University of Minnesota Alumni Association

Alumni Stories

A Smaller Small Home

Erin Card helps would-be homeowners who want to live in their own tiny home.

Growing up in Cannon Falls, Minnesota, Erin Card (B.S. ’08) was one of those kids who loved making forts out of cardboard boxes.

Psychologists say fort-building is a healthy activity because it allows children to develop autonomy and creativity. For most, it’s a phase that ends by their tweens.

For Card, however, the magic of building small, homey structures never really disappeared. Today she is working on a grown-up version of her childhood passion as an architectural designer of custom tiny homes.

When Card enrolled at the U of M in 2004 to pursue a preprofessional B.S. in architecture, the “tiny house movement” had just begun. The Tiny House Society, launched in 2002 by housing design and urban-planning professionals, drew attention to the benefits of living in smaller spaces of just a few hundred square feet.

The University’s College of Design, which administers the B.S. program in architecture, was one of the academic institutions that took note and gave students a chance to learn about tiny houses. During her senior year, Card took part in a studio project in which students worked in groups to design a tiny-house village. “As a group, we came up with the site plans and such,” Card recalls. “And then each of us designed our own tiny homes to fit onto those individual small sites. It was a lot of fun.”

To say the die was cast by that experience might be stretching things. But it did influence her career path.

Putting down roots in Colorado
Card graduated in 2008, the year of the Great Recession. With few job prospects, she enrolled in the graduate architecture program at the University of Colorado Denver, receiving her master’s in 2010. The employment market still wasn’t great, so Card did web and costume design work for a few years until she spotted an opening at Tumbleweed Tiny House Co. in Colorado Springs, an established builder in the industry since 1999.

Tumbleweed makes tiny homes that are built to suit customers’ wishes. That’s where the firm’s designers come in.

“We have kind of a library that we start with,” Card says. “We have four outer shells and three or four floor plans that will fit inside those homes. So clients pick out the outer shell and the floor plan they want to go inside of their house.”

The next step is to make their choices. Card and the client videoconference, exploring different options. “If they need more living space, a bigger bathroom, a bathtub instead of a shower, we can do that,” she says. “There is a lot we can customize.”

Categories and restrictions
Tiny homes come in two broad categories: those built on wheels and those built on foundations. The Tumbleweed homes, which are all smaller than 400 square feet and range from $90,000 to $100,000, are built on wheels.

They’re technically recreational vehicles (RVs), and there’s a reason why Tumbleweed and some other builders have gone that route, Card explains. The first advantage is mobility. The second is that in most locations, a tiny house on wheels is not subject to building codes that pose a challenge to a tiny house on a foundation. (Many jurisdictions require minimum square footage that is much larger than those of tiny houses.)

That doesn’t mean, however, that owners of tiny houses on wheels have carte blanche to locate their structures anywhere. Since they are RVs, tiny houses on wheels are considered temporary-residence structures in most states, and many cities don’t allow them. Still, states and cities dealing with escalating housing costs are considering whether and how to ease restrictions on tiny houses.

Tiny-house communities are popping up around the U.S., operating much like mobile home or RV parks. Some, like the Leavenworth Tiny House Village in Washington state—which features tiny houses tricked out to look like brightly colored Bavarian-Tudor homes—offer rentals by the night. Card designed several of those homes and she considers them favorites among the 200-or-so homes she has designed.

But her single favorite house is one she helped design six years ago: The SPAM Tiny House Sizzle Truck for Hormel Foods in Austin, Minnesota. The SPAM house featured a working kitchen and went on tour to 12 cities, serving SPAM recipes. It travels to various events and is stationed in the museum parking lot.

Looking to the future
Like many, Card believes the future for tiny houses is bright. “We get a lot of younger millennials, people in their 20s and 30s who are just kind of starting out, because it is a very economically viable living solution for them,” she says. “And on the opposite end of the spectrum, we get a lot of empty nesters.”

She considers herself fortunate to pursue a passion kindled during her undergraduate years at the U of M.

“Ever since I decided to go into architecture, I’ve wanted to do residential and I’ve wanted to do design/build—to do projects from start to finish. I’m sitting here at my desk going through the design, and then I get to go downstairs and look at the home from trailer to framing to finishing to the time it goes out the door.”

And the process doesn’t stop there.

“I get to see clients’ feedback. People send us photos of their tiny houses all kitted out. It’s a beautiful thing to see the full growth of my architecture projects. You don’t get to see that with institutional architecture.”

If you liked this story, Minnesota Alumni magazine publishes four times a year highlighting U of M alumni and University activities. Early access to stories and a print subscription are benefits of being an Alumni Association member. Join here to receive a printed copy at home.

Read More