Building Tiny

The trend happening across the country has made its way into Alaskans’ backyards. 

From college students to senior citizens, more people are seeking out tiny homes.

For many, the financial stability due to lower utilities and big environmental impacts, like shrinking carbon emissions by 36 percent move people into going small.

Tiny homes are not as popular in Anchorage as other cities like Portland, Oregon,  or Austin, Texas, but if you look carefully across the state, your neighbor’s backyard may be occupied by a 16-by-18-foot home.

One proud owner of a tiny house is Girdwood resident Karin Meinkoth. She began her journey after a breakup. “I was sick of moving into other little places,” she said. After seeing documentaries all over the Internet about people going tiny, she gravitated toward the idea of building her own house.

Meinkoth began the process by buying a couple of books and going on YouTube for the do-it-yourself projects. Between July and September, the trailer and lumber were delivered. By mid-December, the exterior was finished.

Meinkoth has since been living in her home for over a year, “I love my house — It’s the best decision I have ever made!”

New Businesses Arising

Another Alaska resident who switched to tiny-living is Army veteran Coley Foster. In 2011, Foster built his house completely off the grid, using only solar panels and wind turbines for power. A few years later, he began Tundra Tiny House, a business based out of Big Lake that builds small customized homes.

“I like it because it’s one big problem to solve. Everyone wants their requirements met, so it’s interesting to deal with the problem, and give them the best.” Foster said the standard request for a tiny home is 18 by 25 feet, a little smaller than the average mobile home.

“It’s not for everyone,” Foster said, “so some people shouldn’t do it, it’s a lifestyle thing. A lot of people just want to declutter their lives.”

The co-owner says it’s popular among military members because of their easy mobility and the lack of property taxes. But customs homes – whether tiny or not – come with a price. The average cost from Tundra Tiny Homes is $45,000.

Back in Girdwood, the rent is around $1,000 for just a simple one-bedroom apartment. Meinkoth spent $20,000 to build her own home, which will pay for itself after the second year.

For Meinkoth and Foster, making the tiny house with your own hands is an accomplishment within itself.“One thing about trailers and people who live in buses, they don’t get that satisfaction from building something from scratch,” Meinkoth said.

 

Tiny Regulations

 

Many believe the regulations on homes — especially on trailer hitches — can be difficult to comprehend. In most cities across the country,  certain restrictions or even municipal bans are in place for these particular types of homes. They argue that they are too small for human living conditions, others say it is an extreme form of people trying to avoid common regulations for housing. For that reason, they argue, regulations need to be in place.

Small home owners in Alaska are lucky, with few regulations including the simple trailer license.

Scott Waterman, of the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation, deals with building codes for tiny homes. “Alaska is pretty easy when it comes to building things,” he said when asked about describing the environment of tiny housing regulations.The Municipality of Anchorage has some regulations, but Fairbanks, Kenai, Homer, Soldotna, Juneau and Sitka do not.

According to the 2009 International Residential Code, U.S. homes cannot be smaller than 120 square feet. To put that in perspective, the average micro home in America is about 65 to 140 square feet.

On the other side of homeownership is land use. Municipality of Anchorage employee Ross Noffsinger works as the manager of engineering services for homes here in the city. People who live in the municipality need to double check with the zoning regulations as well as find a place to park their home. He explained, “those do not get regulated like single family homes, they have to be within the zones. Anything treated as a motor vehicle are regulated within the zoning regulations.”

Noffsinger himself also lived small, “for 8 years my family lived in a small trailer — [and] I lived in a 400 square feet home when I moved to Alaska.”

The codes in Anchorage come with different challenges. A trailer must be shorter than 15 feet, for clearance of bridges. Also, a structure can’t be more than eight and a half feet wide — unless the driver receives a special permit.  

 

The Newcomer

 

Traveling school teacher Kirstin Alburg said that after a couple of years of research, she feels “It’s time to pull the trigger.”

As of today, Alburg is hunting down a trailer and is planning to hire an electrician to focus on building as safe a structure as possible. As for why Alburg is taking this route into her life, she said “I am hoping to use the tiny home to teach my students that you can be happy living simply and to encourage ways to live a good life without the stressors of a lot of debt.”

As challenges arise for this trend of tiny homes, it is nothing new to Alaska, “The funny thing is, that Alaskans have been living in tiny homes since well before statehood. You see historic cabins all over the place, they just aren’t called tiny homes,” Alburg explained.

Anchorage may not be a utopia for tiny homes any time soon, but for many reasons, people are switching to this sustainable lifestyle. As Army veteran Foster said, this isn’t for everyone. The downsizing, the construction, the planning, and the maintenance of off grid and compostable toilet equipment is not universally appealing. But for the older couple who are tired of cleaning up after a three-bedroom house or that college graduate $80,000 in debt, this option sounds like an easy choice.  

 

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Kensey Finnegan

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