Downsize Me: Tiny houses celebrated in Vermont while barriers remain in Massachusetts

Nika Fotopulos and Mike Iacona in front of the tiny house they built. Meg Bantle photo.
Erin Maile O’Keefe in the tiny house she designed and built in Brattleboro, Vermont. Meg Bantle Photo.
The kitchen and shower inside Nika Fotopulos and Mike Iacona’s tiny house in Vermont. Photo by Meg Bantle.

If you think that tiny house movement is just a passing fad for young people, think again. Lisa Kuneman, 53, of Brattleboro, said that tiny houses are definitely more than just a trend, and that many tiny house enthusiasts are retirement-aged.

“Other options aren’t attainable or desirable. We want to maintain our chosen life right now. There are other options like retirement communities, but the entry point is $300,000,” Kuneman said. “That’s just the reality around housing.”

Kuneman does not “live tiny” just yet, but she helped to co-found a tiny house festival in downtown Brattleboro called Tiny House Fest Vermont that attracted 5,000 people its first year in 2016. This year, the festival, in collaboration with the Brattleboro Office of Cultural Affairs and the Yestermorrow Design/ Build School, will be take place on June 23.

“We thought, let’s make our learning curve public. We were discovering that individuals looking for a way to do this were probably better off together,” Kuneman said.

But while the prospect of moving into a tiny house is becoming more and more of a reality in Vermont, Massachusetts presently has a number of barriers including local zoning forbidding such housing and statewide ordinances that don’t take tiny houses into account.

Kuneman started looking into tiny houses while making retirement plans. She said that due to her job as an educator and life circumstances she hadn’t saved much for retirement. She also worried that her house would stop being accessible to her and her husband as they age because of all of the stairs.

“(A tiny house) had a lot of potential to solve a lot of our own problems. My issue is limited resources for retirement. It could also serve in a crisis, so if we need to suddenly change our scenario it could solve a lot of problems for us,” Kuneman said.

Like other types of in-law apartments, tiny houses have the potential to allow older adults to live close to their families after retirement. Kuneman said that the demographics of people who visit the website for Tiny House Fest (tinyhousefestvermont.com) range from 18 to 65 years old. The American Tiny House Association released a report in 2015 that showed that out of the tiny house enthusiasts who were surveyed, women between 46 and 55 years old were the largest demographic.

“There’s a huge interest from aging women,” Kuneman said.

Making a small dent in the housing crisis

A tiny house can range from anywhere between 100 and 1,000 square feet and be on wheels or a foundation. Erin Maile O’Keefe, one of the other co-founders of Tiny House Fest, just moved into her tiny house in Brattleboro this month after designing it herself.

Erin Maile O’Keefe in the tiny house she designed and built in Brattleboro, Vermont. Meg Bantle Photo.

“I really saw tiny houses as being this equalizer for housing. The idea that a tiny house could provide housing that was affordable and adaptable,” Maile O’Keefe said. “Having that kind of adaptive architecture was always very interesting to me.”

Although Maile O’Keefe is currently an educator, she has a background in architecture and always knew that she wanted to design her own home. She took a course at Yestermorrow, a Brattleboro-based school where students learn environmentally-conscious building and construction skills, in order to design it. Unfortunately, when it came time to tear down the old house that she and her husband bought and build her dream home, it was too expensive.

“(Vermont) needs more housing and I realized that we could use our house as an apartment and rent it out as a rental and have more people on the land,” said Maile O’Keefe.

Maile O’Keefe went back to Yestermorrow to explore tiny house designs and was hooked on the concept. As she started designing her own tiny house she also explored the idea of a tiny house festival in downtown Brattleboro, and Tiny House Fest was born.

“How do we really impact change with good design, with tiny houses, with smaller footprints,” said Maile O’Keefe. “How do we really attend to our public spaces and make them more democratic and more utilized?”

For Maile O’Keefe and the other Tiny House Fest founders, tiny houses aren’t just a trendy housing solution for young people. They are a potential solution to many housing problems that exist in Vermont and Massachusetts, including housing shortages and homelessness. Maile O’Keefe said that in addition to their not being enough affordable housing, a lot of the affordable housing that does exist isn’t designed with the individual in mind.

