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Tiny homes are big business for Bay Area architect

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Beth Winegarner
Daily News Staff Writer
September 13, 2005

Much has been made of the trend towards monster homes — those giant, sprawling houses populating Bay Area hillsides. At least one Bay Area architect, however, is perpetuating the idea of the anti-McMansion: the tiny home.

Jay Shafer lives in a 70-square-foot house he built five years ago on a rented parcel in the woods. In that space he has an office, a kitchen, a bathroom and a small loft to sleep in; just enough to call it home.

With that first home he launched the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, through which he builds small, prefabricated houses that are as small as his forest bungalow or as large as 500 square feet.

After Shafer appeared on KQED radio last month, interest in his tiny homes skyrocketed so swiftly he will build as many homes in the coming months as he has in the previous five years.

“It’s starting to catch on,” he said. “People are getting into the idea.”

Although some balk at the idea of such a small space, these homes, many of which are prefabricated by builders like Shafer, have their advantages. Their size makes them more affordable — many cost less than $50,000 — and they are also portable.

Tiny homes’ diminutive nature also makes them more adaptable. They can be used as stand-alone houses, vacation cottages, or second homes on a property, perfect for an aging parent, a workspace or studio or for a child who is still living at home but wants more independence. They can also be rented, creating a secondary source of income for homeowners.

“People are either trying to pare down or create a freestanding addition to their home,” Shafer said. “Some people need more and some need less.”

In the summer of 2003, California’s legislature relaxed laws regarding second units, often called granny units, making it easier for homeowners to build them. Many legislators said it was an opportunity to create more affordable housing without adding to sprawl.

While Shafer said tiny homes are catching on in the Bay Area, the bug hasn’t hit the Peninsula just yet. In two years since California changed its second-unit laws, just four to six units have been added per year in San Mateo, according to senior planner Ron Munekawa.

No free-standing tiny homes have been recently built in San Mateo.

“Five hundred square feet isn’t a home, it’s an apartment,” Munekawa said. “You would have to find land that’s cheap enough to make the economics work.”

Redwood City adds about 10 new second units per year, said planner Blake Lyon. The city’s zoning code restricts such units to less than 640 square feet.

Like Munekawa, Lyon was skeptical that Peninsula residents would want to build something so small as a freestanding house.

“Given land prices, I haven’t seen examples of someone building a unit that small on their own, other than a mobile home,” he said.

But for Bay Area residents who can’t afford the median price tag on a home — now upwards of $890,000 in San Mateo County, according to a recent study — might find tiny homes a cost-effective alternative, Shafer said.

They can also function as starter homes, which may be added to as money becomes available.

Tiny homes can even lead to tiny communities. In Greenway, Va., a subdivision was populated with smaller homes as a way of conserving the surrounding land and its wildlife.

These homes are the subject of a bevy of books, including Patricia Foreman’s “A Tiny Home To Call Your Own” and Shafer’s “The Small House Book,” which he is currently updating. For him, tiny homes express the importance of aesthetics and environmental preservation.

“I live in 70 square feet, and that’s good for me, but I don’t think there are many people that would be good for,” he said. “However, I hope it suggests to someone who is looking at 4,000 square feet for two people that maybe they could consider less. There might be a happy medium.”

This article originally appeared in the San Mateo Daily News.

Written by Beth Winegarner

September 13, 2005 at 8:46 PM

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