The tiny house movement embraces a lifestyle with minimal belongings, small living space and dramatically reduced housing expenses. The average house is 2,600 square feet compared to a tiny house under 400 square feet, or just a little larger than the majority of master bedrooms.
Most tiny houses are constructed on a trailer bed, and mobility is part of the attraction. Where to park it can be a bit challenging. Many municipalities do not consider a structure under 400 or 600 square feet to be a dwelling unit and do not permit permanent parking of a camper or home on wheels which serves as a full-time residence.
When Bonnie Gilbert retired from Virginia Tech’s Pamplin College of Business Alumni Relations in January of 2022, she decided to rent her large home. Her daughter pointed out a 1974 camper for sale on Facebook Marketplace. “I had not planned to go tiny until I saw it,” she recalls. It had a solid chassis, siding, some windows and a start on renovating the interior. Bonnie purchased it and began customizing it to her needs.
Beka Olson grew weary of signing leases and moving and started looking to buy a small house in Williamsburg, where she was living and working. “After covid hit, I began working at a farm alongside my restaurant job and became increasingly interested in the agricultural industry,” she explains. “When I decided to go back to school [at Virginia Tech], I knew I wanted a way to have hands-on farm experiences at a variety of places and not be stuck in an apartment all year. I began researching travel trailers, thinking I would fix up an old one. I quickly learned that travel trailers are expected to break, easily, their value deteriorates quickly, and they aren’t constructed to be lived in full-time.”
The Design Process
“My brother gave me the idea of investing in solid bones and then building it up to suit my needs,” Beka continues. “After much YouTube investigation, I realized I wanted to do it myself, despite having no previous building experience. I searched new and used cargo trailers, settling on a trailer 16 feet long with a v-nose for space maximization and a 7-foot interior height, plus a light external color to maximize heat dispersion.”
Bonnie has remodeled and renovated many houses, and her first move was to lower the wheels for no hubs, eliminating interior wheel protrusions. “I bought my full-size refrigerator on Facebook Marketplace and designed the interior around that in my head. I wanted a real bathroom sink, toilet and shower. There was space for a stackable washer-dryer, but I used that for my closet and purchased a one-unit washer-dryer.” She has a 3-burner gas stove, full-size microwave plus an oven, and she loves her Ninja® Foodi™ flip toaster-oven. The oak glass front cupboards add some class. They have moved with Bonnie three times and finally found a permanent home. “My home is 50% kitchen, and I can cook or bake anything.”
Beka, 27, found the perfect new trailer in North Carolina. “I picked it up Feb. 1, 2022, and my apartment lease ended March 31st. I drew up my plans, began insulating, ordering parts, cutting windows and picking up furniture from Facebook Marketplace.” Her “furniture” includes a metal locker, mounted sideways above the kitchen counter, two vertical deep drawer file cabinets in the kitchen and one 3-drawer large horizontal file cabinet for clothes. The butcherblock came from a restaurant which no longer needed it.
“I didn’t have a ton of starting capital,” Beka states, “so I added necessities first – a mini-split heating/cooling unit, composting toilet and storage. Initially, my bed mattress was on the floor, but I mounted it on a wall with a hinge and chain system.” She built the living room benches and her desk across from them. The home has two skylights which offer ventilation, and with the windows she installed, it is quite bright inside. She arrived in Blacksburg, tiny home in tow, in August, 2022.
Entertaining and Defining Needs
Bonnie’s 21’ by 8’ tiny home can sleep six with two lofts and a futon, and she can entertain many more. “My deck is 12’ by 16’, and the views are spectacular.”
Since Beka’s 16’ by 7’ home has a ramp at the square end, she plans eventually to be able to lower it on warm days and entertain as well. “There are still things to be done,” Beka says, “plumbing, solar-powered electrical system, more painting, but I’m living in it full-time with my cat, Queen B, and doing well.”
Both women express the challenges of redefining “needs” and choosing very carefully what they NEED for clothing, cookware and amenities with such tight space constraints. They both love living tiny – one in retirement and the other on the cusp of new career adventures (planning to graduate end of spring semester 2024).
Text by Joanne M. Anderson
Photos by Tom and Christy Wallace