Facing the pasture in Loy Farm on Elon University’s campus lays a 150-square-foot building on top of a trailer. Hidden from plain sight by a barn, the tiny olive green home is big enough to fit one: senior Dustin Pfaehler.
Since January, Pfaehler has made the small building his home during the day, napping upstairs on a camping mattress in a 3-foot-tall loft, using a camping toilet and staying warm with a space heater, then returning to his apartment to sleep at night.
After seeing the documentary “Tiny: A Story About Living Small” on Netflix, Pfaehler was inspired to build and live in his own small home. Since he was staying on campus for a fifth year, he thought constructing one could justify hime staying for only a few classes.
“It seemed really interesting, so I looked into it more,” Pfaehler said. “This project kind of grew out of it, and I like building things. It’s just a lot of fun and a chance to do something with my Elon experience, something different.”
He eventually developed the idea into a research project mentored by Michael Strickland, lecturer in English and environmental science.
Constructing the home
Before planning out the design of the home, Strickland had Pfaehler look into tiny homes throughout history, ranging from sailing vessels to “gypsy wagons,” to get an idea of how people have lived in small spaces. The trend has grown since, gaining national attention.
“The fact that this movement has come back is amazing,” Strickland said. “I never would have predicted how well it has caught on. North Carolina particularly has become a little hub.”
Then, with the help of Robert Charest, associate professor of environmental studies who specializes in sustainable design, Pfaehler began to draft blueprints, modeled after the tiny homes he saw in the documentary.
Like most tiny homes, he knew he wanted a loft above the kitchen to maximize space. Then he got to work finding whatever material was available to construct the house.
“I think at the end of the day it’s a very manageable project,” Charest said. “It’s a daunting task to build your own home with permits and purchasing land and having a mortgage and what not. With these tiny houses, there’s very little other than the funds to do it that prevents a young person from building their own home.”
Unlike mainstream homes, tiny houses have size restrictions, according to Ross Beck, operations manager at Tumbleweed Tiny House Company based out of California. Because these homes are considered a certified RV, specifically a travel trailer, they have to be suited for the road.
To be hitched onto a car and pulled, these mobile homes cannot be wider than 8 feet 6 inches or taller than 13 feet 6 inches. There is no limit on the length, but Beck said when they get beyond 30 feet they become too heavy to be pulled by the average car.
Tumbleweeds offers homes that are 18 feet long, 20 feet long, 24 feet long and 26 feet long, with the 26 footers being the most popular.
With help from his father and family friends, Pfaehler got to work at the beginning of the summer, working long days to complete the home in less than three months.
“It wasn’t too different than a normal home,” he said. “Instead of putting down foundation, we built it on the trailer bed. It was mostly finding a trailer, getting the frame to work right, because we pulled it out of an old mobile home.”
Pfaehler was able to get the trailer bed for free, which saved him money in the long run but cost him height, since it was already 3 feet tall.
From there, he prepped the trailer, installed the decking board, framed and installed walls, fitted the loft, created a curved roof and finished with exterior plywood sliding. Next, he installed plumbing and electrical, added insulation and furnished the home with cedar — providing a constant piney air freshener.
Pfaehler essentially had his hand in every aspect of the home and continues to build additional furniture, like seating that will also double as storage.
“Part of it’s just having built it myself, [and having a] very intimate knowledge of the space I’m living in,” he said. “It just feels cool to live in something you’ve built yourself, to understand everything that’s gone into it and how all of it works together.”
Once the home was complete, Pfaehler hooked it to a pick-up truck and drove it to Elon, parking it in Loy Farm.
To power the home, an extension cord is hooked up to a breaker box on the farm. A hose connects the plumbing to the well , which experienced some freezing in the colder month — one of the many faults Pfaehler needed to work out.
“There’s no sewage right now,” Pfaehler said. “The water I use, I measure it inside a rain barrel and take it and empty it somewhere else, which isn’t the most fun.”
Continuing with the research component of the project, Pfaehler takes measurements of how much water and electricity he uses each day. For one person, it isn’t much — he finds himself emptying the barrel only every two days or so.
The total cost for the project was under $10,000, and the home is essentially rent-free.
