House & Home

Tiny-house trend moves into Kansas City

Matt Berry and Sami Jo McFarland’s tiny house measures 144 square feet. The Independence couple wanted a mobile and eco-friendly housing option.
Matt Berry and Sami Jo McFarland’s tiny house measures 144 square feet. The Independence couple wanted a mobile and eco-friendly housing option. Special to The Star

On Friday, Matt Berry and Sami Jo McFarland left for a summer in Cape Cod, pulling their dream home from the driveway.

The Independence couple had spent the past year designing and building the $15,000 project.

At 8 feet wide and on wheels, it’s a tiny house.

Just how tiny are we talking?

In 2013, the average size of a new single-family home in the United States was 2,598 square feet.

Now imagine a space about 18 times smaller. Berry and McFarland are a few months from finishing their 144-square-foot tiny house whose total area — which will hold a kitchen, living room, bathroom and lofted bed — could fit comfortably inside an average homeowner’s walk-in closet.

Driving their dramatic downsize from conventional living is a desire for a more sustainable, affordable and mobile housing option. And that is precisely what spurred the small-house movement. Between 1978 and 2013, the average size home grew by nearly 67 percent despite a decrease in the size of the average family.

Tiny houses — no more than 600 square feet — have been trending nationally since the early 2000s, when Jay Shafer founded Tumbleweed, a California-based company that designs and builds ready-made models and floor plans. Since then, prefabs and custom builds have popped up in backyards and rolling acres across the country.

“I think it’s maybe because we outsource our lives,” Shafer says. “We don’t have to have everyone under one roof. We have a broader sense of neighborhood.”

Mitch Trumpp, co-owner of Second Life Studios, describes the work and detail that goes into building a 300 sq. foot tiny home for a family of three in Kansas City.

In the past few months, the local tiny-house community has grown its presence by organizing Tiny House Collective Kansas City, a group dedicated to developing tiny villages and private builds in the metro area.

Even Habitat for Humanity is interested.

The Tiny House Collective is holding a mini-jamboree on June 20 that will include a tour of tiny houses.

Although the typical tiny-houser is over 50 years old, Berry, 26, and McFarland, 27, think the micro-movement has caught on with a younger crowd.

“They understand the flexibility and financial freedom,” McFarland says. “Most of the older people — our friends, family — think we’re crazy for building this tiny little house. They’re like, ‘Why don’t you just buy an RV?’”

So, why don’t they just buy an RV?

The permanence and custom quality of tiny houses, the couple say, are appealing.

“We want to live in a house,” McFarland says. “It just doesn’t have to be huge.”

And it certainly isn’t.

The front door opens to a white main room. A bank of reclaimed cabinets lines one end. A shallow closet for clothes and a compact washer is on the other.

Beside that is the bathroom with a sink that might hit Berry mid-thigh. Pivot left to a wall storage unit with ruler-width shelves, and then right to their bathtub: a rubber-walled water trough.

McFarland sits slouched on a lofted bed, her head barely clearing the upper end of a 12-foot shed ceiling. Berry stands where a custom couch, made for storing odds and ends in drawers, will sit. Nothing is more than a few strides away.

But why put it on wheels?

One benefit: The minimum size requirements, enforced on a city-by-city basis, don’t apply.

In Independence, a single-level home must be at least 900 square feet to be considered a livable dwelling. And, according to the city’s zoning office, residents in Missouri must build in compliance with the International Residential Code, which prescribes a 120-square-foot minimum for at least one room and a 70-square-foot minimum for the rest.

“If you’re not building into the ground on a grid, then you don’t have to worry,” Berry says. “Hence, the trailer.”

While the couple hope to maximize their square footage, they also seek to reduce their environmental impact.

The average-size house can’t compete with a tiny home in terms of eco-friendliness, according to one building company. It takes seven logging trucks to build an average house versus one and half for a tiny house.

McFarland and Berry will make additions — a composting toilet, solar panels and a gravity-fed water system — to further eliminate waste.

When it comes to environmentalism, McFarland wields an impressive resume. She has served in Ecuador as a Peace Corps natural resource conservation volunteer, and having earned her geology degree from the University of Missouri-Kansas City, she recently accepted a summer position with the National Park Service.

Another experience, McFarland thinks, has readied her for the tiny lifestyle: working a short stint on a cruise ship, where she shared a cramped cabin and “shower the size of a sink.”

