Looking to Downsize?

White Bear Lake builder of tiny homes provides a truly different option

Ice houses are a favorite winter retreat in Minnesota, but could you call something that small your home?

From his blue, steel framed workshop in White Bear Lake, Jim Wilkins has built six homes for people across the country who are comfortable with less – much less.

Wildflower Tiny House

Wildflower Tiny House

In 400 square feet or less, Wilkins’ Tiny Green Cabins have a living room, kitchen, bathroom, loft bedroom and porch on the frame of the trailer able to be pulled behind a pickup trunk. With wood siding and traditional windows and doors, these structures are far more homey than Spartan ice shacks on a windswept lake.

Wilkins business was featured in a short documentary on sustainable shelters from the University of Minnesota’s Bell Museum of Natural History. The documentary correlated the size of the home to energy use and pollution emissions. The Bell Museum presented Tiny Green Cabins as a way to shrink your carbon footprint – or foundation.

Wilkins, 62, is the only builder of tiny houses in Minnesota and his customers range from Texas to Massachusetts with just as a wide a range to live in them. A North Dakota teacher bought one to get away from house payments, a Colorado mathematician purchased one to use as a writing retreat, a Wisconsin recluse sensitive to chemicals has one because Wilkins uses natural materials.

Wilkins built his first tiny house in 2008 when he was mired in a divorce and struggling to make house payments with an underwater mortgage for his ranch style home in White Bear Lake.

“That’s why I started building tiny houses; I thought I was going to be living in one.” Wilkins said.

A visitor to the website tried to call out Wilkins, presuming he was building them without having lived in one himself..

Well, the barrel-chested 6-foot tall man not only lived in one for a year but he called the experience “magical”

“When you climb in, it would be like climbing in a tree trunk to sleep like a troll or an elf,” he said. “It made life real simple because you are reduced down to the bare essentials.”

When the divorce was complete and the mortgage was worked out, Wilkins said moving back into his old house felt strange.

“You get so accustomed to it being small that you get lost when you go back,” he said. “You realize how much space in a house that a person doesn’t use.”

Regulations pose a challenge for buyers of tiny homes. The homes can’t be wider than 8′-6″ without a road escort and must be less than 13′-6″ high to clear bridges. Also the International Code Council states that no habitable rooms can be less than 70 square feet and city ordinances on minimum requirements for home sizes vary.

“A lot of people build them and license them as an RV” Wilkins said, “and when they park them they change them into a seasonal home.”

Andy Greder is a free lance writer based in St Paul, MN

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One Response to “Looking to Downsize?”

  1. SKW May 5, 2012 at 11:50 am #

    What a great article on your amazing Tiny Cabins! Love your quote here: “When you climb in, it would be like climbing in a tree trunk to sleep like a troll or an elf,” he said. “It made life real simple because you are reduced down to the bare essentials.” I love these homes because not only are the Planet friendly but they also take us back to what is important. Great work!

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