Four Lights Tiny House Company

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tall tales and tiny fictions

It makes sense that, as more information gets published about small houses,  more misinformation is bound to surface too. Most of the stories out there are as harmless as they are entertaining. So far as I can tell, it’s not true that the typical tiny house can be built for less than the cost of a single tank of gas; nor is it, apparently, true that some of these places can be heated for a whole week by a single human fart.

1920's House on Wheels
1920's House on wheels.

One of the most widely-disseminated stories out there also happens to be one of the most misleading. It proclaims that the very first little home was mounted on a trailer in 2001, and that, in that moment, a housing revolution was born. The house, we are told, was named, “Tumbleweed”! While I might, otherwise, be happy to endorse such a widely-accepted portrayal of the house I built in 1999 (not 2001) as the sole genesis for a revolution, I should really set the record straight on this one, if only for the sake of due credit.

This short fiction readily dismisses the enormous contributions of all the tiny house pioneers who inspired me and my contemporaries. It’s unlikely that I would have ever built Tumbleweed if it hadn’t been for the hundreds of little houses on wheels I’d visited and seen in inspiring picture books, like Les Walker’s Tiny Houses, Jane Lidz’s Rolling Homes and Lloyd Kahn’s Shelter. Essays on the subject of vernacular design and housing rights, like those of Henry Thoreau, Stuart Brand and Witold Rybczynski directly inspired the little manifesto I wrote to accompany my house.

Rolling HomesImages from the book Rolling Homes by Jane Lidz.

Credit where credit is due

My wee home and the equally diminutive essay denouncing America’s prohibitions on small-scale housing are just part of the catalyst that brought some much-needed attention to some big problems with U.S. housing at the turn of the century. Sarah Susanka’s Not So Big House book of 1998 also played more than a small role in raising awareness at that pivotal time, as did the example of folks like Greg Johnson and Dee Williams.

While credit for this, so called, revolution can’t be assigned to just one person or house, there is one influence that seems to have held particular sway. The prohibition on small houses, itself, has probably done more to shape this movement and the houses most associated with it than anything else.  Loopholes in our antiquated laws that allow many of us to live as simply as we please only if we build our homes on wheels or as very small “sheds” or outside the laws entirely are what drove many of us to pursue such alternative means in the first place.  

The seeds of a tiny revolution

Gypsy Wagon
A Gyspy Wagon (origin unknown).

There’s no fruit without seed, and visa-versa. I think the broad interest in little houses is very rooted  in our inherent drive toward efficient design and deliberate living (with some misdirected excursions into conspicuous consumption along the way).  It’s found in pre-code, pre-resale-value-over-use-value structures in this country and anywhere where necessity (Nature’s law) is allowed to determine the shape of our built environment. I’m as honored as anyone to be a part of this tradition, and I owe a debt of gratitude to all the folks who’ve truly planted the seeds of a housing revolution.


Jay Shafer



Posted by Jay Shafer — August 23, 2013


Sheliah Lewis:

What a great and humble article, giving credit where credit is due. My inspiration to building a tiny a book I received of my mother’s “Tiny Houses by Lester Walker” and the same day received an article in the mail on you Jay about your Tumbleweed. Thanks for all you do in this movement.

August 26 2013 at 08:08 AM


thanks for this excellent little tribute to the tiny home/rolling home lifestyle, sustaining us humans for ages in our quest for the opportunity to travel and not necessarily come back

August 26 2013 at 10:08 AM

Joyce Rader:

History was not only published in the forms you mention, but also in the tales of our ancestors. We know the original folks lived in cabins of various sizes usually made of wood or stone. People traveled living on boats and in tents. Later the Covered Wagon and natural built homes such as caves or depressions in the walls of hills. I even heard of people living inside trees for shelter. The Lord gave us a mind to think of shelter and methods to put materials into use as shelter. Tiny Homes is only a depiction of the use of such ideas and methods just as the more elaborate brick, mortar and steel are used as homes on a larger scale. To each is his own choice….

August 28 2013 at 04:08 AM


A sensitively articulated response to the Tumbleweed Tiny House Co. quote I also recently read in their brochure. Thank you.

August 28 2013 at 10:08 AM

Mike Troy:

Well said , Jay. Never the less, ever grateful you constructed your little house on a trailer.

August 29 2013 at 06:08 AM

Val Vontourne:

Very nice article, thanks for posting this!

August 29 2013 at 07:08 AM


I wish this company will put emphasis on building homes not only over wheels but on solid ground, many of us are interested on building this homes on land and live the home there for generations. ?any ideas about it ?

August 29 2013 at 09:08 AM

Christine Ferguson:

Yes, nice article, well attributed.

I would now like to see an immediate international approach to the planning permissions of essential tiny houses -mobile or static – as increasing numbers of people are becoming disenfranchised of their homes – often as a result of economic manipulation and maladministration.(Spain is a present day example).
The Tiny Home construction can be a last dignified solution for many before being utterly dispossessed .

This should requires licence (freedom) to construct/ buy and occupy a small home as an emergency, followed by a rapid formal permission (where required )by a state to occupy a well managed space incorporating any planning controls/regulation locally required within a certain time limit.

Homelessness is not an option for any human being and the Tiny House / Home with permission to park in private gardens or designated zones (such as pleasant parks) with proper hygienic management should be ‘automatic’ as an emergency response to displacement. Call it a Special Dispensation if you will.
Any International legal advocates out there like to join me in setting up such a piece of legislation?

There is a need to avoid the ‘shanty’ or ‘hippie’ reputation unpopular in existing residential zones and make the option a ‘respectable’ one as the legislation would be more likely to be well received. ‘Screen and clean and mainly green’ might be appropriate as a philosophy.

Having a choice of constructing a tiny house as a hobby is quite different, but for essential , displaced users permission (following local guidelines) should be undisputed in the first instance. What say the readers?

August 29 2013 at 06:08 PM

Sandi Berumen:

Just a quick response — loved the article and have been following you from Tumbleweeds to Four Lights. I am looking forward to building my own tiny home to go as well as attending one of your seminars in the near future. I have been living on the go for some years now, 14 to be exact albeit in a commercially built 36 foot travel trailer with super slide. I am going to be tearing down the travel trailer to the actual trailer and then stretching out one of your plans and building it on that trailer. I am excited about it and looking at the pros and cons between a trailer type unit and a park model type unit.

It is long past time for governments to allow folks to build smaller homes — they are not an eyesore and the people living in them are the same as anyone else. I lived in a community in Washington State that allowed smaller homes to be build — actually it was a small town in an unincorporated area. The houses ranged in size from larger 3,000 plus square feet, down to about 650 square feet. Yards were well kept and everyone enjoyed their own lifestyle be that a large or small foot print. I personally enjoy the freedom a small home on wheels provides. I was not sure I would like the lifestyle but find life, and my mind, so much less cluttered than when I thought I had to have a large home. A tiny home has everything you need and then some as it affords FREEDOM in so many ways.

I think all of us embracing the life style of a tiny home all applaud you Jay and the efforts and attention you have brought and the package you have developed it into. Let us hope that our elected officials can “see the light”!

September 01 2013 at 07:09 PM

BA Norrgard:

My first thought? Ohh humble. But that’s you.

This is a great posting, thanks for writing it. I knew some of that, but nowhere near all of it, so it’s fun to learn more about the origins.

Blog more often! So many of us love to hear from you.

September 07 2013 at 07:09 AM

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