Diana Nelson Jones' Walkabout: Biggest costs for tiny homes lie in the old foundations
February 1, 2016 12:00 AM
The front door and porch at cityLAB's tiny house in Garfield.
Developer Eve Picker in front of cityLAB's tiny housein Garfield.
The side of cityLAB's tiny house in Garfield.
By Diana Nelson Jones / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Someone will buy the tiny house in Garfield. Priced at $109,500, its mortgage payments would be much lower than the market rents for new East Liberty apartments of about the same size. And this unit has a front porch.
Days ahead of the open house on Sunday, Eve Picker greeted a stream of media people into the 350-square-foot house that her nonprofit cityLAB built at 223 N. Atlantic Ave. The tour consisted of standing in the middle of the open space and wondering where the bedroom was.
This house is about the size of an efficiency apartment. Except for a bathroom and a notch of kitchen, it is one open room. It’s plenty cozy but doesn’t feel cramped and has lots of light, not to mention a 350-square-foot basement.
The first tiny house in the city is like a wet finger stuck in the air to see which way the wind is blowing. Will there be demand for more? And if so, will Ms. Picker be able to build any of the next three she plans less expensively than the almost $200,000 it took to finish this one? That’s about double her projected cost.
“Half of my cost is underground,” she said during the tour.
An old foundation had to be excavated and separate water and sewer lines created.
Old foundations lie under so many vacant lots in the city, and vacant lots are strewn throughout neighborhoods desperate for investment. Separated sewer lines are required of all new construction, but one could argue whose responsibility that should really be.
With those burdens, few small projects exist. Yet small houses cost less to build than large houses, use fewer materials and less energy. If they cost less to build, they cost less to sell, which means people with moderate to modest incomes can buy them.
Because the tiny house was a prototype to gauge its potential as a housing trend, cityLAB got grants from the Urban Redevelopment Authority, the Bloomfield-Garfield Corp. and Neighborhood Allies to partially cover its cost.
The tiny house movement is itself tiny, a national movement that seeks to go smaller, with less stuff and less living space, but more living outside the box.
Regularly I talk to people who are “downsizing” their lives, and not just older people who realize that someone, probably a loved one, will be burdened with all their stuff when they die. The majority who seek the small and simple are younger, but few can afford new apartments in popular neighborhoods.
Ms. Picker, who began her development work creating lofts in Downtown, has made Garfield a field of focus. The tiny house is an effort to draw attention to a neighborhood that is beautifully situated to attract it. The cards I’m reading show that vigorous markets in Lawrenceville and East Liberty will soon find the neighborhood nestled between them.
The Bloomfield-Garfield Corp. has spent decades of heavy lifting to build community, improve housing and help Penn Avenue’s retail take off. Its work has been paying off in that compromising Pittsburgh shuffle of two steps up, one step back. As that old dance segues into a fox trot, many ideas that have taken hold in other cities are taking hold here.
If cityLAB’s tiny house takes off, and even if it doesn’t, the wheels of small solutions that have been spinning in Nashville, Tenn., Seattle and Madison, Wis., could spin here: Even tinier houses for our homeless population.
A recent article in The Atlantic described the special ministry of Pastor Jeff Carr, who raised almost $67,000 to build six tiny houses for homeless people in Nashville. The colorful little squares are grouped in the yard of his church. The men who live in them use the church bathroom and eat donated food.
It cost $7,000 to build each one. They may be the size of sheds, but in them a person is not homeless and he can have his privacy.
While no one here has the hammers out for that kind of project, we’re thinking small, so why not? Besides having many generous donors, tons of can-do spirit and corporate volunteer days in search of opportunities, Pittsburgh has plenty of vacant land.
Diana Nelson Jones: email@example.com or 412-263-1626.
To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to
firstname.lastname@example.org and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner.