City planners and neighborhood advocates contend with urban downsizing

by Jordan Green

For a long time Jody Davis has harbored a desire to pare down and simplify his housing, or “go tiny,” as he put it, and his partner Will Champion was down.

“There’s this Buddhist idea: If you haven’t touched it in a year, you should get rid of it,” said Davis, sitting in the living room of the house he shares with Champion on a street full of modest 1950s-vintage, aluminum-sided homes on the north side of Greensboro. “If the house was on fire and you’ve got seven minutes, what do you grab? What is worth saving? Not that much. The artifacts of our lives, some pictures maybe. We don’t need the CDs. The pets would be first.”

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IMG_2142 copy “Definitely the pets,” Champion agreed.

“Not even the TV,” Davis continued. “Well, maybe the TV if we had another 30 seconds.”

Davis, a 34-year-old massage therapist, and Champion, a 50-year-old dog trainer — their names have been changed for this story — have owned their house since 2004, and plan to pay off the mortgage by the end of this year. They’re both self-employed. Champion works with dogs that have behavioral problems like aggression towards people or other animals. Sometimes he makes house calls, and sometimes he brings them back to his place, where he lets them run the yard with Keiko, his rehab dog. Davis helps out with his partner’s business, and has been looking to transition to a new career since massage therapy is beginning to take a physical toll on his body. He tried working as a bank teller for a while, but found it wasn’t as fun as it looked.

The primary motivation behind their interest in living in a tiny house was aesthetic. But the financial rewards of conserving space are a definite bonus.

“I think this gives us more financial freedom,” Davis said. “We’ve been playing the mortgage rat-race for too long and we’re wicked sick of it.”

When a friend invited Davis and Champion to attend a seminar on tiny houses at Paul J. Ciener Botanical Garden in Kernersville last summer, they figured they had nothing to lose by checking it out.

The seminar was led by John Williams, a 63-year-old Iowa native who built earth-covered homes in the late ’70s and has recently started experimenting with retrofitting steel shipping containers. The idea of making a home out of a shipping container appealed to Davis.

“One of my only fears of going tiny is inclement weather,” Davis said. “I’m a little bit worried about tornados. The shipping container’s made of solid steel. It’s definitely not going anywhere.”

Now, only eight months after the seminar, Davis and Champion have a red, 40-foot K-Line shipping container in their backyard running most of the length of their northern property line.

A fabricator hired by Williams has scored cutouts for double French doors in the center and three windows, using a plasma cutter, along the south side to capture heat and light from the sun. The top is also cut out at both ends A rendering on a small piece of wood laying along an inside wall depicts the eventual profile of the structure: A roof pitched from the center slopes downward to the west end to provide adequate head room for a loft. At the east end, a separate roof slopes from the center to the east end, albeit with a gentler pitch. In the middle, the top of the container provides a platform for a deck accessible through the loft with rails on either side following the pitch of the east-facing roof.

“I refer to this as a ‘Pop-a-Top 40,’” John Williams said on a recent sunny afternoon as he met at the site with Ralph Duke, a contractor who will be overseeing construction, and John’s brother, Tony, who will be doing much of the work. The shipping containers, which John procures from a broker in South Carolina, are typically 40 feet long, although he sometimes cuts them in half to make two 20-foot tiny houses. And while Davis and Champion’s backyard tiny house will feature siding to match the principal dwelling on the property, the rooflines at either end suggest the profile of a pop-top camper.

At John Williams’ suggestion, Davis and Champion are calling their future home a “studio” in an effort to side-step municipal zoning regulations. Champion said he and Davis have not obtained a building permit for the project. (Their names are changed in this article to protect them from adverse regulatory consequences.)

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