By Heather Hornbeak
Tiny Home life didn’t begin for us overnight. We don’t have the experience like many others of being dissatisfied with our jobs or seeking this lifestyle out of passion for the environment. My husband Jesse and I have watched countless videos about tiny home owners, bus conversions, and van dwellers. At first it seemed to be a ritual of vicariously living through these young adventurers. However, after educating ourselves and coming up with a strategy, the voyage became more possible—even with a family. So here we are, seeing the world from a measly 65 square feet filled with four people! Yes, that is exactly 16.25 square feet per person. Before you decide this idea is totally miserable, hear me out. For one, it isn’t for everyone. We have designed the van, our tour, and the amenities to fit our personal needs. Even among the four of us, we are all different and therefore have various standards for a successful adventure.
For context, allow me to provide a little backstory. We’ve always loved tiny homes, and we looked seriously into purchasing one or building one at one time. However, zoning laws are a bit tricky regarding tiny home living in many areas of the country, including ours. We decided to put the idea on hold and begin building a micro shelter on a 6 x 10-foot flatbed trailer for recreational use instead. It was a fun project and turned out beautifully, but we quickly realized how unfriendly it would be to pull it long-distance, as frequent travel became increasingly important to us. We came across a van, which had been partially converted, on Craigslist. The seller happened to be looking for the exact set-up of our camper and SUV pulling it, so we made a very reasonable trade.
Jesse completed the entire Ford Transit van conversion, with some of my assistance, for approximately $3,000 in about three weeks. Before the purchase and build, we decided what was most important to us. We chose a van over a bus or tiny home because of parking accessibility. Anything that can be parked in a regular-sized parking stall represents fewer impediments, so we purchased the largest vehicle possible that fits into a normal parking spot. After several weeks on the road, we can attest to what an advantage this has been. For us, it’s been a good trade: less space for greater mobility. The other advantage is the stealth camping ability. Stealth camping means we can park practically anywhere, with no one the wiser that anyone is sleeping or living in the van. From the outside, it looks like any other work van, so we’ve parked on the streets of Chicago to meet friends, took a nap, and ate lunch in public parking lots, all while remaining private, safe, and incognito.
Another huge decision we made was opting out of a shower/bathroom area. Many van builds have a shower area. However, our research revealed that these weren’t used as often as the van-dwellers had anticipated, and they drained the water source, required a larger grey water tank (which also takes up space), and took up a lot of useable space. Because we have two kiddos with us, we couldn’t afford to lose that much square footage. Many people are concerned on our behalf about our lack of personal showering quarters, but so far, it hasn’t been a big concern. This summer, we swam in pools, lakes, visited friends at their homes, and stayed at campgrounds with full amenities. We have running water in the van so washing our face and hands—as well as soaking our feet—is always an option.
Before this year, traveling full-time as a family wasn’t possible due to my job. But then I proposed the idea of teaching online while returning to the Asbury University campus, where I am a full-time professor, six times a year, and the faculty, Dean, and Provost have been extremely supportive and have allowed me to try it out. Jesse has worked in mechanics, construction, and as a business owner in the audio/video/automation industry for several years. Because van life is affordable, we were able to sell our big house and free ourselves of several expenses so he doesn’t have to provide income for us to survive. We are home-schooling our boys while we travel, with me designing the curriculum and Jesse implementing it. Jesse is also working with the city of Jackson, Tennessee, to permit tiny homes to be allowed in the county. After details are worked out, our plan is to purchase a tiny home of our own and structure a program to demonstrate the benefits of tiny home living.
I love adventures, but adventures usually require a little bit of discomfort. I’m often reminded it’s worth it. When I make breakfast as the kids play on an early-morning foggy playground or when we watch the sun set behind the Grand Tetons, I’m reminded of how not having much gives us so much in return. We’ve all seen and learned innumerable things about the country we call home.
I love to have short-term and long-term goals. However, with this experience, having long-term goals isn’t reasonable just yet. This type of lifestyle yields the need for flexibility and experimentation. Therefore, I can’t tell you if anything we are attempting to do is going to last a few months or a few years. There isn’t much of a blueprint for this type of endeavor. Our desire to pioneer some innovative solutions for both our family, and for others as well, is an unusual undertaking to be sure. It’s a bit difficult to explain to people at times, but I believe giving plenty of room for what we need as a family and what the community of Jackson needs is the healthiest approach.
Heather Hornbeak is a full-time professor at Asbury University, located in Wilmore, Kentucky, where she teaches Interactive Design, Editorial Design, and Instructional Design.