Tiny Texas Houses heralds that building the future from the past is a viable idea—and an idea worth salvaging.
By Sara G. Stephens
“If it’s big enough, you can have a disco,” one girl remarks brightly, striking a gleeful Saturday Night Fever pose.
“Why wouldn’t you want a smaller treehouse?” the man inquires of the group.
“Because you wouldn’t have enough room for a flat-screen TV,” a boy gushes enthusiastically.
“That’s a pain in the buns,” the man says.
The conversation comes from an AT&T commercial for 4G networks. It’s message is not complicated: Bigger is Better. Even when it comes to treehouses.
An ever-booming McMansion phenomenon in the U.S. suggests Americans feel the same about their houses as these kids do about their treehouses. Despite predictions of “a new frugality” in new home purchases, new single-family homes built last year were still 49 percent bigger than those built in 1973, according to Census Bureau data reported in a November 2012 Business Week article. This is true despite the fact that family sizes have shrunk over that same period, the article notes.
Brad Kittel, owner of Tiny Texas Houses (TTH) in Luling, Texas, dreams to reverse the trend, changing people’s ideals about home, life, and the very planet we inhabit, with his construction of tiny houses that are, on the one hand, breathtakingly beautiful and on the other hand, entirely sustainable and constructed top-to-bottom from salvage materials reclaimed from old houses.
Judging from his 16,646 Facebook fans, Brad has succeeded in a first, important step in this trend reversal: sparking an interest that may soon ignite significant change. Of these fans, some have taken the second step: tiny home ownership.
BUCKING THE MCMANSION
Laura and Larry, loving life in the “Cowboy Cabin”
Granted, many of these tiny homes serve as guest homes or vacation cottages. But they still mark an important new trend, as noted by Laura Long Tiedt, a tiny-home owner from LaGrange, Texas. “The new trend is not to have 40- or 50-thousand square foot homes,” says Laura, who has had a long career in economic development and building inner cities, “but rather to buy smaller primary residences that are cheaper to heat and cool, then build tiny secondary homes for guests.” The idea of using reclaimed materials is also familiar territory for Laura, who, at the age of 15, took down the doors in her parents’ home, and then stripped and refinished them. She also witnessed this trend beating strong in her economic development career. “The objective is to build up an environment that’s deteriorating and recycle it,” Laura explains. “Take the very best of what you have and put it back to use.”
Laura’s husband, Larry, now 64, grew up in the The Heights in Houston, living in old houses with his father, who was a builder. Laura, too, has always lived in historic homes, and grew up in a house built by the Amish in 1895. For a farm girl from central Illinois, the idea of living in a home with historic components that is also environmentally sound appealed to her organic principles. “I value everything that can be put back on earth and used in a responsible way.”
The Tiedts owned some property in West Point, Texas, where they had planned to build a house. When Larry was diagnosed with Stage 4 melanoma cancer, those plans came to a halt.
“Then Larry met Brad [Kittel],” Laura says. “And Larry found this tiny house, and he said to me, ‘This house is great. It would make the perfect guesthouse. It can be a sanctuary, a retreat, where we can be with nature, and I can meditate.’ The house was as much a part of my DNA as his.”
Laura shares a note Larry wrote to Brad:
“I have strong faith in God. I know He brought me to your place for a reason. Our land in West Point is too beautiful to be left vacant. A little Texas home will give it the soul it needs. I sat in one of your homes today and felt a warmth and peacefulness I have not had this year. My 92-year-old dad will sit on the porch and remember his days as a child riding to La Grange in an old wagon pulled by two mules. My nieces and nephews will be taught why these [stories] are to be remembered and why they are important.”
The Tiedts commissioned Brad to build a tiny house for them. Laura says the reclaimed nature of the home brings them more enjoyment than anything else. “There is so much history in the house itself,” she says. “It makes you feel like you’re doing something responsible for the environment.” The history extends beyond Brad’s construction. Much of the interior comes from Laura’s father, who was a cowboy, with everything coming from Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. “It’s entirely southwest, and all cowboy,” Laura says, adding that instilling this decorative layer adds to the personally historical richness of her home. It also inspired their home’s name, “Cowboy Cabin.”
