Santa Rosa ‘tiny house’ is a millennial couple's dream come true

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With many couples, the marriage might be over before it ever begins if they had to share only 160 square feet of living space.

But the forced togetherness of living in a “tiny house” has not deterred Kieran Murphy and BreAnna Rathburn, who are happily going ahead with their planned wedding next month and then winging off to a honeymoon in Greece made possible, in part, by all the money they’re saving by living small.

The couple built their miniature, rustic modern home off designs created by Rathburn, who just completed her degree in interior design at Santa Rosa Junior College.

While other young millennials struggle to make rent and fear that homeownership may remain forever out of reach — the median price of a home in Sonoma County hit $627,000 in June — Murphy, 30, and Rathburn, 24, not only own their own home, but they own it free and clear. And at $21,000 it cost less than many cars.

At 8 feet wide and 20 feet long, it is the size of a smaller motor home, and, like a motor home, sits on a trailer and meets all the requirements for the road as if it were a trailer, complete with license and reflectors. That’s a good thing. For the moment, the couple is temporarily set up on the property of a friend in a rural area of the county, where they are hooked in to his solar power and well. (They use propane for cooking and to power a small wall-mounted heater). Until they are ready to move forward with Murphy’s plan to lease land for his wine label, “Tiny House Vineyard,” (, they will remain rootless and moving around.

“It wasn’t necessarily out of the question or part of the conversation,” Murphy said of the prospect of buying a conventional home. “For us, it was just about doing something completely different from everybody else. Bree has inspired me to travel more. And so, not having a mortgage, and not having those big expensive bills, allows us to save money for more fun things.”

To make it feel airy, the house has eight windows, all reclaimed and unique, from an antique Victorian window above the kitchen sink to a big aluminum picture window above a built-in bench seat that fills the little space with light, brings in afternoon breezes and keeps it from feeling claustrophobic.

They designed the house to accommodate the windows they had already collected, which made it more difficult, but they wound up spending only $300 for all the windows. The front door also is glass to let even more light in.

The couple, who have been together for nearly five years, began planning their house in 2013. It took Rathburn 18 months to come up with the final design, after looking at different tiny house floor plans and, as she said, “taking what I like and making them our own.”

As a student, Rathburn was able to download a free student version of AutoCAD, and experimented.

During that time, they managed to save 75 percent of the costs, and came up with the final 25 percent during the eight months they spent building it, on weekends, with help from Rathburn’s stepfather.

“There are a lot of plans you can buy online or from other tiny house builders. But I wanted something that fit our lifestyle,” she explained. They also attended the annual Tiny House Jamboree in Colorado to trawl for ideas in some 40 different houses, most professionally built.

“Maybe the finishes were nicer and the craftsmanship. It’s like you had walked into a brand new house,” said Kieran, who does sales for a major wine company in Sonoma County. “But we built ours by hand.”

One of their main concerns was keeping the bathroom and the kitchen as separate as possible within a small space. So they placed the kitchen — consisting of custom maple cabinets, a convection oven and small sink, and ’50s, retro SMEG refrigerator, in the front, and tucked the bathroom in the back end. They allotted a little extra space for the bathroom so there is room for both — one in the shower and the other at the sink.

The lime green refrigerator that is the surprise focal point of the space was their only real design splurge. At $2,000, it was the second most expensive thing in the house next to the $2,600 trailer that the small dwelling sits on.

“I had made a vision board with two of these fridges. I thought, I just have to have one,” Rathburn said. Desire to afford that refrigerator became an incentive to keep within their budget.

Designing on a trailer was tricky. They initially had purchased a small, 24-inch range. But discovered it would not fit because of the wheel wells on the trailer.

They also had to keep the weight to 10,000 pounds, which drove some of their choices in materials. Rathburn kept the tilework to a minimum, chose lightweight wood for the cabinets and made the full-sized shower out of sheet metal. Some small houses are using steel frames because they weigh less. But Rathburn and Murphy stuck to a wood frame with 2-by-4-inch studs every 16 inches.

Their main living area is a loft, big enough for an 8-inch memory foam mattress. This is where they relax after dinner, reading and watching TV. If Rathburn’s favorite piece is the refrigerator, Murphy’s is the headboard in the loft. It’s wood salvaged from the roof of the historic old Fountain Grove Winery that was demolished two years ago. Murphy read about it and tracked down the wood.

Since it’s summer they eat at a patio table outside. But they plan to build a drop-leaf table they can set up inside, necessary for a couple that enjoys good food and wine.

“I love our house. When I look around, it’s all stuff I love and it’s all here because it’s meant to be here. We picked it out as something we want to look at every day. That’s where I find all the happiness of living in a tiny house. I look around and everything makes me happy.”

The pair already is used to living in tight quarters after sharing a house with Rathburn’s parents and her sister and her sister’s boyfriend. During that time Murphy shed most of his stuff. Now they’re accustomed to living efficiently.

“When you buy a bigger house you feel like you have to fill it up with stuff. You might not necessarily need or use it, but you have to fill the space. This prevents that.”

For storage they bought matching IKEA closets with hanging poles that slide out. The closets face each other on either side of the house. They were a little too tall, but Murphy trimmed them at the bottom to fit. Rathburn has managed to pare her wardrobe to fit the space, which does contain 15 pairs of shoes. To keep her wardrobe small but fresh she subscribed to Le Tote, the fashion rental service which sends several articles of new designer clothing and accessories each month.

For other items they don’t use every day, like Christmas ornaments, games and wrapping paper, they created a second loft on the opposite side of the house.

Both spent time working in restaurants, where they learned to gracefully glide past each other without bumping. Keeping the peace also is contingent on courtesy, they say, and being conscientious. When they do have quarrels, as couples do, there is nowhere in the house to go. So one or the other takes off in the car for a cool down.

They say they are more interested in spending their disposable income on experiences — they recently spent two weeks in Ireland — and other pleasures, like a good bottle of wine or nice dinner.

As Murphy shows a visitor his home, he shares a plate of charcuterie and pours a glass of his Tiny House Vineyard Rose, made of pinotage grapes — a cross between pinot noir and cinsault that is popular in South Africa but rarely seen in California.

The couple has scoped out a small vineyard property to lease where they hope to eventually move their tiny house, with fingers crossed that zoning laws loosen to make them an easier and more affordable housing option.

Right now, the laws governing the placement of tiny houses in most jurisdictions are restrictive. In the unincorporated areas of Sonoma County little houses on wheels that are legal recreational vehicles are permitted as cottages for elderly or disabled persons if the caretaker is living in the primary residence, or as a dwelling for a caretaker serving someone living in the main house. Currently, county officials are moving forward with a plan to create a village of 12 or more tiny houses for homeless veterans on property within the County Administration Center in Santa Rosa that many are eyeing as a test case that could lead to an easing of some of the roadblocks to tiny house living.

Sonya Tafejian, who has a disability and lives in a legal tiny house on a trailer in rural Petaluma, acts as a consultant for people considering a tiny house option and gives workshops to help unravel the complexities, including zoning and permits. Her next workshop is slated for October. For details she can be reached at or call her at 707-779-9474. People should also contact their local City Hall or the county Permit and Resource Management Department for unincorporated areas.

Murphy said he believes living small is a positive alternative in a consumer-driven society that leads to so much waste.

“It may not be the complete right answer but it’s a step toward sustainability for the whole of humanity.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at or 707-521-5204. On Twitter @megmcconahey.

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