(First published in the April 5, 2018 issue of City Pages)
The challenges Lee and Stephanie Fandrey faced to build their a tiny home raise the question: Why don’t more communities allow for this growing trend?
Stephanie Fandrey can pinpoint the moment she shifted decidedly toward minimalism and the desire for a much-smaller-than-average house. It was the night she stood with her husband Lee and watched their townhouse burn down. What started as a fire in the adjacent unit—and what they thought would result in just a few hours spent outside while the neighbor’s fire was taken care of— turned into a building-consuming fire.
The Wausau-area couple lost nearly everything, save for a book and phone, and hunting equipment that Lee planned on using the next morning. Stephanie had been edging toward a shift to minimalism already, but that night her resolve shifted into high gear.
Today, their new “tiny home” in Ringle is nearly complete. Every inch of this 700-square-foot house was carefully thought out and meticulously designed to maximize space and minimize waste.
Space wise, the Fandreys’ house would be considered on the upper end of what’s called a “tiny home,” a growing movement in which homeowners are choosing to live in a small, highly efficient and well designed house. The trend is something of a backlash to the over-consumption that contributed to the housing bust of 2007—folks buying homes far outside their budgets and abetted by shady lending practices. The interest in tiny homes has become stronger in the past few years and even the subject of a television show. Wisconsin alone has at least four companies that specialize in building tiny homes.
If it’s such a growing trend, why don’t you see more tiny houses around? It turns out you can’t locate a tiny house just anywhere. Most zoning codes prohibit them, but oddly, those rules have nothing to do with tiny houses per se; they’re a carryover from the 1960s.
Zoning is one of many challenges facing a potential or current tiny house owner, but most cautionary tales speak about location, not tiny houses themselves or minimalist lifestyles. For example, because of restrictive zoning, most tiny homes must be located in the country, which poses complications. Other tales of woe involve not getting a straight answer to where a person can locate such a home in the first place. And in one instance, a young couple was forced to move when they were expecting a baby—they knew a family wouldn’t be comfortable in such a tiny abode.
Less is sometimes more… difficult. But adherents say it’s worth it.
Built like a traditionally constructed custom house: A contractor himself, Lee has been building their house largely himself over the past year on weekends and evenings.
The Fandreys did exactly what most young couples do when they start settling down: buy a large house and fill it with all the stuff people are expected to buy—couches, chairs, tables, entertainment centers.
The problem: All that space and stuff went largely unused. Lee was often busy with his construction business, and at one point moved to Texas for a few years building business in that state. Stephanie worked 60-80 hours a week in the medical field, and was home mostly just to sleep. Stephanie, who’s also a yoga instructor at Community Soul Yoga, says they had all these things and space, and needed little of it. “We saw four rooms of our house,” Stephanie says. “The bedroom, bathroom, living room and kitchen… for minimal amounts per day.”
They sold the house and rented a smaller townhouse in 2011. All that stuff bought for a three-bedroom house with a full basement no longer fit in their new home, and the Fandreys started downsizing their possessions. It wasn’t nearly as painful as Stephanie imagined.
“I had a chair for five years,” Fandrey says. “I sat in it four times. I thought, ‘Why have this? Why do we have all these things?’ This is not what being a responsible adult is, this is just what society tells us it should be.”
The fire was the final straw, Stephanie says. She and Lee learned what it’s like to have no possessions, and thought very carefully about what they really needed to replace. Stephanie lost her wedding gown in the fire. But she has pictures and memories of that day, and what would she really need the dress for? “And 27 pairs of jeans? I only have two legs,” Stephanie says, matter-of-factly. “I vowed I would never own an excess of anything ever again.”
Lee says he was 100% on board. The fire had a similar effect on him and together they concluded that a tiny house made the most sense for them. The only question was, where? And how tiny?
Too small to zone
The loft bedroom features a walkout deck, which adds a feeling of space.
The Fandreys were mistaken in thinking that choosing a location would be the easy part. At first they bought several acres of undeveloped land on the northeast side of Wausau, within city limits. They laid out the property, talked with WPS about electrical service, and were close to ready to start the building process when they discovered the city ordinance specifying house size. Turns out, they couldn’t build their tiny house in Wausau, because it was much smaller than the 1,500-square-foot minimum for new home construction in that neighborhood (The base square footage minimum in Wausau is 800 square feet.) That footage doesn’t include an attached garage.
They ran into that problem just about everywhere. Out of all the places they searched in the greater Wausau area, only the town of Ringle and village of Hatley allowed for the kind house they wanted to build, which started out at 320 square feet but eventually grew to 720, mostly to accommodate a mechanical room for the large apparatus that operates the in-floor heating. They chose some land in Ringle.
Minimum house size is not by accident, says Marathon County Planning and Zoning’s Dean Johnson. Local governments began regulating minimum building sizes in the 1960s to control the proliferation of mobile trailer homes. Otherwise, people would buy cheap mobile homes and park them on a subdivision lot, Johnson says. So planners calculated the average size of a mobile home and added enough square footage to make sure these residences were prohibited in most all neighborhoods.
The smallest house allowed in Wausau, for example, is 800 square feet, plus 200 more for a garage, says William Hebert, the city’s chief inspector and zoning administrator. City zoning requires even larger footprints in many areas. In some parts of the U.S., homeowners with large lots are constructing backyard tiny homes as a “granny house” for guests, relatives or renters. Even this use for a tiny house is prohibited in Wausau and most (if not all) areas in Marathon County.
A quick search of tales of tiny house woe reveals plenty of issues with zoning. One man in Dane County found a woman who owned land outside of Madison who agreed to let him park his tiny home (many are built on wheels in order to be mobile) for a small amount of rent. But that county has a rule that allows only one structure per 35-acre lot in most rural areas. The man had to move elsewhere.
