This 13-year-old built his own tiny house for $1,500

Luke Thill is 13 and built his own house.

He doesn’t consider it a playhouse, and neither did those who invited him to speak Saturday at a tiny home festival in Colfax, Iowa. The eighth-grader from Dubuque, Iowa, calls the 89-square-foot structure in his parents’ backyard a “starter home.” He built it for $1,500 by cutting lawns, raising money online, gathering reclaimed materials and bartering for labor.

An electrician neighbor helped him wire it — if Thill cleaned out his garage.

A Scout leader he knew helped him lay carpet in the loft bedroom — if he cut the man’s lawn.

He used leftover siding from his grandma’s house and a front door he got from his uncle’s friend.

“I liked the minimalism,” he said, sounding much older than 13. “And I wanted to have a house without a huge mortgage.”

Tiny homes less than 500 square feet have piqued the imagination of a nation fighting the American urge for more and bigger in the past decade, said Renee McLaughlin, the organizer of last weekend’s TinyFest Midwest, who lives in a smaller home than Thill’s. Her rural Oskaloosa home is 87 square feet. “I think we’ve reached a threshold where this ‘stuff’ is running our lives. We spend all our time working to buy it, clean it and organize it,” said McLaughlin, 48. “It’s not making us happy.”

Her fest at the Jasper County Fairgrounds included several tiny homes to tour, a presenter who is 6-foot-8, proving they can fit anyone, and attendees from 18 states, including a family of four who lives in a tiny home. It was Thill’s first speaking engagement after gathering attention and more than 700 subscribers with his YouTube series on the build.

Thill’s dad, Greg, told him when he started the project 18 months ago that if he was going to do it there were simple rules: You raise the money. You build it. And you own it. Greg Thill said he worked alongside his son to guide him, but that Luke learned much on his own — framing a structure and wiring, dealing with adults, making tough financial decisions and staying on budget.

“It was a chance for a kid to do something more than play video games or sports,” he said. “It teaches life lessons.”

Luke says his home, which is 5½ feet wide and 10 feet long and includes a loft, is made of 75 percent reclaimed materials, including several windows. He built a small deck outside. The siding is half cedar shakes, half vinyl Inside, a small kitchen area with a counter and shelving leads to a back sitting area with a large ottoman for a couch, a flip-down table and a wall-mounted TV. A ladder leads to an upstairs loft with a mattress. It’s wired for electric but has no plumbing, so Greg Thill says city codes consider it “a glorified shed.”

Luke Thill said he learned how to overcome disappointment. A big moment was his “counter-top fail.” He placed broken colored glass below what was going to be a lacquer surface. But when he poured the lacquer, it was “too watery,” and ran all over. But he made the most of it — the lacquer created a bond that held the counter to the wall. “Doesn’t have a screw in it,” he said.

He attached a traditional counter surface over the messed-up lacquer surface with a hinge for a lift-top storage space.He sleeps in it a couple of nights a week, does homework there after school and entertains friends. “The main purpose is to be my starter home,” he said. “I’m going to save money and expand.” In a couple of years, he hopes to build a larger tiny home on a trailer so he can perhaps haul it to college for cheaper living.

His message at the festival was this: “I want to show kids it’s possible to build at this age.”

There’s also an Iowan on the festival schedule who lives in a tiny home at the age of 80.

One trend is their ever-shrinking size — including micro-homes of fewer than 100 square feet, McLaughlin said. She sold her 3,300-square-foot home and 18 months ago moved into a space smaller than one of the four bathrooms in her former dwelling. How? She simply got rid of stuff — though clothes and shoes were the hardest. She shops less, buys less and throws less garbage into the landfill. A small bag that fits in a public trash can is all she tosses in a week. It fits her environmental ethic, which includes heating her water with solar. “I’m a simple girl, but a girl, nonetheless,” she said. So she accommodated her clothes problem with a hanging rod that swings into the shower.

