By BECKY GILLETTETiny houses are now a popular trend across the U.S. with a couple of television programs and numerous articles about the phenomenon that is being heralded as a way to provide home ownership to those who otherwise couldn’t afford it while reducing environmental costs. Having worked as an architect in Mississippi for a couple of decades, one of the things James Ray Polk learned is how to get the most out of the least space.
“The easiest way to cut money out of a job is to put the house on a diet and carve out all the unusable space and make sure all the space offered is usable, maybe for several different purposes,” Polk said. “The smaller it is, the more challenging it is because every square foot has to be utilized.”
Polk has been interested in tiny homes since 1990.
“Back then, everybody was trying to build bigger and bigger,” he said. “That has flipped and people are thinking of downsizing.”
Polk opened Tiny Homes Life Spaces LLC (www.tinyhouselifespace.com) in March in what used to be a wire harness factory before NAFTA resulted in the jobs being moved to Mexico.
“Prentiss has a couple of factories that have been sitting there quite awhile,” Polk said. “I got with the city and they were very anxious to work with me. They bent over backward to make a good deal on a five-year lease with escalating rent. We went in there March 16. Counting me, we have six employees.”
The first factory line introduced is the tiny house garden shed.
“It is an accessory building, a place to pot plants,” he said. “It is something less complicated we could put together without a huge investment. We’ve been working on a shoestring. Like any new business, it has been a challenge. Recently, we picked up an investor who has helped us grow a little bit. We have been catching some wind at our back lately working on an actual tiny house on wheels model that we are going to introduce down in Louisiana in response to the Louisiana floods. We hope to have the finished in October. We have a dealer in Baton Rouge.”
After Hurricane Katrina, many people were sickened by high formaldehyde levels in FEMA trailers. Polk said his tiny house on wheels is being constructed from non-toxic, low and no volatile organic compound materials.
“I’m very well aware of what went on after Katrina,” he said. “Our tiny houses have wood cabinetry and floors. We have more natural materials. One of the things we are offering is a healthy environment.”
The 192-square-foot Bayou House has two lofts and a pull out couch. It can sleep five. It has a tub instead of a shower. The kitchen area is a little bigger than some travel trailers.
“It is fairly tight, but it has the feel of a house as opposed to a trailer,” he said “There are seven windows for plenty of light and ventilation. It is on wheels. If you purchase a model, you can drive it home. It has RV plumbing fixtures like fresh water storage, and gray and black water storage tanks that can be emptied like a RV. It can be used as a camper or travel trailer, but it is designed so you can plug it into your sewer and electrical system. If you are off the grid, you can get electricity off propane. When on the grid, you can switch to electricity.”
While the Bayou House is primarily designed as disaster housing, Polk said it could be used for any purpose. For some people, it might be the first home they can afford to buy.
“One of our pitches to customers is: ‘Buy a house for the price of a car’,” he said. “Rather than taking 30 years to pay off a house, you are paying it off in six or seven years. People are tired of the rat race of servicing their debts. It is an American dream to have control of your finances, and have your house paid for so you can put money into something other than your mortgage. So what we are offering people is the American dream.”
Polk said the tiny house on wheels expands economic freedom to geographic freedom in that people can take it with them if they decide to move across the country.
Zoning and building codes not designed for tiny houses are a major challenge that exists now and will for the next few years. Outside of jurisdictions with zoning ordinances, there is more flexibility.
“There is a vast amount of the U.S. where you can go in with a tiny house,” said Polk, a graduate of Mississippi State University School of Architecture who worked in Washington D.C. for several years and taught at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture in 2005 and 2006. “In developed areas, that is more complicated. One of the options working now is a Planned Unit Development (PUD). Zoning jurisdictions have option of carving out certain area for PUD zoning for tiny house communities.”
Another option is treating the tiny house as an accessory structure. If you have a house on a lot that meets zoning codes, in most jurisdiction you can place an additional small structure on the property and is treated within the code as an accessory building.
“But a lot of work is needed in the next few years to set the stage for allowing tiny houses,” he said. “That is one of the things as an architect that I want to be involved with, creating building codes and zoning codes that are tiny house friendly, and encouraging jurisdictions to adopt those.”
The Bayou House runs in the $25,000 range for the basic model. Prefabricated tiny houses with more amenities could run up to $75,000.
“We are offering both residential and commercial prefab structures with custom designs,” Polk said. “For example, if a university wanted to do a ticket office for their football stadium, that would be a perfect type of building to prefab and then set down where it needs to go.”
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