Going Small Reaps Big Rewards
Written by Christina Scott
Jennifer McCarthy is taking Lethbridge by storm. As the owner and operator of Teacup Tiny Homes, McCarthy has set tongues blazing with a simple concept: big things come in small packages.
Incorporated in September 2016, the business specializes in building tiny homes and structures that are 500 sq. ft. or less. As a designer with 14 years’ experience, McCarthy says she got the idea for the venture between April 2015 and March 2016 during a maternity leave.
“That’s when I first heard of [tiny homes] and I started watching the shows on HGTV every day, all the time,” she says. “One person said to me, ‘You should build those tiny homes, you’d be so great at it.’”
McCarthy graduated from Lethbridge College’s interior design program in 2004 and had the opportunity to work for a home builder during her practicum. She would remain in the home building field, spending her last 12 years with Avonlea Homes in various roles, including interior designer, head of design and production, and operations manager.
“I had the opportunity to be involved in a lot of different elements of home building,” she explains.
When someone suggested she build tiny homes, McCarthy brushed off the idea with a chuckle. Upon hearing the same comment from several others, she began researching the concept.
“The more I did my research the more I discovered there really is a need for a smaller housing option for so many different demographics across the country and the world,” says McCarthy.
In Canada, the average price for a conventional home is approximately $300,000, with that figure doubling in larger centres such as Toronto and Vancouver.
“A lot of people just can’t afford it,” says McCarthy. “We have about 2.1 million people in post-secondary education right now that are to come out with student loans, so what are they going to do?”
She says opting for a tiny home is much less expensive, giving people the ability to pay off loans faster, or avoid mortgages altogether. Tiny homes also make a smaller carbon and environmental footprint, and can drastically reduce cost of living.
“It frees you. If you are not tied down to your mortgage, you get out of the rat race, you don’t necessarily have to feel that pressure of waking up and going to work from eight in the morning to five at night just to pay the bills,” says McCarthy. “People would rather spend their time having fun and experiencing life.”
Many across North America seem to agree with that sentiment; in the past five years, the tiny home movement has blossomed in the U.S. According to Tiny Home Alliance Canada, as of 2015, 60 per cent of tiny home owners in the U.S. were debt and mortgage free.
Passionate about allowing people to live affordably, McCarthy knew her background in design and home building would be a perfect fit. Along with building complete tiny homes, Teacup’s services also include building tiny home shells, tiny cabins, hunting shacks and more. Consultations on construction and interior design are also available.
Drawing from her industry connections, McCarthy acts as the general contractor for projects, hiring the subtrades needed to complete construction.
“[The homes] are so customizable that I can reach out to a ton of different contacts that I’m so lucky to have,” she says.
When she began, McCarthy knew that building a prototype was crucial to helping people understand what tiny living can look like. In July and August 2016, McCarthy set to work researching and obtaining quotes from the trades, in addition to working with a trailer manufacturer to create a shell for the home.
When the trailer arrived in December last year, McCarthy partnered with Exteriors by Leroy & Darcy to build the Not-So-Lonely Wanderer.
“I decided [on the name] because this home is amazing,” she says. “You can take it anywhere you want, you can wander wherever you would like, but I feel like whoever is in it will never be lonely because they’ll be filling their life with experiences, joy and happiness.”
The home is 300 sq. ft. and comes complete with a king-size loft, full bathroom and kitchen, living space with a sectional couch and 50-inch television, and propane appliances including a washer/dryer combo.
Using Exteriors’ large yard and shop space allowed the team to work indoors, away from frigid winter temperatures.
“The temperature dropped to -25 and stayed that way for two months,” says McCarthy. “You can’t do certain things in construction in the cold. We were really lucky to be able to move it inside to their shop and then back out when we needed to.”
Partners included Liquid Empire Plumbing & Heating, Cabinet Expressions, FloorRight Interiors and Deluxe Granite, among others.
“I wanted to show something that was higher end,” says McCarthy of the design concept. “I really wanted to show that living small can be luxurious, too.”
Completed in 12 weeks at a cost of $85,000, McCarthy is confident tiny homes could be completed in six to 10 weeks, for as low as $35,000, depending on what the person wants included. McCarthy says when it came to designing the Wanderer, there was a learning curve.
“It really changed my perspective of how to design a super functional home in a small space,” she says, adding the home grew on her.
“The more time I spent in there, the more I loved it. It was much roomier than my RV, even though my RV is bigger.”
The prototype made its debut at the Home and Garden Tradeshow March 22 to 25. Attendees viewed the space with keen interest.
“Wednesday was the only day we weren’t lined up,” says McCarthy. “Come Saturday, we had anywhere from a 10 to 15-minute wait all day.”
Feedback was positive, but many people had the same question: where can you place a tiny home?
The answer is somewhat illusive. McCarthy says people who own their own land can easily park structures on farms and acreages. If the home is on a foundation in a residential setting, specific codes need to be followed.
Because tiny living is a relatively new phenomenon, Canada does not have legislation for tiny homes in its building codes. Canada’s tiny home community recently presented the National Resource Council with proposed changes to the country’s codes to include tiny homes.
“That will be a gamechanger,” says McCarthy.
In December, the U.S. added a tiny home appendix to its codes, to be adopted in 2018. The appendix applies to homes smaller than 400 sq. ft., and covers things such as minimum loft dimensions, stairways, landing platforms, loft guards, and emergency openings.
Equally important to the venture’s success is land development, says McCarthy, whose dream is to someday create a tiny home community.
“I would love to create a model for a tiny home community and then replicate it across Canada.”
That would likely involve garnering support from private investors, developing the land into a subdivision, writing the rules for that subdivision and moving forward from there.
That idea is being harnessed by Big Valley, a small village south of Edmonton. Per a CBC article published in March, the village intends to build a subdivision containing 22 undersized lots measuring 30 ft. by 80 ft. A normal size lot in the village is about 50 ft. by 120.
The municipality continued to get requests from people wanting to build homes under 700 sq. ft., and decided to change its bylaws to accommodate demand. The village looked to U.S. regulations to model its community, expecting to complete the infrastructure in 2018.
While Lethbridge still has significant strides to make, McCarthy says residents are more than ready for a tiny home takeover. In the past two months, she has received inquiries from 21 people asking where they could put a tiny home in the city.
“I believe that it would attract a lot of attention and a lot of people would want it,” she says. “I think there would be a waiting list.”
McCarthy is currently working with clients in B.C. and Alberta; both will be using salvaged and reclaimed materials in their build.
“I’m working with a company called Salvage Solutions out of Pincher Creek and they basically tear down barns and old buildings and salvage the material so we can reuse them on these projects,” she says.
The Not-So-Lonely Wanderer is currently for sale, and McCarthy looks forward to her next build. By summer, she hopes to hire an assistant with design credentials to aid with various aspects of the business.
“There’s an opportunity to help a lot of different people,” says McCarthy. “I really believe in living your life to the fullest and that’s what I can help people do.”
To find out more about
Teacup Tiny Homes, visit www.teacuptinyhomes.com