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Sebastopol man designs, builds fully functional, livable houses that are smaller than a bedroom


You may think the house you live in is small, but can you push it a few feet to keep it in sunshine a bit longer as the afternoon shadows grow?

Can you s-t-r-e-t-c-h from your shower stall and grab the Ajax from beneath the kitchen sink?

Can you tell your in-laws you'd love to have them stay with you, but there's no place for them to sleep and, come to think of it, they may have to take turns coming inside at all?

Jay Shafer can.

"I could never live in this county if it weren't for tiny houses," said the Sebastopol resident, who lives in a high-quality, hand-built dollhouse he keeps on wheels in his landlord's backyard.

Shafer's home is 8 feet wide and 12 feet long. That's smaller, almost certainly, than any bedroom in your house. Shafer's floor space is nearly identical in size to the truckbed of a 14-foot U-Haul economy van that rents for $19.95 a day.

Step through his front door and there are two comfy, upholstered seats on the left wall, and a cool little wall heater that keeps Shafer warm with just $60 worth of propane per year.

There's a slim desk/work space on the right wall, and straight ahead a bulkhead of handsome shelves and storage spaces. The kitchen just beyond boasts a sink, counter, stovetop, dorm fridge and storage enough for pots and pans and such.

"It has everything a normal kitchen would have, but smaller," Shafer said during a quick tour.

Off the kitchen to the left is his camper-style shower and toilet. Up the ladder is the loft for his double bed and more smartly designed storage.

At 42, Shafer is a pioneer in a small-house movement. He built his home-ette -- $18,000 in materials, 500 hours of labor -- and he earns a living by designing and occasionally building homes through his two-person Tumbleweed Tiny House Co.

"We're getting a lot more orders these days," he said.

That makes sense. With the conventional home market in chaos, millions of people feeling financially pinched and millions more yearning to reduce the size of their ecological footprint, more people are now thinking small.

Gregory Paul Johnson of Iowa co-founded the Small House Society with Shafer and lives in a 140-square-foot house that Shafer designed. He said daily hits on the society's Web site (www.resourcesforlife.com) averaged about 100 five years ago and these days average more than 1,000.

"There are people from 90 different countries regularly visiting the Web site," Johnson said. "It's global."

Johnson believes modern technology -- along with tight finances, high energy costs and concerns about global warming -- is prompting people to consider moving into much smaller houses.

Thanks to compact computers and personal entertainment technology, there's no longer a need to create space in a house for storing so many documents, movies, photographs, CDs and such.

"My house is similar to what an Amish person would live in, but my life is very high-tech," Johnson said in a phone interview from Iowa.

In a vision he shares with Shafer, clusters of small houses are built around a communal building designed for activities that require a bit more space -- dinner parties, doing the laundry, book-club meetings.

Obstacles to the creation of such affordable, efficient, eco-friendly villages of mini-homes are numerous. Among them: the high cost of land, especially in California, high per-unit fees charged to anyone who builds a home, and construction-permit regulations that may not recognize the concept of an entire house perhaps the size of a typical kitchen or family room.

"There are issues, but there definitely is interest," said Kenyon Webster, Sebastopol's planning director.

Clare Hartman, a senior planner for Santa Rosa, pondered the concept of a small-house village and said that because the state seeks more choices for affordable housing, "I don't think it's pie in the sky."

As much as Shafer loves living in his not quite 100-square-foot house, he's aware that many people -- certainly anyone with a family -- needs more space than that. In fact, he married recently and there's not much room at home for his wife, so he plans to build her a tiny house of her own.

Shafer draws and sells construction plans for homes ranging from a 65-square-foot micro pad to a three-bedroom, nearly 800-square-foot mini-mansion.

Ask him when he first aspired to live small and he thinks back to growing up in a rambling, 4,000-square-foot house in Iowa.

"I always envied kids with smaller houses," he said. "They were warmer -- and you didn't have to do as much housework."