Dec. 5, 2016Vol. 47, Issue 3

Tiny House Tour

Club wins big with small structure

From left: Civil engineering majors Timothy Wion, Katie Karns, and Thomas Hoyle of the Chico State Tiny House Club give a tour of their 196-square-foot tiny house to campus.

Take two years of work by a dozen Chico State students, countless hours of faculty mentorship, the generosity of multiple local businesses, and the support of an entire campus. And it all fits seamlessly into a 196-square-foot structure.

In October 2014, Joe Dell’Osso and Blake Bergh had big plans to build something small. These two longtime friends and Chico State students sought to design and build a tiny, self-sustaining house (measuring between 100 and 400 square feet) with zero carbon footprint that they could enter into a first-of-its-kind competition at Sacramento Municipal Utility District’s (SMUD) Tiny House Competition in October 2016. Teams would be judged in the major categories of architecture, communications, energy, and home life.

With about a dozen students, Dell’Osso (BS, Construction Management, ’16) and Bergh (BS, Civil Engineering, ’16) created the Chico State Tiny House Club and submitted a proposal to SMUD, which was accepted in spring 2015. By September that year, the student-run club had its design and  faculty mentors. Joel Arthur, chair of the constructino management department, and David Alexander, and assistant professor of mechanical engineering, chimed in when necessary—which wasn’t too often, Alexander said.

“We worked with Blake and Joe early on, but soon it became clear that they didn’t need a whole lot of help and guidance,” said Alexander (BS, Physical Science, ’92). “They took the whole concept and ran with organizing it.”

The early days of the club and its tiny house were rough, especially since nobody had heard of the project.

“They got kicked around the college thanks to space,” Alexander recalled. “Someone suggested that they use the University Farm, but space is limited at the farm in general. And to build a house? It’s a tiny house, but how tiny?”

The club soon nestled into a spot at the farm but not without conditions: The students couldn’t work during the week after 5 p.m., and they could build on weekends only with faculty supervision. So Alexander and Arthur spent quite a few weekend days at the farm.

Eric Enkh gives students a tour of the tiny house's fully functional kitchen.

Eric Enkh gives students a tour of the tiny house's fully functional kitchen.

Dell’Osso and Bergh also spent countless hours tabling on campus raising awareness around the project. With a student labor pool, a design, growing buzz about the project, faculty mentoring, and a build spot secured, the Chico State Tiny House Club was still missing one very important puzzle piece.

“We had no funding,” said club current president Tim Wion. The club’s original stipend from SMUD ($4,500, according to SMUD’s Brent Sloan) only went so far. But the club secured vital donations from generous businesses: PBM Supply donated the agricultural trailer the tiny house was built upon; Payless Building Supply donated $1,000 in materials; Wright Brothers donated half of the metal studs; Wolfe Electric gave the team a discount, plus free expertise; Wing Solar sold its photovoltaic equipment at cost; and SF Multi Service donated and helped install the roof.

Bergh also applied for a grant from CSU, Chico’s Sustainability Fund Allocation Committee (SFAC). SFAC member Fletcher Alexander said the Tiny House Club delivered on the committee’s criteria for its choices—including innovation, sustainability, and breadth of impact, adding, “This truly was an original idea and one that hadn’t been brought to the committee before.”

“It had a whole lot of potential to do a bunch of different things,” mentor David Alexander said. “You had interior design, overall design of the house, and it’s supposed to be a net zero, sustainable house concept. So that opens the door to environmental science, natural sciences, and looking at water resource management and waste.”

SFAC awarded the grant in December 2015, and after the $15,000 became available in January 2016, “that was the final ‘OK, I guess we’ll have to finish this house now,’” Wion said. By this time, he had taken over as club president, and he and the Tiny House Club began assembling what now-alums Dell’Osso and Bergh, as well as Alexander and Arthur had worked toward.

With the repurposed flooring, cabinets, framing, and electrical wiring complete, in went the Murphy bed; 15-gallon water heater; six rooftop solar panels and three auxiliary and moveable ground solar panels outside; battery that lasted 36 hours; fully functional bathroom with shower, sink, and toilet; kitchen cabinets and sink; and working washing machine beneath the kitchen counter—all inside a 196-square-foot home.

The 196-square-foot house makes the most of a small space, like hiding a Murphy bed behind the seating area.

The 196-square-foot house makes the most of a small space, like hiding a Murphy bed behind the seating area.

Judging for the competition took place over three days in mid-October at Cosumnes River College, and the team from Chico State could finally see where it stacked up against other schools, though entries were fewer than originally expected.

“Eighteen schools started out in the competition, nine of them realized how hard it was and dropped out, and nine of us showed up,” Wion said.

This was yet another wrinkle: The Tiny House Competition took place three semesters after construction began, jeopardizing team continuity as a turnstile of club members graduated or joined the team at various points.

“I think it’s a testament to the team that they were able to continue working over the summer to get things done,” Alexander said.

It was also a testament to cross-disciplinary collaboration. Students from half a dozen different majors toiled on the miniature marvel.

“It was a really nice platform for students to express themselves in all sorts of ways, in technology, leadership, as well as environmental stewardship, and reaching out across campus,” Alexander reflected. “It was fun to see students from other disciplines all get together around the concept.”

Though the Chico State Tiny House Club didn’t win in any of the major categories, it brought home three awards: Advanced Controls, Best Flooring, and Best Home Technology. After the hardware was handed out (as well as the $1,650 Chico State won), the public was invited to look at the tiny houses. With 3,000 people expected to show, SMUD Energy Education Specialist Suzette Bienvenue (BS, Psychology, Biology, ’80) lost count at 11,000 people—at noon. It’s estimated that 20,000 people attended.

“I expected niche groups like millennials, retirees, survivalists, architects, and others,” she said. “[But] the attendees were a slice of America, with all age groups, ethnicities, etc. . . . a lot of families attended, as well.”

While SMUD decides if it will host another contest in two years, the original Chico State tiny house has other plans. It’s been donated to Habitat For Humanity to be used in a planned tiny house community in Yuba City. The community will focus on smaller carbon footprints and sustainable living. The student team’s tiny house—all 196 square feet of it—will be the model home.

DingXin Cheng, Civil Engineering, was awarded the O’Connell Endowed Faculty Chair.


Civil engineering professor DingXin Cheng was awarded the O’Connell Endowed Faculty Chair. Read more.

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