Updated: Jun 16, 2019
I downed tools after finishing the outside of my Tiny 3 months ago now. Not because I wanted to, to be clear. But because I was offered a job, having not earned money for the last 6 months as I worked on my Tiny, from an employer who understood the things that were important to me. I was offered a role which had me starting with 3 months in Boulder, Colorado and then returned me to Sydney to complete my build in my spare time. A part of me was glad to take the break from building. My body had suffered a bit under the strain of so much physical work in a relatively short space of time. Also, for all the planning I had done on the structure, I was now a little fuzzy about the fine details of the inside. A break in the North American summer sounded perfect. (You might note that I described going back to work as a break…)
Colorado Springs, just 1.5 hours drive from Boulder, is where the annual Tiny House Jamboree is held each year. I spent last summer in San Francisco and wanted to attend last year, however the last minute airfares to Denver were extortionate so I abandoned the idea. I forgot all about it this year, until my Facebook feed reminded me that it was happening again whilst I was here. But this year I could drive there! I admit, for a moment I hesitated, imagining long lines of people queuing to see the tiny houses, commenting to each other how “cute” they were but how they couldn’t understand how anyone could live in one. But I figured I could put up with that in order to gather ideas on inside layouts and storage solutions. I purchased my ticket and looked forward to the event.
The demand for the event obviously exceeded original expectations as the venue was moved only a few weeks out. Ironically, it moved to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Hosting an alternative housing solution festival inside an American military establishment was a juxtaposition of ideals. For a start, the late change of venue meant that not all of the references to the event’s location had been updated or clarified, and as a result I turned up at the wrong Academy entrance gate. I wound down my window at the gate and asked if I was at the right place for the Tiny..”Drivers licence please”. I was cut off. I fumbled to get my drivers licence out and handed it over. “You are going to do a U-turn and I am going to meet you on the other side of the gate and return your licence to you there”. Oh, ok – I guess I am at the wrong place. I did as I was told, and after waiting a minute, had my drivers licence returned to me and was given curt instructions on how to get to the correct gate. Well, I guess I was almost in the right place. Having made it through the correct gate, there were plenty of signs to navigate to the sports field where the event was located. I heard something like 10,000 people were attending, and from my experience with queues just to park, I don’t think that was an exaggeration. Once inside, there were a few military police walking around, looking totally disinterested in what was being promoted. This didn’t impact the event, just whenever I saw them, it reminded me that everyone here was attending an alternative festival – celebrating a departure from what society expected of us.
I attended 2 days of the 3 day event. I couldn’t quite justify taking a day’s leave and figured I could see everything in 2 days. Maybe I should have taken Friday off as the speakers on Friday looked interesting. Saturday I spent standing in queues, looking at the 20 or so Tiny Houses they had there on display. I had hoped I would meet lots of tiny housers in the queues, but I found myself mostly surrounded by families looking for opportunities to put a Tiny House in their backyard to rent out on AirBnB. After an entire day of this, I felt a little depressed. And judgemental. This is what those Tiny House shows on TV had created – hoards of people wanting to cash in on the “cute” factor and charge extortionate prices (you can charge $150/night on AirBnB) at the expense of those who were really interested in changing their lives completely. I was also disappointed in the builders who were showcasing their Tiny’s. I had experienced the Tumbleweed commercial model a year ago, which was supportive of both those who wanted to build their own tiny house (selling plans and workshops) and those who wanted to buy (selling either shells or finished homes). It seemed that Tumbleweed, despite being a commercial organisation, they were still selling the tiny houser dream. There were dozens of commercial Tiny House builders at the Jamboree and it felt more like being shown a display home than being welcomed into the idea of living tiny. To be fair, I didn’t spend more than a minute with their representatives as they gave brief introductions to the people in the queues but that was the overall impression I had. Thunderstorms were forecast for the afternoon, and despite most Colorado storms lasting only 10 minutes, this weekend they dropped more rain than usual and I abandoned the day early, deciding to return the next day and focus on the talks.
I was determined to avoid the massive parking queues so I arrived earlier on Sunday. I noticed on my Facebook feed that the architect of my Tiny, Vina Lustado was posting that she was at the Jamboree. I had communicated with Vina many times leading up to the purchase of the plans, and then she had been quite excited to see another version of her design brought to life when I completed the outside of my Tiny. I had never met her, however, and I messaged her to see if we could meet. Meeting Vina changed my experience of the Jamboree from commercial disappointment to a feeling of connection to others on the same path as me. It was really great to see the genuine satisfaction she got from watching others make the tiny journey using her plans as inspiration. I also met Nina who had built a version of Vina’s house. It was so nice to talk to someone else who was on the path, and had just finished her tiny, having moved in just 3 weeks ago. Both Nina and her partner were thrilled with the end-result, claiming they had never slept as solidly as in their Tiny House. The day was starting out so differently to yesterday. I was feeling connected with the types of people I was yearning to connect with. Not like those “other” people.
