Tiny house movement hits home for many in Michiana

Greg Swiercz | South Bend TribuneNikki and David Stillson plan on building this tiny house by the end of 2015. This is a computer rendering of their planned house.

David and Nikki Stillson have become disenchanted with the notion of homeownership, at least as it’s traditionally defined.

The South Bend couple, both in their 20s, owned a house in Florida that lost half its value when the real estate bubble burst in 2008.

After that, they moved into a bedroom in David’s mom’s home and stored the majority of their belongings.

That experience, they said, led to an epiphany.

David said they began questioning “how much energy did we put into keeping this house and this space and these things that we don’t really use?”

The Stillsons have joined a growing movement across the country. By this time next year, they hope to be living in a tiny house.

“We’re millennials who want to save money,” he said, “and not be buried in a life of debt. We want something affordable, so we can enjoy our life.”

In the spring, they will begin building a 180-square-foot house they designed themselves. It’ll be constructed on a 24-foot trailer with an egress, standard framing and a full kitchen and bathroom.

It’ll meet all other code requirements, David said, except size. A city official says code dictates the absolute minimum size a newly-constructed home may be is 200 square feet. At least one room must be at least 120 square feet and at least one other room must be 70 square feet.

Local movement

The Stillsons are among a small, but serious group of local people who connected on Facebook and have met twice at the Purple Porch Co-Op in South Bend to talk tiny houses.

Indiana University South Bend women’s study professor April Lidinsky, who also teaches in the university’s new sustainability program, organized the group. Lidinsky said she’s been studying the notion of not-so-big-houses for several years.

“It’s pretty easy to empathize with this movement,” she said. “If you like architecture, like I do, there are a lot of people doing brilliant designs.” The trend is also representative, she said, of a growing interest in voluntary simplicity.

And, the tiny house movement intersects with feminism, the professor maintained. Because they’re small, there is a “do-it-yourself” aspect to the structures, she said, which means women, who have traditionally been shut out of construction work, have a new opening.

That’s important, Lidinsky said, because it represents the idea that “we all can fashion our own lives, make our own narrative, create our own space.”

That all being said, the tiny house movement is about much more than the tiny house.

Other benefits of living small

“It’s easy to fetishize on the dwelling itself,” Lidinsky said. “But the real spirit behind the tiny house is not living in the tiny house, it’s everything that’s enabled because of where you live.”

Those benefits include the opportunity for a more “communitarian” way of life, she said. For example, tiny house dwellers might be interested in more community gardens in the center of town. They might walk and bike the river paths more. Because they can’t have a dozen people over for dinner, they might patronize locally-owned pubs and cafes more.

After connecting with the Stillsons’ tiny house enthusiast Facebook group, Lidinsky proposed a meet-up, the first of which took place in October. Among the dozen or so attendees were a female construction worker, people who have connections to the Habitat for Humanity ReStore and someone who works for a recreational vehicle manufacturer and is knowledgeable about what it would take to build a tiny house on a trailer.

“It just seems like this could be such a fabulous thing for South Bend,” Lidinsky said. “We’re small enough. We’re pretty nimble. We could make this happen if people were interested in it.”

Marianne Cusato, an author, visiting professor at the University of Notre Dame and designer of Katrina Cottages and other small homes, agrees.

Cusato, whose Katrina Cottage and other designs for homes not necessarily tiny by definition, but small, at 300 to 700 square feet, said the notion in housing that small, medium and large means “cheap,” “move-up” and “rich” doesn’t make sense when you compare it to other industries, like cars and smartphones.

“Efficiency is rewarded,” she said. “But with housing, we haven’t been able to understand that same spectrum.”

Now, with the tiny and smaller house movements, she said, that’s beginning to change.

“You can have a little jewel box that’s beautiful,” Cusato said. “If it’s a 300-square-feet house, you can afford to put really nice things in it.”

A co-mingling of big and small

A look at striving communities throughout the world, she said, confirms that mixed-sized dwellings serve residents well in a number of ways.

“You have these beautiful, huge townhouses next to a building carved up into teeny tiny apartments,” she said, “and everybody’s walking down the same streets, going to the same restaurants.”

When people integrate in this way, she said, it actually drives up the value of real estate.

How could tiny – or small – houses be incorporated into a city landscape?

Cusato said in the next five to 10 years, it will be via a combination of backyard cottages, perhaps for aging, downsizing retirees who want to live close to their children, and what she calls “pocket” neighborhoods, areas carved out for multiple houses that share green space.

For the Stillsons, the South Bend couple who are hoping to build a tiny house, the question of location hasn’t been answered yet.

David said they’d like to be in the Michiana (northern Indiana near Michigan) area, but perhaps somewhere outside of town, because they’d like to explore solar power. On the other hand, he said he’s not opposed to living in town.

Nikki said the question is “How do you make the laws accommodate this movement without diminishing the quality of life in the city or county? … We’d like to have a permanent place.”

Kara Kelly, a spokeswoman with the city of South Bend, said the administration is supportive of the tiny and small house movement as it relates to urban infill. The use of new tiny houses could be a great way to repurpose some lots that formerly had vacant properties, she said.

However, Jitin Kain, the planning director for the city’s Department of Community Investment, said state laws governing residential building construction were not written with tiny houses in mind. “This could perhaps be a significant challenge as it may require legislative changes,” he said.

The best application of tiny homes in Michiana, he said, appears to be a setting in which a group of homes could be situated on a few lots.

“The bottom line,” Kain said, “is that much more research is necessary before we can answer questions about the feasibility of the tiny house movement in South Bend.”

Lidinsky, who met with Kain and others, said the group discussed a possible pilot program that could give proponents an opportunity to teach people about the purpose and goals of tiny houses.

And, she’s still optimistic despite the challenges that lie ahead for tiny house enthusiasts. “I’m not a ‘thing’ person,” she said, verbally delighting in imagining how much bigger other aspects of her life could be if she pared down her own house.

“I think a lot of us are really seeing what matters,” she said. “The next generation already gets this.” It’s not doing with less, it’s living in a more intentional way. “I could finally read that Russian novel,” she said, spend more time “visiting elderly neighbors.”

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