Big Dreams Small Houses

Alumni entrepreneurs join the tiny-house movement to build their homes and businesses.

Ranging from 100 to 800 square feet, tiny houses have become a big movement that counts several UNC Asheville alumni among its members—builders, bloggers, believers.

Many UNC Asheville alumni credit their undergraduate education with giving them the tools to start their own businesses.

In the case of Jake Hagedorn ’12 and Annelise DeJong Hagedorn ’12, those tools have included the traditional critical- and creative-thinking skills associated with the liberal arts and a few that they have picked up along the way, such as wood saws, routers and T-squares. The couple founded the Brevard Tiny House Company at the beginning of 2013. Now in graduate school at Penn State, the Hagedorns not only build tiny homes, they live in one. 

They aren’t alone in choosing the lifestyle. Another alumnus, Ryan Mitchell ’07, maintains a popular blog,
The Tiny Life, and earlier this year published a book on the subject, Tiny House Living: Ideas for Building and Living Well in Less Than 400 Square Feet.

All three say UNC Asheville gave them a foundation on which to build their ideas. 

Jake Hagedorn, an environmental studies graduate, learned about tiny houses in Environmental Studies 330 and studied alternative techniques for heating a home in a solar design class. 

One of his professors, Kevin Moorhead, even remembers Hagedorn talking with him outside of class about building a tiny home.

“I really loved the idea, because a tiny home would certainly reduce the ecological foot print,” Moorhead said. “You can get so much living space in the tiny space that you have in these homes.”  

Mitchell also recalls that the climate on campus was ripe for such ideas even outside the classroom. “If you spend any time at UNC Asheville, you know there is an environmental consciousness there,” said Mitchell. 

Think Small

The Hagedorns’ loft has windows on three sides and plenty of space for sleeping or sitting.The tiny-house movement urges people to reevaluate the spaces they call home. Its devotees ask, how much home is enough? Can one live more simply in a small home? While not a new concept, tiny-house living has struck a chord among many people for varied reasons. 

Jake Hagedorn attributes some of the idea’s popularity to an increased awareness in environmental sustainability. Also, he suggests, the recession and ensuing slow recovery have prompted many people to rethink their relationships with material goods and consumption. At a time when rents are on the rise and mortgages remain harder to get, living in a cash-paid house has its appeal. 

“People are more willing to think outside the box,” adds his wife, Annelise DeJong Hagedorn, a sociology graduate.

For the Hagedorns, the decision to “live tiny” came in Sri Lanka. The two had moved there after Annelise earned a Fulbright Fellowship to teach English. They came to the country with few possessions and lived in a 300-square-foot, two-bedroom house. 

“It worked out really well because Jake got to come along with me and be co-teacher,” Annelise said. 

“We primarily lived in the one bedroom because it was the room that provided the best air circulation from the fan,” Jake said. “Since it was so hot, we were always under the fan. It was the perfect experience for us to realize that we did not need much space to be happy and comfortable.” 

The day after they returned to the United States, the couple and their families began building. They bought materials from around the Southeast and used walnut and maple beams milled at the company’s Depression-era sawmill. They made certain to include many windows—11 highly efficient, low-E, argon gas-filled windows—so that they could feel like they were outdoors without exposing them to the elements. 

The building process was satisfying in a way that traditional home construction isn’t, Jake said. “You never get bored building a tiny house. You can finish the roof in one day. You can finish the bath in one day.” Only a month later, the house was ready to be hitched and towed to State College, Pa., where the two began graduate school at Penn State in August 2013. Annelise is pursuing a master’s degree in rural sociology while Jake works toward a master’s degree in hydrogeology. 

"You never get bored building a tiny house. You can finish the roof in one day. You can finish the bath in one day."
-Jake Hagedorn

They dubbed the home “Keep on the Sunny Side,” in part because of its yellow exterior, but also as a reminder to “keep on the sunny side of life,” Jake said. “It also aligns with the tiny-house lifestyle that it is best to always be happy and do what works best for you.” 

