Living Small

Featured Article, People
on March 5, 2007
Chad Surmick Jay Shafer, founder of the Tumbleweed Tiny House Co., stands on the front porch of his Sebastopol, Calif., home.

Jay Shafer appears larger than life, standing on the front porch of his 100-square-foot home in Sebastopol, Calif. (pop. 7,774), welcoming a visitor with an outstretched hand and a big smile. Inside his miniature wooden house, large windows on three walls and a half-glass front door give the illusion of a greater living space.

“The question most people ask is, ‘Don’t you ever get claustrophobic?’” says Shafer, 42, founder of the Tumbleweed Tiny House Co. “I tell them that you don’t in a space that’s well designed. I spend most of my time inside at my desk or lying in bed. You can only take up 12 square feet at a time; everything beyond that is just elbowroom.”

Although it’s nowhere near the United States’ average home size of 2,500 square feet, Shafer’s tiny house includes the usual amenities. The ground floor boasts a kitchen, bathroom, shower and a “great” room that serves as a living room, work area and dining room. Two small chairs flank an efficient heating unit, allowing Shafer to heat his American Carpenter Gothic-style house for less than $60 a year. The kitchen has a large sink, well-designed storage space, a small refrigerator and a two-burner propane stove. The bathroom/shower area is compact and uses a low-flow toilet. The bedroom loft can accommodate two people.

“I’m not an ascetic,” says Shafer, sitting inside his cozy living room. “I need my stereo and DVD player, but I don’t like having stuff around that I’m not using.”

A small idea
Shafer grew up in a 4,000-square-foot home in Mission Viejo, Calif., but downsized in 1997 while teaching art at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. “I was fed up with maintaining and paying for more space than I needed, so I built a 100-square-foot house to meet my needs rather than adjusting my needs to the space,” he says. “It took about 400 hours, or two months with help from my friends.”

With no experience building a house, he relied heavily on his art and design background to create a comfortable and eye-catching abode. “The gabled roof and the floor plan are very traditionally American, just scaled down,” he says. “Most of my friends thought it was a good idea.”

After that first home, Shafer had no desire to build more houses. That is, until a couple of years later when news organizations around Iowa City began reporting on his tiny dwelling and people began inquiring about how to get their own small house. In response, Shafer created the Tumbleweed Tiny House Co. in 1999.

Three years later, he partnered with small home enthusiasts Gregory Johnson, Shay Salomon and Nigel Valdez to found the Small House Society, an organization to promote the research and development of affordable and ecologically responsible tiny houses. “Most people realize they need to be more self-reliant and self-sufficient,” says Johnson, also of Iowa City. “They’re trying to cut back on expenses, driven in part by escalating rent.”

In 2003, Johnson became one of Shafer’s customers, moving from a rented room in a large home into a 140-square-foot home. “I was a little panicked about it at first,” Johnson says with a laugh. “The room I was living in at the time was 10 (feet) by 12 (feet). And so when I saw the main floor plan was 10 by 7, I thought, ‘Wow, that’s tiny!’ But then I figured the bed’s going to be up in a loft, and downstairs will have a desk, and the total square footage was more than what I was living in at the time. So then I thought, ‘This will be doable.’ I figured I’d try it for a year or two. Now it’s been three years and I really enjoy it.”

Living with less
Today, the Iowa City-based society has a membership that includes 40 architects and urban planners who have built at least 500 tiny homes around the world. “I think there’s a desire to return to a smaller, simpler way of living,” Johnson says.

Shafer’s tiny house inspired carpenter and homebuilder Shay Salomon, 40, to promote small living. “Even though almost no one is willing to live as small as Jay and Greg, their homes inspire the imagination,” says Salomon, who shares a 1,100-square-foot home in Tucson, Ariz., with two other people. “It’s the art of presenting possibility.”

Salomon has built six homes under 500 square feet in the last few years. “As a builder, I see the emotional, spiritual and financial toll big houses take on people in terms of the environment, free time and family life,” she says. “A small house needs less cleaning and maintaining, which gives you more time for living.”

Last year Salomon authored the book Little House On A Small Planet to share the advantages of living with less space. “All over the U.S. and Canada I met people either living in small homes or planning to build a small home. They all said that as their homes got smaller, their communities got bigger.”

John Edmonds embraced small living in 2003 when he built a 600-square-foot cabin in Cloudcroft, N.M. (pop. 749). “The small-house movement is about reordering lifestyle priorities,” says Edmonds, 38, who sold his large home and quit a corporate job to start a more economical life. “I previously lived in a three-bedroom house and never went into two of the bedrooms. Now my house costs about two bucks a day to heat and cool.” Edmonds created the website, where he shares his story and challenges others to “dream small.”

Two such dreamers are Stephanie Johanesen, 35, and her husband, Daniel, 36, who live in Welches, Ore., in a 550-square-foot home built in 1956. “We got rid of a lot of stuff to move in here, but found that most of the clutter served no purpose,” Stephanie says. “We intend to raise our family in this house. We’re thinking of adding one of Jay’s tiny houses as a guest unit, but that depends on what the next year brings.”

Wave of the future?
In 2005, Shafer moved back to California, where he runs the Tumbleweed Tiny House Co. from his tiny house.

Shafer says that most Tumbleweed homes, which range in size from 70 to 700 square feet, can be built for less than $50,000, with the smallest home costing about $40,000. “I’ve built 10 by myself from the ground up,” he says. “I have 50 sets of plans I supply to people on my website ( The biggest problem is making sure the house feels roomy and comfortable despite its size. It’s a challenge, but it’s more about design than the amount of space.”

His clients invest in tiny houses for various reasons. “Some are interested in a second home or vacation cottage, some are interested in a free-standing addition to their existing home, or adding a studio or extra bedroom,” Shafer says. “Then there are people like myself and Greg who want to live in them full time.”

Of course, Shafer realizes that small homes aren’t for everyone. “I don’t know if tiny houses are the wave of the future,” he says stepping out onto his front porch. “But I’m pretty sure they’re a tiny ripple in the wave of the future.”