Tiny house movement inspires big ideas in Olympia

Life has certainly gotten bigger for Dee Williams since the release of “The Big Tiny,” her memoir about living in an 84-square-foot house on Olympia’s west side.

Nestled in the backyard of close friends, the house has taught Williams the art of downsizing — and how a pair of shoes can be a tripping hazard.

The house has no running water or refrigerator. Williams showers at friends’ houses and said her monthly utility bill averages less than $10.

After 11 years, Williams has found freedom from debt and material possessions.

“It’s not about the size of my house,” she said. “It’s about how do I live with less debt and live inside a community, not having to work so hard to afford a certain lifestyle.”

Tiny living spaces are nothing new, considering that city dwellers often pay top dollar for modest studio apartments. However, the U.S. tiny house movement has gained momentum in recent years, especially in the Northwest.

“It seems like there’s a lot of activity in the Pacific Northwest,” said Williams, who teaches workshops across the country about tiny house living and runs Portland Alternative Dwellings as an online information hub.

Based on her observations, the tiny house movement represents a crossroads where the American Dream intersects with the realities of today’s economy.

“Americans love that sense of having your own home. That’s just part of how we view life and being successful,” she said, noting the recent collapse of the housing market. “People are saying, ‘How do I still have my dream and make it affordable and make it flexible?’”

Williams also has become an influential figure in South Sound by encouraging local people to build their own tiny houses, either as a lifestyle leap or a money-making enterprise.

Inspired by Williams’ house, Brittany Yunker of Olympia built a 165-square-foot bungalow, which she now rents out as a honeymoon hideaway.

Yunker built the bungalow five years ago with a kit from the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company. Aside from hosting a few work parties, she did most of the work by herself, working full time over five months. The total cost was about $17,000.

She lived for two years in the house with an A-frame roof, tucked in a garden nook behind her parents’ house.

“I really enjoyed it. I loved the simplicity of it,” Yunker said. “I liked the fact that it forced me to consider and reconsider every purchase that I made.”

The tiny house is on a private lot with beach access and a stellar view of Puget Sound. The inside is cozy rather than cramped, but more than anything, it embraces the comforts of home — a home built for one.

Sunlight from the house’s eight windows, including the skylight window above the loft, flatters the rustic ambiance from the wooden floors up to the wooden ceiling.

Shelves help economize space in a bathroom that includes a toilet, shower and window. The kitchen has plenty of elbow room to cook with ample countertops, clever storage and small appliances.

Yunker has since moved into a bigger place, but still teaches workshops about tiny house living as she embraces the hospitality side of things. She has no plans to sell the bungalow that she custom-built from the trailer up.

“It really became a part of me,” she said. “Whether it’s in a tiny house or a cabin or a small home, I really value living within our means. Tiny house living is one way to achieve that and lessen our reliance on needless stuff.”

Another Olympia tiny house success story takes a demographic left turn. Quixote Village, a community with 30 single-room detached cottages, opened in December 2013 to serve homeless people.

Each cottage measures 144 square feet with a porch, bathroom and electricity. With its main clubhouse and sobriety rules, the 2-acre village has generated national interest as a template for helping the homeless reach self-sufficiency.

“Their houses are more advanced than any other tiny-house village I’ve seen,” said Bruce Wallbum of Occupy Madison (Wisconsin) in a recent interview about his visit to the Olympia site. “That’s the example we would all like to have.”


Abel Zimmerman Zyl works his magic at a rural workshop in northeast Olympia, creating tiny houses for customers across the country.

With astonishing craftsmanship and one-of-a-kind designs that blend the artistic with the functional, it’s easy to see why Zyl’s premium tiny houses are in demand.

His business, Zyl Vardos, has grown to a team of five carpenters who produce nearly a dozen houses a year with an average price tag of $50,000.

Zyl named the business after a word that means “gypsy caravans.” It all started as an experiment five years ago with his first micro cabin, which he built from leftover boat materials. He had been inspired by Dee Williams.

Zyl has since built tiny houses for customers in Maryland, Connecticut, California and Oregon. He considers Oregon a hotbed for tiny houses and has even been booked to build for a “tiny house hotel” in Portland.

“I’d rather have these appear and feel like a house rather than an RV,” said Zyl, an Olympia native who lives with his family in a house that’s 1,500 square feet.

All doors, windows and cabinets are custom-made. Each house takes about two months to complete, and the company typically works on two houses at a time, Zyl said.

Zyl and crew recently put the finishing touches on a Portland-bound house designed in his “fortune cookie” style. The all-cedar interior flows with high ceilings and arched windows. The future occupants — a man and his teenage son — can access both lofts by climbing a set of shelves through a sliding floor door.

Most customers ask for compost toilets like the one in this model, which also includes a round galvanized steel bathtub with propane to heat the water.

“We try to integrate the different parts of a house so that they’ll all work together,” Zyl said. “The people I’ve built for, it feels like a good cooperation. They put a lot of trust in me.”

Zyl’s previous clients include Kera Kraut, who has lived in The Fortune Cookie in unincorporated Pierce County for nearly four years.

Kraut was also inspired by Williams’ story and had asked to tour her tiny house. Williams then suggested she contact Zyl, who worked within Kraut’s budget.

At 144 square feet, the tiny house is the perfect size for someone who has always liked small spaces, said Kraut, whose previous house was 1,100 square feet.

Kraut, who calls herself a bohemian gypsy, writes a blog that includes posts about tiny houses and her love for The Fortune Cookie. Kraut has been featured in magazines, but said she has turned down offers to appear on TV shows out of fear of being misrepresented.

Tiny houses are sometimes treated like a fad, she said, instead of a genuine movement made up of people who made a conscious choice to downsize and live more simply.

“The only thing I’d change about my house is that I would have made the loft wider,” she said. “There are certain times you need a little more space.”