Students Build Tiny Home for $489

Students build tiny house, one scrap at a time

Update more photos added

Link to a college article

PELLA — Amy Andrews and Ethan Van Kooten had no money. How could they build a house?

The Central College students, both environmental studies majors, wanted to build a small, sustainable home for their senior project. They proposed a $3,350 budget — but when no grant money was available, they became scavengers to complete the project as cheaply as possible. With truckloads of reclaimed materials and 10 weeks to build, the students created a house for $489.

“Everything we used was on its way to the landfill,” Andrews said.

Anya Butt, associate professor of biology, said she doubted at first whether the students could finish their project with such limited time and money. “They forged ahead,” she said. “They were successful in building a tiny home for almost nothing — and they built it from what other people were throwing away.”

The biggest hand-me-down Andrews and Van Kooten reclaimed was a 52-year-old granary being used as a storage shed. “My great-great grandpa, great-grandpa and grandpa built it for shelled corn,” Van Kooten said.


The students moved the dilapidated granary to Van Kooten’s parents’ land, where they placed it on skids to comply with zoning and insurance regulations (the heavy building is technically a movable structure).

The students also rescued lumber, insulation, cabinets and countertops — even a chandelier — from local buildings being demolished and the Pella and Vermeer corporations. An old hog feeder became their loft, and they turned a deer stand into a ladder.

“They were very much constrained by what they had available,” Butt said. “They blew me away with how much work they did.”

Andrews and Van Kooten are quick to point out they didn’t work alone — Van Kooten’s father, Kent Van Kooten, contributed countless hours and invaluable expertise. “That’s always how we’ve bonded, making stuff together,” Van Kooten said.

The students spent about 500 hours building the tiny home. Andrews, of Shellsburg, Iowa, said it was exhilarating to see progress, although the amount of work left to do was always intimidating. Feeling stressed was no bad thing, the students said, since it helped them reach an exciting goal.


“It’s nice to have to prioritize something you’ve really wanted to do,” Andrews said. “This is like all my “Little House on the Prairie” dreams come true.”

Van Kooten said he and his dad talked like kids together when they dreamed ideas for the tiny house. “If I could put it in a tree, I would,” Van Kooten said.

Now the finished tiny home offers even more opportunities for Van Kooten’s family to connect. His grandparents, aunt and uncle live on adjacent farmland, and they plan to use the house as a family retreat.

“We’ve been talking about putting a cabin down there for seven years,” Van Kooten said. “There’s no power, there’s no TV, there’s no video games — it’s a new outlet for my family to get closer.”

Andrews plans to bring her friends and family for occasional getaways too, and the students have invited others to come and take ideas for their own tiny home projects.
“It’s kind of an ideal liberal arts project,” Andrews said. “You have to know a little bit about everything.”

Because of their tight (or nonexistent) budget, Andrews and Van Kooten worked toward different goals than many tiny home enthusiasts. They couldn’t aim for a stunning master home like those featured on the HGTV series Tiny House Hunters, Butt pointed out.


The students left out features they wanted but couldn’t afford, like a composting toilet and a solar water heater. But they still plan to add a 6-foot porch, plus rain barrels that will provide filtered water for the sink.

This year, Butt said a student at her alma mater, Mount Holyoke College, is building a tiny home for $12,000-13,000.

“It’s awesome if you have thousands of dollars to buy a lot of materials and make something really beautiful,” Butt said, “but these students showed you can do a lot without a budget. The idea that so much can be reused is eye-opening.”

Andrews and Van Kooten say their project proves a tiny home can be feasible and affordable, and they hope it prompts others to consider ways they can become comfortable with a simpler, more sustainable lifestyle.

Meanwhile, Andrews said scavenging materials has become a habit now. The day after she and Van Kooten presented their tiny house to professors and classmates, she spotted shelf paper in a trash can.

“I keep asking, ‘What else can I do?’” Andrews said. “You might not be able to keep me away.”



Meet the Movement: Introduction to Tiny Homes
by Amy Andrews and Ethan Van Kooten

What are tiny homes?

Whatever you want them to be! Generally, they have all the features of a “regular” home. Some people just want to downsize, others want off the grid, others want to travel with them!

How tiny?

It’s up to you. What’s tiny for a college student might be impossible for a family of four! Usually people talk about homes under 400 square feet.