“I’m used to living in small, unconventional places,” she says.

There are several reasons why the tiny house movement sounds attractive to people. Tiny house home owner Terry Rouse along with Joshua Farmer of the Tiny House Collective Kansas City talk about their reasons for going “tiny” and their vision for K

Crossroads couple

Austin Averill, Kansas City native and manager at PT’s Coffee in the Crossroads, is a few months from moving into a 300-square-foot tiny house with his wife, Kayt, and 140-pound St. Bernard, Boone.

That’s a big breed for a tiny house. But Averill says Boone has always slept in small spaces.

The couple have contracted with Second Life Studios, a Kansas City-based commercial and residential architectural design company that builds primarily with repurposed materials. Construction started in mid-April and already the house has walls, electric and plumbing.

Financially, the houses appeal to Averill’s millennial sensibility: renting is unprofitable; mortgages mean commitment.

“We’re realizing that our parents and peers are spending a lot of time and worry on these big, unwieldy properties,” Averill says. “Rather than working ourselves to the bone in order to improve our houses, we prefer to put our effort toward improving ourselves.”

He acknowledges, however, that the tiny house trend wasn’t started by the 20-something crowd.

“Older people have been working on these for a while,” he says. “They just didn’t Instagram it like we do.”

Averill isn’t sure how long they’ll commit to the tiny lifestyle. For now, it’s an experiment, but a practical one.

“We want to try (it) before committing to a specific neighborhood,” he says. “At the same time, we know that if this alternative form of housing doesn’t work for us, it should be entirely paid off within four years and can be an asset in the future as something that can be rented out.”

Living simply

Jeremy Luther and Kendall Quack, a Kansas City couple, started their letterpress business, Tiny House Creative, with simpler living in mind.

Currently, the couple operate out of a shared studio space in the basement of a historic West Bottoms building. A few miles away, they live with their cat, 3-pound Yorkie and recently pared possessions in a 750-square-foot walk-up apartment. And now, with fingers crossed and funds pending, they’re in the middle of building a home and studio in 220 square feet.

“We see the tiny house as a step,” Luther says. “I don’t know if it’s the kind of place we’ll always want to be. But it gives us the freedom and mobility — amidst rent and student loans — to travel around and not be yoked to a job.”

Apart from their entrepreneurial endeavor, Luther is an art director at The Pitch in the morning and teaches graphic design courses at night. Quack recently graduated with a degree in illustration from the Kansas City Art Institute.

For Luther and Quack, minimalism as a matter of living has long been a challenge.

“I’ve sold everything I own several times,” Luther says.

But the couple are learning that time is a precious commodity, perhaps the only one. And with no mortgage or rent, reduced utilities and a budgeted cost of $17,500 — a tenth the average price of single-family homes listed in Kansas City — a tiny house fits the bill.

With profits from Tiny House Creative and funds from an online campaign, they’ve been able to purchase a trailer and raise the walls. They’re now putting on siding and a roof.

Even tinier

“I’ve had to try to get a lot of stuff in the smallest space,” says 67-year-old Terry Rouse of Kansas City, who is adding the finishing touches on his tiny house. It’s built on a 10-foot trailer and has about 60 square feet on the inside.

“Originally I was going to do an 8-foot-by-10-foot — that is a very common trailer size — but this trailer came up on Craig’s List really cheap,” Rouse says.

While he saved some money, the mechanical engineer says that if it were another foot wider and two feet longer, he thinks his house would feel a bit roomier.

“That’s OK,” he says. “This is really just a small experiment.”

Rouse doesn’t mind people noting that it’s really small when they first step inside.

“It is,” Rouse says. “Most tiny houses that I’ve seen are 160, 170 or 200 square feet.”

Having a small environmental footprint is important to Rouse, and he thinks tiny houses are one way to do that.

“I did the math, and I could probably heat the place on a 20-degree day by just having six people sitting in here (using) just their body heat,” he says.

His house does have a small propane heater, but he hopes to rely in part on passive solar heat to keep the place warm.

Rouse has been working on the house for about a year. He can give a tour of it just by sitting atop a cabinet that will provide storage.

“This is the bedroom and living room,” he says of an area that takes up slightly more than half of his home. He points to the kitchen with its RV oven and then the bathroom tucked away in a corner, with a shower and composting toilet.

“Then there’s the closet — the closet was the last thing,” he says.