At only 540 square feet, including lofts and screened-in porch, Cowboy Cabin is, indeed, tiny, but that’s not a shortcoming, as far as the Tiedts are concerned. The couple entertains at their tiny house and has friends come and stay there. “People are always so surprised when they walk in. It’s so wonderfully self-contained,” Laura says.
Inspired by Brad’s work, the Tiedts began working on their own salvage project, a storage shed where they could keep food for deer and fish, and a bridge constructed of cedar. Every piece is completely recycled. The windows are the original windows, made of the “wavy glass” you don’t see in modern glasswork. Laura took the windows to the lumberyard and had them reglazed, then painted them herself. The project was empowering to the soul. “There’s a fulfillment you get that’s hard to explain unless you’re in the moment of doing it,” Laura says. “Once you create something like that for the next generation—for us it is a place where our grandnieces and grandnephews can come—it’s the greatest gift. You know the legacy you’re leaving is forever. You can’t buy it. You have to create it.”
Laura credits Cowboy Cabin with healing powers, of sorts. The joy Larry gets from staying in the house and from working on their salvage project has given her husband a reason to live.
Larry had his last surgery at MD Anderson on New Year’s Eve. “He said, ‘I just want to go out and see my cabin one more time,’” Laura recalls. “He got his wish. And it got him though the surgery. And we went back to our tiny house.”
Tom and Margaret, living green in Dallas
Tom Kemper, 58, and his wife Margaret, 51, bought their tiny house from Brad almost one year ago. The couple needed a temporary home to live in while they remodeled their small 1940s home. The remodeling will result in a house that collects rainwater into 5,000-gallon tanks, generates its own electricity, uses mold-resisting oxide board rather than sheetrock, and fills the interior with natural lighting.
During the remodeling process, Margaret leased the house next door, soon discovering it had mold in it. The Kempers knew it was an absolute “no-no” for Tom, who is battling Lyme Disease.
From a physical health perspective, the house is just what the doctor ordered. A lovely jade color in the house comes from milk paint, which means Tom doesn’t take in the toxicity associated with contemporary paints. And with the overwhelming fatigue that comes with Lyme Disease, Tom says it’s nice to have a small space, rather than having to navigate a larger area. “I’m in a place that facilitates my healing and is very good for me,” he says.
At 250 square feet, Tom says his house is made entirely of recycled material and gives him everything he needs, office area, sanctuary, and healing space. “I never even think about its size,” Tom explains. Because he designed the house with Brad, the home is laid out to suit Tom’s needs. “I adapt easily anyway, and I don’t need a lot of space,” he says. “I have a kitchen, bathroom, sleeping area. That’s everything a person needs—in a tiny footprint.”
Tom thinks Brad is on to something most people don’t comprehend: we think we need big spaces, and we really don’t. He talks about his space as he sits in his cozy home, windows open, air breezing through the house.
“It’s like having a mountain home in Oregon or Colorado,” says the Dallas resident.
Tom adds that his house, which is filled with beautiful energy and light, is like living in a work of art. “The creativity that Brad uses when he decorates… it’s hard to explain to someone how much that can enrich your life,” Tom reflects. He contemplates the age of the original homes from which his house’s materials came, and the age of the trees that were used for the lumber. The history in the walls and floors resonates. “I’ve never had this type of feeling in a place. I love living here,” he says. “I could live this way the rest of my life.”
Jackie Spigener, Owner, “The Silver Sycamore”
Four years ago, Jackie Spigener bought three tiny houses from Brad to complement the old 1930s houses she’s restored on her bed & breakfast property, The Silver Sycamore, in Pasadena.
Jackie owned a construction company before starting her lodging business, so she’s done a lot of historical renovations. The idea of salvaging pieces from historical homes is nothing new to her. “You can build a new house that looks old,” she says, “but if it’s not truly old, it doesn’t have the same feel.”
Before getting her tiny houses, Jackie’s business consisted of a tea room and reception venue. Even these locations were built using reclaimed materials from Jackie’s restoration projects. “I told my husband to make all of our walkpaths throughout the property out of chunks recycled from the house’s old driveway,” she says.
