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For The Home

Small Change

Author: Linda J. Barkman
Issue: October, 2017, Page 30
Photo by Art Holeman

At just 230 square feet, this wood-paneled house on wheels by Cave Creek-based manufacturer Uncharted Tiny Homes is the archetype of today’s tiny home. Boasting expert craftsmanship and perfectly planned interiors, these diminutive dwellings are popping up across Arizona as residents seek greater sustainability and a cheaper cost of living.
The tiny house movement makes its mark in Arizona and beyond

As real estate prices continue to rise and as folks of all ages find more value in experiences instead of stuff, a new style of homes has emerged: the tiny house. Smaller than average, more affordable and often mobile, these small dwellings are especially popular in cities with high costs of living and strong eco-sensibilities, such as Portland, Seattle and San Francisco. The trend also has made ripples in the deserts and mountains of Arizona, with believers from Phoenix to Cave Creek and Pine to Apache Junction jumping on the bandwagon.

Every square inch of an Uncharted Tiny Homes house is well thought-out. The most popular floor plans include a sleeping loft above the kitchen, which is accessed by ladder or a stepped storage unit.
So what exactly is a tiny house? In the simplest of terms, it’s a miniature home, either moveable or stationary, that includes a scaled-back kitchen and bathroom, a living area, and a bedroom or sleeping loft. While the average house in the U.S. is around 2,600 square feet, sizes for these microdwellings range from approximately 100 to 400 square feet—which, to put it in perspective, is far smaller than the walk-in closets of many custom homes. Think glorified RV or travel trailer but better built and often customized. Other small abodes, including historic houses and converted spaces upwards of 750 square feet, are often included in the tiny homes category as well.

Tiny homes come in a variety of shapes, sizes and forms, with local examples ranging from mobile accommodations on wheels to tiny, tony cabins on permanent foundations in the woods, to recycled steel containers converted to a collection of apartments. Serving to bolster their appeal are a few inarguable facts: Tiny homes are more affordable and easier to maintain than traditional houses, as well as more environmentally sensitive due to their small footprint, use of reclaimed materials and reduced consumption of water and electricity.

The use of high-quality building materials and amenities throughout epitomizes the phrase “quality over quantity.”
However, they can also come with some not-so-tiny obstacles. For example, across greater Phoenix and Scottsdale, owners of the diminutive dwellings have a hard time finding a place to settle down. City building codes have minimum square footage restrictions for new houses, homeowners associations typically don’t allow them, and zoning laws often prevent the placement of mobile homes outside of RV parks—and even RV parks won’t permit tiny homes because they don’t meet recreational vehicle standards. “A lot of people are under the impression that they can buy a tiny home on wheels and park it on an empty lot and live,” points out Mike Partanna, owner of Uncharted Tiny Homes, a Cave Creek-based manufacturer of the miniscule structures. “That’s just not the case.”

While the process of downsizing to a smaller home—and to a tiny house, in particular—can be an adjustment, it is not entirely about sacrifice. In fact, today’s minimanses can be downright luxe, depending on finishes and upgrades, which typically include LED lighting, voice-activated door locks, radiant in-floor heating, leaded-glass windows, upscale sinks and faucets, solar panels and Bluetooth surround-sound systems controlled by a smartphone or tablet. Small but functional, the homes also make efficient use of space with such ideas as sleeping lofts and patios.

Nicknamed “Attica” and designed by Phoenix architect Christoph Kaiser—a pioneer of the Valley’s tiny home movement—this converted attic space is an example of Kaiser’s “backyard architecture.”
“For compact living spaces to ‘feel good’, they need visual and physical connections to the outdoors,” states Phoenix architect Christoph Kaiser, a pioneer in the Valley’s tiny house movement who drew international attention by converting a 1955 grain silo into a 340-square-foot home. Recently, Kaiser hard-wired, plumbed and updated a 184-square-foot 1974 AirStream LandYacht to use as a rental unit. Situated in the backyard of a 1926 Craftsman-style bungalow in the city’s Garfield Historic District, the tony trailer is never short of tenants, who average stays of two years, he reports. “What I feel makes the AirStream work as a long-term living arrangement is the private outdoor space,” Kaiser states. This includes a 144-square-foot wood deck outside the AirStream’s front door that is framed by a vine-clad wall on two sides and a backlit pane of frosted glass on another side. “An outdoor clawfoot tub sits at one end of the deck, just at the base of one of the vined walls, making for a wonderful outdoor bathing spot, sitting amidst the vines, the Phoenix skyline in the distance,” he describes. Other alterations include new appliances, an updated bathroom and the addition of an AC unit, which was key given the area’s climate.

Interior spaces accommodate cooking, dining, lounging, bathing and surfing the ‘net.

The screened walkway is covered in vines, adding privacy as well as visual appeal.

Another Kaiser redo fitting the one-of-a-kind category is an attic in a different Garfield residence that he converted to a modern 732-square-foot abode accessed by a stair tower attached to the back of the main house. At the top of the stairway, a wood plank landing that doubles as a front porch terminates at the entry to the attic. Here, a glass and steel pivot door swings open to reveal a multipurpose space offering storage, a compact bathroom, open kitchen, and areas for sleeping, lounging and studying.

