While living in an RV is a viable way to simplify your life, the tiny house movement has taken the nomad market by storm in the last few years. The frugal and funky are rushing to tiny house workshops to get their hands on blueprints and make plans for their own little cabins on wheels. This is the story of two tiny housers on one “giant journey.”
She was an executive assistant at a movie studio in Los Angeles and her boyfriend was an industrial engineer for a motorcycle company—that is, before they got a tiny inkling to head out on a giant journey.
“It’s like another kind of RVing,” said 29-year old Jenna Spesard of the “Tiny House, Giant Journey” duo. “Basically, we quit our jobs; we were living in Los Angles and we had decent jobs. Rent was really expensive, and we were basically just playing the game paycheck-to-paycheck and just trying to work our way up the ladder in the corporate world. We felt like we were just kind of part of a game and we weren’t doing anything we really wanted to do. We wanted to travel.”
When I spoke with Jenna, she and her boyfriend Guillaume Dutilh, 31, were on their way to Alaska by way of British Columbia and in their ninth month of travel. They had already gone 15,000 miles through more than 13 states from California to Nova Scotia, down the East Coast, back to the West Coast and up through Oregon and Washington.
But, their story began nearly two years ago when they started construction on their 185-square-foot tiny house.
“So, we built the house—it took about a year, which was unexpected—it was supposed to take three to four months, but we ran into a lot of trouble going back and forth on redoing things,” Jenna said. “We didn’t have a lot of construction experience and it ended up being a much bigger project than we thought it would be—a big, tiny project.”
Jenna said the most difficult part of building a tiny house was figuring out what to put in it. With an RV, it’s a one-stop-shop. RV manufacturers account for weight and include all the amenities an RVer might need, but in a tiny house, you have to be intentional with each decision you make and each item you put in the house, Jenna said.
“It felt so permanent every time we put something in the house, so we had to discuss it and really analyze,” Jenna said. “We have this small space so it’s really important that every little thing we put in matters. There’s a lot of discussion that went into every tiny thing we put into this tiny house.”
Other than a vision, Jenna and Guillaume didn’t have a whole lot to work with, as they were on the forefront of the tiny house, or small house, movement. The movement began during the financial crisis of 2007-08 and gained steam when Tumbleweed Tiny House Company began offering building workshops. Then, in 2013—the same year that Jenna and Guillaume began construction on their tiny house—the first Tiny House Fair brought builders and buffs from across the country to Vermont.
“I didn’t actually step foot in a tiny house until we were halfway through our build,” Jenna said. “We could tape it out on our lawn, stand on our trailer and imagine it, but I couldn’t totally visualize it. Now they’re getting more and more popular, but it was pretty rare when we started out.”
Nevertheless, Jenna and Guillaume pressed on. The greatest accomplishment, Jenna said: Finishing it.
“At the time it was a really stressful thing. It’s been long enough now that I forget all of the woes of the build, but I watched a documentary recently called “Small is Beautiful” and it was about people building a tiny house, and it just brought back all the memories of how hard it actually was and how much I was ready for it to be over,” Jenna said. “Before I watched that movie I was starting to get like, ‘Let’s build another one.’”
Unlike an RV, the tiny house was a bigger investment—not so much financially, but emotionally—because Jenna and Guillaume plan to keep it after their cross-country road trip is over. Not to mention, it was a labor of love.
“We kind of consider it a rolling cabin and something that we’ll always have,” Jenna said. “It’s customized to fit our personalities and our lifestyles. Every inch of it was used in a way we wanted it to be used. We didn’t want to go with something that somebody else designed; we kind of wanted to design it ourselves.”
One major downside of a constantly moving tiny house is cost. While most tiny houses only cost between $200 and $400 per square foot and range from 100 to 400 square feet in size—Jenna and Guillaume’s tiny house cost approximately $30,000—it causes more gas guzzling than an RV because of its weight (i.e. My 40-foot fifth wheel is 350 square feet and weighs 14,000 pounds loaded. Their tiny house is half the size and weighs 10,100 pounds loaded.)
“You’ve got to worry about weight, as you know. It’s a lot heavier than an RV; that’s part of the drawback,” Jenna said. “It’s more in gas than if we had an RV, but it was worth it to us, and also just to share with other people and be part of the tiny house movement.”
To save money during their trip, Jenna and Guillaume have been “boondocking” with fellow tiny housers. Boondocking, also known as free camping, has been a big money saver for Jenna and Guillaume during their yearlong tiny house adventure.
