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Built in the Mountains: Eco-Friendly Tiny Homes That Got Their Start In Jackson Hole

What started as a creative solution to a mountain town zoning restriction has birthed an entire business of eco-friendly prefab tiny homes for Jamie Mackay. Fireside Resort photo.

When gear brand Outdoor Research hired Zack Giffin to build an OR-branded tiny home that he, skier Molly Baker, and a camera crew could live in and roll around chasing storms in North America, the tiny home made a stir wherever it went, but not just because it could follow the snow. Unpretentious, minimalist, and low-impact, the OR tiny home exemplified all the merits of smaller living for skiers, such as a way to avoid meteoric land prices, stay mobile, avoid being screwed by greedy landlords in rentals, and have a space to call their own.

It’s not a draw just for ski towns; tiny home mania keeps growing with no sign of abating across the world, due in a large part to housing crises from Jackson Hole to Boise to Barcelona and Seattle. While the problem is providing the marvelous trend with a lot of momentum and innovation, from handmade tiny homes to prefab options (for those with more money and less free time).

One company that has seized the opportunity to promote the greener, tiny home lifestyle is Jackson-based Wheelhaus, which builds small homes on wheels starting at 400 square feet and $82,000. The brainchild of local resident Jamie MacKay (pictured at right), Wheelhaus has been taken off guard by the demand for its homes since it first launched in 2011.

The idea was born originally as a way to use land that was formerly a KOA camping operation that MacKay had bought just five miles from Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. Zoned as an RV park and campground by the county–restricting the development of any resort or housing to the same standards of a recreational vehicle–Mackay realized he would have to get creative with the purchase to realize his vision for the property.

Mackay's Fireside Resort uses 23 of Wheelhaus' Wedge prefab tiny homes as hotel rooms. Fireside Resort photo.

The result, now dubbed Fireside Resort, has 23 400 square-foot, one-bedroom cabins on wheels which serve as rooms and as a test piece for people interested in buying their own tiny Wheelhauses. The company’s 9 prefab models are LEED Gold certified, and Wheelhaus stresses the use of local, sustainable materials, such as beetle kill timber, in the construction.

“When you build modular, you can actually use the materials more efficiently. So tiny homes are cost and waste-saving,” said Mackay. “The repetition of what you are doing saves money and saves on trash and wasted materials. We’re leaning toward western contemporary design, and looking at using more things like passive solar.“

All Wheelhaus models meet at least LEED Golf green building certification standards, and can be rolled to wherever the owner wants to set up. Wheelhaus photo.

Wheelhaus isn’t alone in seeing business opportunities in tiny homes. Walsenberg, a small rural mountain town of about 2,600 in southern Colorado, just lifted an outdated minimum square footage on legal homes, paving the way for tiny home neighborhoods such as the one Sprout Tiny Homes (another pre-made tiny house company) founder Rod Stambaugh is planning. A lakeside resort in Northern Michigan has even signed up with Wheelhaus to offer pre-fab tiny home "estates" to vacationers.

However, many tiny home enthusiasts still build their own creations, or enlist the help of local carpenters for one-off designs to suit their particular tastes, and the growing popularity is pushing changes in zoning and housing regulations.

In Colorado, it isn’t just Walsenberg; local governments across the state have been spurred to rethink building codes. According to the Denver Post, the current, antiquated building codes from decades ago render modern tiny homes too small to be legal.

For example, Telluride, a ski town hugely constrained by land prices and its box canyon location, is considering a tiny home settlement of five buildings to assess the possibility of tiny homes housing more winter workers in the future.

The Caboose is one of nine tiny home models Wheelhaus offers. Wheelhaus photo.

For Wheelhaus and other tiny home builders, the future is filled with opportunities for better, lower-impact living.

“The point is, bigger is not better,” said MacKay. “It’s innovative space management. It really makes you think when you’re building a small home that every spare inch counts. And it’s not good for the town, or the environment, to push people out of the town and have them commute [because they can’t afford the current housing].” 

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