The Tongass Tiny Home project was a collaboration between the Sitka Conservation Society and Sitka High School. (Photo by Amelia Milling/SCS)

The Tongass Tiny Home project, a six-year collaboration between the Sitka Conservation Society and Sitka High School, has finally come to an end. The student-built tiny house was sold to a buyer in Juneau this spring. As part of KCAW’s Building Solutions series about affordable housing, Sitka Conservation Society’s Chandler O’Connell spoke with KCAW’s Erin McKinstry about lessons learned and the possibilities tiny homes hold for Sitka. 

CO  Hello, my name is Chandler O’Connell. I am the Sustainable Communities catalyst with the Sitka Conservation Society and the Sustainable Southeast Partnership here in Sitka.

KCAW  Let’s just start off by talking about the Tongass Tiny Home project. A little bit about when it started and what the project entailed.

CO  Great. The Tongass Tiny Home is a project that started before I joined Sitka Conservation Society actually. It’s been going actively since 2014, and has provided the basis for a high school workforce development curriculum for the past six plus years now. It’s a project that’s been led by Mike Vieira, through the vocational education program at Sitka High School. And it provided the basis for our students to learn advanced construction skills. So everything from framing to siding to flooring, and what was really great about it is that we were building this interesting home using locally and regionally sourced sustainable young growth timber. So it was a unique project that allowed students to learn, not just about the technical skills that are useful in the local economy, but also to think about place-based economies and what makes sense here in Southeast Alaska.

KCAW  And why was the Sitka Conservation Society involved in the project?

CO  So the Sitka Conservation Society has the mission of protecting the Tongass and building sustainable communities. And for us, a sustainable community is one that can thrive, environmentally, but also socially and economically. So we’re super invested in workforce development and exploring sustainable industries that don’t replicate the boom-bust cycles that can be challenging. And so the Tongass Tiny Home project was at an intersection of a lot of things we care about. It was an investment in youth and developing skills that they needed. This was the first time there’d been an advanced construction class at Sitka High School for several years, when this project launched. It was a way to invest in an emerging young growth sector, which was working with small-scale mills who are doing the work to figure out what products are viable, what products make sense for different applications. And so we were excited to purchase products from these mills, figuring that out and seeing what actually was a good fit for local needs. And then finally, it gets to this question of affordable housing. And, you know, a tiny home is one affordable housing solution among many. But in dialogue with our community, we know that citizens are looking for a diversity of options. They’re looking for flexibility, they’re looking for energy efficiency, and the Tongass Tiny Home project allowed us to have a community conversation about what is the role of tiny homes, who do they work for and how they can fit into Sitka’s housing market?

KCAW  Yeah. And you, you found a buyer for it, right?

CO  We did, we did. The Tongass tiny home was recently purchased by a household over in Juneau, and the tiny home successfully made its way to the mainland by barge. So we’re excited for it to sort of start its next phase of existence being actively used by a community member.

Sitka High School’s advanced construction class partnered with Sitka Conservation Society to build the tiny home. Pictured from left to right: Maureen O’Hanlon, Chandler O’Connell (SCS), Andrew Thoms (SCS), Perry Edwards (USFS), Pat Heuer (USFS), SHS student Ryan Bartlett, Mike Viera (SHS), Tristan Rhoads, and Olan Moore. (Photo by Amy Li/SCS)

KCAW  And why not sell it here in Sitka? Do you face some challenges at all or anything?

CO  Well, we were always open to the tiny home being used anywhere in Southeast Alaska, we love the idea of Southeast wood, building a Southeast home, housing a Southeast family. we would have loved to sell it in Sitka. And you know, a couple years ago, we made an initial attempt at advertising and getting the word out there. And we’ve worked with several potential buyers over the years. And this was the first one where everything aligned in terms of their needs, and what the tiny home offered and also flexibility in terms of where to put it. And so when you ask about challenges, one challenge a lot of buyers typically had was a lack of clarity on well, where is it okay to put it. If they didn’t own land themselves, how to navigate the social networks to find a safe and good spot that aligned with local regulation. So I think there were some challenges and just understanding where a tiny home on wheels specifically fit into the Sitka context. But also, we hadn’t been making the big effort to sell it in the last couple years, we were really continuing to use it as a tool for students. And when this offer came through, it just ended up working out, so we’re happy to see that sort of come full circle.

KCAW  Are there any plans to continue the project in any way? Was it meant to be sort of a pilot project at all or just sort of a one off thing?

