The cabin on the southside featured much of what you’d expect in a luxury home.
Sarah Hedges and her fiancé, Chris Weller, wanted cedar planking on the walls, granite countertops in the kitchen and hand-hewn wooden floors throughout. A claw-footed tub was installed in the bathroom. They had a range stove, dishwasher and stainless-steel refrigerator.
Windows and skylights filled the space with natural light, sparkling off the Carrara honeycomb tiles in the bathroom.
All of it fits into 240 square feet of space.
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The couple are part of a small but growing movement of “tiny home” owners. They have downsized their lives to fit into a house 8½ feet wide by 30 feet long, with 14-foot ceilings, situated on a wooded lot on the southside.
Freeing themselves from unnecessary possessions, while trying to live as sustainably as possible, hasn’t meant giving up modern comforts.
“Our house proves that the dream of a tiny home can look very different than you think it is. You can find a sense of fulfillment in something smaller and not feel burdened by your things but still have something nice,” Hedges said.
What constitutes a “tiny house” varies, but the buildings are typically one-room structures, 750 square feet or smaller, according to Robert Reed, president of the American Tiny House Association.
The company he works for, Southface Energy Institute, has been a leader in the Atlanta area advocating for green building and energy efficiency. Reed connected with a local tiny house leader, Will Johnston, and others involved in the movement. The American Tiny House Association was born.
Tiny-house enthusiasts are only now coming together and working to spread the movement. Part of that is researching and studying the energy usage in these structures, so that living small meets both financial and sustainable sensibilities.
“We’re basically trying to take a step back and do a number of energy model iterations, just to see the different options for heating and cooling and ventilation,” said Jenna Grygier, a project manager at Southface and member of the American Tiny House Association. “The tiny house movement is in its baby stages, so we want to make sure we address those early on.”
The people American Tiny House Association have worked with are looking to expand their lives by removing themselves from the burden of possessions, a large house and a huge mortgage.
“A lot of millennials are looking at this. They want to live in the cities, and all want to live, work and play in the same area. A tiny home could be an affordable option for those getting on their feet after college,” Grygier said.
The idea for tiny living took root in Hedges’ mind when she was a student at Taylor University in Upland. Her mother called her about a TV program she had seen about tiny houses. With Hedges transitioning into her next stage of life, she loved the idea of living in an efficient, cozy cottage.
“I’ve never minded tiny living. I went from living in dorm rooms to spending some time oversees in Wales and Ireland, where I was living in small places again,” she said. “When I moved back to Indiana, I got a one-bedroom apartment. I didn’t want to spend all of my time cleaning up.”
‘I don’t want stuff’
The concept of actually downsizing her life became reality for Hedges after her father was diagnosed with brain cancer. She watched as her parents had to clean out the home they had lived in for nearly 35 years in order to move into a smaller house.“I remember feeling that I don’t want stuff, I don’t want stuff, I don’t want stuff. I didn’t want to end up in a place where I’ve collected all of this stuff that may be useful or maybe isn’t, but I feel bound by it,” she said. “Really, I was driving down the road and decided it was time for a tiny house.”Hedges works as the art director for Gallery 42, a downtown Indianapolis art house owned by Lamb Lake residents Jim and Linda Hunter. She considers herself a collector and already had too many knickknacks, decorations and other possessions that she’d need to scale back on. As an artist, she could hang on to items she considered beautiful to implement them into her work.
Before making such a huge commitment, Hedges had to see if she could stand living in a small space. She spent a few nights last year at the Music City Tiny House, a tiny house in Nashville, Tennessee, that can be reserved to try out the experience.
Weller had the same kinds of ideas about living space and simplifying their lives. As owner of Pristine Clean Indy, he understood the importance of living more efficiently.
“I’m lucky to have found someone who was interested, because this is not a normal way of life,” Hedges said. “If you had a partner who was not interested in it, I think it would be a real struggle.”
The move to a smaller space also made sense financially. Hedges and Weller will pay significantly less for the house and 5-acre property to keep it on than they ever would on a normal size home. That will allow them to pay down student loan debt and other obligations much more quickly.
Doing some research, Hedges found Tiny Heirloom, a custom homebuilder based in Oregon. What stood out to her was the company’s attention to detail and inclusion of luxury in small spaces.
“One of the complaints that we had heard about tiny homes was that they’re basically shacks on wheels — they don’t have a lot of structural integrity and are a cheap fix,” Hedges said. “I knew what I wanted was something I could really love living in, that wouldn’t be a phase of my life that came and went very quickly.”
