Although tiny houses are certainly not confined to one geographic location, they’re often associated with the West — a land where mild weather, progressive thinking and more relaxed zoning laws prevail. OlympiaPortland, Sonoma County … you get the picture.

And then there’s Iowa. 

Long overlooked as the ancestral birthplace of the tiny house movement, the Heartland State is the state that gave us movement figurehead Jay Shafer, who along with several other downsized living enthusiasts, co-founded the Small Space Society — motto: "Better Living Through Simplicity" — in Iowa City in 2002. Iowa is also where Alek Lisefki’s fantastic Tiny Project took form before relocating to Sonoma County.

“Iowans were at the forefront of the tiny-house trend a dozen years ago, but it has taken off in coastal states, Colorado and among the popular press,” reads a November 2014 article on pint-sized Iowan dwellings published in the Des Moines Register. “Just how many tiny houses of fewer than 300 square feet exist is not known because they're often out of view on private land or rolled into recreational vehicle parks, too small to meet city zoning and building code requirements.”

The latest Iowans to make a big splash with a dainty dwelling are Ethan Van Kooten and Amy Andrews. Environmental studies majors at Central College, the duo's recently completed tiny house project — all 240 square feet of it — isn’t garnering attention due to a flashy façade or a tricked-out interior. Rather, Van Kooten and Andrew’s pared-down tiny house — intended to function as a primitive cabin-cum-demonstration project and not a full-time residence — is remarkable for its diminutive cost of only $489.

than Van Kooten and Amy Andrews cozy cabin

than Van Kooten and Amy Andrews cabin under construction

Completing a sub-$500 tiny house still involved a huge amount of time (500 hours, to be exact) and skill, particularly on the salvaging, scavenging, scrounging and scrapping-stuff-together front. Working with a such a tiny budget to complete their big senior seminar project meant that Van Kooten and Andrews had to get resourceful. With an initial budget of $3,350  — a no-go due to an absence of grant money — big hauls to Home Depot were definitely not in the cards.

Van Kooten and Andrews, however, enjoyed a healthy helping of good fortune when it came to acquiring the materials needed to start their home. Van Kooten’s family donated a 52-year-old granary used as the structure’s shell. While using a ramshackle grain storage shed as a starting point was helpful in terms of overall cost, the duo still had to acquire the materials that would allow them to transform it into a habitable structure.

Ethan Van Kooten and Amy Andrews, cabin buildersIt didn’t hurt that Central College is located in Pella, a rural farming community with a strong Dutch heritage (Windmills! Tulip festivals! Gouda-producing dairy farms!) that just happens to be home to a large door and window manufacturer of the same name. In other words, Van Kooten and Andrews were able to secure donations.

Local home demolition sites also provided the duo with a bounty of materials that would have otherwise been landfilled: kitchen cabinets, carpeting, countertops, a woodstove and even a chandelier. An old 5-by-8-foot wooden hog feeder was used to create the cabin’s sleeping loft. The 10-foot-by-8-foot loft can be accessed via a ladder that, in a past life, was affixed to a deer stand.

While the pair didn’t have to lurk around salvage yards or do any dumpster diving, Van Kooten points out that the structure’s insulation was plucked straight from a landfill-bound roll-off bin at a local nursing home.

“Really it was more a matter of letting people know what we needed; if they could, they were more than happy to help,” explains Andrews.

On the topic of help, the duo had some assistance on the labor front as the grain shed-to-cabin transformation took place on a pasture on Van Kooten family property and his father was eager to pitch in and help. Van Kooten himself entered the project with formative building experience “ from pouring concrete to helping my dad build various things.” Andrews, a self-described “big 4-H-er" who grew up on a nearby farm, viewed building a tiny house as a “big, interesting 4-H project.”

So what did the duo spend that $489 on? Expenditures included the basics: bolts ($10), exterior and interior paint ($25, $30), a door ($13) and door frame ($40), OSB panels for the ceiling ($110), foam ceiling vents ($25) and a few other essentials. The most expensive purchase was wood stove piping materials at $120.

Inside of the renovated cabin

kitchen area of the renovated cabin

Van Kooten notes that if a more generous budget had come into play, he and Andrews would have looked into rooftop solar panels and a composting toilet. A rainwater catchment system that would supply the kitchen sink with running water is on the shortlist of future additions.

The skid-bound cabin will remain on the Van Kooten’s property and be used as a cozy family retreat. Andrews plans on spending plenty of quality time at the cabin, as well. Judging from the interior photos of the space, it certainly looks like a nice place to escape with just a bottle of wine, a Pendleton blanket, a good book and not much else. There's not a lot of distractions and nowhere to plug in — and that's the point. As reported by the Des Moines Tribune, an initial plan to relocate the cabin — Van Kooten calls it an “educational tool” — to Central College’s campus was complicated by zoning regulations and the issues of logistics, particularly who would maintain the cabin after Van Kooten and Andrews graduate this spring. 

The duo first became interested in off-grid living solutions during a class trip to Central America in which they stayed overnight in self-sufficient lodgings on an island in Belize. Even though the cabin is, for now, without the eco-friendly features that first drew them to small space living, Andrews views the project as a deeply sustainable one. She hopes that it will inspire others to embark on similar self-build projects, even when working with extremely low funds. “The fact that we have accomplished what we have so affordably puts a kind of different sustainability spin on it — we really wanted to show off some sustainable features and were constrained by our budget, but it ended up being educational in the way that we salvaged so much," she explains. "We spent a massive amount of time on it, but it was really satisfying work.”

Via [Central College News]

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Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

College students convert old grain shed into cozy cabin for under $500
Key to this project: Donated windows, a salvaged wood stove, loads of determination and a keen eye for creative reuse.