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IT’S A SMALL WORLD: Tiny houses slowly catching on, signaling trend toward tighter, more efficient homes

IT'S A SMALL WORLD: Tiny houses slowly catching on, signaling trend toward tighter, more efficient homes
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Erwin Forrest Builders of Salisbury Township built
this 720-square-foot home last year in New Tripoli.
Erwin Forrest Builders of Salisbury Township built this 720-square-foot home last year in New Tripoli.

Henry David Thoreau may have been the nation's first celebrity advocate of the tiny house when he went to Walden Pond in Concord, Mass., in 1845 to build a cabin in which “to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.”

Indeed, the tiny house movement and the quest for more minimalist and deliberate living have seemed to catch fire once again, promoted by programs on HGTV and other networks that inspire a longing for the simpler life.

In the Greater Lehigh Valley, which has seen large homes rise over the past 30 years, tiny houses aren't all that big, with only a handful of examples of the kinds of tiny houses depicted on television.

But while the tiny house movement hasn't quite caught on locally, the trend is moving toward tighter, more efficient homes as consumers take a harder look at the living space they really need and consider economics, energy efficiency and uncluttered lifestyles.

Tiny houses, which can be as tiny as 120 square feet, typically cost from $10,000 for a do-it-yourselfer using salvaged materials, to $60,000 if purchased from a tiny-house builder, said Elaine Walker, co-founder of the American Tiny House Association.

“The trend in the past year is for tiny houses to become larger and more expensive, with some as large as 350 square feet and costing $85,000 or more,” she said.

According to Walker, they are becoming popular because:

Tiny houses offer a way to greater financial independence.

Tiny houses on wheels can move with you.

They are built to last longer than a typical recreational vehicle or manufactured home.

They offer an opportunity for creativity and personalization (by designing your own).

Keith Hoeing, owner of Erwin Forrest Builders in Salisbury Township, had his first tiny house experience last year in New Tripoli.

“It was a 720-square-foot home with conventional framing on a poured foundation,” he said. “We used red vinyl siding to make it look like a cottage tucked in the woods. It's like an in-law suite without being invasive.”

Built on an existing lot for the client's sister, who wanted to move to the Lehigh Valley, the dwelling space is very efficient with a kitchen, dinette, bathroom and one bedroom, Hoeing said. The project cost about $150,000 because the structure required separate septic and stormwater management systems.

“The cost was mostly for infrastructure, since the house was a more permanent structure,” Hoeing said. “Part of the reason the tiny house movement hasn't caught on here in the Lehigh Valley is because of zoning laws often require residential structures to be tied in to utilities and have permanent foundations.”

Still, Hoenig said tastes are evolving to smaller, more efficient living spaces.

“The McMansion has fallen out of favor; people are being more conscious about efficiency and not worried about having the biggest house on the block,” Hoeing said.

“You're not seeing the two-story foyer with the chandelier quite as often these days,” he added. “People want a smaller footprint and are more interested in detail and economics rather than paying for a massive-square-foot structure.

“As a result, we're building a more condensed house with a more efficient layout and less costs.”

Kent Baird, community and conservation planner for Carter van Dyke Associates, landscape architects and planners in Doylestown, said the housing market is evolving as baby boomers desire less square footage and more self-sufficiency and turn away from space that's not needed or more than they can handle.

“We have more and more municipalities reaching out to us to review ordinances to accommodate smaller lot sizes and smaller homes,” he said. “It seems like the trend is to go back to a simpler life.”

Baird said his firm is performing more planning than designing for smaller homes these days as municipalities look to make changes to meet changing expectations and tastes.

“We're even looking at a few projects that include solar and geothermal and one or two with wind farms and wind turbine packages,” he said. “We're also trying to encourage habitat restoration and small lot sizes with beautiful gardens.

“All of our feasibility studies suggest the market is moving to smaller, simpler and less complicated,” Baird added. “For more than a decade, we had an active role in promoting traditional designs. Now we're seeing old-fashioned town planning that meets the variations in the economy.”

Carlo Manzella of Manzella Construction in Exeter Township, Berks County, is not only aware of tiny houses, he and his family are trying one on for size in their backyard.

Built on a 28-foot trailer frame — a popular design for ease of transport — it's about 200 square feet and has a kitchen, pantry, bedroom and bathroom.

Manzella said he used materials, including French doors, leftover from other projects to build what he described as a conventional structure with insulated floors and walls and a light-colored roof to reflect sunlight.

A local sawmill made tongue-and-groove planks for flooring from the repurposed pine boards he had in storage. It took him only three weeks to complete and went from an unfinished shell to a move-in ready house in just four days between other scheduled projects. It cost about $10,000 in materials.

“The boys still go back to the main house — they prefer the six-foot tub,” he laughed. “But the experience has been an awakening for us.”

Manzella's wife, Allison, an interior designer who loves to cook, designed the space with an eye toward culinary needs, creating areas to hang pots and pans, a pantry for provisions, a full-size gas range and a standard fridge.

“A tiny house means limiting personal items, even clothing, but what you give up opens the door to a simpler way of life and a mortgage-free life,” Carlo Manzella said. “It's not for everyone.”

His next step is to build another tiny house for show. While the local market isn't ripe for robust sales, he said he has interest from potential customers across the nation and Canada, where cottages and chalets are popular. A tiny house built on a trailer can be towed and easily shown to potential buyers, too.

“What better way to know what we'll do differently and better for the next model than by living in a tiny house,” Manzella said. “There's definitely a lot of interest in the whole movement.”

For Manzella and his family, there's another benefit from living in downsized quarters.

“It might be a little too cramped, and the boys are sometimes a little too loud in here,” he said. “But you're forced to interact with one another, play card games and have real conversations. And the kids can't just make it out of the house without you knowing about it.”

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