A few weekends ago I had the opportunity to attend Jay Shafer’s Tumbleweed Tiny House Building and Small Space Design workshops. It was an interesting experience. I came home with most of a notepad full of notes.
Jay Shafer is soft-spoken, down to earth, and very approachable. I really enjoyed having a chance to chat with him in person and ask boatloads of questions. I have to say, though, that after spending two days with him, I understand better now why he has a business partner. (grin) Jay is very much an artist interested in things such as ideals and aesthetics. He has a tendency to go off in three directions at once, can easily be derailed by an interesting tangent, and I suspect he might give his designs away for free if someone more practically-minded wasn’t on top of the day-to-day realities of trying to run a business at a profit. But Jay is passionate about his work and fascinating to listen to. Honestly, he reminded me strongly of some of my favorite professors from college.
Saturday’s class focused on the mechanics of building one of the Tumbleweed Tiny Houses from the ground up. For anyone who’s planning on attending this workshop, I’d suggest buying a set of plans and doing your homework in advance. Think about the construction process and make a list of questions you’d like to address during the workshop. Jay was highly responsive to what people in the class wanted to discuss. Those who came armed with a list of things they wanted to learn pretty much drove the flow of the class for a good part of the day. (For what it’s worth, If something you really want to know doesn’t get addressed during the lectures, Jay was also good about being approached during breaks or lunch.)
The path was a bit circuitous, but, by the end of Saturday, Jay had hit on all the major elements of constructing a Tumbleweed. Due to time constraints and getting derailed on some lengthy discussions on particular construction points, we didn’t get into quite as much detail on the water and electrical systems and finish work as I would of liked. (Although, to be fair, I was also one of the culprits who contributed to some of the tangents.)
I made plans to go to Orlando primarily for Sunday’s design workshop. Although, I actually ended up getting more out of Saturday’s, so I was glad I attended both. (For whatever reason, everyone who attended the Saturday workshop also attended Sunday. I guess most people figured that if they were going to spend the money and effort to travel for a workshop, they might as well do both.)
One of the things that really appeals to me about the Tumbleweed homes is the very clever use of interior space. They feel like well-thought-out ship cabins to me. I was hoping to glean some ideas from Jay about how he developed these designs with the hope of applying some of the concepts to my own place. But the class pretty much focused on the design of the broader structure. The point of the class was to encourage people to really think about what were the essential items and elements for them to be happy in their home. And, once this list was compiled, to design their own small space.
Jay lectured about design elements for roughly three hours, drawing a lot of concepts from Christopher Alexander’s writing. The rest of the day was spent working individually on home designs and then reviewing the designs at the end of the day with the whole class. I probably didn’t get as much out of this exercise as the rest of the class in that I already had my own small house and it was over the size limit for the exercise. So I spent the afternoon tinkering with the floor plan of a fantasy Tumbleweed geared for my lifestyle (including a 6 foot 7 inch boyfriend which is somewhat problematic in that the standard Tumbleweed ceiling hits at 6 foot 3 inches). It was an interesting exercise but not directly applicable to my real-life situation.
Where I saw a lot of value in the class was that Jay spent the afternoon consulting with any of the students who were having issues with their designs. He spent more than an hour apiece with some of the students and was sketching out fresh designs left and right. Considering most of the Tumbleweed home plans run around $500 and Jay gets paid $100 an hour when he consults, I would say most of the students got more than their money’s worth out of the class.
One thing I didn’t anticipate was just how much I would enjoy and learn from my fellow classmates. It was quite exciting to be in a room full of people who were interested enough in tiny homes to be seriously considering one of their own. Most of the time when I talk about the small home movement with friends, they look at me like I’m out of mind. These people were just as geeked about the subject as me and knew a lot of the same sites and people that I did. Better still, several of them knew about sites and products, I didn’t. We spent the better part of both days trading names and links back and forth. By the end of the weekend, I was ready to take 3 or 4 of them home with me and build out very own Lilliput-scale commune of eco-friendly Tumbleweeds.
Two people in particular proved to be extremely useful in the class. One couple who was going to get started on building their home as soon as they got back from Orlando, brought their contractor, Steve, along. Another member of the class, Paul, has lived in trailers a significant portion of his life and is also quite handy when it came to construction. Steve and Paul frequently elaborated on points Jay made about construction or, in some cases, actually suggested potential improvements to what Jay has been doing. I think several of us were glad to have them both in the class.
All in all, I was glad I attended and it was great fun to actually get to meet Jay Shafer in person after admiring his creations for several years. If you’re serious about building your own Tumbleweed Tiny House, I would say the workshops are well worth the effort of attending before you get down to work.