Housing > Small House Society

Summary. In December 2000, an article by Laurie Mansfield in the Des Moines Register reported on Jay Shafer living in a tiny house in Iowa City. The full text of that article is below with reprint permission from Laurie Mansfield.

Home Sweet Home

By LAURIE MANSFIELD, Des Moines Register Staff Writer, Iowa City, Iowa.

Jay Shafer knows how this must look. Here’s a man who dislikes wasted space so much that he spent the last three years in a warehouse building a house that can fit in a parking space. Here’s a man who finds efficiency apartments too big and really not all that efficient. So what must people think, he says, when they arrive at his address on Dewey Street to see his diminutive dwelling and find out that he has not one, but two houses?

Trouble With City Code

“It could be even more of a waste of space,” laments Shafer, a 36-year-old art professor at the University of Iowa. Shafer’s plan was to build a house that had only functional space. He whittled down floor plans until he decided on about 130 square feet. Enough space for Shafer. Not enough for Iowa City’s building inspection office.

“He can’t have that house in Iowa City. It’s pretty simple,” said Jann Ream, a code enforcement assistant at the city’s building inspection office. The problem, Ream explained to Shafer during his visits to her office, was that he needed at least 150 square feet just to qualify his structure as a minimal habitable space. “That’s just to start,” she said. Too much space, Shafer said. He needed a foundation, Ream explained. Shafer bolted his tiny house to the frame of a flatbed utility trailer and named it Tumbleweed. Now the city considered his house a trailer.

Sorry, Shafer. No trailers allowed on city lots, Ream told him. Just take your house outside the city’s borders, she suggested. No thanks. Shafer plumbed and wired his house to hook up to the city’s utilities. “I wanted to be in town and have the best of both worlds,” he said.  He wanted to live in Iowa City so much that he did something even he has trouble explaining. He bought a house he would never live in so he would have a place to park Tumbleweed.

Trailer Life

Before Jay Shafer built what must be Iowa City’s tiniest house, he lived in something even smaller – a 100-square-foot Airstream trailer. He thought that would satisfy his quest for a small living space. “I think it might be a backlash because I was raised with a lot of stuff,” he said.

Shafer grew up in what he describes as a “two-story Brady Bunch house” in Mission Viejo, Calif., a bedroom community for Los Angeles. Without a car, it was impossible to get to a store or to town. Even bicycling to school was difficult. “It’s kind of like the heart of sprawl,” he said.

His family moved to Ames when he was in high school. He remembers watching his dad pay for large heating bills and the family keeping the house a few degrees cooler rather than pay to heat the whole house thoroughly. It was in Ames that Shafer warmed to the idea of living near a traditional town center.

In 1983, he moved to Iowa City for art school. His apartment had 12- to 16-foot ceilings and a long hallway that he considered wasted space. Shafer decided to try living in the Airstream trailer. “I was getting tired of cleaning, heating and paying for space I didn’t use,” he said. The Airstream wasn’t the answer. He didn’t like the metal walls that sweated water in the cold. The couch took up 33 square feet. There were also mice, he said.

He started painting small pictures because that was all the tiny desk in the Airstream would accommodate. After refitting the inside of the trailer with wood, he decided to design a house that would fit his needs.

When Shafer went to the city’s building inspection office, he found a problem. People can’t just run around Iowa City and put up tiny houses. “This town has a history of students willing to live in and pay for anything,” Ream says.

Shafer came up with a solution one day when he looked outside a friend’s kitchen window and saw the small house next door was for sale. If he owned a house, he thought he could comply with the city’s rules. He bought the house, and in June he parked Tumbleweed in the back yard.

A Cabin in the Woods

Even though Shafer’s house is several blocks from the U of I campus, a visit to Tumbleweed is like a trip to a mountain cabin.

“It’s kind of like Walden except I have a TV, VCR and CD player,” he says. Shafer’s back yard is more woods than lawn and gently slopes to a clearing where Tumbleweed sits. A trail of flat stones leads to his cedar-and-pine home.

The Floor Plan

Inside, a replica of a wood stove that runs on propane pumps out enough heat to make the place cozy. Out the back windows is a view of a neighboring cemetery that Shafer cuts through to get to a park where he likes to bike and run.

There are two chairs and enough space in the living room for two people to visit and not invade each other’s space.

From his seat behind his fold-up desk, Shafer surveys his domain. “It’s a short tour,” he jokes. There’s a cedar closet for his clothes in the living room and galvanized bins on a shelf below. “There’s not a lot of storage space because I don’t like to have a lot of extra stuff around,” he says. Other than a few pictures, plants and the ornate stove and light covers he fashioned from metal roof materials, there are not many personal items. “Because the whole house is a personal item,” he says. The desk also functions as a dining table. Once when Shafer needed more eating space to accommodate guests, he laid a plank on the floor and served dinner Japanese-style.

Shafer prefers to sit outside around a fire when he has guests. “Usually we just sit around talking about the house because that’s why people come down here,” he says.

The bookshelves in Tumbleweed are full. Whatever he dislikes leaves, Shafer says. There’s only enough room for necessities. “Every part is really necessary to the whole and all the parts are beautiful,” he says. Books he kept – “A Hut of One’s Own,” “Wheel Estate,” “A Place of My Own” – are a record of the research he did while he built his house. The books are where he learned about urbanism and anthropometrics – the idea of fitting people into spaces.

Awards

His tiny house is definitely extreme, said Robyn Griggs Lawrence, editor-in-chief of Natural Home magazine, who toured Tumbleweed in August. Shafer won the Philosophy and Innovation Award in the magazine’s Natural Home of the Year contest. “I think we’re just seeing the beginning of it,” she said. “There’s the whole bigger-is-better mentality. People get into these big houses and they’re not comfortable . . .”

Concepts

Shafer said he wasn’t trying to create anything new. “The gabled roof and even the floor plan are very traditional, it’s just scaled down,” he said. “It’s all built on tried-and-true principles.” Ideas to save kitchen space, such as a wall rack for pots and pans and magnet strip from which to hang knives, came from Shafer’s experience in the food service industry. Ideas for essentials, such as a composting toilet and mini-water heater, came from RV magazines. The toilet, which costs more than $1,000, has yet to be purchased. Now, Shafer uses the bathroom in his bigger house and does most of his cooking in its kitchen.

Happy Ending

Life would be different if the bigger house wasn’t there. Shafer would like to hook his water line to the city water supply or to a well. Instead, he runs his sink on a gravity-fed system – a 2.5-gallon metal cooking pot that sits in a cabinet above the sink. Electricity runs off a solar panel outside, but Tumbleweed is wired to be hooked up to a power grid. Food is kept in a cooler under a counter, but Shafer is considering a mini-fridge like RVs have. Meals not made in the bigger house are cooked on a double-burner propane camp stove. About the only plan that hasn’t changed is the sleeping arrangement. Shafer’s bed is a full-sized futon mattress that takes up most of the floor in the loft upstairs. That’s fine with Iowa City’s building inspection office. Because Shafer owns the bigger house, the agency says it has no plans to call on Shafer for an inspection.

“A little camper is what it is and that’s how we treat it,” Ream says. “It’d be like going outside and sleeping in a tent. We aren’t going to do bed checks. That’s not our job.” The house, Ream says, is cute and unique. “More power to him for wanting to have this alternative lifestyle,” she says.

Shafer doesn’t consider himself all that different from other homeowners. “I don’t feel like an activist,” he says. “Mostly I’m just into more efficient design.”

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