Shelter: Tiny House

How one man sated his wanderlust by staying put. And building a tiny house
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Jan 26, 2015 | By Liv Combe

t was late one night that Evan Kinsley first saw a tiny house in person — there it was, peeking out from behind a house in Boulder, Colorado, sitting innocently in the driveway. It was hardly the first time Kinsley had seen one in general; in fact, he’d become somewhat obsessed with them, having recently stumbled across an image of one while he was looking for inspiration for a job he was working on. Just seeing that tiny house on a tiny screen was enough to send a bolt of lightning straight to his woodworker heart.

“Holy shit,” he says. “It was just the most beautiful house I’d ever seen.”

The interest had, to put it mildly, grown over the course of the following weeks. At this point, Kinsley was coming home after days of building and construction and remodeling and would spend hours looking at photos of tiny houses online. His girlfriend called it his "tiny house porn fetish."

And then there one was in the flesh as Kinsley walked back from a bar one night. “It was one of those things where you start looking into something and all of a sudden you start seeing these things everywhere. But really, they were there all along.”

Kinsley had never been one to follow the standard path, especially as set out by the small, somewhat conventional Ohio town he grew up in. He was always more likely to sell all his belongings and take off for another adventure at a moment's notice, than to wear a tie and work a 9 to 5. After a semester of college, Kinsley dropped out to hike the Appalachian Trail, and after he’d walked from Georgia to Maine, he saved up enough to drive out to Portland, Oregon. Or what he thought was enough, anyway — he ran out of gas in Boulder and stayed put for a bit, climbing every day, working as the self-described “best goddamn delivery boy that ever was,” and crashing with newly-made friends. He had plans brewing for a big motorcycle trip when a trail buddy asked if he wanted to come fishing in Alaska — commercial salmon fishing, like the stuff of Deadliest Catch.

So, as it goes, he sold his belongings — some gear, his motorcycle, the car was already gone — and bought a ticket to Alaska, where he worked a hellish season on a boat where "we spent more time wrecking than we did fishing.” He came back to Colorado and worked making snow on a mountain for a winter. Because he’s stubborn, back to Alaska he went after that — to another bad boat, a captain who left town without paying anyone, a backpacking trip complete with a Grizzly chase in a whiteout blizzard, and working on a farm. He made enough money to make it to his brother’s wedding in New York. A trip to Iceland followed and then back to Alaska Kinsley went, where he worked his first successful salmon season, and later celebrated by surfing in Hawaii. He returned to Boulder and let things settle down a bit, taking employment as an arborist to stay busy. 

He returned because Boulder was a home of sorts. Plus, between fishing seasons, he had an uncle there who needed help with construction work that entailed skills like carpentry, wiring and plumbing — skills that would later serve Kinsley well. And since he was working as an arborist, he was climbing and trimming hundreds of trees every day — giving him access to piles of useful, leftover wood, begging to be put to greater use.

Then, of course, there was a girl — that unstoppable pull. After one final fishing season, Kinsley started his own business and became a builder full-time. He was settled for the time, whatever that meant. Boulder became a proper home.

After a year of research, Kinsley started work on his own tiny house.

It was the perfect project to bring together the skills that he’d been perfecting with his uncle — carpentry, plumbing, electric. It took him nine months total to build the house, including running out of money a few times and taking up odd jobs to replenish his building fund. All in all, it took Kinsley about five months of solid work — most of it completely solo — to complete the project. (Side note: putting up sheet metal by yourself in 50 mph winds? Not advisable.)

“Because tiny houses are still relatively new, they bring up a lot more questions than they answer,” Kinsley says. "It’s like building a puzzle without really understanding the full, finished picture. But this is one of those puzzles where the box has disappeared and your pieces are in a plastic bag. I had to make a lot of stuff up on the fly, and that’s hard on your own. You can get in your own head too much. There’s no one to take it out on when you’re frustrated. And you will get frustrated."

Because there are days when you’re really good at building, and there are days when you’re putting nails through your thumb.”

And yet it all came together, fitting neatly — bedroom, kitchen, living room, a sizeable bathroom, storage throughout, a nightmare of a hot water heater — into (ready for this?) 129 square feet.

When he’s working on a project, actual utility gets Kinsley’s creative juices flowing far more than aesthetic beauty. “A lot of times, building things is just extravagant,” he says. “You use bad materials. You don’t put the time in. You’re just trying to achieve more — adding to something just to make it bigger. I don’t feel right about that. It doesn’t inspire me.”

