While McMansions continue to sprout all over Northern Virginia, Sarah McNair is going hard in the other direction: She joined the “tiny house” movement, and for her master’s degree, the Fairfax County resident built a fully sustainable, 210-square-feet English Ivy colored house.
Not living room. House.
McNair, 25, grew up in Manassas, attended Osbourn Park High School and graduated from Virginia Tech at 19. After college, she moved
back to Chantilly, and began pursuing a master’s degree in environmental management policy with a concentration in sustainability. And that’s when she had the idea to build a tiny house, part of the growing belief that smaller houses make less of a dent in the environment and are far cheaper to build and live in.
In addition to the planning, “She has done 75 percent or greater of the physical labor: The hammering, the sawing, the cussing, the cursing, the re-nailing, the re-doing,” said her father Scott Myers, a former general contractor for 30 years in Northern Virginia. While his daughter was in high school, the family moved to Newport, Va., outside of Blacksburg. So McNair drove from Northern Virginia to Newport on weekends this spring and summer to build the house.
The house is built on a trailer and is classified as a camper, but it is built to meet current building code requirements for regular homes whenever possible. “All of the electricity is powered by solar, but we do have regular hookups,” McNair said. “All of the water can be off-grid, too. We have a tank, but we also have RV hookups for that, too.”
The home has a composting toilet, so “there is no black water.” For gray water, “most people can use a filtration system to water their garden or do their laundry,” McNair said. The refrigerator, stove and hot water heater are powered by two propane tanks mounted onto the tongue of the trailer.
The house is one of a kind. McNair used plans as guidelines, tweaking things such as the roofline, to make it “interesting.” She used wood from discarded pallets at her father’s hardware store in Newport for flooring and trim around the windows.
“I’ve been stripping down pallets and cleaning them and sanding them, and it has taken me forever,” she said. “I didn’t want to use new wood because it just seemed silly to me when his store has hundreds of pallets that sit around and they get thrown away and burned.” The seating bench in the main living area and cabinets, stairs and carpet tiles are all re-used pieces that were found at Habitat for Humanity ReStores.
But not everything is tiny in this house. “ I didn’t want anyone to feel like they were roughing it,” she said. “I really wanted a full stove and oven, if you want to bake cookies or whatever. I didn’t want anyone to feel it was a downgrade.”
While living in Fairfax, McNair began pursuing her masters degree at American Military University, part of American Public University System, an accredited online school which offers degree programs in environmental policy and environmental sciences, according to Tatiana Sehring, the senior strategic relationships manager of environmental sciences. The school is headquartered in Charles Town, W.Va., with 100,000 students in 100 countries. The school also has facilities in Manassas, so on Friday McNair and her father stopped to display the house there.
After her stop in Manassas, McNair and her father were planning to take the tiny house to Charles Town to meet with the school’s sustainability committee.
The tiny house movement has been growing in the U.S. since 2002, due in part to economic and environmental concerns, and, for some, as a result of re-evaluating the time and energy to pay for and maintain large homes. But even though small houses are small, they still must meet full-sized state and local codes and regulations. If a small house is an accessory dwelling, there are other regulations that apply.
Fairfax and Loudoun counties require a property’s primary home to have 120 square feet of living area, with 70 square feet for a one-person bedroom, and must meet other provisions, such as height, of the Virginia Uniform State Building Code. Properties within homeowners’ associations may be subject to additional restrictions or requirements.
McNair plans to sell the house to pay the loan off that she took out to build the house. “You can have this house for less than some people spend for a car,” said Scott.
McNair’s blog chronicling the building of her tiny home can be found at smallhousebigadventure.com.