Tiny house, big dreams: Building a home from scratch

Stephanie Steinberg
The Detroit News

Detroit — Alexander Weyer has a big vision for his tiny house.

“It’s going to be my mobile house, but it’s also going to be a mobile apothecary so that whatever community I’m in or wherever I’m needed the most, I’ll be able to supply small-scale well-being support,” said Weyer, a 30-year-old astrologer-herbalist from Novi, who’s building a 24-foot-long tiny house in Chelsea.

Ed Houchen instructs Sam Ogletree in July on cutting siding. Some of the students “had never sawed a piece of wood in their life,” so learning to build even a tiny house from the ground up is “a learning process,” he said.

Eventually, he’d like to travel the country, sourcing herbs and treating different communities. While tiny house owners get creative in storing their possessions — Weyer is going through a “purging phase” in preparation — he has the added challenge of finding space for medicinal tools and remedies.

“I don’t think there will be much room besides for me and the plants,” he said.

Weyer was among seven students, four women and three men, who enrolled in the Detroit Training Center’s tiny house building course. Their motives varied from a mother learning woodworking skills to teach her children, to women with dreams of launching tiny house villages in Detroit, to a retired Detroit firefighter hoping to rent a tiny house on Airbnb for extra income.

The training center’s four-week course in April turned into seven months, and counting, as the students battled weather and their inexperience.

“Half of them had never sawed a piece of wood in their life. So to build a house from scratch, even though it’s a small house, with that type of background, it’s a learning process,” said instructor Ed Houchen, who’s worked in construction for 52 years. This was also his first time building a tiny house.

Tiny houses, typically viewed as structures less than 400 square feet, have become all the rage as of late. They’re seen as a possible answer to transforming Detroit’s blighted neighborhoods and also have become popular options in Metro Detroit’s suburbs.

Detroit Training Center CEO Patrick Beal decided to offer the $850 course after several people asked if they taught tiny house construction among the 100-plus classes. While tiny house programs exist around the U.S., several construction experts said there are none in Michigan.

The Detroit Training Center on Loraine Street spent more than $20,000 on materials. To recoup the cost, Beal said he’s planning to rent the house as an Airbnb hotel in Corktown. The goal is to finish it by January, so it’s ready to rent at $125 per night. The house will go on Beal’s property on Michigan Avenue near Slow’s BarBQ.

“The hope is that we’ll get people coming into town who don’t want to do the normal hotel thing. We already have two people who want to book it,” said Beal, 29, standing outside the teal and brown house with white trim earlier this month.

Now, a new crew of students seeking their residential builders license are completing the job.

“The project has definitely taken a lot longer than we expected,” he said, adding they may offer a different project next summer with a better “cost benefit.”

Yet the tiny house movement is “gaining momentum significantly” in Michigan, said Aaron Kipfmiller, owner of the construction company Great Lakes Tiny Homes in Mount Pleasant.

“I talk to people every day who are interested in building tiny houses,” said Kipfmiller, who can build a tiny house in three months for less than $60,000.

In Detroit, there are no restrictions on building tiny houses. There’s also no statewide legislation, but that will soon change. Last year, the International Code Council approved a tiny house appendix to the 2018 Residential Building Code that will be available for states to adopt and enforce in 2019.

Many cities also do not allow residents to build homes smaller than 1,000 square feet. So tiny house dwellers circumvent zoning restrictions by building on top of trailers, which is what the Detroit Training Center did.

“The city considers this an RV because it’s on wheels,” said Houchen, standing beside the trailer as students sawed wood flooring in the April sunshine. “So if you keep it on wheels, the advantage is at some point you can move it, but also as long as the city allows trailers on your property, technically it’s not a building. It doesn’t fall under the same codes.”

A house full of dreams

Vision boards are typically plastered with inspiring images. Debbie Rossman’s has Monopoly houses.

“I want to do a whole community of tiny houses in Detroit,” said Rossman, her white sweatshirt covered in dirt splotches from building outside.

The 54-year-old Eastpointe resident and owner of Tiny and Smart LLC aspires to build a tiny house village for people who can’t afford a house more than 1,200 square feet, like herself. The concept resembles Cass Community Social Services’ tiny houses on Detroit’s west side, recently built for low-income individuals.

Many cities don’t let residents build homes smaller than 1,000 square feet, so the Detroit Training Center’s tiny house will sit on a trailer.

Rossman has a disability that prevents her from working full-time, so she relies on her husband’s income to cover rent and medical bills.

Rossman is seeking investors and plans to hire contractors to build the houses, but only three weeks into the class, she felt confident enough with power tools that she installed a wall in her kitchen cupboard.

“(My landlord) said, ‘If you want it fixed, you can fix it yourself,’ so I did. I didn’t know how to do it two months ago, and now I do,” she said.

Detroit resident Lea Addington, meanwhile, took the class to empower herself and prove women “can build something great.”

“We got so comfortable with shelling out money and having somebody build your stuff, but this is stuff you’re going to have to learn how to do if there’s ever a disaster,” said Addington, 26. “People aren’t going to come help you. You need to learn to be able to take care of your family, and that includes building a house.”

While Hope Watkins, 45, of Detroit, desires a tiny house with a jacuzzi for a vacation home Up North, she also wants to pass on woodworking skills to her two sons and three daughters.

“This is a skill that can never be taken away from you,” she said, adding she wants her family to pitch in with the build.

Learning from mistakes

Gathered at the construction site in Detroit Training Center’s parking lot, the class watched plumber Jimmy Rios install a shower head as he explained water distribution and drainage options, depending on how “off the grid” they want to go.

“It’s only limited to your imagination — and regulation,” he said.

Rios has been a plumber since 1999, but this was the closest he’s been to a tiny house. Before guest teaching the class, he educated himself on composting toilets — a hot commodity for some tiny house owners.

“As a residential service plumber, I don’t get customers that are like, ‘Hi, I’d like to poop in a box and dry it, so I can throw it out.’ I’ve never had that request yet,” he said. “It’s a complete shift as far as practice, culture and understanding of water conservation.”

Rios said training programs are needed if more tiny house owners seek off-the-grid water collection and disposal systems.

Many builders are also unfamiliar with tiny house construction. Houchen said it’s “95 percent the same” as a traditional house. Yet the remaining 5 percent has stark differences. For one, the students used screws instead of nails.

“Since we have to physically lift it, we have to go the strongest method,” Houchen said. “Screws are better than nails.”

Alexander Weyer, an astrologer-herbalist, envisions building a tiny house that would travel the country as a mobile apothecary. He’s going through a “purging process” in preparation for operating in tight quarters.

Sections of the walls were also built indoors, thanks to Mother Nature.

“Everything needs to fit through the doorway,” Houchen said. “It’s kind of like a puzzle when we go outside and put it together.”

Yet seven months later, the walls are standing with a dozen windows, and solar panels are attached to the roof to generate power. The interior has a kitchen, where a fridge and cooktop will be added.

“The compost toilet will be right here,” said Beal, motioning to a small area next to the shower. “It keeps the waste, but it treats it in such a way that it does not smell.”

The loft with a queen bed still needs a ladder, and a 5-foot sliding front door needs to be installed. The interior finishes are also not done.

Eying the 220-square-foot house in the brisk November air, Houchen admitted it took longer than expected to reach this point.

“We had to fight the weather, inexperience of students and the design itself made it difficult because we couldn’t just lift up the wall like you typically do for a construction project,” he said, referring to the pieces built inside.

However, “everybody got much better as time went on,” he said.