Tiny house, big living: Need-less movement hits home in Teton County

By on December 29, 2014
Dan and Brittany Gibeau in front of their 200-square-foot tiny home. PHOTO: BRITTANY GIBEAU

Dan and Brittany Gibeau in front of their 200-square-foot tiny home. PHOTO: BRITTANY GIBEAU

Jackson Hole, Wyoming – Three months ago, my boyfriend, small dog and I happily called a 26-foot 1985 RV home for the summer. We parked under trees and acres of vacant land were our playground. We worked for a national park in southwest Colorado, and in between busy restaurant shifts laid our heads to rest in our tiny, cozy, and paid-off dwelling.

Reduced rent cost the pair of us $190 per month and that included all utilities. We had plenty of spare pocket change to dine out, take road trips, cook steaks over an open fire, and we even managed to save up a nest egg. It was our version of living large.

With few warm-weather job prospects, we sold our RV, chalked it up as a fun summer adventure and moved to Jackson for the winter.

We are currently living at a motel in Jackson on a monthly basis. We aren’t alone: I discovered that nearly half of the staff at our new job at the resort lives here as well. Becoming acquainted with people around town meant coming to grips with the housing shortage in Teton County.

The vicious cycle of high rent and almost no housing availability is still plaguing Teton County residents. According to Stacy Stoker, Teton County Housing Authority interim director, there’s less than one percent vacancy for rentals, which may as well be zero.

“There’s not very much land for development, and what land is available is very expensive,” Stoker said. “We are working hard to find sources to develop affordable housing. The town will have to allow for vertical expansion, because our comprehensive plan includes keeping our rural areas open. This will be a tough thing for this community to do because people love their views here.”

There are stories of people living out of their cars and in tent communities in the summer months. A study assessing housing needs generated by the Greater Yellowstone Region reports that last summer 12 percent of Teton County’s workforce camped out.

“Most people want to own their own homes, but when they look at the reality of it, they say to themselves, ‘I probably have to move,’” Stoker said.

Besides tent camping, living out of cars and paying expensive rents for motel rooms with no kitchens, there’s one creative solution burgeoning in Teton Valley that gives new meaning to living with less: Tiny Houses.

Tiny house, big movement

What is a tiny house, exactly? And why should anyone consider this as an option?

Technically classified as recreational park trailers or house trailers in Teton County, tiny houses are dwellings around 200 square feet that are built on a flatbed trailer. They are meant to travel as often – or as little – as the owner likes and provide an autonomy people might not otherwise find in the valley.

Dan and Brittany Gibeau live in a 200-square-foot tiny house in Teton County, which they hand built themselves.

“Housing is the trickiest thing about Jackson, and you have to get strategic about living and working here,” Brittany Gibeau said. “Financially, it was the next logical step for us after bouncing around rentals in the area. Since we built it ourselves, we were able to customize it to fit our very specific needs.”

Avid travelers and big dreamers, Dan and Brittany are adamant about living simply and pursuing a life of outdoor adventure. The couple researched several alternative living solutions while filming a movie called Happiness Grows on Trees, an in-progress film that explores spending less time on material objects and more time on hobbies and personal goals.

“We wanted to practice what we preached,” Brittany said. “After researching living in RVs and drawing inspiration from other tiny houses and boat designs, a tiny house of our own was the simplest solution for us.”

The Gibeaus quit their jobs in order to construct their tiny home. PHOTO: BRITTANY GIBEAU

The Gibeaus quit their jobs in order to construct their tiny home. PHOTO: BRITTANY GIBEAU

With no construction experience and equipped with little more than do-it-yourself ambition, Dan and Brittany quit their jobs to build their tiny home. During the course of fives months, their tiny house came together by use of recycled and eco-friendly materials, and with their hand craftsmanship. They were able to include all the creature comforts of an intimate home, just in a smaller space.

“When you walk in, we wanted it to feel like a house,” Brittany said. “We picked out nice finishes and definitely didn’t compromise on the bathroom. We have a full bathtub and a composting toilet that’s even less messy and more hygienic than a traditional toilet. We came up with creative storage solutions after doing a lot of research. The sky’s the limit for small spaces.”

Living off the grid as much as possible is important to the Gibeaus and for them a step in the right direction toward limiting their environmental impact.

“We have solar panels to power our appliances,” Brittany said. “The only thing we use shore power for is to occasionally plug in our space heater. It doesn’t take much to heat up 200 square feet.”

Jamie Mackay, CEO of Jackson-based Tiny House company Wheelhaus, constructs tiny homes sourcing 80 percent of the materials locally.

“I use beetle-killed timbers from Idaho, Wyoming snow fence for siding, and flooring is sourced out of Idaho,” Mackay said. “The less the materials have to travel to get to me, the better it is for our planet. We want to focus on green and healthy living.”

A lot of materials for traditional larger homes are shipped in from abroad or from far distances cross-country.

“Every hand that touches materials for a large home is contributing to harmful greenhouse gas emissions,” Mackay said. “By downsizing, we can all do our part to start thinking more sustainably about the environment.”

Not all tiny houses lined with white picket fences

Although an expensive place like Jackson might seem a suitable place to develop an affordable housing community outfitted with tiny houses, right now, it’s not legal to construct a tiny house on land and keep it.

