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Norwich University's Trailer Alternative Wins Awards and Fans

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SuCASA exterior - COURTESY OF MATT LUTZ
  • Courtesy of Matt Lutz
  • SuCASA exterior

Mary, a 37-year-old Shelburne resident, had always imagined herself living in a small cabin. She started saving in high school, and, by 2015, she'd banked $30,000 to buy one. But Mary's work — as a home caregiver — made her wary of taking on a mortgage. She was determined to find a house that cost no more than $30,000.

Impossible, right? Yet, in early 2016, Mary got a call about a tiny house being designed at Norwich University in Northfield, home to Vermont's only nationally accredited architecture program. Professor Tolya Stonorov and her yearlong design-build class were building an energy-efficient, 324-square-foot home they called CASA 802 (for Creating Affordable Sustainable Architecture). They would need a buyer at the end of the semester. Given the free labor, donated materials and a hefty grant, the $60,000 house could be sold for $30,000.

Mary purchased the home and, in November, had it moved to its current location. (For privacy, she asked Nest not to reveal her real name or address.) The expenses of transportation, crane, foundation, crawl space and utilities hookup set her back another $13,000.

Though CASA 802 is small compared with the park's 25 mobile homes and four VerMods — Vermont-made modular homes — its minimalist-industrial look makes it stand out. In December, it won the People's Choice Award from the Vermont chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

CASA 802 is a one-off. By this May, however, house hunters on extreme budgets like Mary's will have a similar — if even smaller — option to consider. A second iteration of the Norwich tiny house, designed and built by Stonorov's colleague Matt Lutz and his students and called SuCASA (for Single-Unit CASA), will be complete by the end of the current semester. And this one is going to cost less than $30,000.

That's a remarkable sticker price, considering that the 288-square-foot SuCASA will be built with nearly all locally sourced, sawn and produced materials. Fontaine Millwork & Forestry, a family-run sawmill in East Montpelier, will provide many of those. Mill owner Marc Fontaine and Montpelier investor Don Rowan have a memorandum of understanding with the university to buy the prototype on completion. Fontaine says he will begin turning out the prefab homes on demand in June.

The price is also notable because a single-wide mobile home averages $40,000. Intended as an alternative to mobile homes, SuCASA will be the second Vermont-produced home in that category to appear on the market. The first was the VerMod, launched in 2013, a completely solar-powered modular home that's produced in a factory in Wilder.

SuCASAinterior - COURTESY OF MATT LUTZ
  • Courtesy of Matt Lutz
  • SuCASAinterior

Mobile homes may be affordable, but they're typically built from off-gassing materials, lack energy-efficiency and need not be built to code. Because their eventual destiny is a landfill, banks won't finance their purchase at the same generous rates they will a stick-built home. When Mary visited a newly built mobile home during her search for affordable housing, she had trouble breathing. "I couldn't even go in there, the smell was so bad," she recalled.

To compare the two alternatives, on a recent sunny winter day, Nest toured both CASA 802 and a nearbyVerMod. (SuCASA hadn't yet moved beyond the model stage.) Stonorov helped Mary show her home. The VerMod's owner, whom we'll call June, showed her house with Phoebe Howe, a homeownership adviser who manages the mobile-home replacement program at Efficiency Vermont.

June's VerMod is a long, luxurious-feeling 850-square-foot box similar in plan to a mobile home but with a bed and bath on each end. Window wells are 10 inches deep because of insulation. June opened the utility closet to reveal an "energy recovery" ventilator system, which both filters air and uses exhaust air for heating. The rooftop solar panels power everything in the house.

All that solid construction, however, has a cost. VerMods average $150,000 — or $100,000, if the buyer qualifies for available subsidies and incentives. Mitigating the sticker price is the company's claim that monthly payments on a VerMod are lower than those on a conventional mobile home, given the latter's high price and utilities costs. Of course, payments on a Vermod last years longer.

June, a writer who formerly taught English in the Boston area, was able to afford her VerMod in part because of an inheritance from her grandparents. But Mary, who toured a "beautiful" VerMod during her search, had to tell the two men showing it — Steve Davis, VerMod's director; and Peter Schneider of Vermont Energy Investment Corporation — that she would stick to her budget. Schneider kept Mary in mind; when the Norwich project came up a year and a half later, he put her in touch with the university.

Norwich's architecture program has a long-standing interest in housing Vermont's low-income sector in energy-efficient structures. Lutz, Stonorov and other professors have led two affordable solar-powered house design-builds for the Solar Decathlon. The second won 12th place in 2013 and now sits, for educational purposes, on a restored Frank Lloyd Wright property in Springfield, Ohio.

Lutz said he learned much from those experiences — chiefly the benefits of a super-tight building envelope. But the cost of the 2013 house, at $164,000, drove him and Stonorov to look for less expensive options. For one thing, he said, many Vermonters simply can't afford a built-in solar array.

Mary's CASA can take solar panels if and when she wants to invest in them. Meanwhile, the building's particularly tight envelope and electric heat pump keep energy consumption low.

The tiny house is a rectangular, gabled box with a metal standing-seam roof that continues without eaves down the long sides of the structure to form its cladding. The ends of the box are lined with charred cedar boards, their blackened finish contrasting with the aluminum-colored siding and a red front door. One end extends over a four-foot-deep deck.

Inside, birch plywood built-ins accent the three rooms: a living-dining-kitchen area, a bathroom, and a bedroom that somehow fits a queen-size bed and a huge closet. The 10-foot ceilings, multiple windows and sliding glass door to the deck make the 324 square feet seem roomy.

In the few months since she moved in, Mary has filled the space with "tchotchkes" and warm decorative touches, such as the inspirational sayings whose letters she cut from magazines and pasted to the walls. "When you finally buy a house, you're so excited you want to get stuff!" she explained. She's had to make a few changes to the students' design decisions, including the kitchen seating, to accommodate her very tall boyfriend.

Kitchen perspective - COURTESY OF MATT LUTZ
  • Courtesy of Matt Lutz
  • Kitchen perspective

SuCASA will be even sparer. The single-room-cum-loft design is "painfully simple," said Lutz. It will need only two small electric heaters instead of an expensive heat pump. Framing will be done with metal cross-bracing, eliminating the need for plywood, which is not made in Vermont. A sense of interior spaciousness will be preserved with a Murphy bed and a single burner for cooking that can be put away to make counter space.

"The big picture on these is to make an available, turnkey, affordable, high-performance tiny house," Lutz said. "For so many people, it's about that up-front cost."


The original print version of this article was headlined "Small Is Beautiful"

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