You don’t see a lot of homesteading in the Bay Area these days, but it’s happening right under our noses. It's simply not very noticeable because the houses are tiny, and many of them don’t look much like houses.
Chances are you’re probably already familiar with the tiny-house movement. It made its first big splash in the Bay Area many years ago, when Tumbleweed Tiny House Company set up shop in Sonoma County and started producing smaller versions of traditional homes, as small as 160 square feet, in an artistic, whimsical venture. Almost two decades later, you can now walk into any IKEA store and pick out a floor plan for a tiny home, which the company will ship to you -- no assembly required.
Of course, ordering a tiny house is expensive (the IKEA model costs more than $80,000), and at 745 square feet, some would argue it hardly qualifies as "tiny." A DIY tiny house could be cheaper, but the skills required for that kind of project are outside the expertise of your average layman.
This is where Luke Iseman and Heather Stewart see their opportunity to change up the tiny-house game. The pair operates an Oakland-based company called Boxouse, which shows people how to create relatively cheap, functional tiny homes and work studios out of disused shipping containers. (Iseman and Stewart demonstrate their brand of DIY homebuilding at the 10th annual Maker Faire, which runs May 16 and 17 in San Mateo.)
Iseman and Stewart keep their tiny homes simple; after all, the basic frame for the house is a shipping container. Although living in a 160 square-foot metal box may not sound as comfortable (or original) as settling into a miniature Queen Anne Victorian, it shaves off a huge amount of labor, time and money.
“Most of the modifications are aesthetics,” Iseman says, noting that construction of the homes takes anywhere from 40 to 100 hours of work. “There are actually very minimal modifications, because you have everything structural already done for you.
That’s not to say the needed modifications are purely cosmetic. To create their most basic and functional model for a tiny house, Iseman and Stewart install wooden floors and insulation, long horizontal windows, and a skylight.
For a more fully customized house designed for off-the-grid living, they add a propane system that allows for heating and hot water, a shower, an odorless Humanure toilet, LED lights, a small kitchen, a makeshift refrigerator rigged with an Arduino-inspired cooling system, Wi-Fi, and a photovoltaics system to harvest solar energy.
Price-wise, Boxouse homes fall between $9,500 and $25,000. But ask for their standard model, and you’ll find that there isn’t any -- Iseman and Stewart constantly search for new ways to bend the rules of housing. As part of their latest experiment, they’ve converted an old U-Haul truck into a minimalist mobile bedroom that Iseman can use as a tiny home-away-from-tiny-home when he’s working down on the Peninsula.
“We’re easily able to go through 10 to 20 iterations of fundamental design changes in a year,” Iseman says. “With traditional housing, if you’re trying to follow every permit and process, you don’t experiment that much. That’s why you see cookie-cutter condos; that’s why you see cookie-cutter suburbs.”
But flaunting traditional housing is easier said than done. In most of the Bay Area, performing significant alterations on one's home requires permitting approved by a city-planning department. A few months ago, Iseman and Stewart were forced to move from a lot nicknamed "The Triangle" which they had purchased near American Steel Studios after the City of Oakland determined that they lacked a site plan and had not applied for the proper permits to build structures.
Iseman anticipated that the city might crack down on their lot, but it still left him deeply frustrated. He claims that city zoning is so restrictive that it would have prevented him from even parking a station wagon on his lot without the proper permits.
“There’s a reason why more people don’t do this,” Iseman says. “And that reason is cities make it as difficult for DIY development to occur as possible.”
This may be an overly pessimistic analysis. According to Iseman, at least three other tiny-house communities have sprung up in the East Bay since his exodus from the Triangle. He and Stewart that have also resumed cranking out converted containers at a new location.
But what if the tiny-house movement didn’t have to operate in secret? Iseman, who admits he can be “a bit utopianish,” says that the movement could potentially end the housing crisis.
“We could have cities that are drastically better than they are [right now] because the Bay Area could be affordable again,” Iseman says. “We need to get back to that if we’re not just going to be more than a tourist attraction and hangout spot for rich programmers.”