For some time I have been very interested in what has been called the Tiny House Movement. What is the Tiny House Movement you may ask? According to thetinylife.com, “Simply put, it is a social movement where people are choosing to downsize the space they live in.” The average American home is approximately 2,400 square feet. A tiny house is typically less than 400 square feet.
Like the cabin of a ship, everything in a tiny house has its place. There are shelves within stairways, cabinets hidden under beds and tables that fold into the wall. My family with three children, two dogs and a cat would not begin to fit into such a place. At times we are busting at the seams of our current home, but the dream of the simplicity of the tiny house intrigues me nonetheless.
A quick check of the HGTV listings reveals not one but four different shows about tiny houses. Tiny House, Big Living and Tiny House Hunters are both shows that follow those seeking to downsize their homes and live a more frugal life. One such show, Tiny House Builders, featured a life-long Olympia resident, Abel Zimmerman Zyl, and his building company Zyl Vardos.
Zyl builds tiny houses in rural Thurston County on a parcel of land that is home to people, sheep, chickens and inexplicably one resident duck. I visited the builder to learn more about the Tiny House Movement and his very special tiny houses.
Abel founded his company, Zyl Vardos, in 2008 after almost 20 years of building experience. The name Vardos is the British Romani word for “caravan” or “movable house.” His website explains that Zyl Vardos is “a builder of artistic, functional and beautifully unique small structures which are complete on wheels and shippable anywhere in North America.”
I arrived at the worksite on a grey, rainy day in March (no surprise there) to find the carpenters hard at work on the current project, a version of the Little Bird. In the distance I could see lights on in the cozy Fortune Cookie, another style of a tiny house, that sits on the property across from Zyl’s free-standing, tiny office. We sat down in the cozy office to talk about his building company and the social movement that sustains it. The houses that Abel Zimmerman Zyl builds are crafted completely on site. He uses Pacific Northwest soft woods such as fir and cedar and materials like stainless steel. The homes are nearly to marine grade standards and are built to last.
The house currently under construction is Zyl’s 21st tiny house. Most of the houses are of original design, but he has built five of the very popular Little Bird. Even the basic model features a copper roof, cedar siding and six hand-made windows. Windows are a signature of Zyl Vardos, and popular window styles include the arched, stained-glass window and the round moon window. All houses can be built to be self-sustaining, utilizing alternative fuel sources such as solar. Additionally, Zyl Vardos can use a combination of power, harmonizing the system for a variety of situations. Another unique feature of a Zyl Vardos home is all the customizing. Shelves, table, vanities and beds platforms are all built-in to make the most of the space available. An existing plan can be used and then tweaked to the client’s needs, or an entirely new plan can be designed.
Abel Zimmerman Zyl has built houses for clients all over the United States, most recently shipping homes to Pennsylvania and Maryland. He has had inquiries from as far as Australia, but the shipping makes international clients’ cost prohibitive. While some may see living in a tiny house as a desire to live a singular life, Zyl says in most cases it is the opposite. “The common theme is really co-location,” he tells me. “People want to live closer to their families, so they put a little house on their property for an elderly parent for example.” Often local zoning regulations make converting a garage to a mother-in-law apartment expensive or even impossible. A tiny house can make perfect sense.
“Some people don’t have the ability to own their land,” says Zyl. “Or maybe they just don’t want to be anchored to one place.” Zyl explained that the origins of the tiny house movement could be traced back to the 1960s when hippies built houses on trucks. The mortgage crisis created so much debt for people that many decided that living simply in a home they could truly afford provided a stress-free lifestyle.
If you are interested in experiencing tiny house living, you can stay in a cottage designed by Zyl Vardos on Beacon Hill in Seattle. The house that Zyl built is available to rent on airbnb. But you will not see Zyl Vardos back on HGTV anytime soon. “Reality TV is looking for drama, and we don’t have any of that here,” says Zyl. The crew of six at Zyl Vardos works as a team and seems to get along famously. As he says on the Zyl Vardos website, “My crew is magic!”
To learn more about Zyl Vardos tiny homes or take a virtual tour, gain tips on building your own, or engaging in a weekly live Q & A session with Abel Zimmerman Zyl, check out his YouTube channel here.