Over the past few years, communities across Colorado have emerged as leaders of the tiny house movement, a campaign that surfaced in the 1990s and has been propelled over the past 15 years by economic slumps and a trend toward sustainable building practices.
Environmental consciousness, widening disparities between household income and home prices, and a trend toward minimalist values have converged to inspire some to live Hobbit-like in custom-built dwellings only a few hundred square feet in size.
Recently, Bayfield High School students finished building a 160-square-foot house. Listed for $10,000 (proceeds will fund the school’s next project), the house is similar to one underway at Animas High School.
“We started by building sheds and playhouses, and we’ve progressed to a tiny house,” Bayfield High School teacher Curtis Gillespie said of his construction class. “I think tiny houses are popular for a lot of different reasons but probably mainly because of the price of real estate.”
Greg Parham, owner of Durango-based Rocky Mountain Tiny Houses, said business has increased “three-fold” since he incorporated his company in 2013.
Parham has built an average of 10 homes each year. His clients come from all over the country but mostly from the Front Range in Boulder, Denver and Colorado Springs.
“The business is completely market-dependent,” Parham said. “In Durango, it makes a lot of sense, but in Albuquerque, it makes very little sense because you can still affordably buy a big house with land there. In markets like Durango, Telluride, Aspen – all the mountain towns – the financial draw is pretty good.”
But only about 20 percent of his customers are local.
Tiny houses are taking hold in small ways across the country, reflected in local regulatory changes.
This fall, a developer will break ground on a tiny house community on a former high school football field in Walsenburg, the first city in the state and one of the first in the nation to change its land-use codes to accommodate tiny house development.
Colorado Springs, which is again hosting the Tiny House Jamboree in August, is home to the nation’s largest tiny house manufacturer, Tumbleweed Tiny House Co.
And in May, Washington, D.C., leaders reformed zoning codes to streamline the process of building and renting tiny houses.
Tiny homes are a niche within any housing market, but that conversation has yet to fully blossom in La Plata County.
Local county and city codes do not speak specifically to tiny houses, but like any other residential structure, they must have water and sewer – a necessity that unraveled plans for a tiny house community proposed last year in Boulder County.
Securing those amenities for some tiny house owners would mean living in a community on a shared system, like at Island Cove Park, a mobile home community on Florida Road, which has a designated area for tiny houses. The owners did not return calls for comment.
Dave Reynolds, owner of Animas Park for Mobile Homes on Animas View Drive, said he had never considered allowing tiny houses in the park but would if it made sense under city regulations.
Over a year ago, local developer Gregg Donaldson approached Durango city staff about building a tiny house village; the project didn’t materialize because existing zoning codes are silent on such projects, and the homes would have to have permanent foundations.
“If someone wants to do a tiny home development, we’ll obviously meet with them and tell them what our requirements are,” said City Planner Mark Williams. “But like any other development, land is very expensive. It’s hard to make a new development work here because of the costs.”
The hurdles for living in a tiny house while complying with local law can be financially difficult or defeat the purpose of mobility, which is why some fly under the radar.
Parham said he lives in town, but he would not disclose where precisely he set up house.
“You just have to know where to look, know where to ask,” he said. “People look for farms, property tucked away, and they ask the owner permission.”
When Aaron Mills, co-owner of Purgatory Contracting, arrived from New Mexico with his wife over a year ago, unsure of their next move, they decided to refurbish an old shed and live in it, on 40 acres of his parents’ land near Ignacio.
They were considering purchasing land and making their tiny house, which does not have plumbing, a permanent residence, but they found their dream home in Vallecito.
Mills just sold the 350-square-foot house to a woman in northern California and is considering building another, with plumbing, to sell.
“I got so much interest from all over the country, I couldn’t keep up with the people wanting to know about it,” he said. “It seems like there should be a heck of a market for it. There’s a lot of, for lack of a better word, tree-huggers here – people concerned with the environment and sustainability.”
Living small is not for everyone, and the nation has proven that over the past 60 years, as the average American home size has climbed by 140 percent since 1950. But for those who can, the philosophical reasons for an extreme downsize are accompanied by practical incentives relevant to La Plata County: some cities have developed tiny house communities as a solution to homelessness. The dwellings have also been used as second homes, guest houses or rental units.
This summer, county planning staff began reworking the housing component of the comprehensive plan, a document under review that is designed to map the future of land use and development in the county. The main objective for housing, officials agreed, is not only to retain existing inventory but to diversify it and encourage developers to build affordably. Tiny houses can be a part of that.
“There is an intention that will be captured in the land-use plan,” said Jason Meininger, county planner. “And that is to encourage and allow for a variety of housing sizes.”