“We can live totally off-grid,” Jenna said. “We have a composting toilet, we don’t have hot water, we have a water tank, we have a solar system, a propane refrigerator. We can really park anywhere. We don’t have to park at an RV park; we’re not reliant on that. That saves us a lot of money.”
As far as making money goes, Jenna has been able to pick up work through her blog. The couple has also been asked to participate in tiny house workshops during their trip, which helps fund their adventure and keep their savings at bay.
All carefree roaming aside, 134 square feet of wanderlust doesn’t come without some sacrifices. For Jenna, that meant leaving her piano behind.
“We couldn’t really fit a piano in a tiny house,” Jenna said. “I miss it, so I feel like when we park somewhere permanently we’ll have like a shed with a piano in there and maybe a nice, little sitting area.”
Not only did she leave her piano behind, but she also had to purge much of her wardrobe and adjust to non-existent closet space. Before moving into her tiny house, Jenna lived in a 2,000-square-foot apartment with two other women, which means her personal living space was more than three times the size of her new cruising cabin.
“Now my closet is the size of my high school locker. It’s tiny and I have to roll things, I can’t hang things,” Jenna said. “It’s taught me a lot about what I actually need. I hate clutter and it’s easy to clutter a tiny space so I really have to be pretty hard on myself about what I bring in the house and it also has to have multiple purposes.”
Wardrobe reality hit when she was invited to a wedding.
“I went to a wedding recently and I don’t even really own a dress anymore. What do I need a dress for? I’m hiking most of the time,” Jenna said. “So I was like, what do I do? I need a dress to wear to the wedding. I can’t really wear my hiking pants, so I bought something I thought I would use to either lounge around the house in or hike in because it was like a quick dry. Even my clothes have to have multiple purpose or they’re not worth it, not worth taking up valuable real estate in the house.”
Living in a tiny house is not just some experiment, but a complete mental shift. It re-works the wirings of the American psyche, which is taught to have a bigger, better house full of more stuff.
“The tiny house has changed my perspective on what home is,” Jenna said. “I totally re-thought about how much space I actually need, how much stuff I actually need. We actually had the opportunity to stay in a 400-foot cabin recently and it felt enormous.”
So, while she may miss her piano, Jenna realizes that doing without for a while is well worth it.
“The sacrifices that we’ve made have been totally worth it, because the experience of travel and being on the road—nine months has pretty much flown by,” Jenna said. “We only have three months left of our year commitment that we’ve given ourselves. It’s been a great year, everything we’ve seen and done and we haven’t fought that much. It’s been great.”
Yes, let’s get to that—being in a small space with your significant other 24-7. That’s an art in itself, but one in which Jenna and Guillaume are mastering, she said.
“We’re always around each other, never are we more than 20 feet apart. It’s fine. There’s moments where it’s like, OK, one of us needs to go for a run or a coffee shop to work today; we need a little space, you know,” Jenna said. “There’s certain frustrations—living with somebody else, there always is—but living with somebody in a tiny space is probably more challenging.”
The question remains: RV or tiny house?
“As far as building a tiny house and traveling with it, yes, of course I would recommend it. It’s an awesome opportunity,” Jenna said. “Whether I would recommend it over an RV, that’s something you have to ask yourself. If you’re going to travel and go back to your house at the end of the travel period, maybe an RV is more suited for you, but if it’s something you always want to have, either as a backyard cottage or something you can take occasional trips on and you want a little cabin, a tiny house is a great alternative.”
It also provides a little wanderlust. A house on wheels means movement, travel, an adventurous spirit. It may not happen overnight, but it grows on you.
“I would definitely recommend traveling to anyone who wants to see the country or the world,” said Jenna, who hopes to translate her “Tiny House, Giant Journey” into a career in travel writing. Conveniently, Guillaume is hoping to transition into a fulltime landscape photographer. “Traveling is an amazing way to educate yourself. You learn a lot by going to different places and putting yourself into the culture.”
The best way to take the first step in building a tiny house is to attend a workshop and see if it’s really for you, Jenna said.
“You’ll network and meet a bunch of people, and if you take nothing else away from the workshop itself, you’ll at least make friends and realize you’re not crazy and that there are other people like you,” she said.
Check out Jenna and Guillaume’s giant journey on tinyhousegiantjourney.com.
Keep up with Sarah Reijonen’s nomadic lifestyle in her bi-weekly column called “Home on the Road.” If there’s a topic you’d like her to cover, please comment below or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @spankyandsarah. Instagram: @countrygrlswrld. Happy Trails!