Tiny house trend grows as people focus on essentials

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News
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America may be known for its “bigger is better” approach, but for many, tiny is tops these days.

Tiny houses – houses often smaller than 400 square feet – continue to surge in popularity and Metro Detroit is no exception. From Whitmore Lake to Detroit, several tiny projects are either in the works or under construction.

In Detroit, Cass Community Social Services unveiled plans earlier this spring to build an entire community of tiny houses for formerly homeless people and low-income students and seniors. The $1.5 million project is just west of M-10 near Elmhurst.

In Whitmore Lake, meanwhile, Richard Brown of Michigan Tiny House has built several tiny houses, one of which he rents by the night on Airbnb. And at the Junior League of Detroit’s Designers’ Show House in May, a dilipidated boat house on Lake St. Clair was converted into a tiny house.

Tiny house living is about getting back to basics, says Debbie Rossman, the founder of Ferndale-based Tiny and Smart LLC.

Rossman says it’s not just that people want to live in a smaller environment, but “they want to live more abundantly with less things to take with them.”

“It’s just a different mindset,” says Rossman, who worked on the tiny house at the Designers’ Show House with J.D. Engle Construction of Livonia.

But for a type of house that is so popular its now the subject of countless TV shows such as “Tiny House Nation,” the big question may be, why aren’t there more of them in Metro Detroit?

Jaime Bellos, a history and social studies teacher at Center Line High School who is building a tiny house with his students to auction off, says there are restrictions when it comes to tiny houses, such as setbacks.

Many are built on trailers so they’re portable, but “you can’t just park these things,” says Bellos.

That’s why Brown of Michigan Tiny House says doing your homework is so important. Some cities have minimum building requirements, meaning houses have to be a certain size.

“Every municipality has different ordinances on the books,” says Brown, who has been living in a tiny house since October 2015. “And if you really want to do something, you (may) have to approach the zoning board.”

A destination place

Bellos, the history teacher, first got into tiny houses about three years ago when he saw one on Pinterest. A builder on the side, Bellos went to a seminar hosted by Jay Shafer of the Four Lights Tiny House Company. Shafer is the author of “The Small House Book” and his company sells plans for different styles of tiny houses.

Eventually, Bellos came up with an idea: He wanted to build a tiny house and auction it off to raise money for veterans. To build it, he asked administrators if he could teach an elective class on tiny houses. He and his students researched different plans and this spring they built the frame.

“My dad was in World War II and I have always wanted to help veterans in some way,” says Bellos, who is now raising money through a crowd-funding campaign to finish the project. “When researching tiny houses I learned that there are a lot of veterans that are homeless. I figured this could be one possible solution.”

Down the road, Bellos has an even bigger idea: He wants to create a village of tiny homes in Detroit with a community garden in the middle.

“My vision is to create a destination place,” says Bellos, whose already started a business that’s still getting started called Tiny House Experience Detroit. “I want people to say, ‘Let’s go see that cool tiny house village.’ People can stay there and get a different perspective on Detroit.”

A change in lifestyle

Brown’s tiny house journey, meanwhile, began after he went through divorce. He contemplated renting an apartment or buying a fixer upper in Detroit or Pontiac. He purchased land and even considered building a house. But tiny houses “kept popping up on the radar,” he says.

“It’s very economical, socially responsible and ecological,” says Brown, who by day, is an ice-skating coach. “It just made sense the more I kept looking into it.”

Today, Brown’s tiny house is perched on an 18-foot trailer in a mobile home park across the street from Whitmore Lake. Nearby are two other tiny homes Brown has built – a 145-square model unit tiny house he’s selling and rents on Airbnb and a 70-square-foot cottage, which could be used as an office or studio.

All three tiny structures have wood or cedar shake siding and a composite roof. Inside, every space is multifunctional. The model unit has a fully functioning bathroom with a sleeping loft and full size bed.

Having each unit on a trailer offers flexibility in terms of location, says Brown, who worked with a tiny house builder in Colorado before starting his company. “It has that gypsy or nomadic feel to it,” says Brown.

But are tiny houses for everyone? No, acknowledges Brown. It forces people to dramatically pare down their belongings and really focus on the necessities.

For Brown, it’s just right.

“It’s close to my job – and it’s that country setting,” he says. “I’m right across the street from the lake. The location really made sense. I kind of have my own little slice of heaven.”


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