No Roof Too Small

I am tempted to call building your own house the ultimate DIY project. I don’t mean selecting from a range of floorplans and materials and managing your contractors.

I mean learning the basics of design, framing, finishing carpentry, electrical wiring etc and then putting it all into practice to get a roof over your head. Not a task for the faint of heart.

One way to make homebuilding more accessible is to downsize. This is exactly what Laird Herbert of Leaf House Small Space Design & Build will be getting at during a weekend-long workshop March 18 to 20 as he shares what he has learned about building Tiny Houses since he began his business. 

Defined only by a small scale and mobility, a Tiny House can be anything from a rustic driftwood shack to a contemporary work of art with the latest in high-tech energy-efficient appliances and provides a freedom of creativity that has Herbert hooked.

These two extremes were evident when Herbert and I met a few years ago as he was building his second house: sleek lines and ultra-modern, it couldn’t have been a more different use of 140 square feet from my pine-panelled wood-stove heated abode.

When I built my home, I didn’t realise that I was part of a burgeoning movement, or even that my cabin would be a “Tiny House.”  

Herbert, on the other hand, entered into the Tiny world with enthusiasm, starting up Leaf House to build homes that side-step regulatory codes and allow creativity to shine, all with an affordable price tag – without, I might add, being a professional tradesman.

Though he is keen on repurposing and salvaging he found it difficult to set the prices as low as he initially hoped. This is due in part to his focus on using high-quality, sustainable building materials, in part to the fact that you don’t get economies of scale when building tiny, and the question of paying himself fairly.

“That’s why I don’t do this full time,” he confided. “If you pay yourself like you would a contractor, they [the houses] just get too expensive.”

While he loves the artistic aspect and hopes to continue to build unique dwellings on spec, he also wants to empower those who don’t have the financial means to enter into the current housing or land markets.

Herbert doesn’t think the complexity of a house is out of reach of anyone willing to put in a bit of study and learn through trial and error. As-yet unregulated, there is no exact definition for what is or isn’t a Tiny House as long as it’s small and mobile, and that’s as Herbert would keep it. He fears that the regulation that is sure to come will stifle the self-expression that the form currently allows.

“Of course safety is an issue, but I’d like to trust that people are mostly competent and intelligent. I believe pretty much anyone can build a safe, strong and stylish house,” Herbert told me last week as we sat in my own 8′ x 18′ home, “without depending on engineers and other professionals.”

The Tiny House Workshop will be a full weekend course that explores everything from what to look for in a trailer to permit restrictions on highways when moving your house.

“I want participants to come out with a floor plan and design for their own place,” said Herbert. “They can even make cardboard models.”

The workshop will cover building materials (with a focus on lean and green), systems (electrical, plumbing etc. from low- to high-tech) and some basic hands-on carpentry.

The first workshop he held, which was two years ago at Yukon College, drew tiny housers from as far away as Fairbanks, Alaska. Later in the spring Herbert hopes to travel with the workshop to Yellowknife, where the city is engaged with a very active group of Tiny Housers.

And when the participants have finished their homes?

“One of things I love about Tiny Houses is the way they force you to develop relationships,” Herbert told me, laughing. “It’s not a conventional tenant/landlord situation, you have to get creative.” He paused, and then added hopefully, “Maybe soon we’ll have a bunch of Tiny House Communities.”

I think it’s high time. And it doesn’t end with the building – during the workshop I’ll be co- hosting a session on how to adapt your tiny space as you and your lifestyle change.

If you’re ready to join the club the Tiny House workshop will be held March 18 to 20 at the Lorne Mountain Community Association, with space for up to 15 participants including five low-income spots. To register or for more information contact [email protected]

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