Oct 26, 2015Vol. 46, Issue 2

Small House, Big Aspirations

Tiny House Club hopes to leave big legacy

Members of Chico State’s new Tiny House Club are building an entry for the Sacramento Municipal Utility District’s Tiny House Competition in October 2016. (courtesy Tiny House Club)

It’s hard to pinpoint a single, driving ethos behind America’s viral tiny house movement. 

One particular New York Times feature points to the thrill of the challenge—finding the means to cram the luxury of a Hamptons mansion into the space of a hut. Another feature points to convenience—the practicality of living bare-bones and off the grid.

For Joe Dell’Osso and Blake Bergh, longtime friends from Southern California and recent transfer students to Chico State, it’s a question of sustainable innovation, social consciousness, and local community.

“In this country, it seems like we feel entitled to have these big houses, like we need this much space,” says Bergh, a civil engineering major. “Turning that on its head and asking: 'Do you really need that much space in your house to be comfortable, to fulfill all the essential needs of living?’—that's what I find interesting.” 

On Oct. 10, Bergh and Dell’Osso started construction on their own self-sustaining and off-the-grid tiny house, eventually to be entered in the Sacramento Municipal Utility District’s (SMUD) Tiny House Competition next October. 

The competition will feature net-zero energy homes from 13 different California universities and colleges, each set on display on Sacramento State’s campus in a “tiny house village” a year from now.

Each house will be judged on a points system divided into four separate categories: architecture, determined by the house’s innovative design and ability to comfortably house two people; energy, determined by its ability to shoulder the basic energy loads of livability, including boiling water and providing light; home life, determined by affordability, convenience, and the ability to compost and process waste; and communications, meaning the the quality of promotional material surrounding the house’s construction and presentation.

Dell’Osso’s and Bergh’s involvement with the competition started out small and rather serendipitous. After transferring to Chico State in fall 2014 to study construction management, Dell’Osso was approached by Joel Arthur, chair of the construction management department. Arthur had already talked to Dell’Osso about his interest in the tiny house movement during office hours, so when Arthur heard of SMUD’s inaugural competition, he immediately made the connection.

From there, the two students were faced with the task of building a team to satisfy the competition’s many demands—from designing the house and building it to tracking down resources and donations, and promoting it across social media platforms. 

The two created the Chico State Tiny House Club, allowing them to table for support on campus and at university events. Soon enough, what started out as just two students taking on an unprecedented project turned into a collaborative effort that transcends departmental boundaries.

Civil engineering junior Zach Harlan leads a team of students installing the subfloor of the tiny house. (courtesy Tiny House Club)

Civil engineering junior Zach Harlan leads a team of students installing the subfloor of the tiny house. (courtesy Tiny House Club)

The club now has over 40 dedicated members involved in the success of the house, each bringing expertise and ingenuity from their own fields of study, from architecture students in construction management, graphic designers, and civil, mechanical, and mechatronic engineers.   

“It's not just a construction management project,” Dell’Osso said. “...The success of the project comes in all these different-thinking minds coming together into one cohesive group.”

Bergh agrees, and added: “For me that's actually been the most exciting and rewarding thing so far. ...It's been really cool to see all these different students, with different passions about what they want to learn in school, all rallying around this concept of sustainable building. It's been fascinating to see a very diverse group of people come together.” 

This unprecedented collaboration hasn’t only stemmed from student involvement, however. Bergh and Dell’Osso both said that one of the most astonishing parts of this endeavor thus far has been witnessing the engagement and generosity of Chico community members.

Bergh recalls that in just one day of tabling at the Chico Certified Farmers Market, the Tiny House Club received overwhelming support from local businesses and community members. A representative from Wolfe Electric and Lighting happened upon the table, and agreed to donate anything needed in the way of lighting fixtures.

He recalls another woman who, after hearing about the project, agreed to donate all of the old wood from her backyard fence that would soon be replaced. Other contributors include Payless Building Supply donating $1,000 in supplies, Wright Bros. Supply donating steel studs to frame the house, and PBM Supply Manufacturing donating the trailer that serves as the house’s foundation. 

Now, with donations in hand and the University Farm as its construction site, the tiny house team has begun building a pint-sized home. Finding the time for such a large group of students to group up and work is understandably difficult, so they’ve been setting aside one or two weekends a month to build, with weekly meetings to keep the group up to speed on progress.

Although the actual competition may seem like a far-off destination at this point, one small complication has Bergh and Dell’Osso racing to complete the house as soon as possible. Both students are set to graduate in spring 2016, just one semester short of the competition date, which means that the project’s two founding members won’t be around to lead their team to Sacramento.

Although they both admit to selfish dreams of finishing the house before graduation, both Bergh and Dell’Osso are trying their best to think long-term. 

“It's challenged us in new ways of looking at how we are leading our team,” Bergh said. “If we were going to be here for [the competition], we would power through and be done. Now, we’re thinking, ‘How do we lead effectively and inspire people on the team to take on leadership after us?’” 

Aside from their more immediate goals of completing the house and watching their successors compete next year, Bergh and Dell’Osso are hoping that the competition will become a long-time tradition for Chico State students. 

"A student competition that brings together almost the entire campus is pretty rare, I think,” Bergh said. “This could be that thing."

Editorial assistant Zach Phillips may be reached at zsphillips@csuchico.edu

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