The New Normal

More space, more rooms and more features are “standard” in new houses over time. The average American family size has been decreasing over the last 50 years, but the average American home size has been increasing. In 1973, the largest housing problem in the U.S. was overcrowding. Now, only a few generations later, many people can’t afford an average home.


Homes are responsible for 18 percent of CO2 release in the U.S., and housing materials not built to last end up in landfills. Residents can improve the energy efficiency of their homes by weatherizing — or downsizing, since smaller houses require less energy to heat or cool. Passive solar design can warm houses in winter and cool them in summer.

Also, rain barrels can be a sustainable water source — and dark colors help the sun start to heat the water.

Our Budget

Original budget: $3,350

For comparison:

Project by Mount Holyoke College senior Sarah Hastings: budget $8,000, final cost $12,000-14,000

Project featured in “Tiny: A Story about Living Small” documentary: $26,000

Acquired materials:

  • Original structure (granary)
  • 4 windows, donated
  • Interior cabinets, sink and carpet, salvaged from Pella house
  • Insulation, salvaged from Hilltop manor retirement home
  • Expenditures:
  • OSB plywood for ceiling, $110
  • Exterior paint, $25
  • Foam ceiling vents, $25
  • Bolts, $10
  • Door frame, $40
  • Exterior door, $13
  • Interior paint, $30
  • Drip cap for windows, $16
  • Brick mold for window frames, $60
  • Wood stove piping materials, $120
  • Total Cost: $489

46 thoughts on “Students Build Tiny Home for $489”

    • Hi Tina, I am in the process of trying to get more photos and I should have waited to publish it till I did. Check back later there should be more. -Kent

      • Hi, I’d like to thank you for your efforts.this offering supports what the movement is all about. I see tiny houses selling for $60K and $70K
        how does that let folks live debt free? we all have the ability to follow these young people and have a home we need not have payments on. I suppose the next move is ours, do you build on this or complain and be in the same place this time next year?

        • Despite not actually building their project, I applaud these two for their effort.

          Any space we build should be enjoyable, useful – and affordable meaning no long-term debt

          Kent, I hope you won’t mind my mentioning that with regard to affordability, I’ve designed a strong but lightweight and portable structure that can be plugged together in sections – and can be used for many things.

          If anyone is interested, I can email a free info page. Contact me at

          Again, a great article on very small spaces – and determined individuals.

  1. Dear Tiny House Blog,

    I’m going to say it – I hate to make a comment so-very-many people make on the Tiny House Blog, but here goes – WHERE are the pictures? Look, everyone appreciates a good story, and for all those who complain about the high cost of many tiny house projects, this should be one that garner attention. But good grief, you post the story with ONE photograph – and the photo you choose is a strange-angled interior shot of five cold- and miserable-looking people standing inside the project in question? For all the effort it takes to write an article like this, it takes a fraction of the time to take some digital photos – use your cell phone, for goodness sake. Please, no more “unillustrated” articles, OK? From the many, many other comments I’ve read, I know I speak for others in saying that without photos, your “readers” are losing interest.

    • Hi Jennifer,

      I am in the process of trying to get more pictures. I should have postponed publishing the post till I did. Thanks for pointing out my error, I will stay more on top of it in the future. -Kent

    • Well, Jennifer, Kent was very gracious in his reply, but do you think he actually goes to all of the locations of the stories on his blog? It is a blog you know. He comes across something interesting online, or someone sends something they think fits his blog and he writes about it, including whatever pictures he may have been sent. I’m sure had he been there he would have taken more photos, but it was nice of him to apologize to a fairly rude commenter.

    • Sheesh, Jennifer! We all like pictures, but try to remember we are getting this content for free. Don’t forget to be appreciative of all the hard work Kent puts into this 🙂

  2. While I applaud their effort and the outcome, they did not “build a tiny home” for $489. They were given a building AND a place to park it, for FREE. So really what they did was refurbish a tiny home for $489. Something to be proud of for sure but a more honest approach to the article would have been nice.

  3. In small areas or even in bigger towns/cities, being able to ‘dumpster-dive’ or scavenge is not always allowed or smiled upon. Praise goes out to those who succeed in making such a useful project. I am sure there were many valuable lessons acquired. Creativity is a good trait but often lost with some who become engrossed with ‘couch potato’ status.

