A Life Less Large

For Betty D., a local retiree, the hardest part of building a new home in Austin this past year wasn’t the design process, the permitting or the construction. It was having the finished product delivered and planted into her daughter’s yard. The truck that brought her house up from Lockhart had to squeeze past utility poles and do a jackknife maneuver to get it in place.

But once on the ground, voila: instant home—and not the prefabricated kind either. Located in Lockhart, Reclaimed Space built Betty’s house with rare chestnut, oak and poplar from a 150-year-old Kentucky barn. The company also crafted custom tile, huge windows and accents of weathered corrugated metal siding from an old silo in Cromwell, Texas. The end result has a full kitchen, living area, bathroom, bedroom, laundry space and painting studio—and it’s only 16 by 48 feet. Betty figures that’s all the room she really needs. “You live in a certain amount of space and the rest is just a place to store stuff,” she says.

As the Austin housing market shows no sign of becoming any less expensive for the foreseeable future, locals like Betty have beaten the system. They’ve avoided getting stuck with an impossible mortgage on a house they don’t really like in a neighborhood they like even less. They’re part of a movement that started with the tiny-house craze and has bloomed into something bigger (even as the houses stay small).

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“It’s harder for people to enter the housing market, but when you go small and efficient, you have a lot more options,” says Tracen Gardner, founder of Reclaimed Space, standing in the company’s open-air construction hangar. Filled with the bones of barns, stacks of rescued longleaf pine shiplap and a modular home in progress, the hangar is the centerpiece of the company’s 22 acres in Lockhart. The property serves as something of a showcase for the small-home lifestyle. A little way down the road, past the pond, tree fort and dirt-bike track where Gardner’s kids are kicking up clouds of dust, the company’s architect, Mackey Smith, has set up his own Reclaimed Space pad. He’s placed it in a spot with good shade and crosswind ventilation in hopes that he can cool it naturally and keep it off the grid. If that doesn’t pan out, he can always move it someplace else, which is the whole point of having a home that fits on a truck. As long as you build within city guidelines and the neighborhood codes allow it, you can plop a house like this anywhere.

Gardner started Reclaimed Space in 2007, when the financial crisis slowed down business at DIRTCO Construction, his ranch design and landscaping company in Austin. He wanted to see if he could pull off making a sustainable and transportable structure using the material he’d salvaged over the years. The eventual goal was to sell it and use the profits to build another house for himself, but Gardner’s friend, Tito Beveridge of Tito’s Handmade Vodka, suggested he tell Dwell Magazine about it. That’s how Gardner’s first effort, a 400-square-foot bungalow, became the darling of Dwell’s 2009 Dwell on Design conference in Los Angeles. Rather than haul it back to Texas, he sold it on eBay and gave $10,000 of the profits to Habitat for Humanity. The business became so successful that Gardner got his own cable TV show, “Home Wranglers,” in 2014, and he’s been weighing offers to do similar house programs ever since.

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Reclaimed Space has built everything from hunting lodges to glamping tents, but when it comes to the cabins, it offers four floor plans of assorted sizes, encouraging clients to customize finishes, fixtures, floors, cabinets and counters. Customers get even more creative with the uses they dream up. The company’s more than 60 projects to date include a dojo in Oak Hill, and living and sleeping quarters for a boarding school/summer camp on 10,000 acres in Utopia, Texas. It’s a versatile approach to living, but it’s not always cheap. The company’s most popular 640-square-foot cabin sells for $135,000 and can climb in cost from there with the quality of the fixtures and other additions. That’s why Gardner has started marketing a “shell” version of the Reclaimed Space home that the cost-conscious can fill in on their own timetable. So long as clients can find a bank to finance this smaller-than-usual sum of money and a plot of land to put it on (Gardner recommends property that’s had a double-wide on it for the utility hookups), it’s doable for almost anybody. “Making something beautiful with a smaller budget is the creative part that a lot of people who are into this love,” he says.

Love, with a dose of necessity, compelled Justin Kear to think small when he looked for a place in Austin. After cutting back his hours as a software engineer to rethink his life and become nomadic for a few years, he wanted to dip a toe into Austin housing without putting down deep roots. Even a tiny home built on a plot of land was more commitment than he wanted. Instead, he got a tiny house on wheels. Built by Austin’s TexZen Tiny Home Co., it’s a 210-square-foot structure with the craftsmanship and functionality of a high-end tiny house and the mobility of a mobile home. “For me it’s just a home with a different feel,” says Kear.

This collision of worlds makes perfect sense to TexZen founders Mandi Hooper and her mother, Suzanne Braden. They both have plenty of experience renovating homes, and Braden used to work for a mobile home manufacturer. Using choice materials, such as Western red cedar, pine and subway tile, while following conventional RV certification standards, the company creates luxury homes that look and feel like Dwell but move like U-Haul (so long as you watch out for speed bumps). “We were looking for a more interesting aesthetic than the standard motor home,” says Hooper.

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Hooper and Braden only built their first hybrid house as a place for Braden to stay when she visited Austin. They never expected a passing stranger who happened upon the finished product to insist on buying it. Since then, they’ve crafted spaces for first-time homeowners and seniors who want to move with the seasons. Young or old, these customers have embraced the idea of less space in exchange for more freedom. “The tiny-home movement has forced people to change their mindset about how much they really need,” says Hooper.

She says her clientele typically like to collaborate in the design process, and Kear was no exception. Eager to experiment, he had ideas for the layout and found a new composting toilet and small sink to install alongside the standard induction cooktop, combo washer-dryer and other appliances TexZen recommends to save space.

When TexZen finished his home, Kear hitched it to a truck and hauled it to a mobile home park. Now he rolls out a wee welcome mat alongside old-school RV folk and the growing crowd of tiny homers in refurbished mobile homes. There’s no stigma here—just a community of people who reject the notion that you have to own a house and land at the same time. That idea, like other tenets of real estate, simply doesn’t hold up any longer. There’s just one iron-clad rule that no small-home owner can break, and Gardner explains it best: “To live like this, you can’t be a hoarder.”

By Steve Wilson • Photography courtesy of Reclaimed Space and TexZen