tiny houses wouldn’t count as site-built structures. We’ve had some limited conversations about having more flexibility, but those conversations haven’t really taken root.”
In nearby Carrboro, although tiny house RVs can be stored on a homeowner’s property, they cannot serve as a primary residence, said Carrboro Planning/Zoning Specialist Jeff Kleaveland.
“Basically, the answer is no,” he said. “You’d be legally vulnerable and one complaint away from action from the town,” Kleaveland said.
Though regulation for tiny homes is clouded with uncertainty, they provide clear economic advantages for owners. With median home prices in Chapel Hill and Durham costing $334,400 and $166,900 respectively, Brauel and Huening are seeking more affordable housing options.
The couple plans to spend less than $15,000 on construction and has saved money by buying used materials from Craigslist and secondhand stores.
They will own their house outright and live mortgage free, with the extra money allowing them to travel, start a business or work less.
Trish McGuire, Carrboro planning director, acknowledged the problem of rising housing costs in the Triangle. She said the town has started doing research on the impact of tiny homes in Carrboro, and while there are no specific plans for tiny houses as of yet, the town is focused on keeping property sizes down to promote housing affordability and is evaluating some aspects of tiny homes from a regulatory perspective.
“There is an interest in having a better knowledge of them in a general perspective and the affordability of housing in Carrboro,” McGuire said.
Brauel and Huening bought the floor plan for their home from Tumbleweed Tiny House Company. The Colorado-based company constructs and creates floor plans for tiny houses and sells plans for both tiny house RV trailers and tiny houses built on a foundation.
The Tumbleweed Tiny House Company’s most popular models are the 24-foot Tiny House trailers, which are about 200 square feet with fully built models starting at $57,000. Ross Beck, Tumbleweed Tiny House operations manager, said customers often opt for more expensive upgrades, such as skylights, sliding doors and metal roofs, to personalize their tiny houses. Beck asserts that tiny houses are overall a premium product.
“The construction of a tiny house is like a regular house, but it is actually more sturdy because it can cruise down the road at 55 miles per hour,” he said.
Beck said RV tiny houses, such as Brauel and Huening’s, make up most of Tumbleweed’s sales. He cautioned that tiny homes on trailers are recreational vehicles intended for travel and not primary residence.
“Technically, recreational vehicles are supposed to be for recreation, and we tell people to follow the rules and regulations,” he said.
While the couple can easily live in a trailer park, their ultimate goal is to live in a tiny house community made up of several tiny house trailers.
“My ideal universe is having a bunch of friends that all owned tiny houses, too, and we’d all have a shared community space and community garden,” Brauel said.
House Company has grown 50 percent each year for the last five years. The company was started in 2001 with four employees and now has more than 50.
The tiny house movement is fueled in part by television shows such as HGTV’s, “Tiny House Builders,” “Tiny House Hunters” and “Tiny House, Big Living.” Beck said there has been a spike in Tumbleweed’s tiny house workshops for prospective buyers, especially in certain areas of the United States.
“North Carolina is a huge center for tiny houses in the U.S., as well as Seattle, Portland and cities in California,” he said.
Though many of these tiny houses operate on wheels, some tiny home owners opt to put their homes on a foundation.
Carrboro Alderman Bethany Chaney lives in her own tiny house. Chaney’s house sits nestled in the trees in a quiet Carrboro neighborhood. Her tiny house, no larger than 600 square feet, includes a cozy living room, walk-through kitchen and bedroom. A small ladder, a former fixture of the bygone Chapel Hill Barnes and Noble, connects the downstairs living area to an upstairs loft.
While she acknowledges that her house is small, her tiny house fits her needs.
“All of the benefits to the environment and the economic benefits of having very low operating costs, all that’s a bonus. It’s really about how I wanted to live,” she said.
Chaney graduated from UNC in 1990, but moved to Washington, D.C., and New York City to pursue her career and graduate school. After about 10 years, she returned to North Carolina and bought a half acre of land near downtown Carrboro with her partner.
It was never Chaney’s plan to join the tiny house movement, but by the time she was ready to build, she had separated from her partner and had to make a decision about what to do with the land.
“I was faced with the choice to sell the land or build something on it, but I couldn’t afford to build a house for two people,” she said.
She keeps her lifestyle in perspective.
“Living small, while it’s right for me, I realize it’s also really important to not be self-righteous about it. I’m really fortunate that I can live this way.”
Not all tiny houses are places of full-time residence for their owners.
A few blocks away from downtown Carrboro, Nellie Vail welcomes overnight visitors and out-of-town guests to her shed-turned-tiny-house. The shed, built in 1947, was remodeled into a living space about 15 years ago.
Vail and her husband bought the 330-square-foot place after seeing it go up for sale last year and began renting it out on Airbnb in December.
“For now, we have two kids, and my husband wasn’t really keen on living in a tiny house at this point, but buying this house was a way we could have the inspiration and kind of dream about it,” Vail said.
Vail’s tiny house is booked most of the month, with both long-term and short-term visitors.
“One of my favorite reviews is from a mom and a daughter that lived in Virginia, and I think the daughter had cancer, and she was being seen at Duke,” said Vail. “Her review really said it inspired her daughter to live minimally. They were going through a hard time and it was an oasis of calm and something that
Staff writer Zoe Schaver contributed reporting.