Small houses, big potential | SteamboatToday.com

Small houses, big potential

Teresa Ristow

— The American public's current fascination with so-called "tiny homes" is hard to miss — from television series like "Tiny House Hunters," to dozens of do-it-yourself small home building books and documentaries, to the creation of new companies selling floor plans or tiny home kits for people to self-assemble.

One of the country's first introductions to the tiny house movement was in a devastated New Orleans, Louisiana, following 2005's Hurricane Katrina.

Although just a few hundred square feet in size, the light, bright designs of the Katrina Cottages offered a more dignified, long-lasting option for displaced families than the dirty, white corrugated metal FEMA trailers they were otherwise offered.

And it turned out, the two options had similar costs.

Years have passed and the Great Recession has made smaller homes a more appealing option for young couples and families seeking economic freedom.

Millenials like tiny homes on wheels to complement their often nomadic lifestyles, empty-nesters see them as a way to save and downsize during retirement and environmentalists tout their energy efficiency.

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More recently, developers looking to capitalize on the affordability of small houses are pursuing subdivisions and sizeable tiny home communities, particularly here in Colorado, where land costs are high and rent is rising.

And now the allure of small building is catching the attention of developers and builders in Steamboat Springs. They are asking themselves whether building small homes could be the answer to Steamboat's ongoing affordable housing challenges.

"A development like that could go a long way to address our issues here," said Erik Lobeck, principal of Steamboat design firm WorkshopL. "I think it's important for our town that we do put something together."

Tiny towns

In Salida, a company called Sprout Tiny Homes is in the process of developing a 200-unit community of tiny detached housing units on a 19-acre site along the Arkansas River.

About two hours west of Colorado Springs and 20 minutes from Monarch Ski Area, Salida is an attractive city of 5,500, which often makes the same "best small town" lists at Steamboat Springs.

Sprout President Rod Stambaugh said the company has received hundreds of inquiries over the last two months from people interested in living in Salida's newest community, including many downsizing baby boomers.

Area employers are also ready to lease the units for workforce housing in a community, like Steamboat, that employs hundreds of ski area, regional hospital and outdoor recreation company employees who sometimes drive 50 or more miles a day for work.

Ground will break on the development this summer, Stambaugh said.

Sprout is also hoping to assemble a 33-unit development in Walensburg, a southern Colorado town that in 2014 removed an ordinance on minimum square footage zoning requirements to make way for tiny houses. The homes, which will range from 260 to 760 square feet, would help house employees of emerging industries in the region, including a marijuana grow facility that's already made clear its interest in the homes for its employees.

"We're getting contacted by a lot of mountain communities like Steamboat, and they all have the same problem — no housing for the population of people that work there," Stambaugh said.

Sprout manufactures the homes in its 14,000-square-foot production facility in La Junta, Colorado, and in addition to the proposed communities, they sell pre-fabricated homes or build-it-yourself kits to the public.

"The big companies do this in a much more efficient manner — they do it on a mass scale," said Brent Pearson, principal and president of Resort Ventures West, the development firm responsible for Trailhead Lodge at Wildhorse Meadows and First Tracks.

Pearson said he had the idea to build a community of manufactured, park-model tiny houses somewhere in Steamboat Springs in late 2013.

To make the project attractive to investors, Pearson said he envisioned mass-produced tiny homes on wheels that would be trucked in and arranged in a small community with shared outdoor space. The structures, about 450 to 650 square feet in size, with the option to put two together for double the space, would be resold individually, and the land would either be rented or leased long-term.

Pearson said tiny houses like the ones he imagined in the development are more visually appealing than people might assume.

"They're quite gorgeous homes. They're very nice and efficient both energy and space-wise," he said. "They make a lot of sense for a lot of different scenarios."

Because a development of its kind had never been proposed in Steamboat, Pearson said he ran into doubts about whether that type of housing would work here. Because the homes are technically on wheels, they would need to be registered with the Department of Motor Vehicles and placed on land zoned for recreation, for mobile homes or under custom zoning.

Pearson said the prospective site, which he declined to identify, was a good location for the tiny homes but would have cost $2 million to get the infrastructure connected to city utilities.

"There were a number of different issues," Pearson said.

The project's uncertainty made it hard to nail down investors, the land ended up changing hands and the idea was put on indefinite hold, Pearson said.

Although that project didn't come to fruition, many one-off small homes have begun filling in nooks in Steamboat's older neighborhoods.

Smaller spaces

When Scott Kemp and his family made the decision to downsize from their 1,700-square-foot country home and move to downtown Steamboat Springs, they figured a smaller space would be more affordable to build and maintain and would allow them to simplify their lives.

At 650 square feet, the Kemp family apartment above their garage provides just enough room for Kemp, his wife, Megan, their 5-year-old and 7-year-old sons and their family's black lab.

Kemp said the arrangement can be a little challenging and forces the family to make conscious decisions about the size and number of material items they can collect, but the experience is teaching them that a big house isn't as important as many Americans think.

"We gave this a try because we felt like Americans are a little bit spoiled," Kemp said. "To actually think they need this [big house]."

The family chooses to spend more time outside and can use their outdoor patio for entertaining in the summer.

"We're usually out doing things, so that helps as well," said Kemp, who was able to construct the house on a tight budget by using reclaimed materials from other projects his company, New Mountain Builders, was working on.

The Kemp home, which overlooks an older, larger rental unit the couple owns on the same double lot, is considered an accessory dwelling unit under Steamboat codes — a use by right for most homeowners with lots of a certain size.

