Talking to Jay Shafer About Making the Universal House

Few names are as closely associated with small living as Jay Shafer, the man who practically invented what is now known as the tiny house. Tiny houses have become a minimalist design and lifestyle ideal. Their tiny size permits no extraneous stuff. They occupy a fraction of the spatial and carbon footprint of a normal home. They are usually owned outright, sidestepping expensive mortgages and financial institutions. And by virtue of their trailer mounting, they can often avoid traditional building regulations.

Jay invented the species back in the late nineties after he wanted something more suitable for year-round habitation than the 100 sq ft Airstream he’d been living in for a couple years. After his tiny house was awarded “Most Innovative Design” in Natural Home Magazine’s 1999 House of the Year Contest, the idea that he could make a living designing and building little homes was born. He founded Tumbleweed Tiny House Company and the rest is history.

Though there may be public indications to the contrary, Jay has not been with Tumbleweed for a couple years. We spoke to Jay about what happened with Tumbleweed, where the tiny house concept started and his new company’s Universal House (U-House), which might point to where it’s all going.

David Friedlander: What happened with Tumbleweed?

Jay Shafer: I took on a business partner a few years back. He was a money guy, I was the design guy. It seemed like a match made in heaven. As our relationship progressed, it became clear that this wasn’t the case, at all. It turns out that his means of growing the company’s bottom line and my own goals to grow a movement and improve on my designs were at odds. Our interests collided, so we split.

DF: Let’s step back a second. How did you get into building tiny houses?

JS: I never set out to design tiny houses. I set out to build an efficient house. When I took out all of the unnecessary parts of the house, it turned out to be a very small house.

I am also high on the Asperger’s scale. I am the kind of person who goes into public restrooms and tries to improve their design. I wanted a home I could control. I wanted a house where everything was useful and meant something. And if it didn’t mean something, I could give it meaning.

The house was mounted on a trailer, so it was technically an RV, but I wanted to make something with universal appeal. Something that would be house-like in proportions and not perceived as a trailer.

Also, I always wanted to be architect, but couldn’t afford the education, so I went to art school instead. After the house got some attention, I thought ‘wouldn’t it be great to do this all the time?’ And that’s how Tumbleweed was born.

DF: Why do you think they’ve become such a sensation?

JS: There are so many reasons, but I think it comes back to nature. In every area of nature, efficiency is the law of the land. Efficiency just makes sense. The only thing I know of that doesn’t abide by efficiency is the human ego.

© Four Lights Tiny House Company

I have never been a fan of taking care of a lot stuff I don’t use. I think tiny houses have that appeal, where it’s very easy to take care of and everything is used. In art, they call something where everything is used “strong composition.” I think tiny houses have “strong composition” in the architectural sense of the word.

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