While it sounds spartan, McLaughlin said people have gone from feeling sorry, telling her that “it will get better,” to saying that her home on wheels is cool. “I now own everything outright with no debt,” she said. “I can move around. It’s nice to know I can just go.” Her home sits on a relative’s property — that’s one of the issues with living in a tiny home: finding a piece of land to park it.

Despite widespread publicity fueled by reality TV shows, the growth of tiny homes is still difficult to quantify. The average new home continues to grow bigger — to 2,687 square feet in 2015, or a thousand square feet larger than in 1973. According to an analysis of homes on the Multiple Listing Service last fall by, only 3,000 of the 1.5 million homes listed in the U.S. were tiny homes.

“A huge part of it tends to be secret. They may be living in a backyard under the radar,” said Jay Shafer, a keynote speaker at the festival, who is viewed by tiny home enthusiasts as the “godfather” of the movement.e started living in a 130-square-foot home in Iowa City nearly 20 years ago, and his story spread across the country. He now designs tiny homes in California. While inroads have been made to allow tiny home builders in the U.S. to finance and ensure the structures, city codes are still prohibitive. Many have foundation or size requirements. For example, Des Moines housing codes require a home to be at least 24 feet wide.

Shafer said there has been progress, pointing to the recent change in the International Residential Code, which now requires U.S. homes to be a mere 88 square feet in 2018.

To a 13-year-old, it’s the future.

“Everyone had to have a big house, and now people have changed and realized it’s not practical,” Luke Thill said. “You can save money, travel the world and do what you want instead.”

The secrets behind Japan’s coolest micro homes

By Kate Springer

A tiny scrap of land might not catch your eye.

But to Japanese architect Yasuhiro Yamashita of Atelier Tekuto, there’s nothing more beautiful.

A veteran designer of kyosho jutaku — or micro homes — Yamashita has built more than 300 houses, each uniquely shaped and packed full of personality.

All starkly different, the only thing these homes have in common is their size — Yamashita’s projects start at just 182 square feet.

Demand for small homes in Japan results partly from land scarcity, property prices and taxes, as well as the impending danger posed by the country’s regular earthquakes and typhoons.

But some residents simply prefer a smaller home, seeking a minimalist lifestyle.

“In Japan, there’s a saying (‘tatte hanjo nete ichijo’) that you don’t need more than half a tatami mat to stand and a full mat to sleep,” says Yamashita. “The idea comes from Zen — and a belief that we don’t need more than the fundamentals.”

Of course, the beauty of a well-designed micro home is that it doesn’t appear ‘fundamental’ at all.

Below, Yamashita divulges 10 strategies to make petite properties feel more spacious.

1. Embrace the awkward

“Asymmetrical pieces of land can often be obtained cheaper than others. And it is an architect’s job to work with the land and fulfill the client’s request,” says Yamashita.

“‘Lucky Drops’ — a house in downtown Tokyo — is a good example. It was a leftover scrap of land that was less expensive because of its irregular trapezoid shape. We had to be creative, but the result is beautiful. There’s a saying in Japanese, that the last drop of wine is considered to be lucky. That’s the inspiration.”

2. Build towards the sky

“When you look at an area in 2D, it might seem very small — perhaps the plot is just a few meters wide. But thinking in terms of volume, you can build the home higher and create more space. I try to make the house feel like it’s extending upwards into the sky, so it’s almost like the sky is part of the house. I also build high ceilings, so you don’t feel cramped.”

This Tokyo home, designed by Atelier Tekuto, takes the shape of a polyhedron in order to provide an enormous skylight above the living room.

Aptly named “Framing the Sky,” this Atelier Tekuto home was built on a polygon-shaped site. The architects focused on the relationship between nature and people, by incorporating a large skylight to make the home feel like it was extending upwards into the sky.

