Taking Things Tiny
How the smaller home movement has impacted Austin
photography by Brian Fitzsimmons
On a casual Friday afternoon, Sibel Pirkul watches television in her living room — a couch and coffee table in the right corner of her house. One of her cats, Tiger, stares down on the scene from a loft on the left side of Pirkul’s home, above the kitchen and bathroom.
Though it sits in Austin’s Evergreen RV Park, the dark blue, 250-square-foot structure Pirkul lives in is not a recreational vehicle. She occupies a tiny home, a smaller house on wheels that is part of a growing minimalist living movement across the country.
Popularized through blogs, books, podcasts and television programs like HGTV’s “Tiny House, Big Living,” tiny homes have been rolling into cities in growing numbers since the early 2000s, says Ryan Mitchell, creator of the blog The Tiny Life.
Mitchell says the 2008 recession, which led many people to lose their homes and jobs, led the tiny home movement to increased popularity.
“All these factors kind of intensified the interest around it,” Mitchell says. “People just saw that the old way of doing things was kind of becoming defunct and that the American dream, at the very least, was changing.”
Mitchell estimates there are around 10,000 tiny homes in the U.S. today. From affordability to sustainability to mobility, there are many reasons why homeowners are choosing to go tiny.
Pirkul was introduced to tiny houses by her twin sister, Esin, whose tiny home was featured on an episode of “Tiny House, Big Living”. A skeptic of the idea at first, Pirkul says seeing her sister’s finished home made her get serious about smaller houses.
She moved into her own tiny home last May. Though it’s less spacious than her past apartment, the house offers Pirkul a sense of ownership she didn’t have before.
“It’s yours — that’s the one benefit about it,” Pirkul says. “Everything in here is yours and belongs to you.”
Pirkul shares her home with two dachshunds, Pluto and Cocoa, her cat Tiger and another cat, Kitty. She says she never feels cramped in the house, as it has room for everything she needs.
“All I did in my apartment was literally go to my kitchen, my bedroom and my living room,” Pirkul says. “This is just all in one area.”
On this particular Friday, the dogs stay close to Pirkul, who sits on her couch. She’s decorated the living room space with patterned throw blankets and pillows, plants and wall art.
Tiger is still perched on Pirkul’s loft. The stairs he climbed to get there are built on top of Pirkul’s closet — a space that holds a fraction of the clothes she once owned.
“I had to downsize quite a bit clothes-wise, and as far as like materials,” Pirkul says. “But I like that. It was very freeing.”
Pirkul is one of a few tiny homeowners currently inhabiting the East Austin RV park. She says she looked into building her tiny home in a different part of Austin but decided on the park, because she knew it would be allowed there.
Tiny homes can’t just be placed anywhere in the city of Austin. Development in the city is dependent on the way areas are zoned and the standards by which houses are built, says Susan Barr, manager of Residential Plan Review for the city.
Tiny homes on wheels are not allowed to be placed on residential properties in Austin, Barr says. Some zoning classifications in the city allow for a secondary dwelling unit — including a tiny home — to be built on one’s property, but these homes must be built on a permanent foundation, not wheels.
These tiny homes must also be built up to standard with the International Residential Code, the technical building code to which houses are built. It’s possible to build a home as small as 120 square feet to IRC standards, Barr says. Tiny homes are usually defined as being less than 400 square feet.
Only certain areas are zoned to allow for a secondary home, but someone could potentially build a tiny home as a primary dwelling unit anywhere houses can be built in the city, Barr says. That unit would have to be on a permanent foundation, attached to permanent utilities and built to IRC standards.
Many tiny homeowners, like Pirkul, prefer their houses to be mobile.
“I think that’s the biggest enticement,” says Pirkul, an ER nurse. “If I decide I want to move somewhere or do something else, I can go somewhere else and not be stuck with having to think about ‘What am I going to do with my house?’”
RV parks in the city — including Evergreen — have their own particular zoning, which can allow for tiny homes on wheels to be parked there, Barr says.
It’s easier to place a tiny home in areas surrounding the city, according to Zac Siegler of Austin-based tiny house framing company Volstrukt. Siegler has seen many projects he’s worked on end up on the outskirts of Austin.
“I haven’t found that very many tiny houses are built to be placed inside of the city limits here in Austin,” Siegler says. “At least, for any of our customers at this point, it hasn’t seemed like that’s been the easiest thing to do.”
Still, Siegler has seen demand in Austin and the surrounding areas grow since Volstrukt started its business in 2015. He estimates the company has worked on 50 or 60 structures for Austin-area clients.
Most customers, are motivated by being able to build and design their own homes.
“Nine times out of ten, they’re excited about the independence and ownership that they get to feel when they complete this project,” Siegler says.
Julia Tillmon’s first house out of college was a tiny home, which she helped build. She finished the project in 2015 and lived out of it for three years between Austin and Dripping Springs.
“I liked how minimalistic it was, and I liked that I was able to quote, ‘buy a house out of college,’” Tillmon says. “I wouldn’t have been able to buy a regular sized house.”
Tillmon got married a few months ago and now lives out of a bigger house in Manchaca, Texas. She’s currently renting out the tiny home in her backyard.
“It’s not really big enough for two people, especially with how much stuff my wife had,” Tillmon says of the 200-square-foot tiny home. “But it is the perfect size for one person, and it was really fun.”
She says she’s always kept the tiny house, which is on wheels, just outside of Austin, because she knows those areas have fewer regulations for mobile houses in comparison to the city. But the tiny home movement continues to break ground within the city as well.
Village Farm, the first open and operating tiny home community in Austin, started moving in residents last year, according to marketing manager Emiley Parker.
“It’s been really amazing. A lot of people are interested,” Parker says. “Since we started closing on tiny homes in late September, early October, it’s been a steady stream of new residents.”
While Village Farm is still being built, Parker says 15 to 20 of the completed 42 lots are already being lived in. The land the community is built on was originally zoned for an RV Park but was redesignated to be a tiny home community.
Located off of Decker Lane in East Austin, the community is on the same property as Green Gate Farms. When construction is completed, the community will be an agrihood, where there is local farming done that residents can choose to participate in, Parker says.
Homes at Village Farm are set up on a permanent foundation, not wheels. The community is focused on a full-time resident experience, rather than a nomadic one, Parker says.
Pirkul, however, isn’t giving up her wheels anytime soon. Though her house may be tiny, it offers big flexibility.
“I don’t really know where I exactly want to live, where I want to work or anything like that,” Pirkul says. “It gives you the opportunity to move anywhere, and kind of create what you want out of your own life.”