A tiny trend
Good design and including large windows throughout, especially in the loft bedroom, make the Fandreys’ tiny house feel not-so-small.
“Tiny home” could describe any small structure, of course, even an inexpensive mobile trailer home. What we’re talking about here is the type of compact house that’s typically made with the same (or better) quality of materials, standards and design as standard stick construction. Many in fact are quite high-end and can cost even more per square foot than other custom construction.
Municipalities might want to consider relaxing restrictions, as the trend toward building small is growing. After all, there isn’t any legal description of a “tiny house,” according to Dan George Dobrowolski, who owns Canoe Bay in Chetek. Slated to open this summer, Canoe Bay is a village of upscale tiny houses that people can rent as vacation homes. It’s an offshoot of ESCAPE, a company that builds pre-fabricated tiny houses for people all over the country.
Started four years ago, ESCAPE grew from its original 15,000 square-foot production facility to 22,000 square feet, then 40,000 square-feet, and now is looking to build a second facility in the next 12 months, Dobrowolski says. The company builds hundreds of tiny homes each year and has seen business increase each year.
For the sake of their dog and safety, the Fandreys nixed a space-saving ladder to the loft and installed stairs instead. Metal construction allows for more space underneath.
Two years ago, Josh Hemp started Northern Tiny Living in Neillsville. His company builds about six tiny houses (most on wheels) per year. Each house takes about three months to construct.
Hemp says customers who come to him typically know what they want and already have spent two to three years researching tiny houses. The homes he builds range from around 200 to 400 square feet and are constructed on a metal foundation on wheels, so they can be moved.
Hemp doesn’t live in a tiny home himself and wasn’t necessarily motivated by the trend. He merely wanted to launch a home construction company but not with a full crew of employees to start. Tiny homes were a perfect niche because he can do all the work himself. He now has one employee who helps with sales and marketing; otherwise, it’s a one-man operation.
Because the houses are built on wheels, Hemp’s homes technically are not considered permanent structures, Hemp says. Most of his customers are in their 20s and 30s, he says, and usually park these houses on a relative’s land. Being on wheels makes them technically similar to an RV, which makes for a legal grey area, he says. “Is the municipality going to go to every home with an RV and say they can’t keep it there?” Hemp asks rhetorically.
A typical tiny house costs between $40,000-$70,000, he says, depending on the size and customization.
ESCAPE advertises models around 300-square-feet in the same price range, but also some over $90,000.
Lee and Stephanie Fandrey’s 700-square-foot home is small, but designed well enough to include space for a wood-burning fireplace and a bathtub (albeit, a small one).
Building a tiny house isn’t cheap, despite what people think. Lee, who owns a construction business with his brother, managed to do all but the electrical and plumbing himself on the house. Even so, the house cost roughly $90,000 to build; without his own labor, it likely would have been double that, Lee says.
Design had to be meticulous and thought out, Lee says. For example, Stephanie originally wanted a free-standing tub, but they couldn’t budget the space for one. Instead, they substituted a small built-in tub.
The original plans called for a second floor loft accessed by a ladder. With an 80-pound dog living in the house, and with daily safety in mind, a ladder didn’t seem like such a good idea. They built a staircase instead.
And additional rooms were added to the floor plan to accommodate some of the mechanics of the home such as the floor heater.
Overall in their downsizing plans, the Fandreys essentially decided what was most important to them. That’s exactly what someone should do when planning for a tiny home, writes Ryan Mitchell of Tiny Living, a website devoted to minimalism and tiny homes. For example, Stephanie says she wanted enough space on the first floor to entertain a few guests. For more people, a backyard fire pit serves as the centerpiece of an outdoor gathering space—one they’ve already made use of.
Most of the special consideration comes in the form of location and design; the actual construction isn’t much different than building a regular sized house, Lee says. And there are lessons of the tiny house movement even for folks building a “normal” house, Lee says: Be wise to design a house for actual space needs.
The Fandreys’ tiny house isn’t done yet, but they’re close. Like all of the other locally sourced materials of the house, Lee is now working on the siding of the house, using reclaimed barnwood.
And through the process, Lee says another person has approached him about building a tiny house for them. The person told them his current house is too big.
It could be the start of a tiny movement, starting to grow.
Want to build tiny, or live as if you might?
The Fandreys’ tiny home sits on a poured slab equipped with radiant heat.
Check local zoning. Many places require structures of a minimum size, and that can vary from area to area even within the same municipality. While an average homebuilder might design their dream house and then decide where to put it, a tiny home owner might have to do the opposite.
Start adopting a minimalist lifestyle: A tiny house won’t provide space for excess items. If you’re considering downsizing, start living with less in your current space before making the move.
Figure out your needs: What’s important to you, and design the tiny house around that. If you love reading, a small library might be the centerpiece of your house. Remember, tiny house enthusiasts say: It’s not about owning nothing, it’s about weighing the storage cost of your possessions versus how important they are to you.
Look to combine: Multi-functional spaces are key to making a tiny home work. For example, one tiny home enthusiast has a staircase that doubles as a seat, storage and bookshelf. A bathroom door, when closed, reveals a pantry.
Lighter colors, windows: Using lots of windows gives the sense of a larger space. Lighter colors and mirrors can help too, making the space seem light and open.
Be flexible: The Fandreys set out to build a 320 square-foot home. It more than doubled as they recognized their needs and worked through the building process, adding space where necessary. A large part of their issue was logistics, because the in-floor heating apparatus was much larger than they anticipated.
CLARIFICATION: This story was updated to reflect that while this specific property would have required a 1,500-square-foot structure, the base minimum in the city’s ordinance is 800-square feet. City Inspection Department’s Bill Hebert says there might have been a covenant that required the larger structure.