New Mountain Builders also built an ADU owned by Lobeck and designed by his WorkshopL company in the backyard of a lot on Spruce Street in Steamboat's Old Town.

Lobeck designed the 650-square-foot Diagon Alley house as an experiment in extreme energy efficiency.

The experiment was an obvious success according to Lobeck's current tenant, Phillips Armstrong, who raves about the home's great natural lighting and said the house keeps cool all summer long by opening the windows at night and closing them in the morning.

"I love living in a small space — it's really ideal for us," said Armstrong, who lives in the two-bedroom, 1 1/2-bath home with his wife, Amanda, and their fluffy 11-year-old malamute Naya.

Armstrong said the house's size works for a couple, but he admits space might be a challenge if the couple had children.

He also said it wouldn't work without the attached garage, which provides essential storage space for a typical Colorado couple that likes to adventure outdoors.

"I've got like 15 pairs of skis in there, and surfboards and . . . thank God there's a garage," Armstrong said.

Armstrong is the owner of Aurum Food & Wine and his wife is a nursing student, meaning the couple is frequently home at different times of the day and he often eats outside the house.

"This is really all the space that we need," he said. "Even if I had all the money in the world, I wouldn't live in a huge house."

A generational shift

Like Armstrong and Kemp, many other Steamboat residents say they're content never moving into a 3,900-square-foot home — the average size of new single-family houses on the market in Steamboat since 2014.

Jamie Burgess, 28, and boyfriend Nicky Gallo, 24, said they didn't consider it settling when they found their current home, a 440-square-foot apartment above another family's downtown garage.

"It's an awesome space," Burgess said. "We felt like we were really lucky to get in here."

Smaller versions of kitchen appliances, storage compartments built in the wall and just a few, carefully selected pieces of furniture make the studio apartment feel larger than it is.

Both Burgess and Gallo are seasoned international travelers, and the experiences have taught them to let go of material possessions and exposed them to the living arrangements of people in other countries.

"I went to college in Europe, and the spaces are so tiny, and people think nothing of it," Burgess said.

The couple agreed their detachment from material possessions, including cars or the desire for a big house, could be representative of a generational shift.

"Our parents' generation grew up thinking a bigger house was tied to success," Gallo said. "They could also afford it."

In addition to being less expensive to build and buy because of their size, smaller houses can also be more economical to retrofit and renovate, adding to their energy efficiency, according to Sarah Jones, executive director of the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council.

Jones said she believes the public's newfound interest in tiny homes is reflective of a shift away from materialism for many people.

"I think it's totally a millennial thing. Those materialist things are not that important," she said. "Building smaller speaks to really focusing on what's necessary."

In an effort to educate the public about some of the benefits of small building, YVSC is organizing an educational program on tiny houses in May.

"If you really want to live sustainability and reduce your footprint, here's a way to do it," Jones said.

Development potential

While a developer has yet to bring the Steamboat Springs Planning Department a proposal for a tiny or small home community, director Tyler Gibbs and principal planner Rebecca Bessey said they welcome the idea.

"We'll do our best to help facilitate it," Gibbs said.

There is no minimum square foot zoning ordinance that would stop someone from building an individual tiny home, Gibbs said, but land costs in Steamboat make building a single tiny home on an existing lot impractical.

Dividing land into tiny home-sized lots would require custom zoning but could be possible if the proposal fit with the character of an existing neighborhood or was built away from current subdivisions, the planners said.

Gibbs and Bessey said big considerations for a developer would be how to make the project worthwhile based on the high cost of land and ensuring that adequate parking, storage and snow removal areas were included.

"A big question in a community like this is, 'where would you put your toys?'" Gibbs said. " Your kayak isn't going to get any smaller."

Lobeck, who has designed three ADUs and has four more in the works for Steamboat property owners, said he's in the early stages of planning a small single-family home development. He envisions five or six homes that are larger than ADUs but smaller than a typical Steamboat home.

"I would love to see a pocket community of smaller houses happen here in some form, as opposed to another large-scale condo development," Lobeck said. "I think a lot of people would be content with a smaller sliver of dirt."

Twenty-year resident Frank Dolman told city council members early this month that micro-housing could be built through a cost-sharing arrangement between the city, developers and future homeowners.

Dolman's heated street, Longthong Road, was financed by the city, and paid back by neighborhood homeowners, a model he believes could work for a tiny home subdivision.

"My intentions are pure," Dolman told the Steamboat Pilot. "I wouldn't make a penny, I just want to solve the problem of affordable housing."

The dream of a tiny home community within Steamboat Springs could become a reality relatively soon, according to Stambaugh, the Sprout president developing and providing the tiny house supply for Salida's Riverview at Cleora community.

Stambaugh said last week that he's looked at two potential properties — one inside Steamboat Springs city limits and one just outside of town — for a future tiny home development.

"We've been looking at property up there to potentially do what we're doing in Salida," Stambaugh said.

Does he believe there would be enough demand for the homes?

"It would be a no-brainer," Stambaugh said.

To reach Teresa Ristow, call 970-871-4206, email tristow@SteamboatToday.com or follow her on Twitter @TeresaRistow

What is a tiny house?

While there is no official definition, a tiny house is typically between 100 and 400 square feet, while a small house is between 400 and 1,000 square feet.

A tiny house can be on wheels or on a permanent foundation. Tiny homes on foundations can be connected to a city’s utilities or operate off-grid, depending on local regulations.

Tiny houses can vary widely in price based on size, materials used and cost of labor. Prices reported online range from less than $10,000 to more than $100,000.