Vina Lustado: Long Journey, Tiny House

by Mitchell Clute

After almost twenty years working for other firms, residential designer Vina Lustado decided to strike out on her own. In 2010, she founded Sol Haus Design in Ojai, California, with an emphasis on sustainability, efficiency and conservation.

And Lustado practices what she preaches: her own house, built on the footprint of an 8? ? 20? trailer, is a self-sufficient wonder just 140 square feet in size. In a way, the house marks a return to simple roots after a long detour in the world of high-dollar, big-footprint architecture.

Early Years

Lustado was born in the Philippines to a family with ten children. Her parents eventually emigrated to Los Angeles and brought Vina to the US first, followed by her siblings. “It was a modest childhood,” Lustado recalls. “In Los Angeles, we all lived as a teeny tiny household in a one-bedroom duplex. In fact, all my childhood was spent in small spaces.”

In the mid-eighties Lustado attended University of California, Los Angeles, where she majored in art, and from there she went on to earn a bachelor of architecture in 1991 at University of Southern California. While finishing her degree, she worked as a draftsperson for a design firm in LA. “Los Angeles is an urban sprawl, and I wasn’t feeling like I belonged there,” Lustado admits. “So after I had my degree, I took three months and traveled throughout Europe by myself. It completely changed my world to learn that there was a way of thinking and living that was totally different than what I knew in LA. Many years later, these lessons allowed me to live differently—to not have so much stuff, to live lightly, to have the freedom of flexibility in my life.”

Gradual Change

Over her next fifteen years in the architectural world, Lustado found positions that, little by little, brought her full circle to the feeling she’d experienced in Europe. After four years in Chicago and four more in San Francisco, designing large corporate spaces, Lustado knew she was ready for a change. Again, travel was the catalyst for her next step; she spent three weeks volunteering in Italy, building an artist residence and picking grapes for wine.

“It was really simple, organic living,” says Lustado. “And I realized that the architecture profession was the right one, but I needed to contribute socially. I wanted to make a difference.”

Upon her return, Lustado applied for an international fellowship to study sustainable affordable housing in Germany. “For three months I talked to architects, looked at their projects, and saw how with minimal budgets they could still achieve sustainability, energy efficiency and high-quality design,” Lustado offers. “I learned a lot that I could apply to my work in the US.”

Going Small

Disillusioned with big corporate firms, in 2000 Lustado moved to Ventura, California, and joined a residential firm focused on sustainability, where she worked for the next several years. But though she learned a great deal about sustainability, “the environmental aspects were not the main focus,” she says. Again, she left—and traveled.

Lustado spent three months in South America, arriving home just as the housing crisis unfolded. “There wasn’t much work to be done,” she notes, “so I decided to take matters into my own hands and start my own company, with projects I believed in.”

In 2010, Sol Haus Design was born. At first, Lustado says, it took some convincing to make clients believe they needed less, not more. “People were used to spending a ton of money, instead of asking themselves, what is quality living?”

To help clients through the design process, Sol Haus Design offers assistance from conception to completion, including idea development and space planning services, full construction drawings and interior design, as well as consultations to enable clients to understand the true environmental impacts of their building choices. Her own tiny house serves as an inspiration for potential clients.

“I’m not saying everyone should live in a 140-square-foot house,” Lustado points out. “But there’s a huge amount of material even in a tiny house, so the paradigm shift is really important. A lot of people get into the tiny-house movement because of financial constraints, but it can also be a way to reassess what’s really valuable to you.

“How much stuff do you have that you don’t really need? How does that impact your finances and your time? If you didn’t have to support your big house and lawn, where would that money go? How much more time would you have to spend with family and loved ones?”

To help inspire others, Lustado offers home tours, architectural plans and a book detailing her tiny-house experience, with color photos tracing the whole process, from framing to finish. And though the space is small, it hardly lacks amenities. With French doors, skylights, a wood-burning stove, composting toilet and off-grid solar power, Lustado’s tiny house gives up nothing but wasted space.

Lustado doesn’t miss what she’s given up, but she treasures what she’s gained. “I have to be mindful about buying things, because there’s no extra space,” she explains, “but my house gives me freedom, and allows me to live my core values.”

To find out more about Lustado and Sol Haus Design, visit www.solhausdesign.com.

Images provided by Tiny House Giant Journey and Eileen Descallar Ringwald Photography