Less is more
The tiny-house movement finds a home in Ojai
By Michel Miller 01/09/2014
“This is my stuff, that’s your stuff, that’ll be his stuff over there. That’s all you need in life, a little place for your stuff. That’s all your house is: a place to keep your stuff. If you didn’t have so much stuff, you wouldn’t need a house. You could just walk around all the time.”
— George Carlin
“It’s kind of like Lego meets Ikea and they make a porn movie together.”
— Jay Shaffer, tiny-house pioneer
There are many things Vina Lustado plans not to do in 2014 — or ever again. She won’t spend half a day cleaning her house. She won’t organize her garage. She’s unlikely ever to water a lawn. She will not pay a utility bill. She will not make a mortgage payment. She probably won’t misplace her keys. What she will do, however, is gaze at the moon and count the stars from her cozy bed for hour after delicious hour, unburdened by the trappings of a consumption-based lifestyle. She will live the new American Dream.
Last month, following a full year of weekends spent with some sort of tool in hand, the 47-year-old Ojai architect moved into her fantasy home: a 140-square-foot “tiny house” that she designed and partially constructed. She intends to live there forever.
“When I slept there the first night it was pretty amazing,” she gushes. “It’s like camping but I’m inside my tiny house. Part of the reason I built this house is because I knew I could have a skylight in my loft, and looking at the stars at night was something I always wanted. My dream finally came true.”
While some people might consider her new digs to be uncomfortably tight quarters, everyone who’s visited finds it to be remarkably spacious. With a sleeping loft, a kitchen, a live/work space (that she lovingly refers to as the great room), a bathroom, heat, plumbing and electricity, she designed it precisely to fit her needs with a couple of luxuries tossed into the mix: the skylight and a gas fireplace.
Photo by T. Christian Gapen
Tiny houses, in the form of covered wagons, caravans, etc., are nothing new, but the tiny-house movement only began to take shape over the past couple of decades, gaining real momentum in the last five or so years as the economic crisis forced many Americans to reevaluate their priorities and options. Relatively affordable — especially longterm — and essentially mobile, tiny houses are especially appealing to young people who don’t see themselves saddled with house payments for 30 years and to empty nesters whose retirement plans vanished when the economy sank.
With a little chutzpah and a whole lot of elbow grease, it is possible to build a 100-250-square-foot dwelling for approximately $12,000, but the average investment is closer to $25,000 if built by the owner. At around $40,000, Lustado’s tiny house is on the high-end of the spectrum but still only a fraction of what a typical one-bedroom home in Ojai sells for. And because it’s totally paid for (she used her savings) and solar-powered, virtually all her income going forward will be disposable.
Having grown up in a large family in the Philippines, modest living is not unfamiliar to Lustado. Even as an educated professional in an upscale Southern California city, her pre-tiny-house space was only 400 square feet. But her desire to tread lightly, live sustainably and be debt-free ultimately compelled her to take the plunge into tiny living.
“Once you buy that trailer, there’s no going back,” muses Lustado, referring to what amounts to the tiny-house foundation and what distinguishes tiny houses from just really, really small houses — they are built on wheels making them mobile and exempt from the permits that conventional homebuilders must contend with.
“People go through processes — buying plans, going to workshops — but once you buy a trailer, that’s a moment of truth. You don’t know where it’s going to take you, who will help or where it will be.”
Lustado’s tiny house is currently nestled among quiet rolling hills
and orchards north of downtown Ojai.
Photo by T. Christian Gapeno
Her particular journey began when a colleague in Germany told her about the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, the first of its kind and started by Jay Shaffer, who is generally considered the movement’s pioneer. Her initial reaction was that it was crazy.
