Q&A: A tiny-house advocate shares her big plans to build small

Q&A: A tiny-house advocate shares her big plans to build small
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For some people, thinking small when it comes to their home can make a big difference. Such was the case for René Hardee, a regulatory specialist at Sun Nuclear Corporation in Melbourne, FL, and an unsuspecting advocate for the Tiny House Movement.

Hardee lives with her husband and their two young children in a 2,000-square-foot, three-bedroom, three-bathroom house in Rockledge, FL. After attempts to declutter their home proved insufficient and a major remodel to make better use of the space proved too costly, Hardee’s thoughts turned to the ultimate downsizing endeavor: a tiny house.

She’s not alone. Tiny houses, which are typically less than 500 square feet, rose to popularity during and after the Great Recession as an affordable housing alternative. Still, tiny-house living is largely a niche endeavor. Many state and local building codes don’t accommodate the needs of tiny houses — such as smaller lot sizes, square footage minimums and the ability to colocate with an existing building.

Rene Hardee, head of the Florida chapter of the American Tiny House Association
René Hardee

As a result, tiny houses tend to spring up in bunches as advocates win the rights from local building authorities to create developments that cater to the needs of groups such as the chronically homeless, veterans, debt-laden young people and even empty nesters. Such projects are currently in the works in cities like Austin, TX, Sonoma County, CA, Kansas City, MO and Olympia, WA.

When Hardee decided that a tiny house was the answer to her family’s space needs, she was met with similar obstacles. Undeterred, she took her idea for a single tiny home to the Rockledge planning office, and from there it evolved into plans for a pocket neighborhood of 13 tiny houses on 1.38 acres of land in the city’s downtown.

Construction Dive talked with Hardee, who is now the president of the Florida chapter of the American Tiny House Association, about how she worked with city hall to bring tiny houses to her community.

What led you to the planning committee?

HARDEE: When I couldn’t find any existing tiny houses in Rockledge, I asked the city planning director if there was a place I could put a 500-square-foot house in Rockledge. There wasn’t. I asked if they would consider creating a place for us to put one. I educated them a little about the movement and about our reasons for wanting a tiny house.

I tried to get a tiny house in under existing zoning regulations. The minimum square footage for a newly constructed house here is 1,200 square feet. What does that mean? They said, "Anything that’s under air [conditioning]."

Then I asked if it had to be a continuous 1,200 square feet. Could it be two, 600-square-foot houses on one piece of property? They said they’d consider that if they were on the same foundation and only one house had a kitchen. I asked, "What’s a kitchen?" If it has a stove or oven, it’s a kitchen, they said. Otherwise, it can have hot plates, a microwave, a toaster, a sink and a fridge. That meant we could have two, 600-square-foot homes on one piece of property within the existing regulations — if the foundations were connected. I imagined a walkway or breezeway.

Then I asked about four, 300-square-foot houses with the same parameters. That’s when the idea for the community came together. They decided a one-off [tiny house] would be weird in a town full of large homes, but they could get behind a tiny-house community. They created a new zoning class in September 2015. It passed without too much discussion.

And you already have a developer lined up?

HARDEE: Our developer is a builder looking to get his feet wet in development, so he’ll do both. Our only issue is that the property owner recently died. We’re waiting to connect with the estate, and we will get under contract again.

What will the community look like?

HARDEE: The vision is for neighbors to share resources. All 13 houses will have front porches and will face inward around a central courtyard. There will be a community house with a big kitchen so residents can have large gatherings. A shed will house shared tools. A homeowner’s association will fund communal resources.

What’s the cost to build a tiny house?

HARDEE: A do-it-yourself house on wheels costs from $15,000 to $20,000. If it’s custom-built with high-end finishes, it might be $80,000. People expect that same number on-foundation, but you have land, infrastructure, sewer, water and electricity costs. Location matters. Cost is all in the variables. I’ve already spoken with [the local branch of] PNC Bank and people will be able to get mortgages.

Who is the market for these homes?

HARDEE: This movement spans every demographic. There are a lot of millenials coming out of college with mounds of student debt; they maybe can’t get a job or have an underpaying job. It’s a way to get their own space at a lower price and without putting on more debt.

Does the Tiny House Movement have staying power?

HARDEE: It’s definitely not a fad. Every 30 years the pendulum swings. People used to live where they worked and had family nearby. The late 1970s and '80s were all about urban sprawl. People moved to the suburbs and commuted to their jobs. Now we’re seeing a shift. People want to be in a place where they can walk to work, bike, take public transportation. It’s a big pendulum swing in response to sprawl, and I think it’s here to stay.

What will it be like to live in a tiny house with your family?

HARDEE: It will allow us to spend less time maintaining a large home and more time together. Blissful.

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