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Jay Shafer: Architecting a Tiny Cottage Industry

By Susan Freinkel, via

When Jay Shafer is asked to explain his peculiar career choice, he harks back to the sprawling house in Iowa City in which he grew up. One of his chores was vacuuming all 4,000 square feet of it—even its rarely used spaces, like the dining room. That particular room, he thought, was a ridiculous waste of square footage; vacuuming it seemed like a commensurately ridiculous waste of time and energy. So years later, when Shafer decided to build a house of his own, he eliminated the dining room from his blueprints—along with most other rooms.

This self-taught home builder has since become America's foremost advocate of living small. Shafer's houses are not merely little. They're tiny: most of them come in at less than 120 square feet. To get around laws that bar the erection of super-small homes on most lots, he has occasionally had to resort to exploiting loopholes—such as putting his houses on trailers, since mobile-home regulations tend to be less stringent.

But the typical Shafer house is a far cry from your average mobile home. With features like pitched roofs, turned-post front porches, cathedral windows, and broad eaves, each is a perfectly proportioned, pint-size archetype of home. Pine-paneled interiors are cozy yet surprisingly uncramped thanks to his special genius for creating storage spaces. Shafer himself lived in less than 100 square feet for more than a decade. "I never even filled up all the storage space," he says, though he admits that whenever he bought a new book, he culled an old one from his shelves.

At 48, Shafer is thoughtful and easygoing, with a wry sense of humor. (He calls himself a "claustrophile.") Now living near Sebastopol, California, and married with two sons, he has upsized to a comparatively palatial 500 square feet. Still, he is as committed as ever to living simply and small. "It's liberating," he says. "Without a large mortgage hanging over your head, or a lot of house maintenance for extra space you're not using, life gets freed up so that you can do what you want."

Shafer has built a dozen tiny houses and sold plans for nearly 1,000. "His designs are so…cute, they've had a huge impact on the adoption of this idea," says Michael Jantzen, who runs the blog TinyHouseDesign. The small-house movement that Shafer helped spawn, and that people like Jantzen are helping to grow, now has its own design-book canon, numerous blogs, several magazines, a Small House Society (which Shafer co-founded), and a year-round schedule of workshops and seminars.

There are at least a dozen companies specializing in small dwellings, including Shafer's former business, Tumbleweed Tiny Houses, and his newest venture, Four Lights Tiny House Company. But housing laws certainly don't make it easy for tiny-homesteaders. Most building codes have minimum—but no maximum—size restrictions. Hence, he says, the proliferation of McMansions that guzzle water and energy.

For now Shafer, encouraged by the movement's growth, has big plans for tiny housing. "I want to make this dream of living simply available to more people," he says. To that end, he has developed a set of new designs that are easier not only to build but to modify later. He's in talks with an RV manufacturer about mass-producing his houses. Even more ambitiously, Shafer hopes to build the nation's first tiny-house development—a village he has dubbed the Napoleon Complex.

As envisioned by Shafer, the development would be zoned as an RV park but would operate as co-housing, with about 50 houses—none bigger than 500 square feet—sharing recreational and workshop space and encircling a central green. That mix of public and private areas, he says, is ideal for tiny-house inhabitants, who don't have the room to throw a party or stow a washing machine.

To Shafer's delight, Sonoma County officials are enthusiastic about the idea, since a development like the Napoleon Complex could provide affordable housing without further straining land and water resources.

Shafer dreams of eventually living in this micro-village. His wife is less enthusiastic, since it likely would mean downsizing from the family's current 500 feet. Shafer tries to reassure her: "I'm like, dude, you've got to see how much I can fit into 400!"

Republished with permission from