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article imageOp-Ed: Micro-home may be wave of the future for home ownership Special

By Jonathan Farrell     Oct 4, 2014 in Lifestyle
Sebastopol - With the price of the median home in places like California now approaching at or just over $1 million, the concept of a tiny or "micro-home" is growing in appeal. Designer/builder, Alek Lisefski took a few moments to chat with this reporter.
Some time ago, I had interviewed Jay Shafer formerly of Tumbleweed Tiny Homes and so when I saw the little feature about Lisefski's Tiny Project in Sunset Magazine, I wanted to inquire.
He responded immediately when I asked what is it that makes tiny homes appealing these days? Especially for a visionary person like Lisefski? "There isn't just one thing," he noted. "The tiny house (on a trailer-platform) concept seemed to satisfy many simultaneous desires I was having." He noted them in numerical order. "Some of these are:
1) My desire to own my own home, to stop paying high rent prices, and to avoid the debt cycle."
2) "My desire to break free from the established home ownership paradigm - to show others of my generation that there are other options."
3) "My desire to return to simpler, human sized dwellings - creating sustainably sized housing that eliminates all the stuff."
4) "My desire for a simpler life, focused on what is important, encouraging me to get outdoors and to connect with my community." And, finally on his list...
5) "My increasing interest in alternative, sustainable building techniques and alternative housing ideas."
Lisefski said, "The funny thing was, once I saw it, I knew I had to build one." "I was hooked," he added. "I didn't even really discuss it with my partner. Something was just moving through me and I had no choice but to see it completion."
So, I asked him based upon my previous chats with Shafer and others, what are the obstacles you faced?"Every step was an obstacle in some ways, he said. But also very rewarding as I made more and more progress." "Some of the major ones were: Learning the basics of Sketchpad (a software program) to design my own home in 3D; Learning the basics of construction, framing, plumbing, finishing, and all other aspects of home building; Finding an indoor space to start my build: Sourcing affordable yet beautiful materials; Towing the house over 2,300 miles from Iowa to NorCal (with snowstorms, engine problems, theft, and more!); Find a host that would let us park our house on their property, etc."
The kitchen interior as designed by Alek Lisefski and his vision of a tiny home.
The kitchen interior as designed by Alek Lisefski and his vision of a tiny home.
Courtesy of Alek Lisefski, The Tiny Project
This and more are issues that Shafer and other tiny or micro home designers face. Shafer parted ways with the company he co-founded. Now with an expanded focus in sales and manufacturing, Tiny Tumbleweed House Company, headquartered in Sonoma, is working to make homes of over 300 to 700 square feet a reality in communities across the nation. When I stopped by the Tiny Tumbleweed offices just off of Broadway, I got the chance to speak to Ross Beck, director of sales and customer service. I wanted to know what he thought of Lisefski's work.
As someone who has had to face committees and planning commissions and such, he was pleased to hear that more people are catching on. He welcomes the competition. "The tiny house industry needs to continue to grow and build momentum, said Beck to help change existing regulations to allow tiny house more broadly, to allow tiny house community development."
San Francisco realtor and homeowner, John Barry knows all too well how restrictive planning boards and city commissions can be, especially in a city like San Francisco. When he applied for a permit to renovate a fully detached garage in his backyard into a little cottage, it was as if he was asking for the moon to be planted in his backyard. "It was so much struggle and lots of bureaucracy," he said. Barry actually wanted one of Shafer's designs, but City Hall and the San Francisco Planning Dept. would not permit it. Barry settled for working with the existing floor-plan and its square feet of the old garage which was built over 100 years ago.
"I guess they (the planning dept. and others at San Francisco City Hall) are afraid of tiny homes becoming shanty towns or something," he said.
With emphasis on lots of light to fill the space  a tiny home can be very gratifying  allowing as de...
With emphasis on lots of light to fill the space, a tiny home can be very gratifying, allowing as designer/builder Alek Lisefski describes it more living and less stuff to clutter one's life.
Courtesy of Alek Lisefski, The Tiny Project
While Beck mentioned smaller towns in more rural areas are more receptive to the idea, there is always some sort of regulation that does pop up. Case in point is literally right there in Tumbleweed's own backyard. "The Sonoma City Council will not allow us to do any construction of any kind because our showroom-headquarters is within the historical district," said Beck.
He laughed, as he said, "I guess that goes along with the 'pink door' controversy." Some time ago when Grandma Linda's Ice Cream shop on the square painted the front door of the long-standing shop a bright pink, there was an uproar. Mostly concerning the 'historical integrity' of the square or main plaza which has the old California Mission San Francisco de Solano as its anchor.
Ironically as Beck provided a tour, building crews down the street on McAllister were at work constructing over 15 homes on what had been an empty extended parcel for many years. Tumbleweed's objective is simply to construct the tiny homes and they be transferred else where, not be established in Sonoma. But the Sonoma officials don't see it that way.
