(855) 321-7473

M-F 9am-4pm Eastern

student tiny home project

A Tiny Home Project at Appalachian State University

By Maria Saxton Ph.D.
Nov 4, 2019

Tiny homes have become increasingly popular in recent years. They provide an opportunity for people to learn the ins and outs of a building, but on a small scale. At every educational level, tiny home builds have become a popular hands-on project for students to learn the design and build process of a home. 

I spoke with Chris Schoonover of Appalachian State University, who led a student project to build a tiny home. Chris is a believer in small square footage and intelligent use of space. ASU’s Department of Sustainable Technology and the Built Environment has a significant focus on hands-on projects, including the Solar Decathalon Design Challenge and the Race to Zero Student Design Competition. Appalachian State University is relatively small, with about 18,000 students. Yet, they participate in many hands-on projects with larger universities. Their Integrated Design Experience Laboratory (IDEX) works on real projects for real clients. IDEXlab’s whole model focuses on hands-on work, which is essential to its program at ASU. That’s where their tiny home project comes in. 

Why Build a Tiny Tome? 

From start to finish, tiny home design and build can teach you many lessons. It provides an opportunity for students to learn practical skills that often cannot be taught in a classroom. Students learn everything from designing a small bathroom space to framing and installing electrical outlets. 

“I wanted to build a tiny house, so I figured how to make it a curriculum” - Chris.

Following his enthusiasm for the tiny house movement, Chris wanted to find a way to integrate a tiny home build into his curriculum at ASU. With interest from his department chair, he sought to find a client in need of a tiny home. Following six months of contacting people about his idea, he finally found the perfect partner: LIFE Village. LIFE Village is a community currently being developed in Boone, NC, to meet the needs of adults with autism and related challenges. Their story is compelling, and as Chris shared, they couldn’t have asked for a better partner. Following the successful tiny home project, IDEXlab and LIFE Village were able to extend and foster their relationship; IDEXlab did some community planning for LIFE Village. 

tiny house siding
Photo credit: Dawn Shumate, Light By Dawn Studios

The Tiny Home Build

After competitively selecting 12 students to participate in this project, it was time to get to work. Students were split into two crews of six and committed 40 hours a week, for six weeks, to this build. Since they only had six weeks, they did not have time to do the design work themselves. The house itself was fully functional, including electrical and plumbing work. Days were typically 8 am-5 pm, although it was not uncommon to work as late as 9 pm. Fortunately, students were given credit for two courses during these intense six weeks. After the six weeks were complete, Chris stuck around for another two to complete the project fully.  

All in all, there weren’t any significant hurdles design-wise for the team. However, since this was a reasonably non-traditional build and the client was fundraising, many of the donations were in the form of building materials. Therefore, the crews needed to be flexible with their material use and implement the contributions to the project. 

tiny house windows
Photo credit: Dawn Shumate, Light By Dawn Studios

After the completion of the build in the summer of 2018, Chris was extremely pleased with the final product. “I didn’t realize the home would be as big and comfortable as it was. I think anybody could do it, so I’m on board with the movement,” Chris said. 

The Challenge

With a tiny home build, permitting is usually the hurdle that some people don’t get past. While the state of North Carolina allows much flexibility for tiny homes on foundations, the students need to build the tiny house on a trailer since they didn’t have a site to place it on at the time of construction. 

Chris originally went to his local planning department, who told him that there is no permit for a tiny home for occupancy. Displeased with this, he decided to go to the state. Chris got a state representative to send an email to the city of Boone stating that the tiny home could be permitted as a regular structure, with the caveat that would be on a permanent foundation. The tiny house permit was obtained through the proper channels with inspections, rough-ins, etc. The town of Boone did the inspection itself. 

The North Carolina Department of Insurance has distributed a memo to code officials, manufacturers, consumers, and other interested parties, which outlines building requirements for tiny homes on foundations. ASU’s tiny home build fits the needs of all of this document except for the foundation itself. When placed on a site in Boone, it will be attached to a permanent foundation to fit this requirement. 

Through the challenges that Chris experienced through the permitting process, he also learned his most important lesson from the project. 

“The biggest thing I learned is that the government is not against anybody; the rules don’t know how to deal with it. There isn’t a precedent. Even if it seems challenging, you can politely push the system, and you can change things. That’s the biggest thing-- don’t be afraid to talk to people. Reach out, if someone says you can’t do it, it’s not necessarily because the law says you can’t, it could be because they don’t know or they don’t have the precedent.” -Chris

ASU student tiny home build
The finished tiny home. Photo credit: Dawn Shumate, Light By Dawn Studios

Next Steps

As it stands now, LIFE Village plans to sell the tiny home as a way to raise funds for their initiative. They are also hosting the Peter Pedroni Memorial Charity Dinner to benefit LIFE Village in mid-November to raise funds. 

When asked if the IDEXlab will see any more tiny homes in its future, Chris shared that they hope to build another eventually if there is enough support. He mentioned that a faculty member in their department was interested in a tiny home for herself. With one of the most expensive real estate markets in North Carolina, tiny houses could be an excellent option for those dealing with rising housing costs. 

Before jumping into another tiny home build anytime soon, the IDEXlab has a handful of potential next projects: a mobile educational lab for the Sustainable Development department and park facility for a nearby town. Students will be able to do the design and construction of these projects. The IDEXlab currently runs every spring; however, they might begin running every semester. 

tiny house student project
The LIFE Village team at the tiny home ribbon cutting ceremony. Photo credit: Dawn Shumate, Light By Dawn Studios

Valuing a Student-Driven Tiny Home Build

Implementing tiny home builds is a fantastic way for students to get hands-on experience in a way that can benefit their community. Chris and his students are a great example of how a tiny home project can create a meaningful partnership between an institution and a local program. It also provides students with the rare opportunity to learn how to build a house and learn practical skills that can be used later in life. 

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2020-09-21T14:54:51+0000
Maria Saxton

Article by:

Maria Saxton

Located in Roanoke, Virginia, Maria Saxton holds a Ph.D. in Environmental Design and Planning from Virginia Tech. She works as an Environmental Planner and Housing Researcher for a local firm specializing in Community Planning, Architecture, Landscape Architecture, and Historic Preservation. Her dissertation explored the environmental impacts of small-scale homes. She serves as a volunteer board member for the Tiny Home Industry Association.