  4. Since Miss Andrews loves scavenging, she and her friends might consider opening up their own business; a recycling center. They could get free-bees from Craig’s List, and advertise their Center online and with flyers or posters. I’ve often wished there was a local recycling center near where I live ever since I built my vardo in Canada using a local recycling center up there. Good luck to these young adults, they did an awesome job of getting their project across the finish line!

  5. I love it !!! Great for the environment, and super fantastic for the wallet. I want to congratulate them, as well as encourage them to add the things needed, I.e., hot water tank composting toilet, etc… As time and budget allows. Making it a finished product, add solar, and wind powered, will make it more usable, and more livable, as a permanent home. Their way of reusing materials, is a sensible, environmental, and financially responsible solution. More people should be doing it. It puts the cost of home ownership within reach of more people. The fact that they are on farmland, gives them an advantageous way to do more, like having a garden, raising chickens, etc….

    • A composting toilet can be as simple as a bucket, a toilet seat and a scavenged box to contain it; sawdust is available free for the looking. There are campground solar water heaters that are basically black plastic bags that work well and the cost of solar power is coming down exponentially. Good on these students, looking forward to pictures!

      • For a “sawdust” toilet (which I’ve used for 10 years), I recommend NOT using an enclosing box. Mine is a 5 gal bucket, with a 2×4 nailed in the wall behind it at the right height so that a toilet seat and lid can be attached. This takes up less room and looks much more like a “regular” toilet. When I used the box around it, it looked like an outhouse that had been moved inside. Don’t know how to post pictures or I would.

  6. Cudos to the students for pulling this off. It clearly shows the impact of free labor and re-purposed materials can have on project cost.

    The headline is a bit deceptive because it leads folks to think they can do this trick for under $500. But who has free land and how mobile do tiny house fans want their unit to be? A street-worthy trailer platform alone to support a mobile tiny house would blow the $500 hope.

  7. At the risk of becoming highly unpopular as a voice in the tiny house community and as a writer I would like to speak up.

    I have spent literally years reading and contributing (as well as creating and editing) blogs on the Internet. Some have been very large and very popular while others have simply been online journals so to speak. But I have noticed an awful trend occur in the last couple of years.

    The verbosity and gall embedded into comments are just discouraging. We all know that they anonymity of the Internet and the ability to foster passive aggressiveness behind a keyboard is rampant. That is a given. But the notion of commenting on a blog in a manner or tone that is simply rude and unfounded is inexcusable.

    I have known Kent (the editor of this blog) for a couple of years now and I have been reading THB since 2009. In fact, it was my first exposure to tiny houses and what led to my wife and I building our own. I always found the mix of content to be great. Some days we would just see a tiny house in a landscape. Other days we would see full articles with information about other builds. And yes, some days we would see almost blatant advertising for products. But the entire time we realized that we were looking at a blog created by a man with an obvious love for the modern tiny house movement as well as a resource COMPLETELY FREE to us. To this day THB remains a free source of content and to see hair splitting such as what I have seen today is just off-putting. Have we as a society fallen so that we can’t read more than a line or two without a photo to seemingly summarize the story for us? Do we need to resort back to picture book mentalities?

    Today’s article had a title that was pretty accurate. The tiny house was built. What they were given was a “dilapidated granary”. They weren’t given the shell of a tiny house. They weren’t given a small house to simply bolt onto a trailer. A granary is just a storeroom for feed. It has no plumbing, no electrical wiring, no gas lines, etc. The students had to build those. So yes. They DID build a tiny house. To say they didn’t would be like saying someone who built with SIPs did not build a tiny house because the walls were primarily fabricated in a warehouse and shipped to the build site.

    As for the photos….well, do we really think Kent would act against his best interest and hold back photos in lieu of publishing words? And does the lack of photos take away from the accomplishment of the students and the dedication given to the project? Why put their light under a bushel just because they don’t have professional photos of every step for our gawking pleasure?

    I say all this only to ask that before each of us write a comment we think about what a valuable resource THB and other sites like it are. I ask us to consider the content and how it can – with or without photos – enhance our understanding and appreciation of the modern tiny house movement.

    • Brava! I get a lot of information and inspiration from this, and other, blogs and sites. It may not always be something I can utilize, but it airs out the brain paths, makes room for new ideas. I say keep up the good work.

    • YES! Exactly, Andrew!
      And I should’ve read your comment BEFORE I typed out my customary lengthy essay elsewhere in these comments, so I could’ve just replied to yours with a ‘ditto, Andrew!’ , and saved myself and readers some time, LOL.
      Oh well. 😉

      You said everything I was trying to say and at less than a third the space.
      Kudos go to YOU, as well as Kent. 😉

    • Very well stated Andrew! So much harsh words and negativity in this past year and is getting out of hand. Thanks for speaking out! Kent and you were some of my first inspirations into the planning and building of my tiny dream. You two are always helpful and inspiring!

    • Thank you Andrew for articulately expressing exactly what I was feeling after reading some of the comments. And, thank you to Kent for a great article exemplifying what a resource learning institutions and programs can be for furthering the development of creative thinking and problem solving in a ‘real life’ manner. Bravo, to these students, their friends and family, AND to the instructor who allowed and encouraged such a wonderful project for credit. I’m new to the internet world of people interested in the many different and varied aspects of ‘Tiny House’ movement. However, many of the issues are things I’ve been intrinsically interested in my whole life. Thank you both for creating such wonderful resources for the rest of us!

    • Andrew, Thank You for writing this and being very supportive of Ken. I totally agree with you and could not have written it better. I do appreciate everything Ken brings to us. Its easy for some people to get caught up and comment without thinking. I was very upset to see some of the comments. Sure its nice to see pictures but the lack of the pictures should not take away from the story. Ken you have nothing to apologize for and Thank You for all your hard work. Many Blessings =)

  8. Wow! The effort, creativity and out-of-the-box thinking applied by Amy and Ethan should be applauded!

    How many skills did they learn through this experience that would be transferable to future projects or aid them in other life challenges?

    I would like to know the ages of the people who were quick to write negative comments or backhanded complements. How productive were you when you were 20ish? Did you depend a little on your family for “raw materials” or support?
    I think the point of the article may have been missed.

    Potentially, anyone could find an unused granary or outbuilding to outfit or scavenge for materials. Would the total costs have been more palatable if they had chopped wood or mowed lawns in exchange for the building or land?

    Out of pocket expenses for the students was $489. The rest was donated, bartered or trash picked.

    A amazing accomplishment. Well done!

    • Indeed. I love that you mentioned the skills they may have learned. That is what impresses me the most. I think back to Austin Hayes and his build, Sicily Kolbeck and her tiny house, and even still, Celina Dill and her tiny house out there in the Washington state area. As teens and young adults they are learning skills that aren’t taught in schools (or even in some households): budgeting, building, creating, bartering, managing, etc. Amazing indeed!

  9. That’s so inspiring ! Great to see young folks unintimidated by lack of funding. Recycling is the way to go,anyway. Save your money and help the environment ! My hat is off to all of them.

  10. I really admire Amy and Ethan for their initiative, resourcefulness, determination and hard work to complete the project. When I was their age in college (in the mid-60’s) I was lazy, and it would never have occurred to me to even try what they have accomplished, even of someone had suggested it!

    Through the years, the knowledge and skills they’ve learned will serve them in good stead.


  11. Hi, i have always been admired a small house design.. a cottage concept with some greenery with it.. and this blog, really make me wanna build something like this tho 🙂 so, thanks for sharing.

  12. Just wanted to send a big thank you to Kent and Andrew and all of the others that help in bringing us these excellent blogs. I truly appreciate all that you do. You know how it is in everything-“there is always one….”
    Love the blogs and very grateful that they are free. I hope you will keep them coming.

  13. I, for one (and I know *I* speak for many!) am not a ‘reader losing interest’ according to the picture-count of ‘illustrated articles’.
    The photo gave me a gist of the home the students built, size, layout, the basics, and though more is always nice, it was ADEQUATE! Any ‘void’ was MORE than made-up-for in the details they provided in availing us of their approach, the hours they spent on the project, and the breakdown of materials they scavenged and those they paid for out of pocket.

    I cannot say the same about some articles I come across (not here, Kent, not here!) where a brief paragraph serves as the intro AND, ultimately, whole ‘story’, followed by a dozen or so un-captioned photo’s and one more brief paragraph in closing – no STORY to the story, just a lot of ‘frosting’!
    I’ll take the CAKE, please. 😉
    And I don’t think Jennifer’s post was ‘rude’ or mean, either; she simply was interested enough in the story she wanted MORE, and I think we can ALL identify with that.