“It was very different from my own aesthetic,” she says. “I looked into it some more; and beyond living in 140 square feet, it’s more about living without debt and designing it yourself and having a minimal impact on the environment and natural resources. The more I researched the more I realized this is really along my core values. It’s still kind of crazy, but really it isn’t now that I’m in it. I’ve been so thrilled. ”
The next step was to take a Tumbleweed class and then actually visit a tiny house. The tiny house community is tight knit and boasts a huge online network of folks who are excited to swap knowledge and experience. There is even tiny house lodging for people who either wish to test the waters or are looking for eco-travel accomodations. Lustado found a house in Seattle where she could stay to get a realistic sense of the lifestyle — and experience firsthand a composting toilet, which she says is easy to use and virtually odorless.
She advises anyone considering a tiny house to stay in one first. And while many people are not well-suited to compact, no-frills spaces, she is absolutely at home in them. “In your head you’re thinking, ‘How can anyone live in such a ridiculously small space?’ Once I went inside, I thought, ‘Oh my God, I can do this!’ Seeing is believing.”
Once she was certain she had what it takes to be a tiny houser, she began the process of financial planning, designing and constructing. Much of what accounts for the higher price tag on Lustado’s tiny house is her insistence on very high-quality materials. By participating in the construction process with a giant dose of help from her boyfriend (who has a background in construction) she was able to save money, but at a certain point, hiring specialized labor became inevitable in order to reach her one-year completion goal. Because tiny houses fall somewhere between real property and recreational vehicle, there are no bank loans available to private builders, although currently there is at least one tiny house company that offers financing. Lustado dipped heavily into her 401k and then continued to allot a portion of her income to construction costs as they arose. “I could have bought lesser-quality materials, but I thought I want to live in this forever.” As with any large project or commitment, doubts are inevitable and Lustado, optimistic as she is, wasn’t without hers. “There were moments I thought, ‘How will I continue this?’ It’s a ton of work — 50 percent is building, 40 percent is research.”
Lustado stays warm and connected in her off-grid tiny house.
Photo by T. Christian Gapen
Just days before she crossed the tiny-living threshold Lustado had what will be her last garage sale. The hardest things to let go of? Her books. Highly sentimental items went into storage and other things were given away. “Part of it is donating things; it feels good to donate stuff. When you give things up it does come back to you somehow, and that’s part of the tiny-house process too.”
What she’s referring to is a sort of intangible, esoteric quality that slowly infiltrates the life experience of tiny housers — personal relationships deepen, time seems to expand and everyday moments become sweeter in the absence of all the tasks associated with accumulating and maintaining material goods. There’s also a sort of personal strength that seems to come with not only living with less but thriving with less.
“There is more time available to do things that are meaningful, not because you need money to pay rent and bills,” says Lustado. She also finds a lot of satisfaction in knowing that she’s leaving behind a light footprint by living off-grid and wasting as little as possible.
“What I eat, I have to eat it all. I can’t leave little bits. You have to compost everything, so you become more mindful about everything you consume. You can’t just throw things away and go and get a bag of groceries. Once you switch, you begin to realize the benefits. There are so many rewards. What people may see as a sacrifice is rewarding for me.”
Now that the research is done, the house is built and the hearth is warm, Lustado is ready to share the knowledge and the lifestyle. As an architect, her tiny-house experience has differed from other more typical tiny housers. Her rigorous attention to detail in the design and functionality of her home could take tiny-house building to a new level while tiny-house building has brought a new perspective to her work. Now when she designs a structure, she understands first-hand the construction aspects of it. She has a fully rounded skill set to bring to the table as well as a more developed empathy for her clients. Going forward, she’d like to make professional, sustainable design not only affordable but the dominant paradigm in home building. The tiny house, she says is not a novelty, nor is it a passing trend. “It’s not a marketing thing, it’s not a fad. It’s meaningful and it makes sense.”
For more information about Vina Lustado’s tiny house, visit www.solhausdesign.com. To learn more about the tiny-house movement, visit www.tumbleweedhouses.com or www.fourlightshouses.com. Vina Lustado will be giving a presentation at Ojai Retreat on Feb. 21. She will also be giving tours of her tiny house that weekend. For more information, visit www.innermosthouse.com.