The tiny houses that comprise the Silver Sycamore’s guest accommodations rent for between $135 and $155 a night. “I don’t have outrageous amounts of money coming from the B&B,” Jackie says, “but the whole wedding venue pulls from the look and feel of those tiny houses.”
Jackie does not live in a tiny house, but she’s a big believer in the quality of life that comes from living in a historical home and from the historical materials used to build them. She still puzzles over a “weird” comment she got from an insurance company representative, who told her they couldn’t offer her window storm insurance for the tea room, because the building was too old. “I said to myself, ‘Wow! What backwards thinking. This house has withstood nearly a century of hurricanes!’”
She marvels at the irony that homeowners can’t get tax credits for using older materials. “Older materials are so strong, and the stuff they use nowadays is so cheap.”
MAKING SUSTAINABLE TINY HOMES A REALITY
Brad Kittel has been designing and building tiny houses for eight years. Before launching TTH, he owned an antique shop in Gonzales, Texas. Prior to that he was a realtor, an experience which no doubt gave him insight into the landscape of today’s homes, the land they sit on, and the people who buy them.
Brad’s tiny houses are beautiful, charming, and life-changing. They are also sustainable, and, by this definition, possess three traits: they reduce pollution and waste, are energy efficient, and are healthy shelters for the people who inhabit them.
Pure Salvage, virtually no waste
With a degree in English American Literature (“That and two dollars should buy you a cup of coffee,” Brad says, “so long as it’s not Starbucks coffee”), Brad came to Texas with $650, a beaten-up school bus and a motorcycle. “I built everything you see out of my imagination, nothing more,” he says.
His imagination and financial resources, or perhaps lack thereof, drew Brad to the practice of scouring apartment complexes for materials needed to convert his bus into a livable home. Necessity being the mother of invention, Brad invented a business idea born of his experience with realty and scavenging.
His idea for reclaiming materials, warehousing them, and using them to build tiny homes was unique in its own right. But it’s Brad’s artistry, craftsmanship, and passion that truly set his architectural works apart from other tiny homes on the market, whether newly constructed or of the pre-fab variety. In short, Brad’s houses are brilliant works of art, constructed with irrefutable craftsmanship of pure salvage. The materials come from houses he deconstructs, which Brad carefully sifts through, looking for pieces worth reclaiming for use in building his tiny homes. The salvaged materials are then stored in any of Brad’s three salvage warehouses in Luling or Gonzales, which are stocked to the brim with every house component you can imagine, from floorboards and doors, windows and bathtubs to stained glass, hand-carved spindles, columns, and furniture.
The warehouse is a shining example of vertically-integrated home construction. One corner of the immense space serves as the designated paint shop. Opposite sits the welding shop. The warehouse also houses an electrical shop, plumbing shop, and at the farthest end, a glass repair shop. An entire area of the Luling warehouse will serve as a showroom to showcase Brad’s vast collection of antique doorknobs and similar hardware.
People who commission a tiny house from Brad spend some time with him designing the framework of the house, sometimes based on a model he’s already built (some of which can be toured at the Luling facility) and other times created as a brand new design. The future homeowners then enjoy the treat of selecting specific details from the TTH warehouse to make the house uniquely theirs.
Alternatively, people can participate much earlier in the process. Brad has offered workshops on the entire salvage process: from demolition, to valuing the salvage, to storing it, and then using it to build tiny homes from the ground up.
At $150 a workshop, Brad’s motive has been far from profit-driven. His hope and vision was to pass on his knowledge of pure-salvage living to a group, who could pass it on to others, virally affecting a change in how people live—and ultimately how they think about themselves, their roles in society, and their responsibilities to the planet.
Energy-Efficient Materials and Processes
There are several aspects to the energy-efficiency that powers a Tiny Texas Home. For starters, the way they’re built is efficient by definition. “We’ve been told for generations we couldn’t do a lot of stuff, and the truth is we can’t,” Brad says. “But I proved that we can build out of trash. We can build safe houses, non-toxic houses, and we can build something to last a lifetime. We can do that with pretty much nothing other than the air it takes to run the nail guns, the electricity it takes to run the saws, and the nails.”
