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Home & Garden

Falling for Small

Why tiny houses are bigger than you think

By Rich Griset

They’re tiny, cramped and curious to most. But for Thom Stanton, a tiny, 200-square-foot house is bigger than life. It’s freedom.

Usually constructed on trailer beds and not much bigger than a RV or shed, tiny houses have seen a recent surge in popularity. The nationwide Tiny House Movement is starting to gain a foothold in the region and, thanks to Stanton, Chesterfield seems to be ground zero.

“We’re looking at an empty nest and trying to figure out what we’re going to do when we grow up,” says Stanton with a smile as a half-dozen people help construct a tiny house on a trailer bed in a Chesterfield driveway in late September. “The travel trailer is going to allow us to go down to Virginia Beach and stay more cost effectively.”

The houses are usually just big enough for sleeping and kitchen quarters and are often built atop trailer beds to circumvent building codes and allow for travel. And when they say tiny, they mean tiny: The maximum dimensions for most houses are 8.5 feet wide, 13.5 feet tall and 18 to 24 feet long. Stanton first became aware of the diminutive structures by reading Lester Walker’s book “Tiny Tiny Houses: or How to Get Away From It All” while in high school.

Living an unconventional life is nothing out of the ordinary for Thom and Midge Stanton. They met at Virginia Commonwealth University while involved in the school’s Art Foundation Program, essentially a boot camp for first-year art students. One day, as Midge was making macaroni and cheese on a hot plate between classes, Thom asked her to sit on his knee and proposed.

The Stantons decided to have kids early so they could have more time to enjoy life as empty-nesters. Now in their mid-40s, and with their children 18 and 22, the Stantons are planning for a future without their traditional home in Bon Air.

Earlier this year, Thom Stanton created a tiny house group on social networking site Meetup so that interested people could learn to build the homes themselves. So far, the meet-ups have essentially attracted two groups: people in their 20s and people 50 and older.

“The motivations for them across the board are often to be mortgage free and, in most cases, to have the mobility of a tiny house on a trailer,” Thom Stanton says. Some want tiny houses to serve as guest quarters, or to live in them while renting out their regular home. The homes generally cost about $40,000, but can go as low as $20,000 and as high as $50,000, depending on the materials used.

Younger tiny house fans enjoy the affordability and freedom, while retirees often construct the homes in order to live near children without taking on an additional mortgage. For Amanda Stokes, a tiny house meant that she could live in Northern Virginia more affordably. For actor Seth Numrich, a tiny house means he can take his home with him as he works on different projects.

“I’ve been aware of the Tiny House Movement and considering it for a few years now,” says Numrich, who is in town filming the AMC TV series “Turn: Washington’s Spies.” He plays Continental Army officer Benjamin Tallmadge on the show. “Building my own home is something that’s always appealed to me.”

Both Numrich and Stokes worked with Thom Stanton to design their tiny homes through his company Timber Trails, and both were built in just two weeks. Stanton started Timber Trails to design and build turnkey tiny houses with West Virginia’s PanelWrights. He also hopes to create ready-to-assemble kits for purchase.

For some, the living conditions might seem Spartan, but it’s all part of the free and decluttered life the movement espouses.

“If you’re looking at your stuff, what is it that you absolutely, positively can’t live without?” asks Stanton.

To help make the experience more enjoyable, most parts of the living space have more than one purpose. “A desk is also a dining table. A couch can also convert into a guest bed. A daybed can turn into a recliner. A shade is actually a movie screen.”

To embrace this new living style, the Stantons have given away most of their belongings and have asked their parents if they would like family furniture returned.

“With this consumerism that we’re pressed into, there’s this desire to have and hold onto stuff, so our lives oftentimes become a matter of keeping little things as the trigger for memories,” Stanton says. To get around this, Stanton takes digital pictures of items to later jog his memory.

Legally, the tiny houses seem to fall into jurisdictional limbo. Chesterfield County Planning Director Kirk Turner says that as far as zoning, they would be treated the same as mobile homes. Owners of tiny homes would need to apply for a permit every seven years and gain approval of the Board of Supervisors. Ron Clements, assistant building official for the county, says if the structure is built on wheels, it isn’t permanent and would fall under the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicle regulations for a vehicle or trailer.

Brandy Brubaker, spokeswoman for the DMV, says that while the DMV hasn’t received any customer service requests regarding the homes, any trailer used on the road would have to be licensed with a trailer plate, and any trailer weighing more than 3,000 pounds must have brakes and meet state safety inspection standards. Stanton says his houses will be durable enough to travel down the highway at 70 miles per hour plus meet international building codes for resisting wind and snow damage.

For Kevin Riedel, a tiny house was just what he needed after college. He built his own tiny home in a co-worker’s backyard in Chesterfield then moved it to Richmond’s South Side. Riedel lived in the structure for two years.

“It provides great quality of life,” says Riedel, who now uses the home as a secondary residence. “It provided me with a lot of flexibility.”

While the Stantons dream of living solely out of a tiny home in the future, they’ve already committed themselves to the cause in another way. In October, Thom and Midge decided to renew their vows in a tiny chapel.

Referring to himself as a “tiny chaplain,” Chesterfield’s Bil Malbon recently constructed his own mobile church for wedding ceremonies. An ordained Baptist minister, Malbon has officiated weddings in the past, but wants to devote himself to marrying people full time after he retires in December.

“I thought about opening a grander chapel, but the recession pushed that out of the way,” Malbon says. He began reading up on the movement. “It dawned on me: I don’t have to make a large chapel. I can make a tiny chapel on wheels.”

Starting next spring, Malbon plans to travel throughout the state with his chapel, which accommodates 22 standing people. He says the chapel fits a niche for couples who want the feel of a sacred ceremony, but might not belong to a church. It’s also useful for mixed religion weddings, serving as a middle ground between faiths.

Aside from an Easter service this past spring, the Stantons’ vow renewal was the first ceremony to take place in the tiny chapel, and it commemorated their 24 years of marriage. The service took place in Berryville, at the Build Tiny Workshop. During a break from raising Amanda Stokes’ tiny house, the builders packed into Malbon’s chapel.

“It was very special,” Stanton says. “We went and renewed our vows with 20 people in one tiny house, shoulder to shoulder, everyone tucked in together.”