Sonoma County Fair showcases tiny-house movement



Each night, when the Sonoma County Fair closes at 11 p.m., everyone goes home.

Except Joel Fleck — his home is at the fair.

Fleck, a Sebastopol law student, is part of the tiny house movement, and he has brought his custom-built 150-square-foot house to the fairgrounds to demonstrate sustainable living.

"I'm here showing how you can live in such a small space, and trying to get people to live simply," said Fleck, 25. "It's kind of eerie walking around at night. If you had clown nightmares, it would be scary. I don't have clown issues, but I might after this."

The tiny house movement was started more than a decade ago partly as a minimalist response to McMansions. One of the movement's founders, Jay Shafer, an Iowan who now lives in Graton, is showing model tiny houses at the fair.

"It's about the freedom of not having to pay for more space that you don't need," said Shafer, who founded two tiny-home companies. "It's about being able to do what you want and not working your butt off to pay for a mortgage."

Fleck had Shafer, who he calls "the god of my people," sign his house: "Joel, Viva La Tiny — Jay." He has parked his house among the model homes next to a sign that says "Tiny Town pop. 1."

On Tuesday, the good-natured Fleck entertained a steady stream of visitors and their endless questions. He spent $25,000 and two years building the house, which usually sits in Sebastopol on a flatbed trailer.

From the outside, the cedar-paneled house looks like a scaled-down cabin with a tiny porch, aluminum roof and dormer windows.

Inside, Fleck has maximized the limited space with storage cupboards and shelves, making the house feel relatively roomy. He spends most of his time on the couch or studying at the desk next to shelves of law books.

The kitchen is equipped with a granite countertop, sink, microwave, crockpot, hot plate and a mini fridge. A case of Samuel Adams beer and packets of instant noodles complete the dorm-room feel.

Slate tiles line the bathroom with a full shower and composting toilet, which has been removed for the fair display. Fleck plans to install a mini washer/dryer in the bathroom.

He sleeps on a queen bed in a loft above the kitchen. Though he is 6-foot-3, the small space is all he needs.

"I'm a minimalist," he said. "This house was built for me, by me. That's why it turned out this way."

Fleck built tree forts as a kid. After graduating from Rincon Valley Christian School and playing baseball on scholarship at York College in Nebraska, he moved back to Sonoma County and started law school at Empire College. Living rent-free helps Fleck pay for school.

He was inspired, in part, by Henry David Thoreau's "Walden," the minimalist manifesto.

"I liked the premise that you don't need a lot of stuff," he said. "It sparked the idea that you can live simply."

Fairgoers were inspired after touring the tiny house.

"It feels like a real home," said Angie Powers of Sebastopol, who is considering buying a tiny house. "Not having so many distractions would be such a relief. So much of what we collect is just junk."

After living as if in a fishbowl at the fair, Fleck plans to relocate his house to the solitude of rural Forestville and make an addition, albeit a tiny one: He plans to build a pint-sized garage for his Mini Cooper.

(You can reach Staff Writer Matt Brown at 521-5206 or