Still even with restrictions visionaries like Lisefski are not giving up. "It's a lot to figure out if doing this yourself from start to finish," he said. "I can't even begin to calculate the hours I spent. Luckily, many people offer plans (myself included) that will help to eliminate many of the planning/design hours, for others wishing to do this themselves." Ross understands, because as he said to this reporter during our little impromptu tour, "believe me I know because I have done it."
Tiny Homes Project is part of a movement that is growing across the United States.
Tiny Homes Project is part of a movement that is growing across the United States.
Courtesy of Alek Lisefski, The Tiny Project
Curious, I wanted to know what was the difference between Shafer's concept and Lisefski's project. How is your design or building concept different from Jay's at Tumbleweed Tiny Homes? And, others?"The main difference is the aesthetics of the design itself," said Lisefski. "There were a few things that were really important to me, he said, many of which I saw no one of very few others doing." "None of the existing plans I found had what I wanted, said Lisefski, which is why I designed my own."
"Some of what my design includes is: (as Lisefski points out)
1) "A clean, modern design without the "traditional" double-hung windows, gabled roof, etc. - this includes an interesting mix of cedar and metal exterior cladding."
2) "A low-sloping shed style roof to maximize available indoor loft space." Why does everyone else choose a conventional gabled roof? He asked, "leaving hardly any loft space? I still can't understand this one."
3) "10 windows and an all-glass door for lots (tons) of light," he said. "I didn't want the space to feel confining - this helps to remove any feelings of claustrophobia."
4) "White walls instead of an interior of all pine T&G paneling."
5) "Use of sustainable sourced materials such as the blue stain beetle kill pine ceiling and carbonized strand bamboo flooring."
6) "High-end stainless steel appliances, including a propane range with small oven."
"Overall, noted Lisefski, what also sets the house apart was my commitment to quality throughout the process, not just focusing on cheapest price as many are forced to do."
Beck and his crew would certainly have something to say. Tumbleweed is committed to high quality affordable home building. Yet, as I say, Lisefski like Shafer and others have their own vision of what an ideal tiny home can be.
"Many of my materials choices increased the cost, said Lisefski, but they create a space that feels very nice, soothing, and has that fine, hand-built feel." Lisefski noted, "that only comes from attention to every little detail. I wanted this to be my dream house (albeit a tiny one), and my choices reflect that desire," he added.
So, I asked Lisefski, What has the response been to your endeavor thus far? "It's been incredibly positive. I am also thrilled that people are now finding my website as a resource for their own tiny house journey." "I've had open houses and I can see that people are inspired just to see that this is possible," he said. "Only people who rigidly hold on to their own "story" about home ownership seem to criticize the decisions I've made, but 99 percent of the response is positive."
The side view of Lisefski s design. He believes that a tiny home does not have to be so much about t...
The side view of Lisefski's design. He believes that a tiny home does not have to be so much about traditional materials like wood. A tiny home can have many high quality, state-of-the-art features.
Courtesy of Alek Lisefski, The Tiny Project
Even with the struggles with planning commissions and city halls, Lisefski, is confident. "It's a great time for the tiny house movement, with tons of things going on, and many, many new houses being built all the time."
I then asked Lisefski, what inspires you most about designing and building these micro homes?
"I don't plan to design and build more (at least not in the near term), he said, as this was really just a one-time thing for my own private home." "That being said, I will definitely be involved in helping others achieve their own tiny house dreams -- I'm just not sure what my role will be just yet (other than selling my plans)."
Shafer in his decision to split from Tumbleweed, emphasized his love for simplicity and only offers a few designs. Whereas Tumbleweed offers more floor plans and is seeking new contemporary designs, like its metal-exterior styled Mica floor plan design.
"What inspires me most, said Lisefski, is the openness to new ideas and potential housing solutions that my house or a tiny house symbolizes." "I also love that I was able to take the building of my own home into my own hands (literally) instead of assuming it had to be done by the "professionals." "Each time someone sees my house and has their own realization (that they too can do this themselves -- cheaply and sustainably to boot!)." "It just lights me up, said Lisefski. "It's part of an overall shift that must take place for the next generation to have a housing model that fits into the current economic reality." "On top of that, he added, this kind of living is an example of something far more sustainable -- its small size alone means very little resources used to build and operate it, compared to a normal house." "It get's people to think, he said, about what will truly work best for them, even if it's not currently well supported by our cultural, society, or governments." Still Lisefsky believes strongly in his vision. "That's all slowly starting to change, he said. "And it inspires me to be at the beginning of that change for the better." "Less house, more life!
To learn more about Alek Lisefski and his vision of the tiny home movement visit his blog
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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