Jay Shafer and Dee Williams were scheduled to talk, so I left my new buddies and headed over to the stage. I settled down in my camp-chair under my umbrella to avoid the ever harsh Colorado sun (both made possible by my observations from the previous day!), and eagerly awaited stories from those who started this whole movement. Jay Shafer was not what I expected. He was humble, and a little softly spoken. I don’t think he expected his actions of building the first Tiny House on wheels to trigger such a movement, but he was neither arrogant nor apologetic. He was mostly humbled by the turn-out and the number of people who had taken his lead and were on the path. At the end of his talk, someone asked the question that had been burning in my brain since yesterday.
“How should I react when someone asks if I am going to live in one of those cute tiny houses they have on TV, when its actually about so much more than that? And is the growing size of Tiny’s moving away from the original intention?”
Jay’s answer was inspiring. He said that every person who promotes a tiny house is contributing to the movement, no matter how they use it.
“Living tiny is about making use of all the space you have and having that space meet the needs of the occupants. It’s not about how small the space is or if it’s on wheels or not.”
Whoa. Reality check, here. I was sure that as the patriarch of the movement he would be frowning on some of the triple-axle monstrosities that were on display. But he wasn’t. He was pointing out that every person that builds or purchases a Tiny House helps build the case for making Tiny Houses legal and a viable alternative housing solution. Maybe the family that purchases the triple-axle 24 ft Tiny House is down-sizing more than I am. Maybe they have not considered all the associated benefits that come with down-sizing but if they move into a Tiny (no matter how it came about) maybe they will start to see those benefits, and maybe they will start to help campaign for legal Tiny Houses. Maybe all those people who buy Tiny Houses so they can rent them out on AirBnB will provide inspiration to their guests, and convince them that a Tiny House is a viable option for them to pursue.
Dee William’s talk was also inspiring. She spoke about how living tiny for the past 12 years had changed the way she related to people. How living so independently had taught her to depend on others and that this had opened up her life experience to so much more than she could ever have imagined. She was emotional about the things she spoke about, but unapologetic. Her message was that living Tiny is not about owning a small house. It’s about removing the clutter of a life filled with things, so that you can open yourself to a life filled with experiences.
The last talk I wanted to share some thoughts on was by Terry, the Office Hobo. I admit I had not heard of him before the talk, but he is apparently known for his social experiment to see how long he could get away with living out of his office. He is a creative professional, passionate about writing and film-making. He moved to LA to follow his professional dreams and settled in a beach-front apartment, having landed a job with promise, apparently living out his dream. The only problem was that the price of accommodation and the lack of job security in his chosen profession created a lot of stress and diminished his quality of life. His answer was to remove rent from the equation by firstly living out of his office and then moving into a van. It turned out that this change of living arrangement provided him with the freedom to live out the life he wanted to live. His talk was lengthy, but he is a gifted orator keeping me riveted for at least 50 minutes of his hour-long talk. His main message was that we should not judge others’ living choices, but rather encourage everyone to make their own decisions. Society is quick to judge that someone living out of their vehicle has a worse quality of life than someone chained to a mortgage. It is quite plausible that they are equally challenging, but it all comes down to what we, as individuals, value most. Terry valued less commute time and the financial freedom to travel the world, over a permanent housing situation. I have to admit that I have been known to turn my nose up at the idea of living out of a van (a couple of friends have done this, even whilst working professionally) but I had not considered the entire value equation. These friends have worked less and travelled more. They are fortunate to be able to make such decisions.
So, in conclusion, I have to say that my Tiny House Jamboree experience was awesome in ways that I did not expect. Practically, I was exposed to more Tiny Houses than I have ever seen and was able to collect many new ideas. I connected with some important people in my journey and I listened to speakers who have changed my views for the better. If you get the chance to attend, I would highly recommend reaching out in advance to those you’d like to meet and make arrangements to meet them there. I think the networking aspect is an important part – one that I did not take full advantage of. And I would prioritise the talks over the Tiny House viewings, depending where you are on your own journey.
Here’s hoping we can put together such an event in Australia one day!