Along with singular entities, multi-unit tiny house projects also can be found in downtown Phoenix. One such development is White Stone Studios, located between 7th and Grand avenues on a once-empty lot in an area known by locals as the Triangle. The experimental luxury complex comprises six studio apartments, each measuring 450 square feet and flanked by an additional 200 square feet of patios, atriums and green space. The main building material consists of double-sided white concrete masonry blocks used for walls. These are foam-filled for maximum insulation value, thus reducing heating and cooling costs in the desert climate. Other materials include white oak for custom oversized doors, raw steel for awnings and rough wood from pallets reclaimed from job sites around Phoenix for perimeter fencing. Units feature interior barn door-style sliders fashioned out of countertops from Ikea; and laundry, storage and entertainment areas that can be screened by translucent curtains for privacy.

Kaiser’s own home, a converted grain silo, has garnered nationwide attention. Small in size, it doesn’t skimp on luxury. The downstairs level features a kitchen, storage/TV wall, dining area, concealed bathroom, foyer and sitting area.
The Studios’ mastermind is architect/builder Benjamin Hall, who received the 2015 Distinguished Building Honor Award from the Arizona Chapter of the American Institute of Architects for the project. According to Hall, tiny homes are “a way to live cleaner and more organized and to be part of a community.”

Two additional developments in downtown Phoenix are combining the tiny house movement with the trend of reusing shipping containers. Completed in March 2015, Containers on Grand is a sustainable residential project comprised of a collection of one-bedroom apartments constructed from decommissioned steel containers. Units measure about 740 square feet and include hardwood flooring, large windows, a washer/dryer, dishwasher and ceiling fans. The project was such a success that in May 2017 its design/build firm StarkJames followed with The Oscar, located near Hance Park, in May 2017. Similar to Containers on Grand, it features nine apartments, as well as live/work and commercial spaces, ranging from 745 to 830 square feet. 

The 17-foot-high glass door is positioned to capture views of the Phoenix skyline and the setting sun. Four sets of perforated metal panels flank the door, allowing the homeowners to control their direct exposure to the sun.
As the demand for petite accommodations grows, many companies, including several in Arizona, are now offering product lines that include their own tiny house designs, sometimes supplemented with workshops, building plans and prefab kits for do-it-yourselfers.

Uncharted Tiny Homes, for example, offers eight house designs that can be mobile or stationary and customized to suit individual owners. Sizes range from 150 to 350 square feet, and about half of the company’s sales are to out-of-state buyers, notes Partanna. “We use wood as our main building material and have pretty high-end materials for our standard features,” he adds. “Some of our homes include butcher block countertops, Pergo laminate flooring, pine tongue-and-groove planks for walls, dual-pane windows, mini-split AC units and tankless hot water heaters.”

Kaiser converted a 174-square-foot AirStream into a rental property, ideal for tenant Michael Favaro. The home also features a 144-square-foot outdoor living space.
The company’s first client, Sara Wilson, purchased her Tiny House in September 2016 and has resided in an RV park in Apache Junction ever since. Still happy about the attributes of her compact living quarters, she says, “I don’t feel like I have wasted space; I use every inch of it. I love that I have all that I really need right there, and it truly helps me focus on needs versus wants.

“I am also one who loves to be able to have freedom,” she adds. “I like the idea that I could hitch up to a truck and move if needed.”

At the other end of the spectrum is Pine Creek Resort, located in Pine. Nicknamed Tiny Pineys by an early resident, the resort offers 48 homesites on which microdwellings with a cabin look are permanently situated. Each abode is just under 400 square feet, and a monthly property rental fee covers water, sewage disposal and trash collection. No extra charge for the forest views. “There are seven different floor plans, some with lofts,” notes owner Ray Pugel, adding that just nine sites remain. “A rep from APS told me it’s the fastest selling development they ever saw in Gila County.”

“My approach for the interiors of the AirStream was simple: Paint everything a light gray to maximize the spaciousness, add warmth with a walnut floor and other wood accents and add some light midcentury accents,” Kaiser says.
With other projects still on the drawing board, including a tiny house community by Habitat for Humanity and a Humble Homes development of 300- to 600-square-foot homes plus a community garden—both in Tempe—the trend doesn’t seem to be slowing down. By the same token, Lilliputian living isn’t for everyone. As with any big change, it is advisable that people do their homework before taking the plunge and to be aware of the negatives as well as the positives of living the Tiny House lifestyle.      

Speaking of the tiny home trend in general, Kaiser says he believes it has done a good job of confronting our culture with the fact that we can live with less—less space, less energy consumption and less waste. “It appeals to certain people, but it may never find widespread acceptance,” he adds. “The appeal is sometimes motivated by economics, but most frequently it is tied to a desire to live simply—and sometimes a desire to live ‘separated’ or somewhat disconnected from the buzz of life,” he says. “Coming home to a simple, humble, quiet place that is somewhat disconnected offers a tangible attraction.”

There’s a saying that good things come in small packages, and from the buzz surrounding the idea of tiny but tony mini-mansions that keep life simple, the saying has merit. It may not be for everyone, but scaling down is clearly becoming a way of life for many, one tiny house at a time.
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