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Super downsized: Tiny house on tour

Karen Hirschman of the Washington State chapter of American Society of Interior Designers shows some tile that will be used as kitchen backsplash and in the bathroom of this house made from a steel shipping container.
Karen Hirschman of the Washington State chapter of American Society of Interior Designers shows some tile that will be used as kitchen backsplash and in the bathroom of this house made from a steel shipping container. phaley@thenewstribune.com

Until the weekend of Oct. 1, you’ll just need to use your imagination.

Not until the Master Builders Association of Pierce County hosts its 19th annual Tour of Remodeled Homes will this particular dwelling be ready to impress guests.

So imagine a 40-foot shipping container, the kind you see on the backs of trucks or stacked high beside the freeway like giant rusty Legos.

Imagine that one such container has been converted into what trendsetters call a “tiny house,” and imagine that the 320 square feet of interior space features upscale Bosch appliances, fine finishes, and a professionally coordinated palette of colors and textures.

As it stands today in the parking lot of Water Concepts at 3505 South Tacoma Way, and after upwards of two years of planning and permits and some six weeks on the site, this tiny house looks like ... a big blue shipping container. Inside, however, the walls have been insulated, and electrical, mechanical and plumbing systems have been installed. The container doors have been welded shut while space has been cut and windows and doors affixed.

Bumps, dents, dings and other bruises remain on the steel exterior — and that’s part of the charm. This particular container has likely sailed wide oceans and survived angry seas while visiting ports throughout the world.

Now it’s home.

Now it is a home.

“We’re doing this as a fundraiser,” said Karen Hirschman, past president of the nonprofit Washington State Chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers.

Her group sponsors the container-house project and will sell the home following the MBA tour. Hirschman confirmed that organizers paid $1,900 for the raw container, and she estimated the association expects to sell the house for at least $150,000.

“Eventually, I think you could build one of these for $40,000 to $50,000,” she said during a recent tour.

The MBA sponsored a container-house design competition among students at area colleges. The winner, from Bellevue College, was chosen for the way these 320 square feet could be used to accommodate the needs of a resident family.

“His design flowed logically,” Hirshman said. “The simplicity is what resonated with the committee.”

“The trend is toward smaller places that aren’t putting people in debt up to their ears,” she said. “The interesting part (of the project) is getting through the permitting process. That’s the hard part.”

Permitting agencies, she said, have yet to develop rules that speak directly to the tiny-house movement.

Agencies are not yet generally familiar with what is now called “refined capsule living.”

“This is considered a ‘factory-assembled structure,’ ” Hirschman said. Although it can be moved, it’s not a mobile home, and it’s not a motor home because it lacks its own source of propulsion. It has no permanent setting, yet.

This particular former shipping container has had the attention of an architect, a structural engineer and others including plumbing, mechanical and electrical engineers.

“We’re new at this,” Hirschman said.

“This is a first for me,” said Steven Rork of Tacoma-based general contractor R4 Construction.

He offers a look at some of the interior details.

There will be a wall-mounted toilet that will offer space beneath, and there will be a tankless water heater, under-counter lighting, a ductless heat pump, a wall-mounted TV and a Murphy bed in the bedroom/office/den.

Add the built-in charging station for your electric car.

At 320 square feet, the house is about the size of a small double-car garage. Seven such homes at 320 square feet could almost fit within the median new home being built in America today, at 2,200 square feet.

According to the website thetinylife.com, 68 percent of tiny homes do not carry a mortgage, compared with 29.3 percent of other owned homes.

“We’re carving the path,” Rork said.

One of the greater challenges, he said, was making sure the container was level at the site. Also, insulation requirements caused a brief challenge solved by using foam rather than a more traditional and space-robbing product.

“I think in general, Americans have had their eyes opened — from overpackaging to oversized houses. They’re changing their mindset in what they need,” he said.

“You can do a lot more with less,” he said. “I think people want to simplify their lives.”

Proponents of the tiny-house movement point to the economic advantages as well as the social benefits.

“It doesn’t take a massive amount of space to live comfortably and simply,” Hirschman said.

“It’s the possibilities,” she said.

Possibilities such as a deck up on the roof. Get a ladder, build a safety fence, have a 40-foot housewarming party.

Imagine that.

C.R. Roberts: 253-597-8535

For more information

As with any homebuilding or homebuying experience, expect delays and be ready for frustrations when planning a tiny-home container conversion project. There are costs associated with container conversions — from the crane to lift the container and place on your property to the structural engineer who will explain the requirements of adding a rooftop patio.

There likely will be vexations when dealing with local, county and state officials. Not all jurisdictions have developed planning guidelines for container living, and some localities ban them outright as mobile homes. So check with your local city hall or county planning office.

Resources for those interested in tiny homes are abundant online. Here are a few starting points:

▪ National Association of Realtors

▪ The Tiny Life

▪ Tiny House Blog

▪ Container Home Plans

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