Feature Article: The Upside to Downsizing
Across the nation, the tiny home movement has never been more popular. Here in Austin, housing has never been more in-demand. One local designer has created an east side cottage that blends the practicality of a tiny home with hip Austin design.
A century ago, a (relatively) new Austin beckoned transplants with the promise of abundant, affordable housing. In the 1920s and ‘30s, neighborhoods like Hyde Park that had mostly consisted of large Victorian homes on sprawling lawns, launched a building boom of more modest bungalows on smaller lots that would appeal to a growing middle class. Today, as we enter a new phase of urban housing, some Austinites are literally taking pieces of this part of the city’s past and using them to create even smaller, more modest homes, popularly known as “tiny houses.”
One such tiny home in East Austin goes by several names — the designer calls it the “Cedar Shake Cottage;” the owner refers to it as the ‘Hive House’ (there’s a beehive around back); while the construction workers, baffled by its angular, at times seemingly random form, affectionately called it the “Drunk House.”
The cottage may appear whimsical at first, with a second floor giving the impression it’s trying to break free from the first, but designer and builder Nicole Blair of Studio 512 says that in reality, the home is the result of a lot of practical decisions and building regulations. Easements, trees, neighboring property and a byzantine city code meant that there would be only a little over three hundred square feet to work with for the footprint, but plenty of room for creativity. “A lot of people would say they couldn’t get something into that footprint,” Blair says.
The finished product has 565 square feet of roomy, light-filled living space, with an abundance of detail and materials that call back to other times and places. Cedar shingles on the exterior come from the roof of another home that was remodeled twenty years ago. Most of windows come from a house on the coast, where they had been replaced because they weren’t hurricane-resistant. And the wood paneling found throughout the home is long leaf pine, reclaimed from the shiplap of an old bungalow in East Austin, a material that literally binds the project to the affordability boom a century ago.
“I’ve always tried to make a lot of a small space,” Blair says, noting she looked to Japanese and Dutch spaces for inspiration. And some of the inspiration came from constraint itself. In order for stairs to fit in with city code, the second floor had to be pushed away from the first. As a result the walls leaned just enough to fit in the bedroom and bathroom upstairs. “There aren’t many other directions we could’ve built,” she says.
The project came about when owner Kerthy Fix had the tiny house built after she moved to Brooklyn to expand her documentary career. Though she used to live in the larger, main house on the property, she now rents that out and uses the new tiny home as a place to stay when she returns to Austin.
The home is proof that tiny doesn’t have to mean a sacrifice in comfort, utility or style. A workspace is built into the second floor loft, with plenty of storage; the kitchen doesn’t skimp on any appliances. Everywhere there are rich, textured materials: cedar, pine, charred wood (from local Delta Millworks), natural stucco and exposed copper plumbing (it doubles as a towel rack). And when Fix needs a little fresh air, there’s an outdoor shower calling.
Since the house isn’t the primary house on the lot, like most tiny homes in Austin it’s a secondary (also known as “accessory”) unit. Other tiny homes, specifically those on wheels, are subject to tighter restrictions because of the city’s land development code (and in this respect it’s similar to many others in the country), the “Tiny House Movement” made popular by several reality TV shows, numerous websites and even a film documentary, aren’t allowed in much of the city’s single-family zoned residential areas. In the eyes of city code, wheels makes them no different than an RV, and the city (not to mention a few neighborhood associations) does not want to wake up to a 200-square-foot shack on wheels sitting in every Travis Heights driveway.
“If you can plan the space better and make it more efficient, you can spend more on features and materials.”
About a year ago, Austin City Council decided to see what they could do to make it easier to build tiny houses in Austin. The answer they got back from city staff was, essentially, “Not much.” While there are no minimum size requirements for single-family homes on single-family lots, “to be allowed in a single family home district it has to be on a permanent foundation,” says Greg Dutton with the city’s Planning and Zoning Department. And since much of a home’s value lies in the lot itself, it hasn’t made sense for many Austin homeowners or builders to go small with their primary residence.
For secondary units like the Cedar Shake Cottage, however, a tiny house can make sense. But under current code, a larger lot is required, with its own dedicated off -street parking. Efforts to ease those requirements are slowly making their way through the current city council, but they’ve run into opposition from some of the same aforementioned neighborhood groups. On average, only a few dozen of these secondary “granny flats” are built every year.
But while the supposed “Tiny House Movement” struggles to gain momentum in Austin because of these constraints, there are indications there is a growing appetite for smaller, more affordable ways of living in Austin. The next building boom won’t be bungalows on smaller lots, but rather lots of smaller apartments, known as “micro-units,” usually smaller than 400 square feet. One new affordable housing micro-unit complex opened downtown this year, and there are several hundred more in the works. And just outside the city limits in Del Valle, an entire community of tiny homes (on wheels!) is under way on a ten-acre site near the Circuit of the Americas. Rents start at $300 a month.
Designer Blair sees the appeal. “If you can plan the space better and make it more efficient, you can spend more on features and materials,” Blair says. “And people are becoming more aware that that’s really valuable. It’s an art, planning spaces efficiently.”
And soon, more Austinites will have a chance to practice it.
Read more from the Architecture Issue | October 2016