If you could design your dream home, what would it look like? A big house with a four car garage? Maybe something more modest but efficient. Places like Portland, Oregon and Washington, DC have communities experimenting with small living spaces known as tiny houses. North Carolina has caught on to the tiny house trend—homes that are tiny by nature, but artistically designed for those looking for a more compact way of living without going into much debt.
In 2008, Ryan Mitchell had a position at a recruiting company. He says he was making about $50,000 a year. Not bad for someone who just got out of grad school. But then, he got some news.
"The owner comes in on a Friday afternoon and says “I’m closing the company today" and he gave us our last pay checks to everyone in the building and I remember standing on the sidewalk with my coworkers just kind of reeling from this," Mitchell recalls.
His worries immediately turned to money. Housing was his biggest expense.
"I asked that crazy question, 'what if I could eliminate that?' Had no idea how, never heard of tiny houses at that point but I started looking and researching and then I landed on tiny houses and the rest is history," he says.
Now 31, Mitchell is a proud homeowner of a 150-square-foot tiny house. It sits on a trailer in east Mecklenburg County on 23 acres of rented land.
To know Mitchell is to know his house. He built his tiny home for about $25,000 and he says it’s all paid off. He’s dedicated his career to educating the public on tiny houses—he’s the Managing Editor of thetinylife.com and he runs a conference on tiny houses.
He asked that the location of his house not be any more specific because technically, it’s not a legal dwelling. Many tiny houses like his are on wheels and he says zoning laws don’t make allowances for them.
"A lot of people, they want to do it legally but they just feel like their hands are tied and people are making honest attempts but it’s tricky," he explains.
It’s tricky because rules don’t take tiny houses into consideration. That makes it difficult for tiny home owners and confusing for city officials.
Shad Spencer is the Zoning Administrator for the City of Charlotte. He says that if the tiny house movement is here to stay, the best thing for both home owners and the city is to make some changes.
“If this is something that is becoming more popular, we probably need to address it and work with some folks on a text amendment to the zoning ordinance that will define them and will indicate what zoning districts they would be allowed in,” says Spencer.
This is a typical problem for tiny house owners in other cities and for the people who build them.
The father and son duo, Gerry and Teal Brown, work out of Asheville. They’ve been building custom-made tiny homes for about a year and a half. They’ve gotten creative with their client contracts because of zoning laws.
“In the contract we outline very clearly that it's not to be used as a permanent dwelling, it's for seasonal recreational use, of course what people do with the product once it's in their possession is up to them. We have no control over that," says Teal Brown.
What they do have control over is the design and artistry. Tiny houses tend to look like doll houses but for humans—scaled down and intricately built.
"When you build an everyday object like a house or a door but you do it with a sense of purpose and a sense of trying to achieve beauty, that it does that. That it has an impact of your quality of life," says Gerry Brown.
That idea of beauty in functionality was a key factor in the design of Ryan Mitchell’s tiny home. And continues to be as he slowly decorates and organizes.
"You have to be very intentional and you kind of agonize over the details. I’ve been looking at a chair forever but I’m not 100 percent sold on it. And that’s the way it goes," says Mitchell.
One detail he didn’t agonize over was the craftsman style of his house. It’s a traditional design which was important.
"Physiologically, that form communicates to us, or we associate with, a home, and a comfortable life and things like that," says Mitchell.
He hopes that universal image of home will resonate with people and bring more acceptance to tiny house living.