In the Spotlight

Articles, Spotlight

It is with pleasure that we share this Friday’s “In the Spotlight” feature. We’ve been following this couple and their build on Instagram for some time, however even though they say pictures are worth a thousand words, IG isn’t able to tell their backstory as well as the time spent in our interview does. They’re busy with their build, but we’re hoping we can invite them back as guest writers somewhere along the line and we’ll of course do a follow-up once their build is complete. Enjoy!

Q: Please introduce yourself to our audience. Where are you located? My name is Johnny, I’m 30 years old and live in southeast Michigan with my fiance’ Heather and our two dogs Peabody and Bell. I’m the kitchen manager at a local brew pub and Heather is a sales associate at an antiques shop in our town. We both ditched are professional jobs in Washington, DC to focus on living a healthier more fulfilling lifestyle in Michigan.

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Johnny and Heather are all smiles atop their tiny house trailer!

Q: What inspired you to build a Tiny House? Is tiny living more of a dream or necessity for you? The idea of traditional home ownership just seems incredibly problematic. Houses are not cheap, financing is a headache, banks are plagued by fraud, maintenance and property upkeep is costly, utilities are tied to the current broken infrastructure, the list of issues just heavily outweighed the benefits of buying a traditional home. Heather and I are simple people and there is nothing simple about buying or selling a house in 2016. Living tiny is a creative and sustainable way to problem solve through the details of being responsible for the roof above our head, the water we consume, the community we live in, and the money we spend and save.

Finance and environment were also important factors in our decision to build tiny rather than buy a traditional home. During the housing crisis of 2007-2008 we watched many people lose their homes unfairly and unnecessarily without recourse. Hurricane Katrina was difficult to watch. Thousands of minorities were displaced and ignored by our federal government. Hurricane Sandy was very scary because Heather and I lived on the east coast before moving to Michigan. That storm displaced many and destroyed even more homes and businesses. We saw first hand that homeowners at all income levels are at the mercy of mother nature and it can be nearly impossible to recover.

Q: Is there anything from your youth growing up/family experience that may have also played a role in your decision to live tiny? I grew up as a ‘military brat’ which meant a tremendous amount of movement during my childhood. My parents also divorced during this time which meant twice as much movement. Gradually the nomadic / transient lifestyle became the norm. I’ve continued moving around in my adulthood because of college, work opportunities, etc. At 30 years old I’ve made my peace with the idea that people move, lives change, and that nothing is constant or guaranteed. I believe that living a tiny lifestyle in a tiny house on wheels is a healthy continuation of my experiences growing up. The difference now is that designing, constructing, and living in a THOW will give me the control I did not have as a child. Presently I live over 12 hours away from my immediate family. I hope that tiny living will allow me the flexibility to visit them as needed in the years to come.

Q: Describe your previous homes. Right now we live in a Victorian house that is over 140 years old. It is over 4000 square feet and in need of constant care attention and maintenance. Living in the largest and oldest house on the block makes me feel like our lives are like the movie ‘Money Pit’. Its difficult to predict what can happen next when you live in a house this old. There is way too much space to collect things that you don’t need and to lose things you intend to have for a long time! We have housemates and small projects each year just to make practical use of the home. In general our house is a constant and daily reminder of why we are going tiny!

I’ve lived in dorms and apartments in college and several apartment complexes and small houses as a child moving around place to place.

Q: What concerns, if any, did you have in/with your decision to go tiny? My most persistent concern has been figuring out where to build and live in the THOW. So far we’ve been fortunate to be able to build here at our home in our neighborhood without issue. Eventually we’ll need to move and we’ll have to deal with a temporary anxiety of where we’ll end up, but that is ok. I’m building a THOW with a clear understanding that I’ll need to keep moving if things don’t work out where I find myself.

If applicable, were any of those concerns specific to being a person of color? During research I see that many rural places are great for tiny living because they fly below the radar in terms of strict enforcement of zoning regulations regarding THOW. One concern I’ve been having is living in places that are less diverse. I love the town and area that we live in now and I’m worried that we’ll have to rely on living in areas without social or racial diversity to make our tiny lifestyle possible. This is presently just a fear and we have no reason to believe we’ll have a negative experience.

Q: How did your family and friends receive your decision to go tiny? My parents live what I would consider the exact opposite of the tiny lifestyle. They live separately, both in large 4 bedroom homes that were recently constructed for them and bought brand new. When I first explained my idea they looked at my plans, brochures, and research as though I were making a down payment on property on Mars. They really thought I was making a foolish, irrational decision to spend money on something that “nobody is doing”. Now that there are TV shows and a community of people living full time in tiny houses my parents are completely supportive and have a clearer vision of what we are trying to achieve. Both my parents and Heather’s parents have gone above and beyond in support seeing that we’re on the ground floor of a brand new movement. Our friends look up to us as pioneers. We feel like most of our peers could benefit from tiny living and most want to learn by helping us where we need. Our friends that know us best understand how it is a practical upgrade for how we live our lives and support us fully. Some have offered to host us when we’re complete and if we need to relocate!

