Finding Freedom: a return to Usonia

“Tiny House History” is not so much an actual academic topic as it is a supposed idea of how we got to the place of sustainable homesteading, as it were. While it may come with some argument or even disdain I propose that tiny house history did not begin in the late 1990′s with a man, his 100 sq.ft. house on wheels, and a discipline in beautiful, functional, little dwellings. I propose rather that tiny house history began in the “old world” with caves, huts, squats, and other primitive but very natural dwellings. I also propose that tiny house history is not just an exploration into the architectural aspects of a dwelling but also the philosophical, academic, spiritual, and relational aspects of a housing movement. Because of this definition I find myself more and more curious about the homes built in the last 2,000 years. And so it is because of this curiosity that I have come across the Usonian Houses developed by Frank Lloyd Wright beginning in 1936.

Pratt HouseUsonia was a word used by Wright to refer to his vision for the American landscape including urban planning and building architecture. Wright proposed the use of the adjective Usonian in place of American to describe the landscape as being distinct and free of preceding architectural conventions. The homes would be smallish, single-story dwellings without a garage or even storage options. The majority of the designs were L-shaped so as to compliment a garden terrace on unusually shaped lots. They incorporated passive solar heating and natural cooling by way of flat roofs and large, cantilevered overhangs, natural lighting with high windows near the ceiling line, and radiant-floor heating. Even at this point it is easy to see how the influences of Usonian houses work into tiny houses, small houses, and sustainable homes.

Usonian is the term used in reference to 60, middle-class, homes designed by FLW. The first home was the Jacobs House built in 1937 in Madison, Wisconsin.

As history has it Madison newspaperman Herbert Jacobs – a friend of FLW’s – challenged the architect to design and build a home for $5,000. (with current inflation that equates to $80084.70 in today’s currency.) Wright went about designing and L-shaped house with an open floorplan and just two bedroom. To make the build more economical Wright developed a 2-1/4″ thick plywood sandwich wall for the house. (think SIP in today’s building world).

Jacobs House

Jacobs House courtesy of Florida Southern College.


Declared a National Historic Landmark in 2003 the Herbert Jacobs house has undergone some renovation, modification, and ultimately restoration since the mid-1950′s.

Wright continue to explore his Usonian idea even after the Jacobs challenge. Wright saw this as an opportunity to redefine architecture and economy just as the nation was in the throws of the Great Depression. FLW knew his homes could control costs on a number of levels while still providing style and substance to American homeowners.

Besides being small, one-story structures on concrete slabs, Usonian homes also had kitchens incorporated into the living areas. They had open car ports rather than garages. In short, they eliminated ornamentation in favor of function. In the 1950′s as FLW got older and continued to explore the notion of affordable housing by expanding into Usonian Automatic homes which were – in short - Usonian style houses made of inexpensive concrete blocks. The three-inch-thick modular blocks could be assembled in a variety of ways and secured with steel rods and grout. Wright hoped that home buyers would save money by building their own Usonian Automatic houses. Unfortunately assemblage proved to be a bit more difficult than intended and most buyers ended up hiring pro to construct their homes.

Pope-Leighey House

Photo of the Pope-Leighey House in Falls Church, VA courtesy of Library of Congress.


While Usonian homes were limited to just 47 and while the costs to build often exceeded Wrights own projections causing them to overshoot the middle-class they had great influence on the ranch style homes (complete with open floor plans, flat roofs, and connections to nature through glass and natural materials) that would one day define the American suburb experience.

Even today a number of Wright’s Usonian houses are still lived in by the families of their original owners. When they do come on the market however they often sell for millions of dollars. While this price point may be a long shot from FLW’s initial intention of affordability they are a great testament to his design ability and commitment to homes for the masses.

The Pope-Leighey house in Woodlawn, Virginia as photographed by Rebecca Robertson.

The Pope-Leighey house in Woodlawn, Virginia as photographed by Rebecca Robertson.

By Andrew Odom for the [Tiny House Blog]

Entering The Tiny House Real Estate Market

The Tiny r(E)volution History

In our initial manifesto for Tiny r(E)volution we talked about the motivating factors that caused us to even look at tiny houses. Surprisingly a primary motivator was that of the past and current (and by current I mean 2010) real estate market.

"The Bungalow" - just 176 sq.ft. - is the home the Odom's lived in while planning their tiny house.

“The Bungalow” – just 176 sq.ft. – is the home the Odom’s lived in while planning their tiny house.

In 2007 the nation entered a real estate crash fueled almost entirely by over-extended home buyers, inflated prices, and shaky mortgages. According to RealtyTrac by the close of 2010 some 3,825,637  foreclosure filings had been issued on American homes.  It was time for us to act and act quickly. We knew we couldn’t afford a traditional home and at that point we didn’t even know what a traditional home was to us. Was it three bedrooms and two bathrooms? Did it have a fenced in yard, a detached garage, and a tool shed? One thing was for sure. Nothing we looked at seemed to fit our desires. It was at that time that we initially came across Tumbleweed Tiny Homes and the idea to shed a standard mortgage, build cash-on-the-barrel, and create a home we could not just survive in but thrive in that focused on our needs rather than wants, took shape.

The Tiny r(E)volution tiny house under construction.

The Tiny r(E)volution tiny house under construction.