So for the tiny house, Kinsley went the opposite route. Here, less is more. Simple is better. And such a small space requires that everything has more than one purpose. Take the stairs — each one pulls out into a custom drawer, and the space underneath becomes a closet. The living room's fold-down table doubles as a shelf. The custom-built couch hides storage under each seat, and the whole thing disappears into the wall by the French doors leading out to the deck, essentially doubling the living space of the tiny house. The lofted bed is lined with storage shelves. The backing of the sink is magnetic — a modern spice rack.

The element of sustainability also stays at the forefront of Kinsley’s mind. In the tiny house, the floor is made of sustainable, relatively inexpensive woods like bamboo and cork. Each custom piece that Kinsley made in the tiny house — the deck, ceiling, countertops, stairs, bed, and table — is made of beetle kill pine, a wood from trees that have been killed by the mountain pine beetle. There’s a surplus of it in Colorado, so the price is right and, moreover, the wood is characterized by dark, unique patterns swirling throughout. It’s beautiful. It’s become something of Kinsley’s signature.

Everything you see on the outside of the tiny house is repurposed. The wood siding came from an unused clapboard shipment to Kinsley’s uncle. The shingles he found on Craigslist, and when there was still an exposed corner, Kinsley wrapped it in metal. It might sound like a thrown-together job, but it turned out to be the most striking part of the entire project.

“It doesn’t look like your typical house,” says Kinsley. “A lot of people don’t even know what it is when they see it.”

The whole point of building the tiny house was just that — to build it. Kinsley hadn’t thought too much about what he’d actually do with it when he was done.

“Nine months later, I had a tiny house in my yard. And I was just like… well, shit.”

So, again, he packed up and left for a bit, remodeling a restaurant in New Mexico for his girlfriend’s family. When he came back to Boulder four months later, the tiny house was still there. It was time to sell (and, lucky for you, it is still on the market).

“Besides the fun of making it, I kind of wanted to build this house to test the market,” Kinsley says. “I wanted to see how easy they are to sell. And if it works, I want to build two or three of these a year and then work in my woodshop the rest of the time. That sounds like a pretty great lifestyle to me.”

Kinsley definitely didn't build the tiny house with the intention of living in it himself — although he thinks he could live in a tiny house one day. “I think the tiny house is more of a lifestyle choice than anything else. Living small opens your perspective on the way you live the rest of your life. You’re not consumed by the things you own. You have a simple life because the space that you have requires it. I find that the more stuff in life I have, the worse I feel.

“Right now, I have a trailer for all my tools and everything I own is in my truck. I just bought a motorcycle. That’s kind of all I need.”

Back when Kinsley was first working in Boulder as a delivery boy, he made his deliveries on a motorcycle, flying through the canyons outside the city late at night with still-hot calzones strapped to the back. The feeling was indescribable — light, free, almost like flying. Back then, the plans he was making for the long motorcycle trip would take him 30,000 miles along the Pan-American Highway, from Alaska to Ushuaia, Argentina.

And so he went to Alaska, only to not be allowed in Canada for 10 years (seriously, it’s a long story). And then he kept getting on fishing boats. And then there were people he didn’t want to leave, and other places he wanted to go with them in the meantime. Kinsley's original idea kept getting further and further in the distance, while never quite leaving his mind.

“This trip is one of those things where if I have an idea of a concept of something I want to do, I just do it,” says Kinsley. “If I want to hike the Appalachian Trail, I do it. If I want to fish in Alaska, I do it. If I want to make a tiny house, I do it. But with this, it was like I started to forget about the goal. I fell in love and that changed the whole direction." 

"But I feel like I committed to this trip a long time ago, and it’s always resurfaced for me and never quite gone away. If I don’t do it, I’ll regret it.”

And now the time is right. Kinsley’s work needs a hearty dose of reinspiration. He isn’t tied to any one person or one place. So he bought that motorcycle. He stored his tools and his gear. The tiny house is still for sale — any takers? And Kinsley is out on the open road, just the way his 20-year-old self — and every American dreamer — imagined it. Just 17,000 miles to go. [H]

Liv Combe and Evan Kinsley grew up in that same small, somewhat conventional Ohio town.
She's an Editor at Huckberry who thinks she could live in a tiny house one day.
Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

All photos © Evan Kinsley