Finishing this tiny house became a mother-daughter project for Suzannah and Sicily Kolbeck after Sicily’s father died in a car wreck. JENNIFER BRETT / JBRETT@AJC.COM
Photo: Jennifer Brett,
Photo: Jennifer Brett,

Marietta teen’s tiny house is a huge triumph

Sicily Kolbeck’s dad was a handy guy, the sort who knew how to fix almost anything. If he didn’t know how to fix something, he’d learn, quick.

“I hope I picked up that trait,” Sicily said. Did she ever.

At the beginning of last year, Dane Kolbeck and his then-12-year-old daughter thought it’d be neat to build a tiny house in their Marietta yard. Their family appreciated the idea of living simply and sustainably.

“I can’t wait to get started!” Sicily posted on her blog in January 2013. “My mother/teacher made us promise that all of the materials we use in our homes have to be repurposed and recycled.”

Suzannah Kolbeck home-schools her daughter, and guided her through laborious research before anyone lifted a hammer. The trio trekked down to a tiny house workshop in Orlando to learn from experts including Small House Society co-founder Jay Shafer as their own project was getting underway. Shafer asked Sicily her age.

“When I said 12 the whole room gave me a round of applause,” Sicily posted later. “I was embarrassed and flattered at the same time.”

Right before the trip, Dane made sure work could begin soon.

“My dad picked up a table saw so I can trim my scrap plywood!” Sicily posted. “I can’t wait to get the frame on my tiny house.”

But two weeks after the conference, Dane was killed in a car wreck. Work stopped on the house. Posting stopped on the blog. Everything, it seems, just sort of stopped.

“After her dad died, it was like, she was lost,” Suzannah said during an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Widowed at 41, just getting out of bed became a challenge.

“My goal was always to get up and put my feet on the floor every morning,” Suzannah said. For a while, mom and daughter passed those painful early days by sitting and looking out the window. Their 1,800-square-foot home suddenly seemed to swallow them. Outside sat the frame of the tiny house Dane would never see. It was hard for Sicily to look at it at first. Then she knew what she had to do.

“I realized I wasn’t going to be doing it with him,” Sicily said. “I decided to do it for him. I wanted to show him, wherever he was, what I could accomplish and what I could do.”

The house was finished this month, although there’s still a little more tweaking to be done. The floor needs protective coating. A curtain needs to hang between the kitchen and bathroom. There’s a portable heater in there now, and they haven’t decided about a portable air conditioner.

The dwelling measures 8 by 16 feet and contains 128 square feet, with a 30-square-foot sleeping loft. Interior and exterior siding is white pine, with yellow pine flooring and an African mahogany countertop. It uses the main house’s electricity, and the bathroom, with a horse trough-turned-bathtub and a composting toilet, is plumbed and ready to be hooked up to a gray-water system. Water for the sink comes from an inlet like you’d see in a recreational vehicle. It’s officially registered as an enclosed utility trailer.

Construction took a little more than a year, and they took breaks last summer and fall.

“It was quite a bonding experience,” Sicily said. “We are definitely a mother and daughter, so we had arguments. It just kind of squished us together more.”

Suzannah, who formerly taught in the Marietta City Schools system and now tutors in addition to home-schooling Sicily, said construction was a thorough learning experience.

“This whole thing is her vision,” she said. “It’s just beautiful to me.”

The Kolbecks did have some materials, expertise and labor donated. The house sits on a friend’s donated dual-axle mobile home trailer. A local company donated the roof. But for the most part, the house is homemade.

“I feel very proud of what Sicily’s designed and what we’ve accomplished together,” Suzannah said. Both sound grateful to have had the project to propel them through their grief.

“Not building the house was not really an option,” Sicily said.

She’s just back from the Tiny House Convention in Charlotte, N.C. — where she was a presenter this time.

“I know a lot of things that adults don’t know,” she said, in a matter-of-fact tone, not at all bragging. “There were a lot of people who were like ‘Oh, you’re 13. You won’t be able to do this.’ I found the confidence to know I could do this. I found myself.”

Suzannah posted a photo of the finished product on Facebook, where her friends showered her in accolades (and a few queries about whether Sicily might be available to build them for hire one day). Sicily pondered that, but wondered if she’d be able to make other houses only to part with them.

Is she interested in studying engineering in college? Will the tiny house stay in Marietta or follow Sicily and her mom to a new place? All that’s unclear. What is certain is that wherever she goes now, Sicily has a home.

“If I choose to go to college, it’ll be a dorm room,” she said. “It’s really nice to know that I’ll always have this to fall back on.”

“She has a debt-free home she can live in for the rest of her life,” Suzannah said. “It’s cliche to say life can change in the blink of an eye. There are just different things that are important now. I feel lucky. So many people don’t know what’s important. It’s not a big house.”

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