The large orange dirt patch situated on the corner of Massey Avenue and East Webb Street in Mountain View is dotted with shells of 8-by-16-foot to 8-by-24-foot small homes, scraps of sawed lumber and power tools.
But the mess is warranted. For the past eight years, Stewart, the owner of Slabtown Customs, has created tailor-made tiny houses full time for families across the nation, even attracting the attention of HGTV’s Tiny House Hunters and FYI’s Tiny House Nation in the past two years.
“Actually, where we’re building the houses is where my grandpa had a saw mill over 80 years ago,” said Stewart, a Mountain View-raised builder who grew up working in the lumber industry.
Stewart’s history with tiny houses began in the early 2000s, when he started creating small cabins and storage units from extra lumber.
“It was a gradual progression from the storage building,” he said. “It’s the small stuff that I could build on my yard and then move them when they were done.”
When his tiny-house building project first kicked off, tiny homes weren’t nearly as popular as they are now, he said, and many families were focused on building homes as large as 4,000 square feet.
Through custom building, Stewart has found that there are a variety of reasons someone might choose to purchase a tiny house, including wanting to downsize or falling on hard times. There is no average customer.
“For the most part, with my customers, it’s the sense of freedom, not being tied down — not working their butts off just to make a house payment,” he said. “They’re having a nice, comfortable, quality place to stay, but they’re focusing more on doing things — living.”
Other customers want to put their homes on wheels.
“Of course, some of my customers are doing it because they want to travel, but they don’t want an RV that’s going to lose value over the course of years,” he said.
Stewart said the first time the FYI network contacted him for the first season of its show Tiny House Nation, his mother was ill, and the timing wasn’t right. Plus, he was unsure of the kind of image the show would give his business. But after he became familiar with the show, he agreed to be a part of it, and his work was featured on the first episode of the show’s second season in late 2014.
Filming the show was a good experience, he said, but it didn’t affect his business as much as one might expect.
“I’ve gained a lot of calls and emails and messages and contacts,” he said. “As far as actual sales, maybe [the show] affected it a little bit but not a tremendous amount. We get a lot of people driving by and taking pictures and things like that, just wanting to say, ‘Hey, we’ve seen you on TV.’”
Though production crews have visited the Slabtown yard, Stewart doesn’t consider
himself a local celebrity. He also said he can’t think of the hardest part of his job because every aspect of it is fun.
“It is stressful a lot of times because you are building somebody’s house. It’s not like you’re building them a doghouse or a storage building,” he said. “That can just be a little bit stressful, but I don’t really know of anything that’s hard. It’s fun. It’s like building a clubhouse almost every day.”
Oftentimes, customers will tell Stewart what features they would like included in their tiny house, and he can convert their ideas to a scaled floor plan. Other times, customers just want a version of a previous Slabtown Customs creation.
“We’ve done so many houses now at this point, though, a lot of times, they’ve seen so much of my work that they may say, ‘You know, I want to start with the Dubber House, and here are the changes I want to make,’” he said.
The Dubber House, a charcoal-gray structure with a bold red door, is named after Stewart’s father and sits on a plot of land beside the Slabtown yard. The house is a prime example of how Stewart has learned to make the best use of space over the years: Storage drawers can be pulled from each stair, and a hidden queen-size bed can be pulled out into the living room.
Right now, the Dubber House has splotches of grass and uneven land surrounding it. But once the landscaping is complete, Stewart plans to rent out the house, Airbnb style, for those looking for a weekend retreat. The Dubber unit is also a variation of the “flip loft” style Slabtown has completed 15 to 20 times so far.
“How do we figure out a way to sleep on the lower level without having to go real long? So I came up with that, where we raise the kitchen and the bathroom so the bed can slide out from that area into the living room,” he said.
There’s no set method for Stewart’s creative process. He sometimes wakes up inspired to create a certain house, and he doesn’t look at magazines, the Internet or other tiny-house companies for inspiration. Mostly, he creates what he has always wanted to see or try.
“A lot of times, everything is so custom, and we redo a lot of stuff, mainly because I’m so picky,” he said. “If you ask my guys that work with me, I think they’ll tell you that I’m pretty easy to get along with, but they’ll also tell you that I’m pretty picky, so we may have an idea and implement it, and it turns out just like I meant for it to, but maybe it doesn’t look like I was hoping. So we redo it.”
Another vision of Stewart’s that Slabtown has brought to fruition is the Glamper, or glamourous camper, a rustic structure that uses barn roofing, a galvanized pot for the bathroom sink and a spalike shower equipped with mirrors, jets and rope lighting. Outside the Glamper, a flip-down table and two built-in tractor seats can be pulled out for seating or dining.
Though a tiny house can be taken on the road like an RV, Stewart said, the house can be maintained like any regular home.
“It’s really just like any site-built home would be. The only comparison to the tiny house, at least for what we’re building, with an RV is just that they’re portable,” he said. “And a lot of times, they have the same hookups, so that it can be pulled into an RV park and connected to utilities. But other than that, that’s it. All the materials, the wiring, the plumbing — all that kind of stuff — are like a site-built home.”
Stewart has received offers to move Slabtown to building sites outside of Mountain View, but he wouldn’t consider leaving the town where he’s built about 100 tiny houses and nearly 400 other small buildings.
“It’s pretty nice to be where you’ve been all your life to work,” he said.
He also stays away from giving others advice on building tiny homes, but he does encourage all who are interested to do plenty of research.
“We’re still learning better ways to do everything, so it’s constantly changing, whether it’s little hidden storage areas or making better use of every nook and cranny that we can,” he said.
Stewart doesn’t own or live in a tiny house himself, but that doesn’t mean he’d never want to.
“I just really haven’t had the time to be able to do something like that,” he said. “For instance, we were in Branson, [Missouri], over the weekend, and ideally, I’d love to have a little tiny house up there somewhere.”
Within the year, Stewart said, his work might make another appearance on popular tiny-house TV shows. He also plans to one day focus less on custom work and create more of the units he desires to make, along with renting those out for people who are seeking weekend trips.
What’s Stewart’s favorite Slabtown unit? That’s a question that can’t be answered.
“That’d be like picking your favorite child, wouldn’t it?” he said.
Staff writer Syd Hayman can be reached at (501) 244-4307 or [email protected].