Brad’s TTH operation is designed to serve as a triggering mechanism, a catalyst to prompt homeowners and builders into a new way of approaching their houses, with skills and resources that are not beyond their reach.
The homes themselves are rich with efficiency. Obviously, their minimal footprint saves on heating and cooling costs, compared with larger houses. But they’re efficient in other ways, too. A house built with reclaimed wood is, by its very nature, more energy-efficient than its modern-day counterpart constructed with new materials. This is because, the older a tree is, the denser its wood becomes.
Consider that the lumber you buy at Lowe’s, for example, might come from a tree that’s 20 years old, tops. On the other hand, lumber used in salvage houses come from materials reclaimed from homes that can be 100 or more years old. The lumber used to originally construct these old homes came from trees that were perhaps several hundred years old. So it’s easy to see how these reclaimed materials provide better insulation than modern alternatives. Here are some numbers to chew on.
Insulation is qualified in terms of its R-value, “a measure of resistance of an insulating or building material to heat flow, expressed as R-11, R-20, and so on; the higher the number, the great the resistance to heat flow,” according to dictionary.com. Houston’s climate zone requires an R-value of 13 for wood-frame walls and 19 for floors, according to the 2009 International Residential Code and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. TTH homes, with walls and floors constructed of centuries-old reclaimed wood, carry an R-value of 40.
Many TTH homes use a heated ceramic tile that plugs into the wall to heat interiors. The tiles are constructed in such a way that you can touch and feel the heat on one side, but not for long before you have to pull your hand away. The other side is cool to the touch. You can see these tiles plugged in strategically around the TTH warehouse, like in bathrooms, to heat during the winters. The tiles cost around $80 a piece and are the equivalent to running a 400-watt light bulb. A couple of these tiles are all that’s required to heat a tiny home. The tiles can even be painted with a heat-resistant paint to match interior décor.
Good for the mind, body, and soul
There’s physical health and there’s emotional health and psychological well-being. TTH homes facilitate both. Brad’s dream is to build a future out of trash, and to build it with “no toxins, nothing getting in your lungs, nothing getting in your body.” And so, that’s how his houses are actually built—safe for the person building them.
The houses’ inhabitants enjoy the same level of health and safety considerations. Each house has a zero-toxicity design that can be traced all the way down to the very paint on the walls: milk paint. Milk paint, quite simply, is made from milk protein (also known as casein) and lime (also known as calcium), plus earth or mineral pigments. It’s a recipe that, in some form or another, has been used for around 6,000 years. It is all natural, will not harm the environment, and can be made in a range of colors limited only by what’s made available in the earth.
Other smart human-friendly touches include roofs that can fold down to protect glass in the house during a hurricane, and tongue oil applied to walls and floors to keep wood from rotting.
Testimonials from any number of TTH homeowners illustrate the myriad ways in which these homes have contributed to their healing, whether spiritual or physical. Much of this healing or sense of well-being can be attributed to the historic elements used in their construction. The history goes much deeper than the surface.
Here’s how Brad explains it: “Imagine how every cell in the walls is organic, is grown out of the earth for hundreds and hundreds of years. The cellular institutions are alive, all the history of the earth, all the droughts, everything,” he says. “Consider how a board from this house’s floor comes out of a tree that’s 500 years old, and in that 500 years it recorded everything that happened. And it also carries with it five generations of its ancestors, recorded in its DNA and its RNA. So in these floors and in these walls, I’ve effectively got 2,000 years of the history of the earth—live history of the earth, recorded by live beings that have been chopped up, dried up, and poured into a house.”
The result is a sense of well-being akin to what you get when you wrap yourself in an old blanket that’s been passed down from your grandmother, and to her from her grandmother—it’s a comfort that swells from something that goes beyond the organic nature of the blanket itself, from the lives and love the blanket has seen and given. This represents a tiny aspect of what Brad is conveying.
Every aspect of the house benefits from the human energy, which Brad believes transfers. “The glass that was made by hand 100 years ago carries the energy from the hands that made it,” Brad says. “It is energized by love,” Brad says, adding that the produced energy lives in his tiny houses, adding to their sense of warmth and fullness.
