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Tiny homes take tenants back to roots

View of the kitchen and back door from inside Bethany Chaney's small Carrboro home
View of the kitchen and back door from inside Bethany Chaney's small Carrboro home

Encompassed by her warm orange walls decorated with vivid art, Carrboro Board of Aldermen member Bethany Chaney said living in a home with a footprint of only 400 square feet was an experiment at first.

“The things I have make me happy, and I don’t need to constantly acquire things to fill up room that I don’t use. I use every bit of space in this house,” she said.

Chaney, a resident of Carrboro, is not alone in the quest to live on less.

Homeowners across the country are joining the tiny-house movement, downgrading to living spaces as small as 84 square feet. 

Tiny homes average 186 square feet, which is 1,914 less square feet than the standard U.S. house. 

“It’s incredibly convenient and cheap. My electric and gas bills are practically nothing,” Chaney said. “I don’t have a $200 heating bill. My heating bills are $50 a month.”

Though still considered a tiny home, Chaney’s house is on the larger side thanks to an additional loft space on top, totaling about 550 square feet. 

“I’m a small person. I live alone. I wanted to have a right-sized space for the way that I live, and I also wanted something that I could afford long-term,” she said.

Believing small spaces should not be without beauty, Arielle Schechter, a Chapel Hill-based architect, created the brand Micropolis Houses, which shows her take on the tiny house.

“My interest in tiny houses started when I was a kid,” she said. “Some of my friends lived in trailers, and I thought they were really sad and depressing. There wasn’t adequate small housing back then.”

Her customizable designs start at 150 square feet. She said she expects some of her homes to be built in Chapel Hill next summer.

“One of the things I didn’t like about trailers is they are so dark. I feel like natural light is so important for people’s well-being, so I try to put a lot of light in them,” she said.

However, certain tiny houses could be considered too tiny if they don’t meet North Carolina building requirements.

“The tiny-home subject has been bantered around a lot as of late,” said Dan Bruce, a building official for Orange County.

According to the 2012 North Carolina Residential Building Code — the most recent edition — a room must not be less than 120 square feet.

“It is my understanding they have taken these minimum room sizes out of the code for the 2018 cycle,” Bruce said.

Despite their lower operating costs, tiny homes are not faced with tiny development fees.

“The barrier to small houses for new construction has to do with how the price of land in Carrboro and Chapel Hill is too expensive to make a small house proposition work financially for a lot of lenders,” Chaney said.

She said the largest obstacle is with Orange County’s impact fee, which is a substantial fee builders must pay to fund the future growth of local schools. 

“My impact fee for essentially a one-bedroom apartment on a foundation was more than 10 percent of my overall development cost, so that’s a big deal,” she said.

Carrboro resident Andrew Dykers said his decision to buy his tiny house, which is about 450 square feet, was not inspired by the recent trend. 

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“I’m not big on the whole idea of living in the smallest place you can just for the sake of it,” he said. “I’m of the mindset to use just what you need and expand as you grow.”

Schechter said she thinks tiny houses have a large appeal because smaller homes are more sustainable and people are sick of having huge, wasteful spaces.

“There’s a lot to be said about getting closer to our goals of living a little lighter on the land without sacrificing a beautiful space, because these little houses should be beautiful and pleasant,” she said.

According to Chaney, living lighter is not a new phenomenon, as people have been building and living on little for years.

“It was common back in the day for farmers and other landowners to build small cottages,” she said. “After decades and decades of big buildings, tiny houses seem quite unusual now, but really we are just getting back to our roots.”