It's one of those social movements that hasn't made it to central Illinois yet.
But Byron Denhart is ready for when it does.
Denhart and wife Jessica are the owners of Switchgrass Homes, a company based in a nondescript warehouse on the edge of Danville that makes tiny houses. They really are tiny — sometimes a tenth of the size of the average new, 2,600-square-foot American home.
The one Switchgrass is building now for a couple in the Atlanta area is comparatively roomy: A 225-square-foot footprint with two sleeping lofts that amp it up to 325 square feet. There will be a full kitchen with a refrigerator, gas range, kitchen sink, an undercounter washer and dryer and counter space. The bathroom is 4 feet by 7 feet 5 inches, but there's room enough for a shower, vanity and composting toilet. It sits on a 28-foot trailer, will weigh about 15,000 pounds and is designed to be mobile.
"Essentially, that's what a tiny house is — it's a fancy RV. The big difference is the quality of the build and the quality of the materials that we use," said Denhart, 43, who lives in Urbana in a non-tiny house. "As opposed to your typical RV travel trailer, we use a lot higher-quality materials. It's built literally just like your house — the same construction techniques, the same stud spacing, the same 2-by-4s, same plumbing.
"Your mechanical hookups are just like an RV with the 30-amp plug, your sewer outlet, your water intake, it's all the same. But everything else is built like a conventional house. It's literally a house on wheels."
Most tiny homes don't move many times, he admitted.
"But there are some that are highly mobile. Our model house has 6,500 miles on it now after a year-and-a-half. We've been to Georgia and back several times, to North Carolina and back several times, up and down through the Appalachian Mountains. It looks as good and strong as the day we rolled it out of the warehouse," Denhart said.
One of the units he built was a combination tiny home/coffee shop.
"The front half of it is living quarters and the back half is a mobile espresso shop, just like a Starbucks. It's a couple who I'd call early retirement age, mid-50s to close to 60, and their thought was to have a mobile business," he said. "They travel to festivals and events around the country, selling coffee. So when they're on the road, they live in the tiny house and use that as their mobile business."
The tiny house Denhart is building now costs about $60,000, he said, while the smaller model home he displays at shows and festivals throughout the Southeast and Midwest goes for about $55,000.
"They're pretty economical. You can get into 70, 80, 90 thousand dollar tiny homes. Out west, they're building $100,000 tiny homes, but they're a lot bigger and it's also a matter of the finishes you put into it. If I put a full tile shower in here, that could be a $3,000 or $4,000 shower," he said. "But that's the exception."
It's simpler living but not necessarily minimalist, he said.
"Minimalist, you think you have to live a sparse lifestyle and do without. But in order to live tiny, you shouldn't have to live without things that you love. It's more about finding out what is essential to you," said Denhart, who has a degree in industrial design from the University of Illinois College of Fine & Applied Arts. "If baking cookies once a week is essential to you, we're going to find room in your kitchen to have plenty of counter space, to have sheet pan storage, dry cooling rack storage, a place for your KitchenAid stand mixer to come out. That's what we will design into your house.
"Or maybe you're a quilter, and you need space for a sewing machine and cutting table and fabric. It's just about what's essential to you, and that's what we incorporate into a design."
Tiny homes are bigger deals in pockets of the United States: Texas, California, Colorado, Georgia, Tennessee, the Carolinas.
"The Midwest is still catching up. And honestly, the reason it hasn't caught on as much here is because the cost of living is so low in this area," he said.
High hurdle in C-U
Another factor: The lack of spaces to set down a tiny house. In most areas, they end up in campgrounds, mobile home or RV parks or their own tiny house communities.
"I've got three or four students at the U of I who are interested in tiny homes. The big question is: Where do you put them?" Denhart said. "There are a couple campgrounds in Mahomet — both Tin Cup and the Champaign Sportsman's Club — that are amenable to putting tiny houses on their property, but it's not in Champaign-Urbana. So it's hard for the students to justify a 20- or 25-minute commute off campus.
"We'd love to develop a community. We've talked with officials from both cities. They're at least willing to listen. The problem, though, is that real estate prices in Champaign-Urbana are so darn expensive. You might be able to buy a couple acres, but it may cost you a half a million dollars. At that price, the economics don't make sense, to put 20 or 30 tiny homes on it. You'll lose money at that price."
Denhart's goal, he said, is to get his business to the point where he can build more than a house every two months, and to start a tiny house community in the area.
"Whether I want to get to the point where I'm building 50- or 60-plus houses a year, I don't know. I don't know that I want to get that big, but I definitely want to ramp it up from where it is. I'd like to do maybe one a month," he said. "And the pipe dream for us is to find a property where we have 5 or 10 acres at the right area here in Champaign County where we're able to live on site, have our building facility on site and maybe even a couple tiny homes for rent, where our potential customers can stay in one for a few days and test the waters. That would be our business.
"I think the area could support a tiny home community. What a lot of places are doing is finding an old mobile home park and stripping out those single-wides and double-wides and bringing in tiny homes. That's the easiest jump. But in this area, none of that is available yet."
Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette reporter and columnist. His column appears on Wednesdays and Sunday. He can be reached at 217-351-5221 or at email@example.com.