In the local paper
Everything you need sits inside Jamie Hiner’s “tiny house.” Minifridge under the kitchen counter. Shower behind the hallway pocket door. Queen-size bed in the loft above.
There are shelves for storage, an L-shaped couch for company, a toilet.
I am standing inside a house not much bigger than my minivan, marveling at the clever design.
And at the countercultural concept.
At a time when the average American house has exploded in size, some people are building small. As in tool-shed small. Treehouse-small.
They have spawned a movement called “small house” or “tiny house.”
The movement is fueled by a less-is-more ideology that is part environmental (less fossil fuel), part economic (less money) and part simplicity (less stuff)
Hiner embraces the movement but is not officially part of it since he doesn’t live in his tiny house — except when he takes it on vacation.
Hiner’s tiny house is parked behind his bigger house, a 1950s raised ranch north of the Crossroads. That three-bedroom, 1,800-square-foot home is smaller than the average American house. But it’s about 14 times bigger than the tiny house in the backyard.
Hiner built this 128-square-foot, cedar-sided home on a trailer bed. He can hitch it to his pickup and pull it anywhere that has an RV hookup. Or a garden hose.
Hiner has driven this house to exactly two places: Sapp Brothers truck stop in Gretna, where he had it weighed, and Grant City, Mo., for his wife’s cousin’s wedding in May.
The house weighed in at 5,000 pounds, well under his trailer’s 7,000-pound weight limit. And it did well on the 260-mile round trip to the wedding.
In between vacations, the tiny house sits inside Hiner’s tree-shaded fenced-in backyard.
Drive by and you’d never know a second house was sitting there. The tiny house is a lot less obtrusive than, say, the sailboat parked in Hiner’s driveway or the J. Doe statue on his front porch.
Occasionally people rent it out, staying overnight in the Hiner backyard. The kind of overnighters drawn to plunk down $45 a day for the tiny house have been earthy, quiet types who eat a lot of melon and spend the day seeing Omaha sights. They give the home rave reviews on a website where people from all over the world — including a couple of dozen in Omaha — rent out their homes or spare rooms or even futons to traveling strangers.
Hiner did not build his tiny house to be a hotel. Its primary function is his family’s vacation home, and he has licensed it with the state as an RV.
The cleverly built structure was a natural next step for this 35-year-old Web designer who spends his days in front of a computer and his nights in a garage workshop, creating.
“I can’t sit still all day,” he said, “and not do something with my hands.”
Hiner, a graduate of Creighton Prep and the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia, drew from innate talent, his design background and his familiarity with fix-it projects and sailboats.
Hiner grew up in Fairacres, in a veritable mansion on three acres. His family had a pool and 100 chickens. He had a handyman grandpa who taught him how to make a go-kart and build a treehouse. He had a property-owner father, Doug, whose sailboat hobby taught him the economy of space. He had an interior designer mother, Myriel Boes, whose artistic flair and romance with old buildings bred a love of design and a willingness to take risks. Like the old Burlington train station downtown she bought in hopes of turning it into condos and retail space. She recently sold it to KETV.
And he had a lesson in excess. Years after his parents divorced, Hiner’s father ran into trouble with a failed business venture and a federal smuggling indictment.
Hiner has kept his focus narrow. But in doing so, he hasn’t sacrificed vision for size. Or for lifestyle.
A tour of his “big” house revealed inventive finishes he designed, created and built.
Take the kitchen. Hiner poured concrete countertops — which took the help of six friends to haul and lift.
Take the dining room. Hiner put a stone facade on the lower half of the room’s large wall and hung reclaimed old barn wood on the upper half. He built the farmhouse dining room table and taught himself how to weld in order to create a floor-to-ceiling iron wine rack.
He would brainstorm, design and “watch 100 YouTube videos” to figure out how to do something.
Last year, he set out to build the tiny house.
It started as a board on Pinterest. Hiner would pin ideas for a sometime vacation home he wanted to build on property his mother owns in Missouri Valley, Iowa.
He called his Pinterest board “Little Houses on the Prairie.” That’s how he got wind of the small house movement, which he defined as “just needing exactly what you need,” and the idea of putting such a house on wheels.
Buying one of those houses, priced at $40,000 to $50,000, was cost-prohibitive. So Hiner decided to build one himself.
First, he paid a few hundred dollars for a used trailer. He reconfigured it, replacing the axel, brakes, wheels and tires.
Then he began to build the tiny house directly on the trailer bed. He used discounted materials where he could, mining Craigslist and the Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore store.
It’s clear that Hiner put a lot of thought into its construction. The exterior siding is cedar that he had specially milled to cut down on the weight. Inside, he used beadboard instead of drywall, concerned that drywall might crack when the home is rolling along the Interstate.
“I sewed these,” he tells me of the gray couch cushions and the patterned footstool.
Hiner, 6-foot-2, pitched the roof 12 feet from the floor, which creates the illusion of space. He installed energy-efficient LED lights. He created a loft for the bed, installed built-in bookshelves and created a unique bathroom with full shower and self-composting toilet.
“Self-composting?” I ask.
Hiner opens the lid and I stare into a bowl filled with wood shavings.
“When you’re done, you cover your stuff,” he said.
Then he added: “It’s been a couple of weeks and you can’t smell a thing!”
It was true — that guinea-pig cage of a toilet smelled like one thing: wood.
The home has a 30-gallon water tank, a propane water heater and the kind of solar-powered batteries found in windmills and solar panels that Hiner made.
This tiny house could be off the grid and still have air-conditioning.
But its best feature is what sits beneath. Wheels.
“Now,” said Hiner, “we can go anywhere.”