Micro Homes the New Rage?
Originally published by: EcoHome Magazine Online — January 15, 2012
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Ideabox, a Salem company, is forming a micro neighborhood of five mini homes at 1200 Sheraton Drive in Eugene -- teensy ideas that are all the rage in architectural circles at the moment.
The five green, prefab houses have a maximum of 600 or 750 square feet of living space. They are designed to look and feel bigger while retaining the economic and environmental benefits of building, heating and cooling a small space.
Those qualities are in demand, said Greg Johnson, founder of the Small House Society, which is based in Iowa City and has about 5,000 participants nationally.
"People are dialing down their investment in homes and increasing investment in education or personal development." he said.
The size of newly built U.S. houses grew steadily from a 983 square foot average in 1950 to a peak of 2,521 square feet in 2007, U.S. Census figures show. But the size has shrunk each year since the start of the Great Recession, dropping to an average 2,392 square feet in 2010.
In Lane County, the average size of newly built homes rose from 1,940 square feet in 2000 up to a peak of 2,180 in 2007, falling steadily after that to 1,951 in 2010, county figures show.
The ultra small houses -- under 100 feet -- are favored by young people who are determined to reduce their carbon footprint and avoid a lifetime of debt, Johnson said.
"These are the kids who have iPhones and that's how they read their books and watch their TV shows and listen to their music and do everything," Johnson said. "They don't have book shelves that have CDs and DVDs and books on them. They have 'em in their shirt pocket."
Ultra small houses, frequently built on trailers to dodge local housing codes, cost $20,000 to $30,000 to build, or about a sixth of the cost of the average used house on the Eugene-Springfield market.
At the other end of the age scale, small-house proponents says, couples who have raised their children are looking to downsize -- maybe not to an ultra small house, but to tidier, less costly and easier- to-care-for quarters.
"Heading into retirement, people are saying: The funds that I had my investments in are not worth as much as I thought they would be," Johnson said.
"In every aspect, less money is required to live in a small home," he said, listing heat, lights and shopping as examples.
About a dozen firms have arisen nationally in response to the demand for small, green prefab houses, in addition to established builders entering this market.
In Southeast Portland, production home builder D.R. Horton is tapping into the market with Division 43, a "micro community" of houses ranging from 364 to 687 square feet.
In Eugene, ideabox is building its "micro neighborhood" on a half-acre lot for Nell Babcock, and her father, Harold, who own and operate the Camelot Manufactured Home Village in East Eugene. It will be marketed to adults age 55 and older. The mini houses in the Cottages@Camelot development will cost up to $120,000. In addition, the buyers will pay a $5,100 annual land rental fee, based on current rates, to the park owners.
Ideabox founder Jim Russell is a Eugene native who attended Marist High School and the University of Oregon before earning a master's degree in architecture from the University of Colorado. He spent his early career designing resorts in Aspen and Vail.
In the early 1990s, he moved his family to Salem and worked at the Oregon Department of Energy, managing a large project to create energy efficiency standards for 22 prefab home manufacturers in the Northwest.
As a by-product, he learned exactly how to build an energy-efficient prefab home.
By the time he left the energy department, he had an insider's view of how the industry functioned.
He decided ideabox would feature comely design elements but at a price that average couples could afford.
"I know we could do this and be cost effective," he remembers saying. In 2006, he launched ideabox and set to designing 840-, 625- and 400-square-foot models. Since then, ideabox houses have been featured in House Beautiful magazine and the Portland Home & Garden Show.
Ideabox has sold 30 houses and expects to break $1 million in sales this year, Russell said.
Russell has established relationships with manufactured home makers in the Northwest -- he declines to disclose which ones -- who build his designed houses to his specifications.
The houses are green and "efficient in every possible way," Russell said. Permeable pavement and sand filters outside deal with run off. Inside are certified green bamboo floors, dual flush toilets, tankless hot water heaters, ductless heat pumps, heavy insulation, highly efficient windows and Energy Star appliances.
Russell uses a myriad of techniques to make the small spaces feel big, including clean lines, 9- to 11-foot sloped ceilings, doors in most every room opening onto outdoor living spaces, tall windows and forced perspectives.
"Your eye is always extending beyond the wall," Russell said. "It's knowing how your brain sees beyond what you look at."
The Babcocks were pleasantly surprised when they visited a 450-square-foot model in Salem, Nell Babcock said.
"My father, who's in his late eighties, said 'Wow this would be perfect for me.' He loved it" she said. "There's not a square inch in the whole thing that's wasted. It flows from one room to the next."
The elder Babcock lives in a 2,500-square-foot manufactured house in the family's park. He needs a good bedroom and bathroom, Nell said. He rarely uses his kitchen.
"There's a lot of wasted space in his big, huge home," she said. "We thought (ideabox) was perfect for senior citizens who don't need a lot of space who are downsizing."
The houses are being built on a metal chassis at an Idaho factory and shipped all in one piece to the site, Russell said. The first will arrive on site by the end of January. Ideabox houses can be built to manufactured home codes or to site-built home codes, as the buyer's situation requires.