He jokes that he has a guest bedroom: two hooks placed at the opposite ends of the house to support a hammock.

“A lot of people say, “Do I really want to live in a place that small?’” Rouse says. “It’s hard to tell. I’m going to find out. I think I can.”

Getting together

One way to tell that the tiny house movement is still in its infancy in the Kansas City area:

“Jeremy Luther and Kendall Quack had a tiny house group going, and I started one not knowing about them,” Joshua Farmer says. “We were on kind of parallel tracks in 2014, and just at the end of the year we were like, ‘Oh, you’re here too.’”

So earlier this year, they joined efforts and formed the Tiny House Collective Kansas City, a nonprofit community land trust.

“We are going at break-neck speed,” says Farmer, who is president of the group.

They started a Facebook page in January that has nearly 1,400 followers, about half of them from outside the area watching what is taking place here, Farmer says.

The Tiny House Collective Kansas City is raising money to purchase commercial property through the Land Bank of Kansas City. The fundraiser is scheduled to end mid-June.

The collective has reached an agreement with Schutt Log Homes and Mill Works of Kingsville, Mo., which would provide a kit for a tiny house to be built on the property.

“With that, we will have an actual physical model and classroom space to start bringing people in,” Farmer says. “We are going to be teaching classes this fall on reduction and teaching classes on how to form a co-op.”

A co-op would help members create a community of tiny houses.

The Tiny House Collective has also been talking with Habitat for Humanity Kansas City about building some smaller houses.

“It is definitely something we are looking into and researching,” says Jessica Ray, executive director for Habitat for Humanity Kansas City.

The size of houses that Habitat for Humanity is researching, however, might fit the definition of a small house — built on slabs — rather than a tiny one.

“By the time you run utility lines, it’s not cost-effective to build a tiny house,” Ray says.

The typical houses Habitat for Humanity builds are around 1,200 to 1,300 square feet. The trend by some to downsize and live in smaller houses could allow the organization to stretch its money further and help more families.

“If we can build a smaller footprint, every dollar goes further,” Ray says.

To reach Kristen Polizzi, call 816-234-4763 or send email to kpolizzi@kcstar.com.

To reach Robert A. Cronkleton, call 816-234-4261 or send email to bcronkleton@kcstar.com.

A tiny office in Overland Park

Chuck Johnson works from his home in Overland Park. His office is parked in the driveway.

Johnson describes his “tiny trailer” as a 42-square-foot modular and completely collapsible turtle-shell structure. The roof comes off. The walls come down. Two 200-watt solar panels are fixed to the siding. Reclaimed windows and a pair of French doors brighten the space.

“If you’re 5 foot 9 or shorter, you can stand up inside,” he says.

The design was inspired by an ice shanty Johnson’s father built for winters in Michigan.

“We’d tow it behind our snowmobile, then set it up on the ice and have a little house for fishing,” he says.

Johnson’s carpentry experience also comes from his father, whom he helped build houses as a child. Now Johnson serves as the unofficial handyman for the local tiny-house community. He says most of the questions he gets aren’t about building tiny houses but powering them.

He’ll teach a class on solar at a jamboree hosted by Tiny House Collective Kansas City on June 20.

Kristen Polizzi, kpolizzi@kcstar.com

NATIONAL HOUSING TRENDS

Total square footage increasing

U.S.

1999: 15 percent of houses completed in this year were less than 1,400 square feet

2013: 8 percent of houses completed in this year were less than 1,400 square feet

Midwest

1999: 19 percent of houses completed in this year were less than 1,400 square feet

2013: 14 percent of houses completed in this year were less than 1,400 square feet 

Average square footage of single-family houses

U.S.

1973: 1,660 square feet

2013: 2,598 square feet

Midwest

1973: 1,615 square feet

2013: 2,398 square feet

Source: U.S. Census, 2013

To compare:

“Tiny” houses: No more than 400 to 600 square feet

“Small” houses: 1,000 square feet or less

KC Jamboree

The Tiny House Collective Kansas City will host a mini-jamboree from 1 to 5 p.m. June 20, which will include a tour of tiny houses in Kansas City starting at the 18 Broadway urban garden at 18th Street and Broadway. The mini-jamboree will include demonstrations on how to install solar arrays and gray and black water systems so people can live in their tiny houses off the grid.

For more information, go to the group’s Facebook page.

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