We don't just cover the North Bay. We live here.
Did You Know? In the first 10 days of the North Bay fire, nearly 1.5 million people used their mobile devices to visit our sites.
Already a subscriber?
Wow! You read a lot!
Reading enhances confidence, empathy, decision-making, and overall life satisfaction. Keep it up! Subscribe.
Already a subscriber?
Oops, you're out of free articles.
Until next month, you can always look over someone's shoulder at the coffee shop.
Already a subscriber?
We don't just cover the North Bay. We live here.
Did You Know? In the first 10 days of the North Bay fire, we posted 390 stories about the fire. And they were shared nearly 137,000 times.
Already a subscriber?
Supporting the community that supports us.
Obviously you value quality local journalism. Thank you.
Already a subscriber?
Oops, you're out of free articles.
We miss you already! (Subscriptions start at just 99 cents.)
Already a subscriber?

A man's home should not be a castle - or even a modest tract house - say advocates of very small houses including Jay Shafer, who builds homes so little they can fit into most master bedrooms.

The college art professor-turned small home designer is building "tiny houses" - some just 100-square-feet - in west Sonoma County.

Four months ago, Shafer moved from Iowa to a region ripe with potential customers and fellow exponents of thinking small.

While radical to some, very small houses could be a solution to soaring home prices. Affordability is one reason more Northern California residents are showing interest in Shafer's homes.

Shafer's one-man Tumbleweed Tiny House Company is gaining national attention. A 100-square-footer priced at $25,000 for a Montana family is nearly complete. He has a 140-square-footer at $30,000 under construction for a Seattle couple, and orders are backing up on the company's Web site.

"Three or four people a week come in to look over my place and the buildings. Hopefully I'll build a subdivision some day," Shafer said.

Some customers seek to minimize how they live. Others want a guest house or vacation cabin.

Jensine Olsen and friend Greta White found Shafer at work on the property he rents near Occidental. Shafer's model is the 60-square-footer he lives in, having towed the house on a trailer behind his pickup across the country.

"I love the wood inside. It has a lot of light," said Olsen, a San Francisco resident who said Shafer's homes are ideal if she can find a small rural lot in Northern California. "By seeing this, that's going to tell me where I want to be. I want a place where nature is my house - and not my house."

Shafer contends his homes have everything to live comfortably, even though they are a fraction of the size of the ever larger million-dollar "McMansions" going up in Sonoma County and across the country.

"It's a big house with all the unusable parts removed," he said. "I hope people will look at their 4,000-square-foot houses for two and maybe reconsider how they're living."

Differences are notable. So is the price.

The half-dozen homes Shafer has sold so far range in size from 60 square feet to 750 square feet and in price from $25,000 to $80,000.

The houses can go on trailers or foundations, rely on water tanks and compost toilets or utility hookups.

Outside features include cedar or galvanized steel siding, metal roofs and front porches.

Inside is pine paneling, oak floors, dual pane insulated windows, cushioned sofas and pull-out seats, two- or four-burner ranges, stainless steel countertops and sink, shower, and propane-fired heater.

The bedroom is a loft separated by a ceiling from the living room, kitchen and bathroom spaces. Total height is shy of 13 feet - so they can clear highway overpasses.

Delivery costs $2 per mile from Shafer's workshop.

Shafer's move to Sonoma County makes delivery more affordable for the core of customers he expects from California and the Western states.

Seattle residents Bob and Gail Tarleton will pay about $1,500 in delivery costs for one of Shafer's houses compared with up to $6,000 for a cabin on a trailer from a Virginia company.

The couple went with Shafer over a dozen other manufacturers of small cabins or homes.

To learn more, visit tbarny.com.

To learn more about The Kindness Rocks Project, visit, thekindnessrocksproject.com.

"I'm impressed with his approach, vision of small living, quality of construction and the amount of thought that goes into the design of these structures," Bob Tarleton said.

The 140-square-foot house is ideal for the Tarletons as a vacation cabin on their land along the Sol Duc River on the Olympic Peninsula west of Seattle.

The couple didn't want to go through the time and effort of designing and building a larger, more expensive place.

For the Tarletons, Shafer designed custom shelving and porch racks for fishing rods.

"He is very attuned to design considerations," Bob Tarleton said. "He doesn't have a cookie-cutter thing. He will put stuff where you want it."

Thinking small for some buyers means a free-standing home addition, granny unit, guest house or vacation cabin.

Others are drawn by the idea of minimizing living space and resulting environmental benefits including reducing building materials and energy use.

"The first step for anyone looking to live in one of these is to figure out what they actually need to be happy," Shafer explained. "It's kind of a subtractive process."

From cottages to cabins, very small houses have been an American architectural tradition for more than two centuries. They can be found on small lots and in backyards across the Bay Area.

Cottages known as "earthquake shacks" were built by the city of San Francisco and the U.S. Army to house more than 16,000 residents left homeless following the 1906 earthquake.

Painted green, they featured redwood walls, fir floors, cedar-shingled roofs, and wood or coal burning stoves floors, with common areas in camps for bathrooms and kitchens.

Shafer began designing very small houses as a hobby a decade back, but didn't begin building his home until several years later.

He was an adjunct assistant art professor at the University of Iowa.

That home took two years to complete. Shafer's building skills took some time to catch up with his designing talents.

Two to three months is enough to finish a "tiny house" now.

Having sold a half-dozen over the past four years, Shafer now hopes to complete that many annually. He recently hired some help to keep pace with more orders.

"Some people will pay me a deposit and become the next in line," he said. "The demand is overwhelming right now. I have to figure out how to run a business."

One alternative is to continue designing and contract with a builder, as Shafer recently began doing with a builder in Scotland.

Shafer figures he will need more time to finish writing a book titled "Small by Design." The book will feature chapters on designing tiny houses and their environmental benefits.

For $480, Shafer will sell full sets of plans and drawings to anyone interested in building one of the houses on their own.

"My primary goal is to spread the word," he said.

Show Comment