Given their small square footage, it’s almost ironic just how large of a shift tiny houses are bringing to real estate markets. In an effort to build reliable, affordable, sustainable housing following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Katrina cottages began popping up. Cities like Portland, Ore. and Oakland, Calif. also embraced the big opportunity in small homes.
In the Greater Lansing area, T.A. Forsberg Inc. has been a vital component to implement the housing trend within the local market. With a rich history dating back three generations, Terry Forsberg was one of the pioneers of highway infrastructure. In his early days, Forsberg poured concrete, built roads and municipal sewer and water systems. Today, his grandson Brent Forsberg continues the tradition and passion for community-centric development. The company’s philosophy is to build environments around how people live in communities.
The Okemos-based company frequently opens the development discussion to include community members and welcomes input at town hall meetings. Their latest tiny-house project resides in Lansing’s REO Town neighborhood; Brent Forsberg spoke about that project, which he said aligned perfectly with the historic district’s culture and vision.
“The main reason for constructing this home was to begin the discussion of what housing could be,” Forsberg said of the 600-square-foot pilot project. “Our goal was to build and elevate some different construction techniques looking at material costs and efficiency of construction (by Trumble Group).”
Following research on living and energy efficiency, construction timelines, layout plans, and comparing other lofts and small spaces in other cities, T.A. Forsberg Inc. completed its first house, known as a Tembo Home, last year.
While the Lansing area is now seeing a new wave, Amanda Harrell-Seyburn, an award-winning associate at east arbor architecture, said Lansing has a tradition of tiny homes. Lansing’s eastside neighborhood dates to the early 19th century, and Baldwin Court in East Lansing has origins from the mid-20th century.
Harrell-Seyburn began designing tiny houses five years ago. Working with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Harrell-Seyburn looked at designing tiny houses as an alternative to tent and RV camping at state parks. She has a master’s degree in architecture, specializes in contextually sensitive community projects and is an adjunct professor at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Architecture. Through her work with the Michigan Chapter of the Congress for the New Urbanism (MiCNU), Harrell-Seyburn concurs that housing options directly impact urbanism to attract and retain talent in the area.
“The tiny house is most powerful when paired with urban design to increase diversity,” Harrell-Seyburn said. “Rather than relying on only multi-family dwellings to bring diversity in housing options, a tiny house can be easily integrated on the same site, along with an existing single-family dwelling, in the form of a carriage house above a garage, a granny flat or guest house, or any other accessory dwelling unit (ADU) — a design movement trending on the West Coast and soon to be in Michigan. To allow for this increased diversity, zoning ordinances will require modification.”
Great Lakes Tiny Homes LLC knows firsthand of the opposition and the zoning ordinances which will need to be modified to fully embrace all types of tiny houses.
Brandy and Aaron Kipfmiller are the husband-wife duo behind Great Lakes Tiny Home, based out of Midland, Mich. Aaron has over 20 years of experience in architecture, design, carpentry and construction, and is a national director and Michigan chapter leader for the American Tiny House Association. After a shift in his career, he started his business two years ago. After accidentally launching the website prematurely, the couple was already receiving calls from potential customers.
The Kipfmillers aim to get the word out about the idea of their Tiny Houses on Wheels (THOWs), and they hope to implement Planned Unit Developments (PUDs) in order to decrease homelessness and create pockets of close-knit communities. The pair has met with many different municipalities throughout the state to broaden the conversation.
“I think the tiny home environment — not only does it allow for minimalist lifestyle and sustainability, and a smaller footprint, but it’s going to bring families together,” Brandy said of their dwellings, which are no larger than 220 square feet and utilize reclaimed materials.
Market studies and trend-analysis reports have shown the attraction to tiny houses has more to do with culture and lifestyle than lesser square footage.
“According to census reports from the 1900s to the 1930s, square footage per person in a dwelling was under 200 square feet. That ballooned to over 800 square feet by 2000,” said Forsberg. “The country’s cost models for how we lived the past four decades have become unsustainable for people.”
People no longer desire McMansions — big empty houses with high bills — but are seeking lower housing and transportation costs, which saves money for dining out and taking vacations.
While the appeal of a tiny house includes lower bills and more opportunities for travel, AnnMarie Johnson of Weichert, Realtors — Property Mart of St. Johns said the current market in Greater Lansing wants show-room ready real estate.
Although she has yet to sell a tiny home, Johnson notes that there are plenty of clients looking to downsize from their home.
“The reason for the desire to downsize is so that they can upsize their living experiences. Large homes equal larger expenses and time. Tiny-home living allows for homeowners to spend their time on money and things that are important to them,” Johnson said.
While the buzz around the trend is evident — with television shows and documentaries focusing on the tiny house trend — some townships are not welcoming mobile THOWs as a legal, viable housing option. Their main opposition lies within dated zoning laws and health codes; if done right, THOWs are built to code and are compliant with plumbing, insulation and electrical requirements.
Given its recent popularity, Aaron Kipfmiller said it’s still difficult to gauge the resale value of a tiny home within the real estate market. So far, Great Lakes Tiny Homes has built three different models that are located in Lansing, Grand Rapids and the thumb area of Michigan. They already have four different builds on the books for spring and summer.
As for T.A. Forsberg Inc., besides their planned six-to-eight REO Town houses, the company’s next project is a proposed neighborhood in the abandoned Eaton Rapids mobile-home park land. According to Vice President of Operations Gina Pons-Schultz, T.A. Forsberg Inc. is still in the planning stages after acquiring the site in October 2017 at the Eaton County Tax Foreclosure Auction.
“We want to create a community of Tembo homes here that would link up to local walking and bike trails, and (we) have already begun discussions with organizations such as Habitat for Humanity and others that work with veterans,” Pons-Schultz said.
Studies have shown Lansing lacks walkable urban housing, according to Forsberg.
“The Greater Lansing region is one of the most transit-optimized cities in the country. We were cutting edge on our designs in the ‘50s and ‘60s,” Forsberg said. “The problem is, if we don’t make a monumental shift now, we are not going to be a place 25 percent of young millennials will want to move to. About 25 percent of driving-age citizens under 24 don’t have a license according to a Goldman Sachs report. If we don’t make our community welcoming for this demographic, we will continue our talent drain to regions that do.”
Aside from the millennial demographic, the Kipfmillers have found interest in tiny homes from senior citizens. The “snowbirds” who already travel to Florida from Michigan are now looking at THOW options instead of RVs or owning two homes.
To make Lansing a case study for the next generation of urban development, diversified, quality housing is crucial to a healthy community; pairing this with job growth, education, sustainable infrastructure plans, and social and cultural engagement could really put Lansing on the map.