CHANGING A CULTURE: IT TAKES A VILLAGE
An adjunct to Brad’s evolutionary goal is for devotees of pure salvage living to live together in tiny villages made up of tiny houses. People who live in the villages would be part of a true salvage-living membership—a “renaissance,” as Brad calls it.
The members of this renaissance community would stay in the village as Brad’s guests, free of charge. But they would pay to participate in a pure-salvage living survey. “You’re paying to participate in sharing your feelings and filling in a journal of what it actually feels like to be in a house that’s done this way and built out of nothing but salvage,” Brad says.
A parcel of 50-acre land adjacent to TTH was slated to serve as a prototype of one-acre villages: a musicians’ village, an artists’ village, a blacksmiths’ village, a holistic-living village, and so on. The idea was that an investor or several investors would sponsor the villages to develop them. Whoever lived there would have an individual tiny house, each with a master bedroom and other essential private living spaces. There would also be a common house in the middle of the village where the villagers could cook together and eat together. “There’s a community in eating together, discussing things, talking,” Brad explains. There would be a communal hall, one big kitchen, and one big stove.
It’s a premise of the villages that it’s unnecessary to replicate everything for every individual. Instead of making things redundant with 12 different lawnmowers or refrigerators, Brad says such items are shared among a group. “So 16 of us would get in a bus, go to Home Depot, go to Whole Foods store, whatever we need to do. We do it in a group, and cut our costs.” Meals are the perfect example of such savings. “When you cook for one person, you waste a lot,” Kittel says. “When you cook for a group, someone’s going to scoop it up at the end. There’s no waste. The idea is to think smart again.”
It’s an exercise of a vision Brad started 30 years ago. Now it’s coming to an end. Brad dreamed that if he built the framework for this village, “they would come.” But nobody came. The lack of interest came as a hard pill to swallow for Brad, who has 16,697 fans on his Facebook page, all of whom sing Brad’s praises, applauding his vision and bowing to the pure artistry of his houses.
And so Brad announced early this year that he will be closing the shop doors of Texas Tiny Houses. He is now taking the last 20 orders for his tiny house creations. The TTH Facebook page ticks off the countdown—every time someone contracts to have a house built, Brad announces the number of houses left on his future-build plans.
“I am going to stop selling them and being in business trying to convince people to think differently and contribute to making this happen,” Brad writes on his Facebook page. “I can no longer sustain the costs of pioneering and trying to teach others who do not come to the Boot Camps or volunteer to apprentice to learn. I can build my houses for me rather than just sell them all and work like a dog to give everyone else what I want to keep.”
There is no financial need for Brad to continue selling his tiny houses, if he simply sells all the inventory he had saved to put in trust and create the many villages of the Tiny Texas Territories and Salvagefaire. His web page now promotes sale of his warehouse items beginning last month, in March.
Brad says he is also offering his last salvage Boot Camp and perhaps one more building seminar. But he does not hold high hopes for what he now calls “magical thinking,” considering nobody signed up for his 5-weekends-for-$150 offer.
The transition from building tiny houses for sale to creating them for his own “fantasy land of houses made from salvage” will be easy for Brad. “If I don’t have to sell them, why would I want to anymore? It was an easy answer for me after so many years.”
Brad says the change will leave him freer to downsize his life, and practice more of what he has preached to others, “hopefully not dealing with the $90,000 a month in payroll and expenses that never seems to coincide with the cash flow needs in a world that banks and investors are apparently not interested in helping.”
Here Brad refers to what has been a sales setback for his vision. Beyond a lack of investors to start up his tiny villages, Brad has struggled with banks not wanting to finance his tiny houses because they’re made of reclaimed materials, meaning they cannot comply with existing housing code requirements.
“I believed I had the answers that so many would adopt,” Brad muses, “but I never thought it would take seven years to see no one would come. The open invitation now has closed as does the door. Opportunity transforms into other things instead.”
Scan this QR code with a QR code reader on your phone to see a slide show of several of Brad’s tiny houses. It is set to music based on a poem Brad wrote about salvage living. Brad’s son, Adam, later put music to the poem, turning it into a song (“Song of Salvage), and recorded it as a favor to his dad before he left for Paris, where he died two years ago at the age of 25.The website also contains a list of how-to videos Brad made about salvage living and tiny houses.