CO  When it was initially proposed, it was a one off thing. And what’s been great to see is Mike Vieira really taking the initiative and incorporating other locally relevant construction projects into this same class curriculum. So they’ve produced many garden sheds over the years, some of which make use of this regionally sourced lumber. And those are really popular and sell quickly and get used all around Sitka. And now that we’ve sold the Tongass Tiny Home, we’re excited to have some resources available, where hopefully we can keep on investing in this great intersection between youth workforce development and regional economies. So hopefully, we’ll be continuing to source lumber and supporting this program. What gets built is a whole other question. I don’t think we’re quite ready to jump back into a whole whole new tiny home that’s constructed in a couple hours a week over the course of a school semester, but it was really a fantastic project. And people were really emotionally invested in the home. People were excited to see it roll out at the shop.

KCAW  Yeah, and just, you know, I think people might not always know what exactly a tiny home is. So what is a tiny home?

CO  Tiny Homes run the gamut. They can really be super fancy, glamorous, they can be really minimal. There’s a lot of variety in what a tiny home can be. The features that we cared about was functionality, energy efficiency, and incorporating those beautiful local woods. So the Tongass Tiny Home that the students constructed, was built on a trailer. That was I believe, 20 by eight feet wide. So that’s your footprint, and it involved a sleeping loft, and also a storage loft, a small living area, a small kitchen space, and a small bathroom with shower toilet, sink, everything you’d expect. So it’s basically what the name implies.It’s a tiny home that allows you to keep your costs low, keep your energy use low to support a minimalist lifestyle. I think we’re agreed that here in Southeast we’re so lucky to have this amazing backdoor of the wilderness to explore. So as long as you have a shed for all your wilderness gear, I think it can be a good solution for someone who’s looking for that particular lifestyle.

KCAW  And you said sort of like that this is one piece of the affordable housing puzzle. It’s not for everyone. And so I guess from your perspective, why is it that tiny homes can provide a good affordable housing option for people? Or how does it sort of fit into that puzzle? How does it help address affordable housing and community, I guess?

CO  When Sitka Conservation Society started this project, I think we had as many questions as anyone here in town about whether the tiny home was a right fit for Sitka or what the opportunities were there. But what we’ve heard really consistently from community members throughout this whole process is that it’s about the diversity of options. And that affordability, and quality are really what folks are looking for. And so the tiny home is not going to be the right fit for a lot of people. But for those folks who really want that lifestyle, it is a great option. It’s a way to invest in a home, have that flexibility, keep your footprint small. And so we’re excited about the tiny homes as one of many approaches to diversifying and making housing here more affordable, because we know that’s critical to a sustainable community. But we can’t be thriving here if folks can’t afford safe housing.

KCAW  You also mentioned regulations and people not being sure, where can I put it, where it can’t I and throughout the process that you all were working on this, the city actually changed its regulations to make more space for tiny Homes, particularly tiny homes on wheels. So just wondering how involved you were in that process? Or what was Sitka Conservation Society’s role in that, if any, and sort of how Sitka Conservation Society felt about the changes that were made?

CO  Yeah, well, I think we’ve been involved in those regulation conversations as interested community members. So we would bring forward our learnings from the tiny home project and what we were hearing from potential buyers and participate in that dialogue. But what I think is really great is that what I heard was a consistent request from community members to make more room for these types of options and to provide that clarity about where is it okay, where’s it not okay. And I am happy that I have seen the city respond to that. And I’m excited that there’s been some zoning changes to answer those questions. And I think our learning from past code changes is it takes a while for that information to get out there. It takes a while for people to understand the implications and think about how they want to implement that in their own building decisions. I’m excited to see how it can shape Sitka’s housing market over the next few years.

KCAW  So the regulation changes happened a little over a year ago now and there hasn’t been much movement around tiny homes in Sitka. It sounds like your answer to that is well, it takes time.

CO  I do think it takes time and again like we’re just talking about getting more tools in the tool belt for what people can do to make it work for them. So people canmake thoughtful decisions and take their time thinking about investing in housing. And it’ll be great to see what creative solutions come out of that. And, you know, a great project to shout out is the Sitka Community Land Trust, which has been an effort for years and years, and now you’re really seeing it take off. And so I think that willingness to plan for not just next year, but the next 20 years, and what are the options we need to have available to us is really important in housing and everything we talk about.

KCAW  Any major lessons learned to take away from this project that you’d want to share?

CO  Yeah, I think for me, a major lesson has been, it’s always worth gut checking what you can get regionally. I think there’s often a lot of assumptions about what’s feasible or what’s most affordable. But if you’re willing to have some conversations and talk to small businesses around this region, there can be some really great products out there. We got some amazing timber from across Southeast and sometimes it was shipped on a fishing boat. Sometimes it came on the ferry. So if you’re willing to do a little extra legwork, the benefits can be super huge. And I think that’s been a great learning throughout this process, especially if you’re doing a smaller custom build, like a tiny home, like a garden shed, you know, sourcing those local materials can have a lot of benefits for you personally but also for the planet.

Throughout April and May, KCAW News will be bringing you stories about affordable housing solutions every Friday as part of our “Building Solutions” series. Erin McKinstry is a Report for America corps member.