The 8-foot-by-24-foot house has standard home amenities, including a washer/dryer and shower. Their utilities average $40 or less each month, and they price the home at only $39,000. 

Work Smart

The Hagedorn's house at night“We wanted to make it of utmost quality,” Annelise said. “We wanted to make this house last a long time. We have a really sturdy roof. We didn’t spare any expense when it came to the functionality of the house.”

Living in a tiny home isn’t for everyone, Jake said. But for them, it works.

“I would not give up the tiny house for any apartment,” he said. “The tiny house feels like our home. It’s something we built. The aesthetic feels like a home. It feels very sturdy and long-lasting. We can decorate it like we want.” 

They park “Keep on the Sunny Side” on land rented from a Pennsylvania family, while their families help maintain the business at Annelise’s parents’ house in Brevard. Both of their fathers have construction experience, while their mothers contribute ideas and web design know-how. Their hometown has embraced their venture, she said, and they’ve received much encouragement online.

The business is a side venture for the couple and their families. “The tiny house is an investment we can live in for a few more years,” Annelise said. “We own it outright.”

Jake added, “Even if we move out, if kids come along and we want a little bigger space, it can be used as a guest house. We feel it’s a lifetime investment.” 

But for now, they are enjoying their handmade space and family-owned business.

“We were surprised at how much positive feedback we’ve received,” Annelise said. “Hopefully, it takes off, but we have other dreams too.”

Dream Big

Ryan MitchellFor Ryan Mitchell, owning his own business is his dream. A psychology graduate, he worked in the corporate world briefly before earning a master’s degree in human resources from Western Carolina University and joining a nonprofit in Charlotte. As he began examining his relationship with money and material goods, he realized he wanted a simpler life—one that was less subject to the whims of the U.S. economy. Building and owning a 150-square-foot home that he could easily tow, he said, freed him to pursue his goals and dreams. 

The 150-square-foot home will have a sleeping loft with a queen-sized bed as well as a shower, bathroom, and kitchen. Utilities include water, electricity, heating, air, and Internet. He plans to build it himself, with some help from family, in a little more than a year.

“It’s really just a normal house on a very small scale,” he said. 

Now, as managing editor of TheTinyLife.com, he provides guidance for others who might wish to do the same. Living in a tiny house requires know-how, he said, like how to navigate municipal building codes. Many towns and counties require a minimum square-footage that some tiny houses simply don’t have.

“Probably the single-biggest issue that tiny houses face is building codes and zoning,” he said. “In most cases, it’s not a safety or public nuisance concern. It’s archaic codes that don’t really meet the needs of citizens.” 

Like the Hagedorns, Mitchell is building his home on a trailer. That way, he said, he has flexibility to simply hitch up his home and drive away.

“If it were ever to happen that the city said, ‘You can’t live in this tiny house,’ I can rent a truck and be gone in an hour.” 

Mitchell and The Tiny Life have been featured in the Los Angeles Times, the BBC, Huffington Post and Forbes, among others. Last year, Betterway Home approached him to publish a book. 

"Tiny houses are a vehicle to live the life you want to lead." -Ryan Mitchell

“I’ve never written so much in such a short time,” he said. “At the time, I was still at my full-time job, but I was trying to take the leap to become a full-time blogger.” 

The result, which has drawn accolades on Amazon.com, is not a building guide. “It’s mainly a guide on how tiny houses are a vehicle to live the life that you want to lead, how tiny houses can facilitate your goals and dreams,” he said. 

That approach, which stems from his liberal arts education and interdisciplinary knowledge, means making the lifestyle accessible to others, on a small or large scale. 

“Knowing how to learn and how to digest information was something that I developed a knack for at UNC Asheville and was able to transfer to this work,” he said. “I’d never really built anything prior to the tiny house.”

Now he’s got the house building under his belt and a business to build as well.