With dark clouds and graduation deadlines looming, a group of UTA architecture students were again drilling and hammering in a field on campus last week, a ritual that lately has extended into nights and weekends.
The architecture majors are building structures they designed that can pack a complete living environment into less than 400 square feet. The assignment, part of the School of Architecture’s second-year design-build program called Parallel Construction, was inspired partly by the hot tiny-house trend.
“That played into it,” said Brad McCorkle, an adjunct professor who teaches both phases of the program. “But a lot of the decision was to pursue something that would be within our reach to complete in a 16-week semester.”
The two houses will have a final jury review on Friday, then the students graduate on May 12. And after putting sweat equity into their projects, they feel more confident they are ready for careers in architecture.
“It’s definitely hands-on experience,” said Kevin Park. “In school, they teach you just about design, how spaces form, how things go together. But out here, we actually, physically do it with our hands, so we know what’s possible and what’s not. Because sometimes the stuff we design is so extravagant it might not work in real life.”
Tiny houses are riding a big wave of interest now, thanks to cable shows that have fanned the trend. HGTV has “Tiny House, Big Living,” “Tiny House Hunters” and “Tiny House Builders,” and FYI has “Tiny House World” and “Tiny House Nation.”
It counters a steady trend of growing home sizes. According to the U.S. census, the median house has increased from 1,525 square feet in 1973 to 2,467 square feet in 2015, a 62 percent expansion.
While that may have fueled a movement to live more within means, not all the people fascinated with tiny homes want to end up in one.
“We were at the State Fair of Texas for two years, and millions of people walked through our tiny houses,” said Alex Hammons, a salesman for the Tiny House Outlet lot in Greenville. “But I would say 99 percent of them ... didn’t have any desire to live in them.”
He said the houses they sell often are to families for “a mother-in-law situation,” or young couples who can’t afford a typical mortgage, or retired people as a vacation lodge.
Hammons said his smallest house is 399 square feet — more than twice the size of many featured on the TV shows — and sells for between $19,000 to $30,000, depending on the customizable amenities selected.
Virginia Stuart, public relations director for Superior Concrete Products in Euless, acknowledges the tiny-house craze as something new — “but it’s just become popular again.”
“People lived in smaller houses for thousands of years,” she said. “It’s only been the last 100 years that people have been living in larger houses. And people live in smaller houses in Europe. People want something affordable that they can enjoy, so they have more disposable income for them to use on things other than a mortgage.”
Superior Concrete’s tiny houses costs are high end. The custom “Cowboy Cool” model it displayed at the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo in January is 200 square feet and costs about $85,000, or $425 per square foot. But its features include marble countertops and, like all its tiny houses, was built with low-maintenance, precast concrete panels, Stuart said.
The students are close to making their first sale. A nonprofit group istrying to put together funding to buy both houses, McCorkle said. The price tag on each is about $50,000, and all proceeds — boosted by the free student labor — would be rolled over into next year’s project.
“Students work cheap; they get paid with a grade,” McCorkle said, adding they work long hours to earn it. “They’ve really enjoyed it. And it’s been fun to watch. I’ve always wanted to do design-build, to do a house for students. It’s kind of a bucket-list item for me.”
The concept of providing construction experience for architecture students isn’t as old as the profession. McCorkle cited Auburn University’s influential design-build program — Rural Studio, whose students design and build $20,000 homes for rural Alabama residents — founded in 1993 and adapted by many other universities.
UTA’s Parallel Construction program is nailing down its permanent status. McCorkle said there have been a couple of construction projects involving architecture students in the past. “But this is the first time we’ve had support to sustain the program,” he said.
Students in the School of Architecture, part of the College of Architecture, Planning and Public Affairs, last year built three pavilions to serve as a bus stop, business incubator and an information kiosk.
In the fall, his students will start designing a regular-size house — 1,600 to 1,700 square feet — in partnership with the the Housing Channel, formerly the Tarrant County Housing Partnership. The house will be gifted to a family, McCorkle said.
He believes the construction experience will help his students in their careers. “We have a contractor that’s been involved with the program, and his thought is that he can’t wait to work with these students once they get out in their professions,” McCorkle said. “They understand the issues of construction and realities of construction.”
Tiny house careers
But some say the students may be getting their construction experience at the expense of their design experience.
“Some people think, well, they’re not really learning design this semester, because this is a design studio,” McCorkle said. “But they’re designing out here on site as much or more than they would be in studio, because they’re continually running into issues that they have to stop and solve. And that’s as much design as sitting in the studio and drawing a plan.”
Omar Soto, 21, designed the tiny house he’s working on. It’s being built in three modules that will be connected on their next resting place.
The toughest thing about building tiny houses is meeting city codes in tight spaces, Soto said, because the front edge of the toilet still has to be a certain distance from the opposite wall, and there’s a minimum separation required of the cook top and sink.
Based on his experience, he wants to pursue small residential housing as a career, but not tiny houses. “Personally, I prefer urban design, multifamily housing,” he said.
McCorkle believes tiny houses is a viable architectural career focus.
“I think maybe tiny houses as far as the HGTV thing might be a little bid of a fad, and I may have made some people upset over that comment,” he said. “But I think this idea of downsizing, simplifying and getting back to the important things in life — I think that’s something that’s going to be around for the foreseeable future.