Mackay also is the owner of Fireside Resort in Wilson. Initially, his plan was to develop an affordable housing community, but county officials denied the request. Now his resort rents the tiny houses nightly to visitors.

“I wanted to develop a housing community that worked for the people of Jackson, but when it was denied, I had to adapt and survive,” Mackay said. “It’s an expensive property, so it sort of organically evolved into a resort.”

Mackay’s 23 cabins are tiny houses built from LEED Gold Certified materials and have luxury finishes like stainless steel appliances, tall ceilings, wide hallways and stand-up glass showers. But, the price tag isn’t small.

“Is it affordable? Not really,” Mackay said. “We charge up to $275 a night. That’s why we’re a good vacation destination.”

When the Gibeaus took the leap to construct their own tiny house, they crunched the numbers to estimate whether or not building was a financial risk worth taking. In the end, it cost them roughly $40,000.

“Tiny houses are a big bang for your buck,” Brittany said. “For the same amount we paid to build ours, we could have bought a used RV with finishes we didn’t like. Luckily we had money set aside. For anyone considering a tiny house, you have to have money saved. It’s not free.”

Another challenge the Gibeaus face is harsh winter conditions. While they insulated their tiny house, they still have to deal with chores like shoveling snow off their roof and fixing water pipes that freeze.

Inside the cozy confines of the tiny house. PHOTO: BRITTANY GIBEAU

Inside the cozy confines of the tiny house. PHOTO: BRITTANY GIBEAU

“We have to put light bulbs near the pipes to keep the water flowing,” Brittany said. “Our home takes work to maintain, and honestly, sometimes it’s a pain in the ass. Some mornings when I’m shoveling snow off the roof, I ask myself, ‘What are we doing?’ but then I realize I can’t be lazy about it. It’s always worth it in the end.”

Concerning zoning laws in the valley, the Gibeaus have to move around frequently so they are able to live within legal limits. By traveling during the summers and camping on friends’ land whenever possible, they are able to base themselves in Jackson.

“We’re lucky that our work is flexible,” Brittany said. “Dan can do his work as a cinematographer anywhere. But what about the people whose jobs won’t allow them to move around every 30 days? Tiny houses make so much sense for working people in Jackson Hole, but it’s extremely hard to find somewhere to park. Teton County is not tiny house friendly.”

A new American dream

When thinking about the traditional American dream, you might picture big, beautiful, sprawling houses on massive plots of land.

 Wheelhaus Tiny Houses - the Wedge. PHOTO: STEVE SNYDERS

Wheelhaus Tiny Houses – the Wedge. PHOTO: STEVE SNYDERS

“We’ve had developers build simpler and smaller homes, but I’ve seen firsthand that there’s still a desire to buy a big house,” Stoker said. “In my experience, small houses are actually harder to sell.”

According to CNN Money, American homes are on average 2,600 square feet, up 200 square feet from 10 years ago. Because of the way the recession played out, though, for some Americans, especially first-time buyers with student debt, ideals are shifting. In just the past few years, more people have become more careful about how they spend their money.

“In Teton County there’s a huge interest from people wanting to downsize,” Mackay said. “People don’t want to be tied down by a mortgage. Keeping up with a big house is a lot of work.”

With so much square footage in a traditional home, it’s inevitable that space is wasted.

“My family lives in a big traditional home in the Midwest,” Brittany Gibeau said. “They only sit in the dining room for special occasions and other areas of the house just don’t get used. It got me thinking, why do we need all that space?”

People who are starting to think about downsizing come from all walks of life.

“There’s still a stigma that tiny house livers are gypsies or careless vagabonds,” Mackay said. “But these days everyone is starting to live smarter. Eighty percent of my buyers own property, and more and more people are opening their eyes to different styles of living.”

Home is where you park it. PHOTO: BRITTANY GIBEAU

Home is where you park it. PHOTO: BRITTANY GIBEAU

For the Gibeaus, they realize that tiny house living isn’t for everyone, but believe that all people can learn from alternative living arrangements.

“People get so set on the traditional American dream. They think that if they veer from the path of graduating college, getting married and buying a large home, then they’re doing something wrong,” Brittany said. “It’s almost like people need to be told that it’s OK to live a life outside the norm; it’s okay to adventure, travel and ski. In a lot of ways, veering from the traditional course allows you to achieve bigger goals down the road.”

The Gibeaus admit that living in their tiny house isn’t a forever solution. Right now, they are enjoying the freedom of traveling with their tiny house in the spring, summer and fall. Eventually, they would like to start a family and will need more space to grow. However, making a solid financial investment in a tiny house they can sell later for a profit is a way for them to feel secure about eventually having children. Also, the money they save on utilities and rent by living in their tiny house provides a financial autonomy they couldn’t achieve while renting an apartment.

Those passionate about the tiny house movement are confident that it’s not just a passing fad, but tiny houses can provide a solution for a specific need in the market.

“We’re just average people who took our dreams seriously,” Brittany said. “Everyone who sees our tiny house thinks it’s so cool and they can even envision themselves in one. Everywhere we go, we’ve noticed that tiny houses bring out the best in people. If we can do it, anyone can do it.”

Wheelhaus Tiny Houses - the Caboose. PHOTO: STEVE SNYDERS

Wheelhaus Tiny Houses – the Caboose. PHOTO: STEVE SNYDERS

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