At Home ~ In a Tiny House

Story by Leah Shapiro | Photos by Paul M. Howey

Matt LaVoie has always had a knack for DIY projects. You could say the building spirit ran in his family. His father, a mechanic, decided at age 45 that he would fulfill his lifelong dream and become a builder. But a heart attack forced him to quit doing the physical work, and so he became a building inspector. Tragically, he died two years later when Matt was only seven.

Matt says he remembers his dad sketching out houses that were energy efficient. “It was right after the first energy crisis back in the 1970s. So all that stuff stuck with me, and I’ve been thinking about it my entire life from one degree or another.”

Fast forward to 2007. Matt and wife Laura are living in a large house in Atlanta when a friend tells them about a talk she saw on TV in which Jay Shafer, founder of the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, was explaining how prospective homeowners could build their own small homes, which ranged from 74 to 900 square feet. He was promoting a simplistic and rustic lifestyle.

After saving up for ten years, the couple purchased 15 acres of land on a mountain north of Asheville with plans to build on it. “I knew the building was going to be small,” says Matt, “but I hadn’t really thought about tiny like that.”

About their 2,700 square-foot home in Atlanta, Laura admits, “We realized while we were living there that we were spending all our time in two rooms… We heard about the tiny lifestyle … and realized it made a lot of sense and we went for it!” The two talked with Jay, purchased plans for a 120-square foot design, and got to work.

For two and a half years, eight months out of the year, the two drove up every other weekend to their North Carolina property on Friday night, worked on the house until Sunday, and then drove back to Atlanta. “If we had done the whole building start to finish … it would have taken three months to build,” adds Laura.

“There was never an ounce of wanting to give up. It never crossed our minds,” says Matt. He and Laura had their share of frustrations, however, especially when hoisting 2,400 pounds of cement up a hill and setting the foundation in the rain. “If it’s not something you want to do, all that stuff is going to stop you,” he advises, adding that the tiny house lifestyle is not for everyone. “The basic skills aren’t that hard. It’s having the patience and working through the hard parts.”

The LaVoies officially moved into their new home in May of last year. Aside from the wireless Internet necessary for the two work-from-homers, the house is essentially off the grid. “We physically fill up big jugs of water and carry them up the hill to the house,” says Laura. They heat this spring water in a kettle for showering, and have installed a composting toilet and solar paneling (they have a 2,000-watt generator in the event there is insufficient sunlight).

Although the two could feasibly live in the house year-round, they choose to spend a bit of time traveling in the winter months. Instead of paying $400 per month in utilities, the two are relatively debt free and are enjoying that freedom.

“The trade off is having that bigger house,” Matt explains. “I have no doubt that there are some people that really like that and should do that. And I am not against people doing something that makes them happy in that regard. If you want a big house, get a big house, that’s cool. For us, it did absolutely nothing.”
Matt’s dad would no doubt be very proud.

For more information, you can follow Laura’s blog at 120squarefeet.com.

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