Shrinking your environmental footprint is easier when you shrink your home
by: Christopher Onstott Lina Menard rents this 144-square-foot tiny house in Northeast Portland's Alberta Arts District. She's planning to have a tiny house built for herself.

Homeowners are constantly trying to conserve -- electricity, natural gas, water and sewer use -- to save money and reduce their environmental impact. In Portland, some are taking that further with a new but simple concept: Going tiny. 

"From an environmental perspective," says Portland homebuilder Eli Spevak, "by far the greatest thing we can do for our homes is to build them smaller. It's more important than anything we can do."

That's confirmed by a recent Oregon Department of Environmental Quality study, he adds.

Spevak, a general contractor and owner of Orange Splot LLC, is part of a small -- pardon the pun -- but enthusiastic community of home builders, remodelers, buyers and renters that are putting more emphasis on smaller habitations.

There are two general classifications of small structures: tiny houses and accessory dwelling units.

A tiny house, a term coined by builder and author Jay Shafer ("The Small House Book"), refers to structures of roughly 300 square feet or less built on wheels. A house on wheels is movable, so technically it's a trailer. That avoids conflicts with city regulations against such small inhabited permanent structures.

Accessory dwelling units, or ADUs -- also known as mother-in-law quarters or granny flats -- are more common. They are small houses -- no more than 800 square feet -- built alongside a regular house on the same lot, and in keeping with the same architectural style.

Portland encourages ADUs by allowing them to be built on most single-family lots, and the city enacted a three-year waiver of Portland's system development charges, or SDCs. The waiver, which expires in July 2013, cuts building costs up to $10,000 or more.

It's impossible to know the number of tiny houses and ADUs in the Portland area, as some are built illegally. There are people living in garage lofts, yurts, trailers, buses -- even storage containers.

"There are a lot of non-permitted ADUs and lots of people living in smaller structures," says Kol Peterson, who teaches classes on ADUs. "You see it all over the place.

"There is unmet market demand for small, detached living," Peterson says. "People are trying to figure out sustainable, affordable, detached units."

Living small

Tammy Strobel and husband Logan Smith didn't decide to move into their 150-square-foot house in North Portland to live more sustainably.

"It was on our journey of simplifying." Strobel says. "But it's nice to know you have a smaller footprint."

The couple paid about $31,000 for the house and pays about $500 a month for utilities and rental space on private property, Strobel says. It comes with a compostable toilet and a shower, and they share laundry facilities with the main house owner. They also plug into the property's main house for water and electricity.

Olympia, Wash. designer Dee Williams and contractor Katy Davidson of Portland Alternative Dwellings built Strobel's home. The two have built four such homes in Portland, and have held several workshops in Portland and elsewhere.

Williams built her own 84-square-foot tiny house using salvaged and recycled materials. Cost: $10,000.

"I'm seven years into this, and I don't feel claustrophobic," she says.

Lina Menard, who plans to have a tiny house built, currently rents a 144-square-foot tiny house off Portland's Northeast Alberta Street, which was constructed using some reusable products. It was a perfect opportunity to test out living in a tiny house, Menard says. She has a cat and a few belongings and fits comfortably.

"There are a lot of people living in housing not nearly as high quality," she says.

"I don't advocate people cramming their lives into a tiny home," says Menard, 28. "The trick is finding out what size box they need -- without stuff that tends to clutter their lives."

It's accepted that Portland and other jurisdictions won't bother tiny house owners and dwellers, as long as the structures have been built on wheels. 

"If somebody complained, we would just move it," Menard says.

"Almost everybody building a house that small wants to avoid complications with municipalities," says builder Walt Quade, who owns Small Home Oregon. "You put it on wheels and they never want anything to do with it."

More elbow room

Accessory dwelling units and other structures on foundations are legally built to meet minimum size requirements for secondary housing on single-family lots.

Peterson built a beautiful ADU of about 800 square feet for himself and his partner and their pets, in the backyard of his property at Portland's Northeast 10th Avenue and Skidmore Street. It cost $96,000. He lives in the house and rents out the property's main house.

"It has a physical relationship to the main house through code," Peterson says, as that requires a similar architectural style, roof pitch and siding.

Peterson, who works for the U.S. Forest Service, says his experience and research have shown that it costs about one-third the amount to live in an ADU as it does in a standard-size home. And, because of its size and green features -- such as a tankless water heater and passive solar heating, his ADU offers a more sustainable lifestyle.

Schuyler Smith, a general contractor and budding architect, didn't have sustainability in mind when he built a 200-square-foot, wired and plumbed backyard cottage for his mother-in-law on his property on Northeast Eighth Avenue in Portland. It was for her to be closer to the family.

"We just tried to have an emphasis on reclaimed material and live efficiently in a small place," Smith says. "The idea was for a smaller footprint, and a 200-square-foot (cottage) that is conventional is going to beat out a 1,000-square-foot green-built house."

Spevak, who recently moved into a 1,100-square-foot home, up from 630 square feet to accommodate his family and work, says living in ADUs and tiny houses invariably saves on heating costs. "Less space, less heat needed," he says.

"The energy that's used for keeping a place warm and the amount of electricity and water and sewage are all a function of how big it is," Quade says. "It's an ongoing footprint. Net-zero houses, where you collect water and have solar panels, that's very easy to do on a small house."

Williams agrees, saying her company uses bamboo flooring, reusable and salvaged materials in its tiny houses.

"My front door was pulled out of a dumpster," she says.

Another new trend in the small house movement can be found on Portland's Southeast Division Street near 43rd Avenue, where D.R. Horton Inc. tried offering a subdivision of small homes after the Great Recession ensued.

Unlike most alternative builders who specialize in tiny homes and ADUs, D.R. Horton is a mainstream homebuilder, one of the nation's largest.

Horton built a small subdivision of "micro" homes, ranging from 364 square feet to 687 square feet, arranged to look more like apartments or condominiums. Prices started near $100,000.

It's not clear if the idea will spread, but Horton's website now lists its Division 43 subdivision as all sold out.

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