Q: Who designed your home and how did you determine the design for your tiny house? How long did you spend working on your design? I designed the home myself. Incidentally I have a formal architectural education and studied Architecture at the University of Maryland College Park, Go Terps!, and was very inspired by Andrew Morrison’s hOMe tiny house design. The initial design was done in only a few hours with minor tweaks made as windows were purchased and finalized.

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Dominique Moody speaks often about the role of a porch in a home and her NOMAD beautifully includes one, Johnny & Heather have also very nicely included a porch in their plans!

The intention of our design was to reflect as many values and principles as possible in our home. We wanted the house to be accountable for being sustainable in terms of water and energy usage requirements and spacial efficiency for two adults with periodic guests and two dogs. I liked including a staircase in my design because we have dogs and I’m a stickler for safety. We wanted to have a covered porch as a threshold to our THOW. The first 4′ of the trailer is the porch covered by the secondary loft. Most deck areas we see are additions that are on the ground and not attached to the trailer. Other solutions are fold down platforms that latch upright when on the go. We wanted to be able to stand on our porch with our dogs or groceries and be sheltered from the rain and enter or exit our home like traditional stationary households. The porch will also house a bench so we can sit on our porch and be sheltered. It’s to remind us of our current home which has a large porch on two sides where we spend a lot of time. The roof is a shed style sloping in one direction so that we can catch and treat rainwater. We live 45 minutes away from Flint, MI but everyone in America should be aware of where there water comes from. We want to be responsible for how much we use, where it comes from, and ensure that we treat and filter it to our standards. Because we want to be water and energy conscious we are foregoing an electric washing machine. I’m in favor of a deep kitchen sink to hand wash our clothing. Because the first 4′ of the 24′ trailer is dedicated to our porch we wanted to make sure space was optimized inside. The kitchen is a single wall kitchen opposite of the staircase to the sleeping loft. The kitchen counter is to be 9′ long with a 5′ fold up table that begins where the counter ends. When extended this added counter top for dining that takes the kitchen prep area to 14′ long. Another space saving strategy was designing the bathroom as a long narrow wet room running along the rear of the house. The secondary loft will provide a sleeping area for one guest or storage if necessary. Ikea makes a nice L shaped sleeper sofa that will nestle nicely in our den and our sleeping loft will suit up to a king sized mattress. Our home will be able to sleep 5 adults comfortably. Its very important to me spiritually to be able to offer anyone a place to sleep and be sheltered and living tiny won’t change that.

Q: How long did it take to begin to build once you’d made the decision to go tiny? Once we decided to go tiny it took nearly two years to save enough money to feel comfortable beginning or project and ordering a brand new trailer. Our trailer was brought home in February 2016 and we’ve just recent finished the subfloor. The process of making a trailer ready for a tiny house floor is a lot of work. I have personally drilled hundreds of screws and holes into steel in the past 8 months all by my lonesome. There’s no one hovering over my shoulder teaching me how to build a home or preventing me from making mistakes. Designing buildings is very different than assembling them from the ground up on top of a flat bed trailer modified for traditional construction.

Q: What has been involved in building it? This project has been 100% DIY. We had a trailer built to custom specifications for us, but I have otherwise modified it for the subfloor and we plan on building the house ourselves.

Q: What, if any, challenges have you run into? Lack of experience is the biggest challenge. Everything I do has to be self taught first before I can execute it. Even with educated and experienced advice I feel overwhelmed until I patiently and slowly walk myself through each step. It’s also difficult to gather together the necessary pieces; trailer, windows, door, wood, insulation, tools! All of those things need to be acquired, stored, taken care of and paid for. Saving the money may have been the easiest part now that I’m thinking about it.

Q: What was your process for simplifying your life and getting rid of your excess possessions? How’d the process feel? Very liberating. It really is easy for me to operate with less things in front of my face . It has also been healing to let go of unnecessary emotional attachments to objects. My personal horde of choice was video games and DVDs. I’ve been going digital and getting rid of the physical versions and just keeping my favorites. Clothing was another huge way to downsize. I now can function each season with a wardrobe that is equal to one load of laundry.

Q: Are you using salvaged or reclaimed materials in your build? If so, how’d you go about sourcing those materials? We have so far reclaimed most of our windows. Craigslist was very helpful and a friend pointed us in the direction of some freebies.

Q: Is your home mobile? Do you plan to travel with it? Our Tiny House is mobile. We are currently parked at our home which has several large paved driveways. We plan on moving it and traveling before winters and returning after the worst of the winter storms in Michigan.

Q: Is your home on or off grid, eco-friendly, green in any way? The design accommodates plans for rain water collection and storage. We plan on using solar panels when appropriate during the year.

