Tiny houses offer big potential in neighborhoods like Garfield |

Tiny houses offer big potential in neighborhoods like Garfield

Tom Fontaine
An exterior and interior look at the Minim House, a 210-square-foot home designed by Foundry Architects and Brian Levy. Downtown nonprofit cityLab intends to build a home with this design on a vacant lot in Garfield.
An exterior and interior look at the Minim House, a 210-square-foot home designed by Foundry Architects and Brian Levy. Downtown nonprofit cityLab intends to build a home with this design on a vacant lot in Garfield.

Tiny houses could play a big role in rebuilding Garfield by filling some of the neighborhood’s hundreds of vacant lots and boosting homeownership in a more affordable way, officials say.

Downtown nonprofit cityLAB intends to build a 210-square-foot home on a small parcel between two-story homes on North Atlantic Avenue, a couple of blocks from bustling Penn Avenue. Leaders of the group hope more will follow.

“There’s no such thing as a small building project,” said Chad Chalmers, an architect with Sewickley-based Wildman Chalmers Design LLC who is working on the Garfield project, noting that construction of a tiny house must go through the same steps as a traditional one — in some cases, more requirements.

An added step for Garfield’s tiny house could be to seek a variance to a section of Pittsburgh’s building code that requires any newly constructed home to have an off-street parking space. In this case, the 180-square-foot space would be nearly as large as the home and eat up one-fifth of the property.

Tiny houses — newly constructed homes of up to 900 square feet — are gaining a lot of attention.

Dozens of architectural firms across the country specialize in designing such homes, and numerous books and documentaries address the topic. A&E’s FYI Network begins airing a show, “Tiny House Nation,” on Wednesday.

Tiny homes serve as a countertrend to Americans’ growing appetite for bigger homes. According to census data, the average size of a newly constructed home rose from 1,660 square feet in 1973 to 2,521 square feet in 2007. After a three-year dip that coincided with the Great Recession, average home sizes rose in each of the past three years — to an all-time high of 2,598 square feet last year.

Only 1 percent of home buyers purchase a home of 1,000 square feet or less, according to the National Association of Realtors.

CityLAB and Bloomfield-Garfield Corp. began studying tiny house options late last year.

“We wanted to come up with a plan that dealt with housing and how we could create more homeownership opportunities and do it in an affordable way. This is one path to doing that,” said Richard Swartz, executive director of Bloomfield-Garfield Corp.

About 3,700 people live in Garfield, down from more than 11,000 in the mid-1900s. The neighborhood has more than 300 vacant parcels of land. Just 47 percent of the neighborhood’s housing units are owner-occupied, a rate that lags behind the city (52 percent), state (70 percent) and nation (65 percent), 2010 census data show.

“Tiny houses could fill the holes more quickly than conventional houses because they will be more affordable to build, purchase and maintain,” said Eve Picker, president and CEO of cityLAB.

The model of tiny house chosen by cityLAB is called a Minim House, designed by Foundry Architects and Brian Levy. It is 10 feet, 8 inches by 22 feet and has many multi-purpose features, including a window shade that doubles as a video production screen. Picker said a half-dozen people have said they want to buy the home.

Picker hopes to begin construction this fall and anticipates project costs will wind up “well under $100,000.”

Tom Fontaine is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7847 or [email protected].

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