Tiny Homes Offer Downsized Luxury

The small house syndrome goes upscale with dressed-up Wheelhaus trailers in tony ski resorts such as Mountainside at Northstar and a new concierge moving/storage company called Trove.

WITHIN THE LAST YEAR, Bay Area cities have followed in the wake of others like Portland, Oregon, which led the charge for affordable housing solutions in crowded urban settings.

The Additional Dwelling Unit or ADU ordinances in Portland allowed homeowners to squeeze stand-alone cottages for renters into their backyards within strict guidelines.

Lacking the large residential lots of Northwestern states, several Bay Area cities have instead gradually relaxed restrictions on in-law units within existing structures.

NOW, THERE’S A NEW TWIST. In 2009, Jamie Mackay, 40, of Jackson, Wyoming, where millionaires abound, tried to get a campground rezoned for affordable lower-income housing and failed.

So instead, he looked to the Calistoga Ranch resort in Napa Valley as a luxury model to emulate: its stylish rooms designed by San Francisco’s SB Architects are fitted into what are essentially beautifully modified RVs in a former campground.

“The zoning hurdle was a blessing in disguise. I learned about land use law and land planning in Teton County,” Mackay says. “Their definition of a recreation vehicle was broad — it had to be 400 square feet or less, built on a single chassis with attached wheels and axles — and I thought I could also build tiny affordable homes on a chassis and park them on my land,” Mackay says.

A former landscape contractor, he knew how to design and make the buildings himself.

Mackay’s RV-like metal and wood-framed houses had electrical wiring and plumbing built in, high-end appliances and Pella doors and windows. They were tall enough for a children’s sleeping loft. “Only the chassis was made in a welding shop in Salt Lake City,” he says. Mackay then supplied steel wheels with rubber tires of different dimensions and steel axles that could carry up to a 6,000-pound load.

A year and a half later, when individuals started to ask for homes to put on their own land, the real-estate developer launched Wheelhaus, and today, from a 40,000-square-foot workshop and an inventory stored on 50 acres of land, he delivers tiny standard and custom homes, mainly to Wyoming, Idaho, Colorado and anywhere in the United States and Canada where there is a wide-enough highway.

Exterior view Rendezvous Cabin at Mountainside at Northstar

There are limits to customization: “I don’t deviate from our recipe. If someone wants to do something we find nauseating (design-wise), we won’t do it,” Mackay says.

“All our models are LEED certified Gold, have solar features and incinerating toilets. We will soon have designs that are fully off the grid,” he says. “That will disrupt the market, because they won’t need to be plugged in; they will be taller than other RVs and will also be made of lightweight aluminum so you can move them easily.”

Although the planned lightweight versions — the BMWs of the tiny house movement — will be expensive, current Wheelhaus home prices range from about $76,000 for small RV-type 12-by-35-by-15-foot units to about $365,000 for larger modular homes that can be conjoined to be as large as 1,200 square feet.

“They can all have decks with outdoor fire pits on them, which provides more indoor/ outdoor living space,” Mackay says. “You really don’t need a big house. They are a waste of energy and resources.”

An open-plan yoga center.
An open-plan yoga center.
Mountainside at Northstar’s modern interiors mesh with Wheelhaus’s standard homes
Mountainside at Northstar’s modern interiors mesh with Wheelhaus’s standard homes on wheels that can also be adapted.

Perhaps that’s why Mountainside at Northstar, a ski-in/ski-out real estate resort near Lake Tahoe with ties to the nearby Ritz-Carlton hotel, recently approached Wheelhaus. Mountainside’s new townhomes and residences are designed by the San Francisco–based architecture firm Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, and “they wanted Wheelhaus huts as a way for people to enjoy short stays and experience the spectacular property before deciding to own a home in the Mountainside development,” Mackay says.

Because they fit Mountainside’s chic, modern aesthetic, Wheelhaus’s standard $95,000 homes, which are now “Rendezvous Cabins” overlooking the Mount Rose Wilderness area at Mountainside, required almost no custom changes.

They can also be moved to several different locations on the property, no matter the terrain. “That’s because every Wheelhaus is on a chassis made of a structural I-beam,” Mackay says with pride. “You can lift it with a crane and literally put it anywhere, whenever you want.”

DOWNSIZING HAS A DOWNSIDE: STORAGE. The smaller and smaller size of Bay Area residences has necessitated more storage close to home, and along Highway 101 between Silicon Valley and San Francisco, storage warehouses are an ugly ubiquity.

Sensing an opportunity during their daily commute, San Francisco entrepreneurs Mike Pao, formerly head of product at Uber, and his partner Jon Perlow, who used to work at Facebook, recently created a moving-plus-storage concierge service called Trove.

“Normally, you have to rent a truck, get boxes, pack and move,” Pao says. Not anymore.

“Trove streamlines it for you. We’ll send a mover, pack up your items, catalog them (with photographs) and store them,” he says. “It could be years before you want them or you might want to store them just as long as it takes for you to remodel your home or renovate a kitchen, for instance. When you are ready, we return your things to your doorstep.”

Pricing varies accordingly, but it is often lower than for self-storage, and that appeals to some of Trove’s typical customers, who want to have frequent access to some cherished objects even if there is no room for the items at home. For them, storage becomes an extension of home.

The goal for Trove is to make moving items to storage as easy as moving files into a folder on a computer desktop.

“Typical life transitions that require storage are when people are starting a family, consolidating two apartments into one, or downsizing so they can travel before returning to the Bay Area,” Pao says.

“If we can make these moves into magical experiences, we can also bring storage to people who don’t use it,” he adds. “For example, at the moment only affluent people with large houses rotate their furniture by season, but we can make it possible for more people to rotate furniture seasonally in small homes. That luxury can be just a couple of clicks away.”

Trove contracts with experienced movers with insurance who have been in the business for decades; they do the physical work and Trove keeps track of things stored, even in its out-of-the- way warehouses.

Within a short time, the new company has attracted young and old subscribers, from Novato to San Jose and from San Francisco to Livermore. “One in 11 people use storage currently,” Pao says.

With that number growing, a specialized shared storage system could become daunting or confusing. “You don’t have to store it and forget about it,” Pao says reassuringly. “We catalog everything so that we can retrieve specific items you want within a couple of days.”

Of course, he admits that if there were 15,000 trading cards and a client wanted just one of those retrieved, it would be “my worst nightmare.”

There are definitely limits.