Lessons From Vermont's Tiny House Festival

Updated: Mar 2

I’m part of a family of six. Our house is far from “tiny,” with seven or so non-transitional rooms over two floors. We have multiple couches, a laundry room with a washer and a dryer, and another entire room dedicated to a pool table and record player. But, we still have three bedrooms for six people. Opposite of the typical experience, my dorm in college was the first time I didn’t have a roommate. But over breaks, I came back to two; my teenaged little sister had lobbied to take the smallest bedroom for herself.

In the interest of having my own space, I elected to sleep in what was essentially a closet. A bedframe wouldn’t fit horizontally, so I had my mattress on the floor. In one corner was a little TV-dinner table with books piled all around it. In the other was a multi-purpose chair/desk/box, where I put my computer and a lamp. I blocked it all off with a curtain and finally had somewhere to myself.

Somewhere over the last semester, the family politics shifted. My older sister couldn’t sleep from the noise in the road next to the big bedroom, and my little sister wanted to raise a second batch of ducks, whose smell might be slightly more tolerable put in the big room next to some fans. After my time in the closet, I can’t really call the room my older sister and I now intermittently share ‘small.’ It fits two beds, two desks, two bookshelves, and a weird filing cabinet, with space left to see the floor!

And so, my experience with “Tiny” living was over. But many others still dwell in cramped spaces -- intentionally, even! Many are aware of the “Tiny House” movement, where people purposefully minimize their living spaces. Vermont's Tiny House Festival is for these people -- and for

anyone who’d like to get a closer look.

Tiny House Fest 2018 opened in Brattleboro June 23 with a celebration of community, food, and tantalizingly audacious ideas about a better world through compact and efficient housing.

This year’s festival took place on Saturday, June 23rd, in two parking lots adjacent to Brattleboro’s Transportation Center on Flat Street. The festival was divided into two principal spaces: a Tiny House showcase and a “learning center” with three stages for presentation. There was also an art market, a makerspace for children in the Boys and Girls Club, and an overnight parking lot for campers where a “Feast Before the Fest” took place.

Held the night before, enthusiasts gathered for the “Feast Before the Fest,” which consisted of a pig roast, local beer and outdoor seating for 100. Entertainment included accordion music and conversation-starters written in silver sharpie on the paper tablecloth. The dinner was capped off by a welcome from Tiny House Fest organizer Erin Maile O’Keefe and a desert of watermelon with bourbon whipped cream shaken table-side in glass mason jars. A few of the houses were there as well, circled up caravan-style, with a few more scattered around the festival parking lot.

They were certainly alluring. I kind of miss my old room.I’m not being sarcastic at all when I say there was something cozy about sleeping at floor level, especially when standing up could mean hitting my head on the ceiling. And cleaning was a breeze--play tetris with fallen books, take down a mug of pistachio shells, vacuum my two square feet of carpet, and then I’m done.

The Tiny House campus ranged along Flat Street in Brattleboro, comprised of two exposition areas, three presentation zones, a makerspace for kids, and an arts market.

Having now been to the Tiny House Festival, I realize everyone has a different reason for tiny living. Some people, like me, saw value in the uncluttered life. Others essentially made their homes out of clutter. A pair of set designers presented their “Steampunk Tiny Home” in the ‘stories’ stage. Their profession leads to lots of interesting found objects they could incorporate into their house.

Perhaps due to the limitations of the festival, portability was a major theme. Houses did have to get to the festival somehow. Some were dragged on trailers (these ones tended to be carefully sized, to avoid any ‘special permits.’ I heard that phrase a lot.) This ease of transport served some non-obvious purposes; one house was meant to be a wheelchair-accessible addition to a normal home, minimizing the adjustment period newly-disabled people had to face. In many cases, building a house in a warehouse and transporting it is easier and cheaper than building one on-site.

Of course, lots of houses were simply made for moving, meant to be taken on the road and parked at campgrounds. Many homes were converted vans or busses, under no house-shaped pretenses. I had wonder how much of tiny living really was spent on the road. Most of the people I talked with were adventurous types (including those who hadn’t brought any houses.) A certain sort of person just isn’t content staying in one place.

More than two dozen tiny houses in varying states of completion demonstrated the vibrancy, inclusiveness and robustness of the field -- from customized buses to attachable accessory dwelling units, private residences to small business operations.

I don’t think I’m that sort of person -- something about the coziness of a tiny home seems offset by dragging it all about the wide world. But there are some things anyone in their right mind would agree on. One is low-impactfulness. The smaller a house is, the more efficient it can be. Houses at the festival lingered around energy neutrality, sometimes dipping down to the negatives, producing more energy than they used through cutting-edge efficiency and rooftop solar panels.

“What is the future of nature?” was one of several questions scrawled on the tablecloth of the “Feast Before the Fest.” The next day I saw a panel about air sealing houses with spray-foam, carefully climate-controlling them so nature couldn’t intervene. But the same care meant less electricity used for heating, less materials used for repair, and less overall human leaking out into nature. It is a distant sort of respect, but one that rang true. House builders aren’t always buddy-buddy with the elements. Even if they’re building to minimize hurting the environment, the environment has no means with which to reciprocate.

Tiny House Fest ample opportunities for learning -- from hands-on activities for kids in the makerspace to technical workshops on topics as wide-ranging as innovative permitting to financing mechanisms, closing the water loop to co-living communities.

Conservation belied a larger socially-conscious thread throughout the event. The ‘Community’ stage had several speakers who, at the surface level, didn’t talk about tiny homes at all. They talked about sustainability projects, food-waste digesters, and community revitalization efforts. These speakers undeniably belonged at the festival, despite subject matter that wasn’t always directly related to tiny homes. They were a group of people looking at the future, and seeing a place for small things to make big impacts.

The way I see it, you don’t have to fully commit to the tiny house lifestyle to incorporate some of its values into your life. No matter the size of your home, you could probably do with a bit less stuff. You probably can’t uproot your home and fit it onto a trailer, but can take journeys and make major changes that inspire you--even if they seem a bit intimidating. And our often-damaging relationship with nature should be on everyone’s minds nowadays. While most people don’t have the sorts of priorities that lead to fully investing ourselves in the tiny house, we could all learn a bit about living small.


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