Airstream had found their audience of ultra-wealthy individuals. Caravans found hippies. Capitalists saw an opportunity and discovered this new market – yet America prohibited tiny houses; bypassing zoning and building codes was difficult and harsh weather and inadequate insulation compounded its difficulties as an alternative housing solution; nevertheless Jay Shafer took up this challenge!
As many lacked the construction expertise required to construct their own homes, momentum towards conventional housing once again shifted and tiny houses seemed on the brink of disappearance – that is until Jay Shafer rose as an iconic leader of this movement and made history through his contributions that will live long after him.
Years later, after numerous design iterations rounds and building their first ever mobile tiny house – along with founding Tumbleweed Tiny Houses as the world’s inaugural tiny house company – Shafer’s Tiny House Movement was ready to revolutionize housing markets worldwide.
Over time, micro dwelling sales worldwide experienced explosive growth – what had begun as an unwise experiment turned into an international movement without Shafer being anywhere to be found…
Today, when the tiny house movement has reached its pinnacle, I spoke with one of its founding fathers to better understand its origins, challenges, and long-term outlook – something which has completely revolutionised modern living spaces.
As I explored Jay Shafer’s tiny house story further, it soon became evident that its tale wasn’t only one about its extraordinary features such as “Sacred Geometry” and ‘high-end insulation”, but was also one of strained relations with Tumbleweed – the company he once founded.
“Whenever the tiny house movement enters history books, your name will likely stand out prominently among its pioneers and fathers,” I asked Jay.
“I love being called the grandfather or pioneer. I feel honored!” He enthusiastically responded:
Shafer then goes on to reflect upon how his dream to build a tiny house came about.
“Nothing happens by chance; my inspiration came from somewhere. Lester Walker wrote the book Tiny Houses many years ago; when I read through his pages of miniature houses I was amazed and inspired. Later when researching these tiny structures online it turned out they are illegal in America – once that information hit home I felt obliged to build one and show people it is safe, efficient and should become standard housing practices.”
Before embarking on his tiny house journey, Shafer was an adjunct professor teaching drawing at the University of Iowa as well as working in a grocery store – two jobs which gave him enough flexibility to design and construct his house on his own terms. “Living in an airstream for two years allowed me to experiment on what needs vs what doesn’t. Living there helped shape his understanding of insulation needs in Iowa at that point – living there played an instrumental role.” Living in 14-foot airstream proved crucial in developing his understanding on necessities as he gained insight on his needs as an adjunct professor teaching drawing at Iowa.
Jay began building his tiny house in 1997 and completed it by 1999 summer, in the size of a miniature country chapel with weathered wood exterior and interior features and an overhang capped off by a high-pitched roof offering shelter and protection against adverse weather. Crimson-trimmed windows allowed airflow while there was even space enough for him to fit a mattress for sleeping!
“To me, beauty is of utmost importance and so I usually adopt what might be called sacred geometry – assigning meaning and significance to every number and form – when designing my homes. Going with less quantity means more quality; although that might not apply universally throughout the tiny home industry – there are certainly great homes out there as well as people quickly building them because there’s demand.” he notes.
Jay reports that people’s reactions toward tiny houses were generally favorable from the very start, saying he received very positive responses when his tiny house made its debut in a magazine contest and won it as being most innovative of that year’s offering. He proudly announces.
“With so much confusion surrounding micro dwellings, what defines a tiny house on wheels?
He elaborates: “From the outset, my definition was that any house where every square inch is used effectively and wasteful space is considered a tiny house – whether on wheels or not – with road requirements being adhered to without incurring some sort of bureaucracy related to moving bridges and powerlines causing delays or obstruction. So in general this would equate to roughly 400 sq feet (37.16 m2). ”
Shafer details Tumbleweed Tiny House Company and his collaboration with Steve Weissman (CEO of Tumbleweed Tiny House). Shafer initially launched Tumbleweed after building his first tiny house in Iowa; at that time I launched pictures and information of my project along with an eBook I wrote on its development all at the same time; several years later I met Steve Weissman since he appeared to have more business acumen than himself, something which Shafer was lacking himself at being business minded himself (he wasn’t!). “By then Steve Weissman came into my orbit; as someone capable of taking care of that end.”
At a critical juncture of the tiny house movement and Tumbleweed’s considerable success, things soured between co-founders. “We had differing viewpoints about what should go on within the company in terms of messaging, which led me to leave and start designing houses elsewhere,” Shafer informs.
Once Jay decided to go his own way, he created Four Lights Tiny House Company; yet what everyone thought would be an end was just the start of an ongoing feud between Jay and Tumbleweed.
Four Lights may still exist as some kind of “ghost ship.” I no longer manage this business but initially envisioned creating an improved tiny house company with it. Unfortunately, Tumbleweed responded with over one hundred fake lawsuits within just one month to attempt shut us down,” alleges Mr. Amoss.
Shafer says she felt powerless to fight legal costs alone and left the tiny home industry at that time.
Shafer has recently focused his energy and expertise on solving building code challenges related to zoning and design issues. “My primary areas of concentration now are codes, zoning and design; however I plan to establish my own company to do just this–selling houses along with any remaining books,” according to him.
Shafer expresses excitement over the notion of tiny house villages as an exciting glimpse of their potential role as efficient and affordable housing solutions, working in conjunction with cities and counties for efficient solutions to provide efficient and cost-efficient solutions for housing solutions. From challenging the legality of tiny houses to seeing collaborative tiny house villages grow across America – Shafer’s journey not only offers fascinating insight into its development, but it is a tale about an individual whose impact far transcends his tiny homes alone.