Living large in Atlanta’s tiny houses

Decatur’s annual Tiny House Festival will feature more than 25 tiny houses from across the country.
Decatur’s annual Tiny House Festival will feature more than 25 tiny houses from across the country.

Story by Muriel Vega. Photos by Jenni Girtman.

There are an estimated 10,000 tiny homes — defined as being less than 500 square feet — in the United States. One of those can be spotted right now on the Atlanta BeltLine’s Eastside Trail — a 180-square-foot home that functions as a temporary office of Tiny House Atlanta and the MicroLife Institute.

The installation will be on the BeltLine for the next 18 months, including a six-month stint on the Westside trail beginning in January, to raise awareness about the tiny house movement and such benefits as eco-friendly living and financial sense.

Will Johnston isn’t just the executive director of the MicroLife Institute and Tiny House Atlanta, he has two of them.

“[The movement] is trying to embrace more intentional living, getting back to the basics of what happiness is, and more toward community and away from materialism,” Johnston says. “Trying to find a better balance toward a happier life and not falling under the push of society to have the two-car garage and 3,000-square-foot house.”

Johnston joined Tiny House Atlanta in January 2016 to build up on the momentum within the local community to make tiny houses a legal permanent housing solution. The monthly meetup is one of the largest in the nation.

That same month, the nonprofit partnered up with the American Tiny House Association and the Southface Energy Institute to analyze how the city of Atlanta could incorporate zoning ordinances that would allow for tiny houses.

Tiny homes encountered several challenges in Atlanta. Currently, if it has a permanent foundation, the tiny homes don’t meet the single-family home requirements: Local municipalities required at least 750 square feet of living space. If they’re on wheels, they’re seen as comparable to recreational vehicles but seldom receive a warm welcome at traditional RV parks.

The groups’ work paid off in May 2017 when the City of Atlanta approved an ordinance amendment allowing Accessory Dwelling Units, like tiny homes, to be near a larger structure (R-5 two-family residential zoning).

Atlanta is already seeing the establishment of such tiny house communities as Eco-Cottages in East Point, ranging from 500 to 1000 square feet, and successful builders like Mustard Seed Tiny Homes.

One of those tiny home dwellers is market researcher Andrea J. Burns. She downsized from a 2,800-square-foot home into a 130-square-foot home with a porch and loft. “Expect this stage to take some time and effort,” says Burns, who describes the psychological process of letting stuff go as taking six years.

“I had donation trucks come to my house and fill up with everything I’d moved out to the driveway — twice,” Burns says. “I had two yard sales, kept making friends take something with them when they came over for dinner, and sold stuff on Craigslist and Facebook.”

The Smyrna resident had looked into micro-living a few decades ago, but was turned off by the lack of environmentally friendly materials to build her small home. She watched the progression of design over the years and slowly got to know her needs. After downsizing and while building her home, Burns couch-surfed with friends as she slowly moved in.

For almost two years, she’s been living in her lumber-framed tiny home on wheels, nicknamed “The Tomato Box.” Since she loves driving cross-country, Burns made sure that all of its materials would make the house sturdy to travel long distances, including air-sealant tape and insulation. It also boasts thirteen windows, a tiny flower basket-adorned porch, and a metal raised-seam roof.

“I had a little cry of relief when I made my first cup of coffee in my tiny house using my portable camping stove. I’m definitely still figuring things out, but you adapt pretty quickly,” Burns says.

The movement crosses generations as the nonprofit sees interested parties from 20 years old all the way up to 85 years old. Johnston saw the diversity as a sign to rebrand and create a larger community within the new MicroLife Institute. The Tiny House Atlanta meetup community now lives under the Institute’s umbrella.

“Micro-living has a spectrum of spaces where we start with the tiny houses on wheels or the really small spaces like 200 square feet and it goes up to, we think, under a thousand square feet — it’s the missing middle of housing that we need,” Johnston says of the housing options between under-400-square-foot tiny homes and 2,000-square-foot large homes.

The momentum can be seen at this month’s annual Decatur Tiny House Festival. In the last two years, the event has drawn more than 12,000 interested parties to tour tiny homes on wheels, explore resources to build one, and further foster a community that’s growing even as the houses are getting smaller.

For its third year, more than 25 tiny houses from across the country will help educate visitors about the movement from Sept. 29-30. The event will boast a Tiny Travel area with an interactive corner for kids, tiny food trucks, and local and national vendors of fully built houses and materials for building your own.

“There’s always a new product,” Johnston says. “Tiny house builders will bring a couple new products to allow people to see new space-saving ideas, as well as ideas as to what you can do in your own home.”

A new addition to this year’s festival is the Innovative Housing Summit on Sept. 28. Organized in partnership with the Georgia State College of Law, the Summit will host developers, architects, city planners, builders, buyers, and more to explore current housing trends and how they can innovate as the demand grows in the Southeast. “I’m focused on the professionals that can make a difference for the masses and how we can provide more housing options to our city,” Johnston says.

Burns finds that moving to a tiny domicile can be unexpectedly liberating. “When you ‘go tiny,’ one of the big things that shifts is that you start living outside of your home,” she says. “I cook out on my tiny grill much more often than I used my gas grill at the big house. I eat on my porch several times a week. I know every one of my neighbors and all of the cashiers at my neighborhood grocery store. Life is a whole lot more than it used to be, and I absolutely love it.”

<em>MicroLife Institute and Tiny House Atlanta. 404-913-0929.</em>

Insider tip

To know if you’re ready to move into a tiny home, go room by room and ask yourself why you keeping each belonging within that room and slowly move toward a minimalist mindset. “If you are ready to take the leap into a lifestyle that gives you more freedom, more time, and more experiential living, then the time is now,” Johnson says.

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