Small spaces

Former substitute Joel Weber stands in front of his future home. He started his project this summer.

Former substitute Joel Weber stands in front of his future home. He started his project this summer.

Former Briarhill Middle School substitute Joel Weber, nicknamed Tarzan by his students, stood looking out at the Nicaraguan community around him. He came to Nicaragua to experience a new culture and a new language. The off-the-grid town was small, and often electricity and running water were not available. But they didn’t need that stuff. He fell in love with the environment and the people around him. He was happy living simply.

After living abroad in Central America for three months in 2012, he came back to Texas with a new outlook. He was going to live a simpler, more sustainable life. He soon began his design major in the College of Fine Arts at the University of Texas, which inspired him to begin researching ways to cut down not only on debt from school and housing, but also on his environmental footprint. Now a sophomore, Weber decided he wanted to build his own tiny home. These eco-friendly homes are small, usually less than 150 square ft., and can be driven around on trailers.

“It’s an interesting design project because it makes you have to get really creative and innovative on how you approach the design because you only have so much square footage to work with,” Weber said.

Weber started the project during late August and travels from Austin to Flower Mound on the weekends to work on the house, which he is building in his parents’ backyard. He hopes to finish the house and move in during the spring so that he won’t have to live in and pay for student housing.

“I wanted something where any changes I left on it would stay, [unlike a dorm], and something that was my own,” Weber said. “Why put all that money into something that’s not even mine and I’ll have nothing to show for it?”

But building an entire house, even if only 18 ft. long by 8 ft. wide, roughly the size of an SUV car, wasn’t something Weber had ever tried to do. He had a background in landscaping and plumbing. He had even installed things like ceiling fans and light outlets, but he had never framed a house before. He knew he would need some help.


“I had this idea and I thought, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to do this, but I’m just going to start putting it out there,’” Weber said. “People said, ‘I like that project, I’ll talk to this person and see what they can do. I’ll talk to this guy who frames houses. I’ll talk to this contractor.’ It just all came to pass.”

Through research, YouTube and word of mouth, Weber was able to find the people he needed to help him on his project. Because of donations and actual help with the building process, Weber’s house has come far in the past few months.

“To me, what makes it more of a home is the fact that there are many hands that are a part of it,” Weber said.

The main idea of building these tiny homes is to be as eco-friendly as possible. Instead of spending extra money and using building materials he didn’t need, Weber framed his house using repurposed wood. He’ll use low voltage LED lights and an instant water heater, which heats water as it’s used instead of continuously, to reduce energy use. He’s even work-ing on installing solar panels and planting a green awning, which is a garden on a roof, to grow his own plants and food. One of his former students, sophomore Casey Meyer, said she thinks what Weber is doing is interesting.

“I never really heard of [tiny homes] until I saw that [Weber] posted about it on Twitter,” Meyer said. “But it’s good for the environment, it’s safe, and I feel like he’s one of those people who would build something like that.”

The main features of Weber’s tiny home include two lofts for sleeping, a storage area, a sitting area, a kitchen and a small bathroom in the back. The roof is slanted so he has more head space. To Weber, seeing his paper drawings come to life is one the most fun parts of building his home.

“It’s not like I’m denying myself square footage and I’m gonna suffer from it,” Weber said. “It’s like, ‘Wow, this is comfortable. This is great.’ I actually can spend more money living life instead of paying money to pay off a mortgage or student loans.”

Despite his positive outlook, there have been a few setbacks. His windows didn’t come in on time. And when they did, a few were scratched, so he had to get new ones. Sometimes he is worried he won’t have enough money from jobs or donations to complete the project. Oftentimes, ordinances have restrictions on these homes, banning them from some areas. But he’s determined to finish despite these obstacles.

“I feel like it’s really the season for this movement,” Weber said “I’ve talked to so many people […] who are like, ‘I’ve heard about that. I’ve seen that.’ There’s such a hunger and curiosity about living simpler.”

Weber plans on bringing his finished home to Austin to live in through the rest of his time at school. But as to where his home will take him after he graduates, he said he doesn’t know yet. He said he plans on going wherever life takes him.

“If I end up buying land in the mountains or by a beach somewhere, it’s a great thing to have,” Weber said.

Weber said he wants to inspire others to consider their environment and think of ways to be more eco-friendly. But even Meyer said that she couldn’t imagine doing what Weber does and living in a house that small.

“I don’t think I could do that,” Meyer said. “I’d be very out of my element. That’s a big change.”

But to him, living more eco-friendly doesn’t mean downsizing in the extreme way he has. He simply wants others to ask themselves one thing.

“How can we all live simple and be more thankful […] and come up with creative ways for the spaces that we do have?” Weber said. “That’s what I hope these projects accomplish.”