“Low income housing (doesn’t always) have thoughtful design. It is economical without having attention to good design for its inhabitants,” Maile O’Keefe said. “If you put the human at the center and let the design revolve around that human, then you’re going to have something that’s lasting. Architecture can give people a sense of pride and dignity.”

Maile O’Keefe said that her tiny home budget was $70,000, but that she didn’t know exactly how much she and her husband had spent yet. Having just moved into their tiny home, their property in Brattleboro is now home to three separate families.

Smooth sailing for regulations in Vermont

Unfortunately, living in a tiny house is not always legally possible. Tiny homes on foundations are like any other accessory dwelling unit and need to meet building specifications as such. Tiny homes on wheels (THOW as they’re called in the industry) are classified as mobile homes.

In Brattleboro, Maile O’Keefe had relatively few regulations to deal with. The Brattleboro Land Use Regulations has an equal treatment of housing section that says that, “Mobile homes, modular homes and prefabricated homes are allowed in Brattleboro under the same terms and conditions as conventional homes. Mobile home parks are allowed under the same terms and conditions as other residential subdivisions or developments.”

Maile O’Keefe said that this mostly involved being aware of setbacks, or distances away from the property lines.

In much of Massachusetts, the regulations are not as simple. While both states base their building codes on the 2015 International Building Code (which applies to tiny houses on foundations), many municipalities in Massachusetts do not allow mobile homes at all, or only allow them in the event of an emergency.

The kitchen and shower inside Nika Fotopulos and Mike Iacona’s tiny house in Vermont. Photo by Meg Bantle.

Nika Fotopulos and Mike Iacona originally built their tiny home in Massachusetts but ended up looking for land in Vermont due to regulatory hurdles.

“There was more red tape (in Massachusetts). Guilford doesn’t have any zoning so it was definitely amenable to this lifestyle,” said Fotopulos.

Fotopulos and Iacona built their tiny house to simplify their life. They said that it only cost about $12,000 in materials and that it was able to be transported up the corridor to Vermont after they completed it six years ago.

“I think that there’s an awareness that our culture is tending towards excess and that all the excess distracts from life,” Fotopulos said. “Paring down and simplifying leads to a much happier and less complicated life.”

Nika Fotopulos and Mike Iacona in front of the tiny house they built. Meg Bantle photo.

Fotopulos went on to say that living in a tiny house means that she spends less time on cleaning and maintenance and more time outside, doing what she loves. The couple had their first daughter a few years ago and Fotopulos said that despite the small shared space, she’s glad that her daughter was raised in a tiny home.

“Not having a lot of stuff and her not having a lot of toys lined up with how we want to live our lives,” Fotopulos said. “It’s pretty great how tiny houses, if you’re trying to live a simpler life, encompass the philosophy.”

Iacona said that staying out of debt was also a big motivator for living in a tiny house.

“Anytime there is an alternative to getting in debt, I get excited about it,” Iacona said.

Iacona and Fotopulos are now in the middle of building a traditional home on the same land so that they can grow their family, but they think that tiny houses can be a good option for people who are also interested in the lifestyle.

“To me, I think the biggest challenge is people’s desire to live in them, because it is different,” said Iacona. “I think people want something unique, because you could just get a (Recreational Vehicle), but an RV is kind of mass produced and industrial feeling, whereas tiny houses tend to be more unique and handcrafted.”

Regulatory hurdles in Mass

People who are interested in the tiny house lifestyle may have a harder time finding a place to park their tiny house on wheels in Massachusetts. Louis Hasbrouck, the Building Commissioner in Northampton, said that there has been a lot of interest in tiny houses in the last few years, but that currently in Northampton bylaws homes must be built on a permanent foundation and be connected to public utilities to be considered a legal dwelling unit.

“I’m a big supporter of living in a small place, but there needs to be a sense of permanence to build community,” Hasbrouck said. “A stable population allows a community to be able to make plans for itself.”