In January of 2013 we moved in to our 240 square foot, single level, beach cottage inspired, tiny house trailer. Using non-traditional building products, state-of-the-art hardware, and a good mix of reclaimed wood, we looked forward to the adventure we had just begun. By this time we had an infant to look after and our needs had already started to change. We had, of course, designed our tiny house to be transitional in so much as “secret” doorways and passages had been framed in for easy access should we decide to make the tiny house trailer the foundation of a larger home that changed with the needs of our family.


But by Christmas of that year we had already started to notice that with a growing daughter and a very active lifestyle we wanted something different. for starters we wanted to travel more and the tiny house was a little too large (at 30′ long) to tote all over the country. Secondly we weren’t sure a single level, no interior wall, tiny house was going to be right for us beyond the next year. We needed to do something; something that promoted our ideals and ethos of simple living but that also gave us a bit more space for a growing family. Before anything though we had to deal with the bittersweet thought of selling our tiny house to recoup some of our investment and to give us seed money to move forward.

Odom Family

For Sale

We knew we didn’t want to approach the sale of our tiny house in a traditional way. Because we had brought on sponsors to help build our home and because we only spent just at $16,000 out-of-pocket during the build AND because we didn’t feel we could put a price on our labor since it was initially done for our own benefit rather than to turn a profit, we knew that a standard MLS style listing would not cut it. So how did we choose to sell the house?

1.  Decide on a price. With $16k cash invested we decided that a 100% recoup was sufficient. We priced our house at $16,100 which we felt was sufficient and gave us an extra $100 for a celebratory dinner once it sold!
2.  Network. Before we officially announced the sale we spoke with other tiny house community members, wrote a telling blog post, and talked to family members. We want to first offer up the home to people who had a hand in creating it. We then let them know when the sale would be made public and when they could announce it.
3.  Take photos. This part was so important and we took extra care in how we presented our home online and in ads. We wanted to capture what we thought made our house so special. We were careful to leave signs of life though so potential buyers could picture their own lifestyle in the tiny house.

Basic Interior 6

4.  Create a listing. What made our house special? Why? In this step we focused just on those questions and answers and then wrote a listing around them.
5.  Go public. We started the morning of “sale day” by posting first to our blog. The post had several links that showed visuals, floorplans, included materials, budgets, etc. We then posted to Craigslist to allow the simply curious to have a shot. We then contacted Tiny House Listings and created a post. It made the most sense to do and the eventual buyer came from that source. We then networked the listing on Facebook, Google+, and other social networks. We were fortunate in that it was shared hundreds of times and seen by thousands.

Within 33 hours we had been contacted by a number of buyers and had scheduled several visits ultimately showing us the new couple that would call our tiny house their own. It was not a hard decision and even now we feel the key to our quick sale was being reasonable, sticking with our principles, and remembering why we joined the tiny house community so we could help others do the same.

Tiny House Petition

Brittany Le Tendre contacted me yesterday to tell me about a problem they are having as tiny house dwellers on their own private land. I will let Brittany tell you all about it.

My name is Brittany LeTendre, my profession involves protecting the land and natural resources. I’ve lived in Steamboat Springs for about 6 years now with my boyfriend Dalton Reed who was born and raised in the county. Dalton has built up a reputation over his 30 years of life in Routt County as “the guy who can fix and repair anything” and save it from the landfill.

We were actively looking for property in the community that was affordable and would allow us to create an off the grid organic hobby farm and we were fortunate enough to find a 5 acre parcel zoned “Agricultural Forestry” in Routt County. We bought this land knowing it is an “unbuildable lot” due to it being under 35 acres. Dalton and I had done our research before we bought this property knowing that things were going to be done a little differently. We asked Routt County planning director, Chad Phillips if we could have goats and chickens on the property and he confirmed that we can and that we can build a structure for these animals. Agricultural Forestry is a very open ended zoning in Routt County and allows many “uses by right”.

The zoning states that you are allowed to camp on any property zoned AF with no time limit as well as build structures that are related to an agriculture application. Routt County camping definition: The use of temporary living accommodations such as tents, teepees, yurts, motorhomes, and trailers.

Before we purchased this property we bought a 1964 International school bus that had already been converted into a motorhome in hopes of using it as a simple and unobtrusive way to enjoy our property.

On our property we have, a beautiful garden with potatoes, onions, and rhubard growing (use by right), chickens (use by right), a motorhome (which is stated as a use by right) and we plan on getting goats for milk and cheese . Our farm is completely off the grid. We are using solar panels (use by right), we’re hauling water, we’re using a composting toilet, and we’re hoping to build a wind generator (use by right). We’ve been abiding completely by the County’s standards.

One week after we drove the bus onto the property, Routt County sent us a letter in the mail. Therefore we called them and invited them to do a site visit so that they could see that we weren’t doing anything wrong. They visited and within a few hours they called us and informed us that we were in violation of the county regulations. They said that our motorhome needed to be moved everytime that we were not staying in it. They then proceeded to say that if we leave the motorhome on our property that it’s considered motor vehicle storage. We have other places to keep the motorhome in town, but this is where we will be using it – therefore, why would we need to remove it. They also stated that camping is “what any normal person would define as camping”.

I know that we’re not all real estate lawyers and county planning directors, but Routt County is asserting non-applicable regulations even though we’re in compliance. If the County’s intentions are now different from what is outlined in the purchase agreement, then who is at fault? We are simply trying to enjoy our new property under the terms of the purchase agreement.

I’ve started the petition “Routt County Planning Department: Stop the Routt to Elitism: Ask Routt County, Colorado to stop harassing Dalton Reed and other Pine Springs property owners” and need your help to get it off the ground.

Will you take 30 seconds to sign it right now? Here’s the link: