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Small Scale House Building

Old-timers remember Malvina Reynolds's satiric song, "Little Boxes." Penned in 1962, the song heralded the coming suburban blight, where poorly constructed houses "were made of ticky-tacky and they all looked the same."

How times change. Today, scarce resources and staggering home costs have created a new definition of the "little box" - the Tiny House. And Mendocino College is at the forefront of the movement.

This summer, the college's Sustainable Technology program is offering a summer course on Construction Fundamentals and Green Building. The course, taught by Mendocino County native and PhD. Jen Riddell will attempt to build a Tiny House in 15 days, according to Orion Walker, Sustainable Technology program coordinator and Business instructor for the college.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the Tiny House is its portability. The houses are often built onto the bed of a trailer, sized to comply with highway towing standards so that the structures then become a moveable, portable home. The college collaborated with Ukiah High's welding department to modify a standard trailer so that the foundation of the 18-foot-by-8-foot Tiny House would be properly attached to the bed. Ukiah High students Dayton Payne, Little Joe, Colten Dennett, Kyler Kirch and Beau Franzen removed some portions of the trailer's features and welded on additional outrigger supports, according to welding instructor Bob Bartow. B & B Industrial donated the materials for the modification.

"The idea is to build the house right onto the trailer," Riddell explains. "We'll run floor joists across the deck, put up the walls and see how far the class can get in 15 days," she smiles.

The college's Tiny House will have all the features of a full-sized home - a bathroom, kitchen and a sleeping loft to maximize space. "You try to build in efficient storage - drawers in stairs, upper-level storage and of course, reduce your possessions," Riddell smiles. She estimates the cost of this house at approximately $15,000, not including, solar, a hot water system and toilet. "You can build a simple, salvage-based house for around $20,000. One woman in Healdsburg built her home for $3,500 using all salvaged materials," she continues.

"This idea has really come into its own over the past few years," says Walker. "There is a lot of potential for building and selling these structures, for agricultural workers, as a granny unit or other temporary structure. From a career perspective, we see this as a very good business option," he continues.

The benefit for the students in this summer's class is that they will have a hands-on experience of building an entire house. "It's a condensed building process. They'll see a lot of different aspects involved in building a house," Riddell continues.

Another interesting fact, according to Riddell, is that currently there are no codes that govern the construction of houses on wheels. "Right now, they fall into the category of an RV, so no permits are currently necessary," she explains. That doesn't mean that students will be learning sub-standard construction methods, however. "Our Residential Electric class will be doing all the electrical installation," Walker explains. "It's building as you go. It's very nice not having to go to the county if you decide to make a design change mid-stream," he continues.

Riddell is currently constructing her own tiny house, perched atop a 22-foot long trailer. It is just over 8 feet wide and less than 13.5 feet tall, making the structure towable. "I started in December working part-time on it," she explains. She did some degree of salvaging and chose many of her materials for their degree of lightness. You do have to focus on lightness and flexibility with your materials. I used recycled denim insulation, which was great. It meant that I wasn't breathing in fiberglass when I installed it," she notes. Riddell was working in Washington, D.C. on science policy when she heard about the Tiny House movement. "I realized I was so done in D.C.," she laughs. "I made plans to move, began to design my house and got a lot of support from carpenters, plumbers and friends."

Tiny House communities are beginning to sprout, particularly in urban areas. "There are three examples in the U.S.: a San Francisco development, a project in New York where the houses are 300 square feet, and another in Washington, D.C.," says Riddell. The Washington, D.C. project consists of a small group of individuals who purchased a lot, each constructing their own version of a Tiny House. "Some neighbors are delighted and others are confused," Riddell smiles. "It's definitely an experiment in urban living."

There are still openings in Riddell's class, as well as other courses in the college's Sustainable Technology program. Minimum enrollment is necessary for the summer classes to be offered. "We're offering three online courses, which is more convenient for some people," says Walker.

Openings are available in a number of classes including Sustainable Overview, Residential Electric, The New Green Economy and Entrepreneurial Management courses. Though the courses can be taken with the goal of receiving a Sustainable Technology certification, Walker stresses the classes are standalone and will enlighten and assist anyone interested in the burgeoning field. "There's a sustainable niche in every business today, and a strong entrepreneurial component to Sustainable Technology. These courses bring flexibility and adaptability to any career path," Walker concludes.

Meanwhile, Riddell studies the sleeping loft in her Tiny House. "How do I build stairs that aren't a ladder?" she opines.

Classes begin June 10. For information on the Sustainable Tech program, click here, email Walker at, or phone (707) 468-3224.

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