Living Small

Sometimes, thinking big means thinking small. Meghan Williamson and Kurt Rosenberger joined the small house movement in November when they moved into Nathan Musselman’s 204-square-foot home, located right outside the city of Harrisonburg.

To be in Meghan and Kurt’s living room is also to be in their dining room, kitchen and office. The space is roomier than it appears from the outside, but still, the grand tour takes about two minutes, and from the house’s only table you can keep an eye on the couple’s dog, Bonnie, in the bedroom and see when the water on the propane stove reaches a boil.

Musselman designed and built the home, with the help of Herr Construction, over the course of six months in 2013 and into 2014 to serve as an example of a sustainable, legally constructed home under 300 square feet. He lived in the home for a few months until he got engaged and moved out in April.

(12/29/14) - (Harrisonburg) ---- Meghan Williamson Kurt Rosenberger and their pet dog at the tiny house on Switchboard Road. (Daily News-Record/Michael Reilly)

(12/29/14) – (Harrisonburg) —- Meghan Williamson Kurt Rosenberger and their pet dog at the tiny house on Switchboard Road. (Daily News-Record/Michael Reilly)

“Right now, tiny homes are a bit of a novelty, and weird to some people,” Musselman says. “I think over time they’ll become less of a novelty and more common sense. Why wouldn’t you align your house to the sun and have it heated in large part for free? People need to think about building in ways that are more connected to the environment they’re living in.”

The recent small house movement began in 1997 when Sarah Susanka published “The Not So Big House,” but blew up after the financial crisis of 2007-2010, when small homes became a more affordable option than taking out a mortgage on and maintaining a full-sized home.

The movement continues to grow in popularity, with documentaries such as “Tiny,” a television show called “Tiny House Nation,” and firms, including the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, that specialize in designing and building homes between 65 and 887 square feet. Yet despite the buzz, only 1 percent of home buyers acquire houses of 1,000 square feet or less, while the average size of homes built last year hit 2,600 square feet, an all-time high that surpassed even the housing bubble years, when homes averaged around 2,400 square feet, according to the Census Bureau.

One barrier that people considering a tiny home run into is building code laws that specify a minimum square footage for permanent dwellings. In many places, including Augusta County, where a minimum is set, tiny homes are being built on trailers, which places them in the impermanent structure category and it becomes a DMV/Highway District issue rather than one of city code.

“It’s hard when sustainability has, in some cases, been overtly outlawed,” Williamson says. “In many places, you’re not allowed to grow your own food in your front lawn or have your own chickens.”

Chickens and homegrown produce are two of the reasons Williamson wanted to move away from the city in the first place.

“Kurt and I wanted to balance my rural perspective with his desire to be able to bike to everything,” she says. “This place combines rural sustainability with transportation sustainability.”

From the home, Rosenberger is able to walk to his woodshop and bike into town in less than 15 minutes.

When asked if they know of any other tiny homes in town, Rosenberger points out that there are almost as many trailers as homes around the county.

“All of those people are living in small-footprint homes and all of them are doing it for economic reasons,” he says. “This is cute, I get that, tiny houses have nice trim, but that’s mostly a response to parameters.

“One hundred years ago, this wouldn’t have been considered a tiny house, this would have just been a house,” he adds. “We’ve just forgotten, culturally.”

The cost to build a tiny home typically ranges $20,000 to $50,000, but once built, maintenance costs are close to zero.

“There are no utilities here,” Williamson says.

The home is powered by solar panels and heated by a combination of woodstove and passive solar. With the house’s good insulation and south-facing windows, the couple rarely even fires up the woodstove for warmth. Rainwater runs off the roof and is collected in a massive barrel to the left of the house, and water is heated by solar water heating panels. The house is completely off-grid, with 10 solar batteries hidden inside the dining room bench.

A common theme among tiny homes is smart use of space. Almost everything in the house has more than one purpose. The seating is also storage space, the nook beneath the bed serves as Bonnie’s personal cave, and the walls are slowly being colonized by bookshelves.

“I don’t need much in a house, but I definitely need some bookshelves,” Williamson says.

The couple has already held a few gatherings at the house and plans to host more come spring, when they’ll be able to fully enjoy the outdoor space.

“We have had small, intimate dinner parties,” she says with a laugh. “We do four to six people really well.”

Aside from being more sustainable and affordable, a big reason people are drawn to the idea of a tiny home is because they promise a simpler lifestyle.

“It’s been really easy,” Williamson says. “It’s sometimes hard to downsize, but then you just realize you have more stuff than you want.”

“All people actually need and want is a space to be cozy and read good books and not feel like they have to work too hard to pay for things they don’t need.”

Many would consider placing two humans and a dog in such a tight space a sure way to ruin a relationship. But Williamson says she and Kurt have only had one almost-fight in the house since moving in.

“I came out one morning after sleeping in on a Saturday, and Kurt had chopped all the wood we had,” she says. “I was like `WHAT? That’s not fair! I wanted to do some of that.'”

The pair says they don’t know if they’ll live in a tiny home forever, build one of their own someday, or refurbish an old townhouse, like they had originally planned.

“Our goal a year ago was to buy a townhouse that needed to be renovated and loved on,” she says. “We wanted to tighten it up, so it was a lot more energy efficient. Both rehabbing old homes and building tiny homes are really good directions.”

By living in the tiny home, Williamson is able to focus more of her time and energy on Pine Knot Projects, a handful of efforts she’s involved with around the Shenandoah Valley aimed toward “sustainability, community and shared vitality.”

“As a society I think we’re a little bit overwhelmed by our stuff,” she says. “We work really hard to have a lot of stuff, and sometimes it would be nice to work hard for things that we love.”

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 10, 2015, issue of The Daily News-Record in Harrisonburg, Va.

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