    But, Kent, I don’t agree that you should deem to ‘publish or not publish’ based soley on photo/illustration count, EVER.
    This is a blog made up of by and for PEOPLE, not professional writers and photographers who make a career out of such, and we should be more accepting of reading – and writing – articles/stories from the heart.
    Some of us will have more words than pictures (I know ALL ABOUT THAT ONE, LOL), some of us will have more pictures than words.
    If it;s an interesting concept, the story is there, and worthy of space. 😉

    I know it;s not said OFTEN ENOUGH, but… Kent, you do a GREAT JOB here in all that you do, and I know, like others here, that most of us couldn’t do a fraction of the work involved in keeping this blog so timely and informative and enjoyable as you do – I know I’d have t have a half dozen others helping out!
    And of course, you also have a LIFE besides this blog, one that requires more of your attention than this, and that you manage to turn out a site that is as lively and chock-full of topics and community as you do, and on a veritable shoestring, well I find that incredible… amazing, in fact.
    Kudos, Kent. Keep on doing just what you’re doing.
    …and THANK YOU. 😉

  14. I love this! It is great that when they couldn’t get the funding, they found recycled materials. When my parents needed to build a house cheaply (late 1940’s) while my dad was in college, he found an ad that if you would take down a structure, you could have the materials. He used not only the wood but even the nails to build their little house. Thank you for sharing.

  15. Thank you Andrew for explaining the “whole point”, to someone like Jennifer. Apparently, she needs a picture story with very few words. She totally missed the point of the amazing accomplishment by the students. The articles words provided the pictures in my mind. in my opinion she needs to apologize to Kent for her comments, just plain rude. And for someone complaining about pics, her’s is not present. Those students accomplished an amazing project and should be praised regardless of photos.

  16. Wow! Bravo~ that is some excellent salvaging skills and it is exciting to see fellow college students pursuing the tiny life!

    My name is Sarah and I am the Mount Holyoke student mentioned by Professor Butt in the article and would love to just point out that my $13,000 house is a complete bargain for what it is! All of my (used) windows and doors, my roofing, my (reclaimed) trusses, my solar panels, and much of my other material was donated. To add, most of my fixtures are upcycled. So why is mine so much more?!? I commend the resourcefulness in this granary home, and while my project is very similar, it is not directly comparable, as suggested in the article. Mainly, I required a heavy duty trailer and some very high quality insulation in order to create a lasting, energy efficient structure which fit my vision. This required much work, saving, and planning. Still, it will pay for itself in less than a year! I would love to have my house cited in the article, if at all possible, so that people can learn more about my budget and my purpose! Thanks!

  17. Hi! I think this is AMAZING! I want to go tiny living soooo Bad! But im becoming very discourage. Everyone i see cost more than my “big” house. 🙁 and i cant find Any one else around me into it to talk to about it to see where to start. My dream is fading…..

  18. Truly inspiring, great initiative, grit and creativity!

    To the naysayers, I say, OH PLEASE! The builders used what was available and the sweat of their brows.
    Use your imagination instead of photos.
    Show us what you have done – see how you feel if people withold praise because of what you didn’t do with what wasn’t available in your neighborhood.

  19. The naysayers are precisely why I no longer contribute my experiences with tiny house living. When I posted about rescuing and repairing and rebuilding my 20 year old 20′ diameter Pacific Dome in 2008 for $300, I was amaazed at how negative the comments could get. When I lost the use of my right hand and could no longer build, so I hired the talents of a local logger/Sawyer who sourced local logs & resources in building me a tiny 10×20′ cabin on a trailer and delivered and set it up on my site all for the price of a car, I got comments ranging from too much money, building with wood is not sustainable, etc…

  20. There’s a cabin off of the original us route thirty that Harvey Firestone and henry ford slept in in greens burg back I 1913 when they went cross the us by driving that would be a nice tiny house to restore

  21. yeah? well what did the land cost that they built it on, and how much is the annual tax on that land, hmm?

    If, however, they’d spent that $500 (and worked as much at day labor and/or craigslist jobs) they’d have a couple of old mini-vans, that can migrate like the birds twice a year, avoiding taxes, bad weather and not being stuck with each other.


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