The company was being courted by HGTV for a television series following the tiny house movement around the same time Hedges and Weller contacted them.
‘Everything is there’
Tiny Heirloom asked if they’d take part in the show, and they agreed.“It seemed like a fun thing to do; and given that we feel passionately about emphasizing this style of living, we said let’s do it,” Hedges said.Film crews filmed Hedges and Weller in their own places in Indianapolis, at their jobs and around the city. Then they flew the two out to Oregon for the reveal of their home.
The trailer-mounted cabin is a shade of vintage green, with flower boxes under the windows on every side of the home. Windows are 6 feet long and 4 feet high, providing ample natural light throughout the home. Skylights add to the effect.
Their minuscule cabin features a sitting room, bathroom and kitchen on the ground floor, with a sleeping loft large enough to fit a queen-size bed. A storage loft on the other end allows them to keep trunks and boxes for home items they aren’t using at the time.
A modern take on the cast-iron stove features a programmable, remote- controlled thermostat to help regulate the temperature wherever they are in the house.
“They did a good job of keeping the scale of everything petite, but everything is there,” Hedges said. “I wanted a living that was cozy and easy to manage, but I didn’t want to be deprived.”
With a cat and two Australian shepherds, the couple were unsure how everyone would sit in fewer than 250 square feet of space. But they purchased five acres of property to live on, which gives the dogs plenty of room to run around outside.
Designers installed special ledges so the cat could roam freely in areas where no dogs or people could get him.
“We didn’t know what the dynamics with everyone would be, so we wanted to give the cat space so he could be alone, and then to give the dogs a way to get exercise,” Hedges said.
Hedges and Weller have designed their home to be self-sufficient, almost like a recreational vehicle. They have water tanks for drinking and showering and a waste-storage system for the bathroom.The wood stove provides heat, and all of their energy is supplied by solar panels on top of the cabin.“We designed it to be entirely off-grid,” Hedges said. “We want the flexibility to take it anywhere.”
Deciding to move into a tiny house was the first step. But unburdening themselves of myriad possessions in order to fit in the house was a mountainous challenge.
They started paring down well before they officially decided building a cabin. Unused clothing, unnecessary kitchenware and superfluous pieces of furniture were jettisoned.
“Both Chris and I are very aesthetically inclined people — we’ve kept a lot of things just because the thing itself was sentimental,” Hedges said. “Once we whittled down through the stuff that were fairly easy to get rid of, what was hard were the things that were beautiful and useful and saying, ‘I think I would like the freedom of having less.’”
Regulations vary from state to state and even by counties. In Indiana, a law called the “Log Cabin Rule” allows for relaxed code application for private homes built by individuals for their own occupancy, which tiny houses often are.
Hedges and Weller had to build a gravel pad under where their cabin is placed. Because it’s considered a travel trailer, they have the flexibility of moving and taking it where they need.
‘Be realistic about it’
The couple started moving into the home about 1½ months ago.The process of settling into the home is ongoing and likely will continue until after Weller and Hedges are married and fully move in together. They are still working on furniture and need to buy a couch.Often, they’ll discover even more items that they don’t need and scale back even further. Weller builds motorcycles, and Hedges is an artist, so they both have studio space outside the house where they can work. But as far their day-to-day living, all of it fits into the house.
“Combining our household, we have some doubles and have figured out what to get rid of,” Hedges said. “It’s been a good process.”
Moving into a tiny house is a considerable commitment that won’t work for everyone. The first thing is figuring out where and how you want to set up your tiny house, and if that is legal, Reed said. Then, people can look at design issues so that the house fits what each individual needs and wants.
“It’s really important for people to not be a one-size-fits-all and really evaluate how long they anticipate this being part of their life. Then make design decisions around those current and future needs,” said Bonnie Casamassima, project manager at Southface and member of the American Tiny House Association.
Hedges and Weller acknowledge that this lifestyle isn’t for everybody. Before taking this plunge, you need to think about whether your spouse or partner feels the same way downsizing this much.
They recommend staying in a tiny house or cabin for a weekend or few days to determine if it’s something you could envision doing more permanently.
“Be realistic about it. You need to be realistic about what it’s going to offer you that’s wonderful, and be realistic about what it’s going to ask of you that’s a challenge,” Hedges said. “Choose it because it lines up with goals you have.”