By Karen Derr
As evidenced by the popularity of television shows with names like You Live in What? and Tiny House Nation, alternative housing is a topic with wide appeal these days. Convert an old grocery store or a washateria to be your home, and programmers hungry for fresh content will beat a path to your door.
Here in Houston, shipping-container homes and unusual conversions spur our imaginations at home tours and showcases. There is even a local Tiny House Meetup Group hoping to get local government entities on board with tiny homes. And make no mistake: this movement is about efficiency of both space and money. An article in the Houston Chronicle earlier this year drew criticism from readers when the newspaper included in the article photos of small Heights bungalows (less than 1,000 square feet), which were currently on the market in the $300,000 and $400,000s.
Although most Houston homeowners still opt for “stick and brick” construction with two bedrooms or more for their primary residence, it’s certainly interesting to explore the possibilities offered by alternative choices. After all, for most of us, our home mortgage or rent is our largest monthly expense. The appeal of paying less, or even paying cash for a smaller home, is undeniably appealing. What if your home cost about the same as your car? Less to maintain, less to cool, and less to furnish. Some tiny homes are built on trailer beds, both to avoid city ordinances and to provide for mobility. It’s no wonder this is such an intriguing topic. The tiny-home movement seems to be as much about freedom as it is about dwellings.
In Texas there are several tiny-home builders, some offering do-it-yourself workshops. Tiny Texas Homes in Luling builds from salvaged materials mostly from century-old buildings, with an emphasis on vintage and whimsical structures. Kanga Room Systems out of Waco prefabricates cabins with a modern flare. A tour of projects around Austin done by Kanga drives home the reality that most tiny homes today are used as second homes, guesthouses, and grandparent quarters. Kanga offers several plans in the range of $30,000 to $50,000, but that doesn’t include land to put your tiny home on or the cost of hooking it up to city services. Kanga plans to expand in the Houston market, but so far has installed only a few cabins and also a yoga studio here. While the small-home movement focuses mostly on homes below 400 square feet, there is interest in tiny homes as small as 120 square feet.
160 square feet is a particularly significant size for a home, because that happens to be the size of a standard 8-by-20-foot shipping container. Used shipping containers generally are available in 8 x 20 and 8 x 40 sizes with 8.5- or 9.5-foot ceilings. They can be found for sale in the Houston area from $2,000 to $5,000, depending on size and condition. Shipping-container enthusiasts are often involved in the tiny-home movement; however, multiple containers can be connected to build more conventional-sized homes.
One of the first shipping-container houses in Houston to garner acclaim was the Cordell House by Numen Development, LLC. Built just east of the Heights in 2008, while not tiny, it drew crowds to view this cool home that was anything but traditional. Numen Development’s website (numendevelopment.com) offers several designs smaller than 500 square feet.
Houston designer Shane Cook more recently used shipping containers to create a backyard apartment and office for one Heights family. The project won the 2014 Paper City Design Award for Green Project/Use of Sustainable Products. Cook stacked two containers to create balconies above and open parking below. Owners Jennifer and Jeff Copeland even commissioned a mural by a local artist—a graffiti-style tribute to their two sons on the side of the avant-garde structure. “We absolutely love our space. My office is perfect, and out-of-town guests really are impressed as well [with the apartment]. Having storage on the bottom is also really helpful,” says Jennifer Copeland.
Designer Shane Cook says, “For both tiny-house and shipping-container projects, the way in which the exterior is insulated is critical. Site orientation is important to maximize the amount of natural lighting in order for the spaces to appear larger and as welcoming as possible. Some people don’t realize that once a window or door opening is cut into the sides, or the original doors are removed from the end of a container, the entire structure is compromised and will need some additional reinforcement at any modified areas.”
Instead of building a shipping-container structure on site, J. Evans Custom Homes will build out the container and ship it to you for installation. Located in Lorain, Ohio, J. Evans Custom Homes recently participated in a housing expo for flood-prone areas in Texas. Co-founder Nicole Kendrick says, “We operate in a facility that gives us the ability to pre-manufacture our container designs year-round and ship to anywhere in the country by semi or rail, right from our facility.” Kendrick uses a total square footage of 450 or less to designate a home as tiny, not including sleeping lofts, which are common in tiny-home design. She says her company also builds in Murphy-style beds that fold away to make the most of limited square footage.
Regardless of whether your style is industrial, vintage, or modern, finding a place in the city to put your tiny home will be your first challenge. The cost of a full-size lot in a walkable neighborhood or close to public transportation can easily put you over your budget for financial freedom. However, neighborhoods east of downtown are booming, and with the area’s mix of aging industrial and older residential homes, some interesting developments are in the works.
One such east-side neighborhood is Japhet Creek Community. Just a few blocks from the Last Organic Outpost Community Farm, the Japhet Creek Community is a privately owned subdivision with Japhet Creek running through it. It is made up of a late-1800s farm home where the community’s owners, Jim Ohmart and Eileen Hatcher, live. The couple rents several small wooden bungalows to like-minded tenants interested in living in a more sustainable community. They share a working beehive, hens and a chicken coop for eggs, garden, and a community classroom building where they often share potluck dinners. Japhet Creek, now a city park, is key to the community’s sense of place. Due to neighbors’ and friends’ efforts, the creek has been cleaned up, returned to its natural beauty and attracting wildlife. Ohmart thinks the vacant lots in Japhet Creek Community would be great for a tiny-home community. Shared outdoor places and the community room would be useful for tiny-home dwellers, as would the RV Ohmart already makes available to his small-bungalow renters for their guests. His plans also include an area for a shared washer and dryer.
Ohmart has a couple of contacts who are already working with the City of Houston to establish workable tiny-home guidelines. He says, “We haven’t gotten far enough on the tiny-house idea, but need to decide whether to just offer lots to build on or to actually develop a larger tract with utilities, etc., for multiple tiny houses.” The subdivision has about three acres available.
Houstonians curious about building a tiny home can attend a two-day do-it-yourself workshop on November 7 and 8, presented by Tumbleweed Tiny House Company. The company presents workshops all over the nation and sells plans and trailers for tiny homes. The company’s slogan, “Dream Big, Go Tiny,” says it all.
Karen Derr is a Houston-based Realtor and the founder of Karen Derr Realty, which sells town and country properties. She writes and speaks about home and small-business topics.