Bar Harbor designer and builder Dan Thomassen has been directing students in the construction of a 170-square-foot tiny house at College of the Atlantic. ISLANDER PHOTO BY EARL BRECHLIN

Tiny house revolution



There’s a revolution of sorts happening in the housing industry in America. In a nation whose residents have long flocked to residential subdivisions filled with artificially ornate McMansions, many people are now turning their backs on the mantra “bigger is better” when it comes to a place to live.

All hail the arrival, as the title of a popular show on the DIY network proclaims, of “Tiny House Nation.”

This spring, students at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor have been hitching their wagon, well, a trailer actually, to that trend by learning how to build an actual tiny house. The skills and techniques needed to build a tiny house are the same as with larger structures. It is only the scale, both of the structure and the amount of material, which differs.

Starting with a tiny house chassis purchased from a vendor in South Portland, the students have been building the house literally from its foundation up. Keeping things square, plumb and on the level, however, requires experience and wisdom. And the students are getting that from adjunct faculty member and local contractor Dan Thomassen, who graduated from Boston Architectural College with a degree in architecture.

“I’ve always been interested in building smaller and smaller houses,” Thomassen explained during a recent interview.

A veteran builder with more than 25 years behind a hammer, Thomassen was excited to be able to share what he has learned over the years with the students. He is currently completing a traditional ground-mounted house of around 1,100 square feet for a private client in Hulls Cove.

The tiny house course prospectus begins with questions. “What do we need, want, or appreciate in a house in order to survive, live comfortably, or thrive?” it asks.

It continues: “Students will explore these fundamental human questions while learning the basics of design and construction and working together on building a tiny house on a trailer. In the process, students will gain skills using design software like Sketch-Up; understand and practice basic power tool safety; understand and apply basic building component concepts such as structural systems, plumbing, electricity, insulation and finishes; and choose appropriate building materials to optimize energy efficiency and use of space.”

The announcement generated considerable excitement. When registration for the 10-week tiny house class was opened, the interest on the part of students was intense. Fifty applied to take the course. Only nine slots were available.

“I told them it would be a challenge; only 10 weeks to build it,” Thomassen said. “I love it. Guys in flannel shirts have been doing this all their lives. Now those skills are being learned by people who may have never even picked up a hammer.”

COA’s tiny house is designed to fit on a steel trailer frame that measures just 16 by 8.5 feet. A trailer hitch and wheels insure the finished building can be easily moved by a larger towing vehicle, such as a pickup truck or SUV.

The flexibility in moving is among the biggest attractions of tiny houses. Many owners also appreciate the relatively low cost. With even elegantly detailed models costing less than $100,000, homeowners can allocate their financial resources to other areas, such as travel or leisure.

And, especially at COA, tiny home owners want their homes to be safe and comfortable but to have low environmental impact, so they prioritize the use of minimal natural resources in construction, as well as energy savings when the house is occupied.

The tiny house being built at COA will boast a combination living room-kitchen, enclosed bathroom and a sleeping loft. It will have propane on-demand hot water, electric heat and super energy efficient LED lighting. The main electrical panel will have a 30 amp capacity. There is a recreational vehicle toilet that uses just half a gallon of water per flush. Wastewater will be held in a holding tank that will have to be pumped regularly. Some models of tiny homes also feature composting toilets.

It will have conventional siding, a metal roof and super-efficient spray-foam insulation. Once installed, it will be enclosed by skirting. Heat tape and other techniques can adapt tiny homes for use in cold climates.

In the case of COA’s 136-square-foot tiny house, the cost, according to Thomassen, should run between $30,000 and $35,000.

One of the problems potential tiny house owners sometimes run into is local zoning. Many towns, including those on Mount Desert Island, specify a minimum size for residential structures. Minimum lot sizes, too, can become an obstacle due to the price of land. Some towns have minimum lot sizes of 2 to 5 acres in some areas. With an acre of average forest land selling for $100,000 or more, finding just a small lot for a tiny house is not easy.

In Bar Harbor, the minimum house size is 750 square feet. In Southwest Harbor, it is 500 square feet.

In Mount Desert, no mobile homes or campers (residences with wheels) are allowed outside of campgrounds or established mobile home parks.

Also, codes specify minimum window sizes, minimum headroom and egress standards for sleeping areas, and standards for stairways that preclude one from fitting in a small space.

“There’s no question that zoning could be an impediment,” Thomassen said. “But it would be easy to make changes to the codes to accommodate tiny houses.”

According to Thomassen, interest in smaller homes, which cost less to build, are easier to maintain and cost less to live in, undoubtedly will be on the increase nationwide. “The ultimate question,” Thomassen said, “is how small you can get it.”

What is a tiny house?

Tiny houses are defined as a residential structure with less than 400 square feet of floor space.

By comparison, a house is considered small if it is between 400 and 1,000 square feet.

The average house in Maine is 1,433 square feet. In the United States last year, the average size of a new house was 2,600 square feet. That is an average of 1,000 square feet larger than in 1973.

McMansions can range in size from 3,000 to 5,000 square feet. Largely considered a pejorative term, “McMansion” usually refers to a manufactured or mass-produced structure and is defined as “a large, modern house that is considered ostentatious and lacking in architectural integrity.”

Earl Brechlin

Earl Brechlin

Editor at Mount Desert Islander
Former Islander editor Earl Brechlin first discovered Mount Desert Island 35 years ago and never left. The author of seven guide and casual history books, he is a Registered Maine Guide and has served as president of the Maine and New England Press Associations. He and his wife live in Bar Harbor.

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