Even in the tiny kitchen in his tiny house, Brian Levy makes room for a microwave, a KitchenAid mixer and a whipped cream canister.
“The whole idea with this project is to have people question how much space they need,” Levy said, noting that his kitchen, which spans the 10-foot width of the 22-foot-long structure he’s dubbed the “Minim House,” can churn out enough food for an impressive garden party.
Perched on a triangular alley lot in the Stronghold neighborhood of the District of Columbia, Levy’s tiny house is all about showing visitors that they could live with less, even if, technically, no one lives in this 240-square-foot house full time.
DC zoning laws don’t allow Levy to live in the structure. The house-on-wheels is considered an “accessory dwelling unit” in an alleyway with no street frontage.
That hasn’t stopped Levy from using the property to its fullest demonstrative effect. Up to 100 people visit his Micro Showcase property one Saturday a month when he opens it for tours. The lot once featured two other tiny houses, but now includes an expansive garden, a rain collection system and a small Studio Shed that’s home to a “pop-up” massage therapy practice through the fall.
“It’s not that we want everyone to live in a 200-square-foot house,” said Levy, who’s sold plans for the Minim House to more than 50 people who at least intended to try.
The point, he said, is that the average square footage per person in a single-family home is three times what it was in 1950, “and I’m not sure we’re three times happier.”
Bigger houses mean more impervious surfaces in the watershed and more runoff into the Chesapeake Bay. But perhaps the most intriguing aspect of tiny houses like Levy’s is that they cause their residents to live intentionally, if not more sustainably, by default.
For this reason, among others, tiny or micro houses — loosely defined as those measuring less than 400 square feet — have generated growing interest nationally and in the Bay region.
Millenials of homeownership age subscribe to the less-is-more mantra more than previous generations, especially as they move to urban areas with higher costs of living.
In the nation’s capital, it’s the latter that’s driving an uptick in smaller living options. In lieu of zoning changes that would permit tiny structures in alleyways or backyards, DC residents and developers are finding ways to incorporate the concepts of the broader micro-housing movement.
A sizable micro-unit project is under construction at The Wharf on DC’s Southwest Waterfront. Some of the units will range from 330 to 360 square feet and could pave the way for other developers in the district considering smaller, more affordable spaces.
Melissa Longano, an architectural designer with Wiencek + Associates Architects + Planners in DC, visited Levy’s Micro Showcase this spring as part of her research about off-the-grid homes. Her firm designs affordable and mixed housing projects with such concepts in mind, trying to find “a happy medium between a space that’s small but also comfortable.”
“It’s great to see living on a small scale that’s tangible, that people are responding to,” she said.
Longano added that the more people see examples of living small, the more they will seek opportunities to do so — and the more developers will respond.
For now, the tiny house movement is making headway among local educators who see the small structures as vehicles for a broader discussion among students. The relatively low cost of building tiny houses, compared with a four-bedroom colonial with a basement puts constructing them within reach of more educational programs.
Students from the Academy of Construction and Design, a trade school housed at DC’s Cardozo Education Campus, erected a 160-square-foot house at Levy’s Micro Showcase lot the last school year. Shelly Karriem, the program’s director, said the tiny house filled a gap between larger projects — and provided students who want to work in construction a glimpse of the industry’s future.
“This tiny house movement is sweeping the country, and it just fit with what we needed at the time,” Karriem said.
During construction, she said students noted that they could build four of these smaller structures for the same price as one of the “big” row houses they’d built previously.
“They understand that the footprint is much smaller, that this could be the wave of the future,” she said.
An Annapolis-based nonprofit called SustainaFest added a tiny house-building program last year as a capstone for students learning about sustainable living in the Bay watershed.
The program put more than 50 middle and high school students from the Annapolis and Baltimore areas to work building its first tiny house, a version of Levy’s Minim House, over three weeks in 2014. Students led by a construction professional drove nails and installed windows at The Key School in Annapolis as part of its summer camp.
The program was so successful that it garnered attention from Maryland’s then-Gov. Martin O’Malley and inspired SustainaFest to continue building tiny houses at other schools. Students at The Indian Creek School in Crownsville, MD, completed a tiny house this summer that has since made the rounds touring other schools and festivals in the area.
“This one-of-a-kind experience is not about suggesting that people need to live in tiny houses,” said Jonathan Oglesbee, head of the middle school at Sandy Spring Friends School, who’s been involved with the projects. “We’re educating students to understand sustainable options and make better choices in meeting society’s needs.”
Part of what makes the tiny houses so thought-provoking is the intentional living they inspire — or, rather, require.
Levy said that capturing and reusing rainwater was a nice idea that turned into a necessity when he “got tired of being water insecure” at the Showcase lot.
When he built the 288-square-foot Studio Shed last year, which is not on wheels and, therefore creates a footprint that is impervious to rainwater, he added an 800-gallon cistern to collect water from its roof. The cistern uses a “first flush” system to remove pollen and dirt before channeling relatively clean water into the barrel. He uses most of the water to keep his garden alive, but it can also be used for showers and to flush toilets or, when filtered, for drinking and cooking.
“None of that is legal currently for residential application, which is why it’s a demonstration project,” said Levy, who by day works as a vice president at Pear Energy, which finances green energy solutions.
Levy doesn’t need water to flush his toilet, which uses incineration technology to burn waste. He has solar panels on the roof that provide enough power for most of the house’s needs, though he is also hooked up to the local power grid. The KitchenAid mixer and incinerator toilet use more power than the solar panels and batteries can provide, for example, as do the heating and air-conditioning units when they are needed.
As for livability, the house makes room for a sewing machine, a guitar hanging on the wall, a piano hidden beneath a desk and a projector that can play movies on a pull-down screen across the windows.
The kitchen’s two burners hide beneath a removable block of wood, while neat rows of glass jars display spices, beans and rice on either side of the kitchen sink. In a concept borrowed from the boating industry, the table, which serves as a chopping block, dining room table or desk — can be secured into several metal holes in the floor to change its location.
In many ways, the tiny house’s hyper-organized layout makes it feel quite spacious.