Q: So much of society focuses on having more and making more to have more, success looks like bigger, more, better. Often people of color are focused on having more when they begin to make more because they haven’t had, somewhat like the Jeffersons’ “Moving on Up” lifestyle. Why have you chosen this path instead? The stress of striving for more has been too much for me and my values. Working a higher paying job can come with less time at home with family and friends. Even if you enjoy your work, giving money to organizations you don’t support isn’t positive. I don’t believe in the destruction caused by global corporations. I don’t respect the big banks for how they have treated the hardworking American. I don’t appreciate how my generation has been given an unfair shot at the middle class after our government has lacked oversight where necessary. I live tiny, shop and eat locally where possible, and boycott corporations and national politics.

Black dissent and boycott were important vehicles of change in the American Civil Rights Movement. I want change for POC in this country and I feel I have to boycott the addiction to stuff and the need for more. We need to boycott what does not serve us. The companies that benefit from your “moving on up” don’t lobby in support of issues important to POC. How many corporations are fighting to expose and challenge the injustices of police brutality? How many major corporations truly stand in solidarity with the plight of immigrants? I believe tiny living is a healthy and safe way for POC to boycott and protest so many injustices. Keep your money in your community. Share your story with your neighbors. Prevent a major bank from using your money for their political agenda.

Q: Do you plan to live in your tiny home long term or is it a temporary solution for a bigger plan? For now I see the tiny home as a stepping stone. I see Heather and I settling on a small type of homestead or farm ideally with others who also life tiny and share our environmental ecological values. Whether or not we’re living in a house on a foundation or on wheels in 20 years is difficult to imagine. I’d love to save as much money as possible living in a THOW as long as possible, but I don’t know how feasible it will be for each period of our life. We’d love to be parents but that may or may not work in our tiny house. It could be a possibility that we eventually upgrade to an improved version of the next tiny house we construct or into a home we’ve purchased by saving money living tiny. Time will tell.

Q: Where do you see the tiny house movement going? I definitely see the movement gaining momentum. Living small is nothing new in the history of Architecture or Anthropology. Contemporary European, Asian, and metropolitan urban living is already done on smaller spacial levels than normal. The mainstream in America at some point was bound to form an opinion about small space living.

Unless the wealth disparity changes dramatically or the health of Earth’s ecosystems increases suddenly, I believe tiny living will have a role in our society.

Q: Where do you see the movement going for people of color? I’m not sure. What I hope happens is that the movement gains popularity as a mechanism for empowerment and independence. I’m worried that there will be too many discouraging barriers to building or purchasing a THOW. I think that most new THOWs listed for sale are priced well out of the price range of under employed or lower income persons. Building a THOW requires a large amount of resources and knowledge. Simply put, I think the movement could be dead in the water for POC if we don’t have some form of leadership or positive examples of success.

Q: Why do you think more POC haven’t joined/are reluctant to join the TH/Tiny Living Movement? Two things come to mind immediately; accessibility and perception. In my own experience I didn’t feel like I had much access to the resources necessary to build a THOW. I grew up in the suburbs where people are more familiar with computers than power tools or carpentry. I haven’t lived in a home that had a large open land area for a workshop and build site, though my dad grew up on a farm in Mississippi. I read and hear more stories about the exodus of young POC from rural places to cities from the reconstruction era to great migration and now my generation of millennials. My parents don’t have the experiences necessary to teach me anything about construction or executing this type of project. The nearest family member that has a contracting background lives halfway across the country. I could imagine that many other African American, Asian, Indian, Latino millennials are in a similar circumstance. These are statistical assumptions I’m making based on what I’ve seen and know. I do know that I was privileged to grow up in a middle class set of households with lifestyle that many POC do not. Statistically being a 30 year old black man has several negative implications; higher incarceration rates, unemployment rates, and lower levels of completed education. 1 in 9 black men my age are in prison. I’m so grateful that my parents worked hard to keep me far from those negatives because it would have been very easy to fall victim to the perils of being born Black in America. Simply being lucky has allowed my entry level access into being able to build a tiny house at my leisure.

I also think POC struggle with the perception of what it means to live a lifestyle with “less”. My parents grew up in Mississippi, the poorest state in the nation. They both worked incredibly hard to foster the idea that I should always strive to do better for myself because I would be at a disadvantage being Black. This is a similar story for most minority or immigrant families in this country and POC. “The American Dream” is colorblind and that is ok. I just feel like the “fear of living with less” is a symptom that effects minority, immigrant, and lower income families in a uniquely personal way. Why should you want your children to have to humble themselves as adults when you have worked so hard for them in a disadvantaged environment? That’s a perfectly understandable and a legitimate concern as a guardian. I had to unlearn my programming as a child and young adult to see clearly how financially, socially, and physically expensive my lifestyle had become. The average American is so wasteful in terms of time, money, food, and energy that we don’t even realize it due to the relative ease we enjoy living in this country.

We hope you enjoyed this feature as much as we did in presenting it and we’ll be sure to stay in touch with Johnny and Heather to keep up with their progress, if you’d like to follow along you can find them on Instagram as Peabodypoopface

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