Lewis & Clark College Tiny House Club
Most college students can relate to living in a small space, from a dorm room to sharing a place with roommates. Undergrads at Lewis & Clark liberal arts college in Portland are taking their awareness to the next level: In addition to their academic work, they’re learning carpentry and other construction skills in their spare time to build a compact home to give away.
Members of the college’s Tiny House Club have already laid the wood floor, installed the framing and hammered up the roof of a 128-square-foot home on wheels that will help a person with developmental disabilities live on their own.
The portable dwelling will be donated to Community Vision, a Portland-area nonprofit that provides individualized housing, supported living, employment and home ownership services to Oregonians with disabilities.
“It’s wonderful when young people [like the Lewis & Clark College volunteers] are thinking about these issues and helping us overcome stigmas and the idea that people with developmental disabilities can’t live independently,” said Community Vision executive director Jennifer Knapp.
“In fact, people with developmental disabilities do best when integrated into our vibrant community,” she said, adding that people who want more independence benefit by having a detached dwelling rather than living in multifamily or group housing.
The hurdles: The high cost of Oregon real estate and a longstanding housing shortage. Even alternatives to a single-family home are expensive.
A self-contained accessory dwelling unit (ADU) on a foundation costs more than $200,000 in the Portland area and a tiny house on a trailer costs around $80,000 to build and outfit, said Knapp.
The Tiny House Club doesn’t have nearly that much money. The group received $16,500 this school year from a fund that supports student organizations and activities.
What they do have are 35 students committed to building an energy efficient, sustainable home.
“We have [underused] land and we have a housing shortage,” said Elijah Black, a junior majoring in economics at Lewis & Clark who cofounded the Tiny House Club two years ago with Mari Johnson, a senior who plans to graduate with a bachelor of arts degree in physics this year.
“There’s a need,” agreed Johnson. “Community Vision can immediately place our tiny home.”
The hope is to have the house that’s smaller than a parking spot completed this year, despite pandemic-induced supply-chain challenges, the students’ steep learning curve and their overloaded schedules.
“We’ll get as much done as we can by December and then we’ll donate it,” said Black.
This Luxe Tiny Home in Southeast Portland has two beds and a bathroom.Airbnb
More than a novelty or fad fueled by reality TV shows, homes less than 400 square feet make environmental and economic sense, and can help counter the housing crisis, studies found.
A presentation at Lewis & Clark College by Stephen Aiguier of Portland’s Green Hammer design-build firm included an Oregon report showing that reducing home size is the most beneficial factor in cutting down greenhouse gas emissions and construction waste.
Well-designed small houses generally have low maintenance and utility costs, factors that can make them affordable, especially during economic downturns.
A movement for mortgage-free, homemade tiny homes rose during the Great Recession after the housing market crashed in December 2007. Interest in small-scale, low-cost living quarters like in-law suites, RVs and cargo van conversions was revitalized in 2020 at the start of the coronavirus pandemic when millions of U.S. workers lost their jobs.
Having a second, small dwelling in the backyard filled a need when adult children returned to the family home after businesses and colleges closed to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and multi-generations decided to live together.
To combat Portland’s anemic supply of living spaces, in 2021 the city approved expanding single-room occupancy housing and group living arrangements, allowed homeowners to have two ADUs and made it legal to live longterm in RVs and tiny houses on wheels parked on residential properties.
With funds received from Lewis & Clark College activities fees, the Tiny House Club purchased a 16-foot-long Iron Eagle trailer (about $5,260) and paid $79 for the Sweet Pea house plans from PAD Tiny Houses, Portland’s original resource for small-footprint construction.
PAD cofounder Dee Williams famously wrote her best-selling book, “The Big Tiny: A Built-It-Myself Memoir,” in her home on wheels, where the total floor space is no larger than a full-size bed sheet.
Lewis & Clark’s tiny home will have a kitchen, bathroom and loft-bed platform under its pitched roof.
The structure’s frame and walls are made of new two-by-four lumber and plywood to “make sure it’s square,” said Johnson. The club hopes to use salvaged materials like recycled denim insulation and repurposed wood for countertops.
Reclaimed wood can be used as counters.Janet Eastman
Adam Ferrel, the college’s lead carpenter, and Shane Davis in facilities services are supervising the project.
Johnson and Black say working on the tiny house has given them and other members of the club confidence and life skills.
“Some of us didn’t know how to use power tools before,” said Black, “but now we’re teaching others.”
Johnson added: “I really believe that to be well-rounded you have to know you can work with your hands and build something.”
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