There’s a reason the internet loves tiny houses, those sturdy, portable micro-dwellings serving up endless charm on earthy Instagram feeds, design blogs, and clickbait listicles. Often made from reclaimed materials, tiny houses hit a sweet spot at the intersection of environmentalism, frugal living, and DIY culture, and have been embraced by everyone from wanderlusting retirees to green-minded millennials and digital nomads. The trend has produced its own nascent tiny house-building industry, tiny house social media stars, and even tiny house television shows.
Earlier this July, thousands of people gathered in New Paltz, New York, for the first annual Tiny House and Green Living Freedom Fest, a three-day event celebrating sustainable technology and the tiny house movement. Featuring speakers, building workshops, and of course, an all-star fleet of souped-up diminutive homes, the gathering brought out movement stars like Deek Diedricksen, host of HGTV’s Tiny House Builders, and Jay Gruen, host of FYI channel’s Unplugged Nation.
The event’s organizer, Jake DiBari, was the director of economic development for the city of Rome, New York, from 2013 to 2105, when he first became interested in some of the housing issues underlying the tiny home scene’s growing appeal. Now DiBari is the managing director of Future City Advisors, a solar power contractor, and working to develop sustainable energy and construction projects throughout the state.
Make Change spoke with DiBari about the recent festival, how he first got hip to the movement, and some of the issues facing tiny homes and their owners going forward.
How did you get involved in the tiny house movement?
I’d worked with a couple of construction firms that wanted solar panels on their work trailers. And then we were contacted by some people with tiny houses on wheels; they wanted solar panels. And it just kind of spun from there. And that’s what first sparked my interest in the alternative and tiny dwellings space.
[Last fall], I ended up going to TEDxUtica and saw a talk by Bill Rockhill from Bear Creek Tiny Houses. He focused on apprenticeships, using tiny houses as a way to introduce people—especially young people—to the trades, and I just thought it was fantastic. I ended up speaking with Bill and he mentioned there have been some tiny house events around the country, but nobody had done anything in the Northeast.
We were excited and immediately started looking for a place to host a tiny house festival in upstate New York.
So, how’d the event go? How many people ended up attending?
We had about 7,500 people come through over three days: Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Friday was free; people got to preview the outside of the houses, and there were fireworks and live music. And then Saturday and Sunday was a ticketed event, $20 for adults. We had speakers come in from all over the country to talk about minimalism and tiny houses and building techniques and all sorts of stuff. We had full tiny house tours. I had about seven builders and about 10 tiny houses, vintage RVs, school bus conversions—that’s people who have converted school buses into dwellings—we had a lot of fun. The dude from Homeland and Criminal Minds, Mandy Patinkin, he was there. He lives in the Hudson Valley.
There were anywhere from 300 to 400 people at a time listening to speakers all weekend. For the tours of tiny houses, there were some lines—it took anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes to get into the houses. You can only comfortably fit five or maybe six people inside a tiny house at one time.
Tell me more about the specific speakers—who were some of the highlights?
Felice Cohen lives in New York and wrote a book about living in 90 square feet in Manhattan. She’s been on the tiny house circuit, and people love listening to her. Andrew Morrison and his wife Gabriella built a tiny house a few years ago and have been living in it with their two kids in Oregon—he’s at the forefront of the zoning and code fight for tiny dwellings. We had Kari Cooper, she’s in New Jersey and she lives part time in a yurt, which is like a fancy tent.
Mandy Lea, who’s an amazing photographer, lives full time in a teardrop trailer. She just goes around the country and photographs a lot of landscapes and national parks. And she tells a really amazing story about how she was a wedding photographer, working in a photography shop, but she felt something was missing and decided she had to get out of Texas. … And she had this come-to-Jesus moment and said ‘I have to get out of the rut of what I’m doing and hit the road.’ And so, she bought a teardrop trailer and started selling all her stuff. … So, people are finding their way into this market in the most obscure ways.
Why do you think tiny houses are so appealing now? RVs have been around for a long time. How has this new scene come together?
Basically, there are two groups really driving the tiny house movement right now: The baby boomers—you’re seeing a ton of baby boomers attracted to the tiny house and RV industry. And you’re also seeing this group of millennials that’s working from home, that’s untethered, they work from the road … that lifestyle is attractive to a lot of people.
So, I don’t think it’s really a fad. Look, the RV business is massive—the tiny house industry is minuscule compared to the RV market—but I think the RV industry is going to definitely start to dabble in tiny houses and using more materials similar to tiny houses. The RV industry has always been about making [models] lightweight and easy to tow. But they’re going to have to answer to the tiny house fad and you’re going to see them starting to build things that are somewhere in between and look more like houses on wheels.
What are some of the big differences between the tiny houses and RVs?
Tiny houses are cute and customizable and people are getting really creative, and using exotic and reclaimed materials to build tiny houses. They’re well insulated, unlike RVs. And there’s the [environmental] aspect; a lot of [tiny houses] are off the grid and use solar power and passive heating and cooling techniques—certainly cutting down on carbon emissions.
But if you want to go ski all over the West and stay in parking lots and have a propane heater, I’d recommend that you just get an RV. Because they’re lightweight and they’re easy to maneuver. A tiny house, you really build it somewhere and you park it and it should stay put for a while.
But isn’t the fact they’re on wheels part of the selling point for tiny houses?
Of course, you can move it a few times a year. But one of the biggest issues in the whole tiny revolution is that if they’re on wheels they can [legally] be considered an RV. And as long as you follow the RV parking rules in a given municipality, you can park the tiny house. So that’s why you see them on wheels. Not so much so you can drive them across all god’s creation. They’re actually kind of heavy, and hard and expensive to move.
But for now, you can’t just walk into a building department and receive a building permit to build a small dwelling of like, 250 to 500 square feet.
Because most municipalities are required to use the national building code and our national building code doesn’t recognize tiny dwellings. They say ‘well, it’s got to be X amount of square feet, bedrooms have to be X amount of square feet, there has to be two windows, the ceilings have to be X high.’ And the tiny house flips that all on its head, and there’s just no way it can conform to the code.
Andrew Morrison (one of the speakers at the Tiny Houses Fest) is at the forefront of helping to get changes made to the national building code to include information and guidelines about tiny dwellings. So, it’s coming, but it’s going to take legislation, it’s going to take a lot of fighting to get to where our codes and zoning people have some kind of guidelines that allow for tiny houses.
Why would municipalities or lawmakers want to make these changes to accommodate tiny houses?
I think some kind of alternative tiny dwellings are a thing of the future. It’s something that cities should be planning for right now as they look to attract new residents and new taxpayers. They should be looking at this as a way to be more welcoming to people that are interested in a different type of housing market than your typical 3,000-square-foot home or your McMansion. It’ll be a way to attract millennials, and to get baby boomers to retire in your community. I plan on starting to work with more and more municipalities to plan for this and attract developers that are interested in building these tinier dwellings.
Tiny houses are not for everyone. But you’re seeing this whole minimalism movement happening right now, and I think that’s the real driving things behind tiny houses—just not being a slave to 3,000 square feet, or mowing a lawn, or redoing an expensive roof. It’s just a way to focus on the things that are important to people.
So, I don’t think micro-dwellings are going anywhere. Not with this economy. Not with the cost of energy. With the cost of living climbing, you’re going to see people be smarter about how they spend their money.
Are you planning another Tiny Houses and Green Living Freedom Fest for next year?
Yeah, we’re planning for 2018, we’re definitely going to do it again, in Ulster county. And we’re looking at expanding it to other states.