3. Incorporate nature

“In Japan, about 70% is mountains and forest and 30% of the land is rather flat, making it more suitable for residences and rice farms. Even so, we are not trying to fight against nature — we’re trying to live along with it. You can see this in the homes we design. Most of our homes incorporate natural materials and large windows to let in lots of natural light.”

A combination of a shop and private home, Wakka incorporates lots of natural touches, such as a small stone garden and a series of sliding doors that offer more alfresco space.

4. Think outside the box

“Instead of traditional square corners, I often cut the edges of the house into triangular shapes. This creates more surface area and more room for windows. There’s always a corner open to the sky. That way, as the sun moves, the home is always filled with natural light.”

Designed by Atelier Tekuto for a family of five, Iron Mask is steel-based house with a unique curving facade that made the most of the site’s shape.

5. Go monochrome

“What you see informs 60% of your perception of a space. Imagine that you’re inside an eggshell, with the same color and texture all over. There’s no real start or finish, no real corners.

It is a visual effect that will make the space expand. I think that the color white makes spaces look larger, but I prefer to use the natural colors of materials rather than painting.”

Designed by Atelier Tekuto for a family of five, Iron Mask is steel-based house with a unique curving facade that made the most of the site’s shape.

The color white can make spaces look larger, but any consistent palette can create a similar effect. Atelier Tekuto often incorporates natural materials and textures rather than painting.

6. Use reflective materials

“To trick the eye, I use polished stainless steel features. They reflect light and make an area seem larger. In ‘Reflection of Mineral,’ for example, I used stainless steel in the kitchen and in the bathroom to make the space feel more expansive.”

An industrial-style home designed by Atelier Tekuto, Wafers makes use of reinforced concrete, steel and highly reflective windows.

7. Hide Storage

“People tend to accumulate a lot of things over time. I want it all to be hidden away, out of sight, so I build a lot of invisible storage inside the house. If you keep the area wide open and uncluttered, then it’s hard for people to really comprehend the size of the space.”

The uncluttered space feels spacious and large, an effect that’s accentuated by floor-to-ceiling windows.

The owner of Cell Bricks, also a designer, requested an “out of the norm” home and Atelier Tekuto delivered. The house has lots of natural storage thanks to the stacked steel-box design, making it functional as well as visually engaging.

8. Stay close to home

“In the 20th century, architecture was meant for the masses, for the general public. Designs and buildings were constructed quickly and economically — all with the same materials and same appearance. We were in an era of globalization and everyone wanted the same thing.

But now, people are looking to their own regions, their own local traditions for inspiration. That’s where design is moving — closer to home.”

Using natural materials such as cedar wood and terrazzo floors, Atelier Tekuto created a nature-inspired abode for a Japanese family.

9. Invent new solutions

“I spend a lot of time developing new materials from what other people consider to be ‘waste.’ I’m like a garbage man. If I find materials that are not commonly used or have been discarded, then I get really excited.

If I can’t find the materials that go along with the structure, then I invent a new one. For example, I was unhappy with the cement used for homes in Japan, so I worked with Tokyo University to develop a new type. Our recyclable Shirasu Cement is made from volcanic ash deposits.”

Two chemists own R Torso C and they specifically requested a concrete design with an eco-friendly approach. Atelier Tekuto set out out to develop a new type of environmentally friendly cement, called Shirashu.

10. Personalize your home

“A few factors affect my designs — the specificities of the land, the way the light hits the property, the neighborhood, and the client’s personal requests. A home is very personal. In ‘Reflection of Mineral,’ the clients wanted a strong, sharp-looking design. From there, I choose materials based on the design, depending on what would be best for the space.”

Atelier Tekuto approached Reflection of Mineral with an open mind. The clients requested a strong design that would be a memorable piece of architecture while providing the maximum amount of livable space.

home 16

Also an architect, the owner of Layers requested a home that could accommodate multiple generations, as well as feature outdoor courtyards and connecting staircases. By using a mix of materials, Atelier Tekuto achieved a unique yet functional design.