Hasbrouck said that he believes that there are still many ways to build a small house in Northampton, and that tiny houses could be great for “infilling” (building on underused or vacant properties).

Jakob Palches, 31, built a tiny house with his wife in Northampton in 2016. The tiny house was built on a trailer, but ultimately ended up on a foundation because another tiny house owner in Hadley — Sarah Hastings — had lost her battle with the town to keep her tiny house on wheels on a residential property in May 2016.

Hastings, who couldn’t be reached for comment before publishing, built a tiny house as a senior at Mount Holyoke College and then moved it to Hadley where she thought she could live in it. Her tiny house soon became a statewide news story as she fought and ultimately lost the right to live in a mobile tiny house in a residential backyard in Hadley.

Frank Wdowiak, a master electrician in Northampton, helped Hastings with wiring the tiny house when she built it at Mount Holyoke but spoke out against her living in it in Hadley due to the town’s zoning regulations. He said that he supports living small, as long as it’s within regulations.

“I think it’s a good thing, but it needs to be done by law, by the zoning codes,” Wdowiak said.

Once Palches and his wife, Laura Tupper-Palches, had property to put their tiny house on, they started the process of putting their home on a foundation and making sure that their house met building code and health code regulations. In addition to a foundation, Palches and Tupper-Palches had to connect to a septic tank and switch over their appliances from propane fueled to electric due to city regulations. Fotopulos and Iacona, by contrast, were free to use a small solar panel and an outhouse.

“Once we had to be on-grid and upgrade our appliances, our cost doubled,” Palches said. “There’s a lot of duality in my feelings about the building code.”

Hasbrouck has received so many inquires about tiny houses in Northampton that he now has a letter explaining the regulations. In the letter he says that the building and health regulations are important to make sure that the tiny house can be used for generations.

“Sleeping in a space accessed by a ladder may not present a life safety hazard to a fit and able adult but could be a death trap to a child,” Hasbrouck said. “The building code addresses safety for the general public, not just the current occupants of a particular home.”

Palches said that while he understands the need for safety, many of the building and health regulations, like minimum square footage requirements, ceiling height requirements, and plumbing regulations, are difficult to meet in a tiny home, especially for people intending to be eco-friendly.

“I get where they are coming from, but at the same time it’s kind of overkill,” Palches said.

Tiny homes, big mission

The popularity of Tiny House Fest in Vermont is a good indicator that the tiny house movement isn’t going away anytime soon. This year’s Fest will have 30 different tiny homes and three stages of presentations. Luckily, tiny house regulations are starting to catch up with their popularity.

B&B Micro Manufacturing, based in North Adams, is the largest tiny house manufacturer in Massachusetts. In addition to building beautiful tiny houses for customers all over the country, they are also advocating for better tiny house regulations in their home state.

In 2016, builders all over the country approved Tiny House Appendix Q in the 2018 International Building Code. Appendix Q does not address tiny houses on wheels, but adjusts dimensions for lofts and emergency escapes in permanent houses under 400-square-feet. Each state needs to adapt Appendix Q individually, and the Massachusetts Board of Building Regulations and Standards is currently considering it.

“We want to see these standards go through so we can build more!” said Katie Jackson, Business and Community Development manager at B&B Micro Manufacturing. “I think (tiny houses) are a great solution to the housing crisis, which doesn’t allow a lot of people without a lot of money to become homeowners.”

Individual communities in Massachusetts have also started to legitimize tiny houses in other ways. In Nantucket, a citizen’s petition to allow tiny houses on wheels in most residential districts was approved by the town in 2016. Recently in Boston, Mayor Marty Walsh’s Housing Innovation Lab unveiled what they call a “Plugin House,” which is an easily built, 360-square-foot house that is intended to be built in backyards. Boston Magazine reported that a model Plugin House was on display in City Hall Plaza for a week in May, and that the Lab developed the house to potentially provide more affordable housing options.

“We’re doing a lot of organizing. The interest is out there,” said Kuneman, one of the founders of Tiny House Fest. “It’s a dignified solution for anybody who desires a less impact way to live and be.”

Author: Meg Bantle

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