Living Small Part 3: Oregon

posted in Travel

Living Small Part 3: Oregon

This is Part 3 of a series based on my lecture last week at the Tulane School of Architecture. You can catch up with Part 1 and Part 2 here.

The tiny house journey continues as we leave Washington for the state of Oregon. This leg of the trip featured a lot of camping and hiking, including a side trip to Crater Lake National Park, shown above. It was late May and the park, still partially snowed in, was beautiful.


It was in Oregon that I began to visit tiny houses on wheels. Their popularity has taken off in the past few years via the Internet. This phenomenon is due in part to the economy, and particularly the subprime mortgage crisis, which made a lot of people start reevaluating their cost of living and how much space they need. But there’s another more long-running desire to build for oneself, and in the context of increasingly tight building restrictions, trailers are an attractive option. A person can build something on a trailer without needing a permit — until she tries to park it somewhere and live in it, of course, at which point she might run into problems with local officials.


The first tiny house builder that I met is Derin Williams. Derin has an architecture degree from Portland State University, and he and a friend, Ben, started a company called ShelterWise LLC about two years ago. Derin and Ben have not found tiny house building to be an easy path to riches: after all, many people want to build their own tiny houses. Those who are buying are looking for something with a traditional look, while Derin and Ben’s houses have a simple, modern style. So ShelterWise mostly builds shells, which they can sell for around $20,000.


This is the Miter Box, which was nearly complete when I visited in May. The Miter Box is a fully finished, 150 square foot tiny house, and it’s for sale right now for $35,000. The exterior is a “well insulated shell (R-38 Roof, R-22 Walls, R-23 Floor) with commercial aluminum casement windows, standing seam metal roof that comes down one side, reclaimed cedar wood siding on the remaining three sides, with a covered entry porch.”


Above are some photographs from ShelterWise of the interior of the Miter Box. When I visited they were putting on the finishing touches before sending it off to the Tiny House Hotel. They focused on modern finishes, with a mix of warm and cool surfaces including reclaimed cedar and stainless steel. It has a bathroom with a toilet and shower, a kitchen with stainless steel counters and appliances, and a dinette that converts into a full-size bed. Storage includes galley cabinets, under bench storage in the dinette, under the movable bench seat, bathroom medicine cabinet and above bathroom storage loft.


One idea that Derin brought up in our conversation is engineering for the road. According to Derin, engineers are good at doing calculations for life safety (in which the structure might be damaged but at least the people inside will be safe), but they are less familiar with how to prevent damage to a house in situations such as transportation on the road. It’s easy to imagine driving down the highway at 60 mph and hitting a 30 mph gust head on, which adds up to a 90 mph gust of wind. The tiny house must be able to stand up to this, as well as all of the bumping and swaying. Most Tiny House builders will glue and screw all of the sheathing and drywall to resist these forces, but there’s more to be learned in this area.


As I mentioned, the Miter Box spent the summer at a Tiny House Hotel, and that was my next stop. The Tiny House Hotel, otherwise known as Caravan, is located in Portland and consists of about six tiny houses. Some of the houses are regular fixtures, while others, like the Miter Box, join Caravan for a limited period of time. The cost to stay is $125 a night. I spoke on the phone with Kol Peterson, one of the owners, who told me that the hotel is zoned like a KOA campground.


At the time, Kol was also busy organizing a Portland Accessory Dwelling Unit tour. Kol explained that Portland has a very liberal policy on Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs). By waiving the permit fee, they have increased the number of ADUs being built from around 30 to around 200 per year. In addition, Portland does not have the owner occupancy requirement that Seattle does. However, the ADUs are still restricted to 800 sf and 18’ in height. I spoke to a lady at the Portland planning office who told me that without a variance, ADUs must look as much like a ‘mini-me’ of the main house as possible.


Before we leave Portland I will highlight one more project. I had wanted to talk to Eli Spevak, who owns a development and construction company called Orange Splot LLC, but he had just been awarded a Loeb Fellowship and was in Cambridge at the time. Eli recommended that I visit a project called Cully Grove. While not a tiny house community, Cully Grove is an internesting cohousing development of about 16 households in Northeast Portland. The fellow on the bottom right, David, was kind enough to show me around. Like many co-housing communities, Cully Grove is organized as a condominium. Residents share a large common house with a kitchen, a parking area, gardening tools, bike storage, and other common facilities — an idea that’s very relevant to “living small”. The larger neighborhood has a big permaculture community, and Cully Grove has joined this as well: a lot of the common space is being used to grow food.

That’s it for Oregon! Continue reading with Part 4: California >>

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