According to Strickland, getting approval to build and park the home at the farm wasn’t easy.
But after explaining the house was for research, that he wouldn’t sleep there and it wasn’t permanent, it was approved.
Living large in a small space
Pfaehler had high hopes for his experience upon moving into his small, movable home.
“At first I was super excited and everything was great,” Pfaehler said. “Then I got slightly annoyed with the cramped space. At night it gets really quiet out here, so every time there’s a noise, those little things startle you.”
In addition to recording his electrical and water usage, Pfaehler keeps a journal to analyze the psychological aspect of living alone, isolated and in a small space.
Strickland believes these journals will be something students study in the future.
“The longest I’ve stayed out there was for about a week,” Pfaehler said. “It was nice. Using that much water and having to empty the tank that much wasn’t the best, but it definitely made me aware of how much water I used.”
But for the most part, he finds the experience to be peaceful — other than some freaky fog at night.
For him, the transition to the tiny home wasn’t bad.
He compares the space to a freshman year dorm room, only with more amenities and a smaller space. Eventually, Pfaehler hopes to bring along a companion — such as a medium-sized dog — to test what it’s like to share the tiny home.
Though the space is small, Pfaehler has been making use of the area by using built-in storage that takes up less room, especially in the kitchen. At IKEA, he purchased wall hangers and built a Lazy Susan, to create storage without bulky shelves.
He has also accepted he can’t keep as much as he’s used to.
“It’s still kind of a constant game — maximizing my space,” he said. “Do I really need this many groceries? How many clothes do I need? Just the experience is fun.”
A growing movement
Both Strickland and Charest lived in tiny homes for more than six years after they graduated decades ago to figure out their lives without spending too much or staying somewhere permanent.
“For some reason, we didn’t call them anything back then other than means for inexpensive housing,” Charest said. “I think it’s now a phenomenon here in America because the medium size house here is huge compared to everywhere else in the world.”
With students like Pfaehler showing interest in tiny homes and sustainable living, Charest sees the potential for a tiny home Living Learning Community in Loy Farm in the distant future.
His vision includes six houses in a community that are 400-500 square feet with two students to a home. Instead of paying rent, the students would work off their home by working in the farm and recording their experience for further research.
Interest like this has peaked all across the country, with television shows like HGTV’s “Tiny House Hunter” and DIY’s “Tiny House Nation” captivating audiences and building curiosity.
“I think we’re in the midst of a new do-it-yourself renaissance in this country,” Strickland said. “Part of that is because financial times are hard for a lot of people. They’re trying to figure out how to do it on their own. Part of it is independence, being able to say fresh out of college or newly married, ‘We own our home and can move if we want to.’”
This mentality and desire to be financially independent has spread across the nation. These homes have been popping up on various plots of land and in communities where tiny home owners live side-by-side.
These small homes cluster together in areas where housing restrictions aren’t as strict in areas such as California, Colorado and Florida.
According to Beck, Tumbleweeds has grown 50 percent every year for the last five years and its staff has increased from 12 to 70 in the last year to meet the demand. The company also offers RV insurance and assistance to find a place to park the home, making it easier for their customers to live in their dream tiny home.
The two largest groups that are building and buying these small homes are baby boomers looking to seriously downsize and Millennials trying to be financially independent after college.
“They want to have control over their costs,” Beck said. “They want affordable housing and such. But they also don’t want a lot of stuff — they want experiences.”
Beck believes that those who are drawn to living the “tiny” life also want the freedom to pick their home and travel instead of owning too many possessions.
Pfaehler, like many soon-to-be college graduates, is worried about debt and finding a place to live. Luckily for him, he can tow his tiny home wherever work takes him — as long as he has a place to put it.
“Part of it’s the financial barrier of owning a house,” Pfaehler said. “I know one of my cousin’s messaged me and he’s paying way too much for rent. For what he’s paid for in rent in the past year, he could get a house like this to live in.”
But Pfaehler realizes that this kind of lifestyle takes some adjustment and it has been difficult deciding what he actually needs to live semi-comfortably. It’s a way of life not many could imagine downsizing to.
“It’s definitely not for everyone,” Pfaehler said. “But if you can adapt your style of living to it, it’s really nice — peaceful.”