You Think Your House is Small?

Tiny house

Rick McNurney and Leah Milcarek outside their “tiny house” (Photos by M. Turton)

Future Homes

Leah Milcarek and Rick McNurney’s “tiny house” is slightly more than 400 square feet. And they both work from home.

Why did they choose to live so small?

“It was less about square footage and more about simplifying our lives; reducing our costs to work less, live more,” explained Milcarek, who works in business development for an energy-efficiency company. “We liked that it reduced our environmental footprint.”

“I didn’t expect the emotional attachment I have to the house,” McNurney added. “Every time I step in the door, it’s like, ‘Yeah, this is perfect.’ ”

Tiny house

Milcarek in her creative work space, which retracts toward the ceiling

But, Milcarek cautioned, if considering a move to a tiny house “think about the shape of the life you want to lead; not because it sounds cute or trendy. Living in this space requires a shift in perspective.”

Milcarek and McNurney, a technology consultant, designed the house over the course of a year. The home and many of its custom furnishings were built over three months in 2017 by Liberation Tiny Homes in Leola, Pennsylvania, for about $72,000. What distinguishes “tiny houses” from houses that are tiny is their size — 400 square feet or less, not counting lofts — and the fact they are on wheels.

In 2019, the couple pulled their six-room home, which is 28-feet-long and sits on a steel trailer bed, to East Mountain Road South in Philipstown, where they rented a small tract from the owners who live in a traditional home on the property.

“Putnam County allows you to have one mobile home, as long as the property also has a house on a foundation,” McNurney said.

Tiny house

McNurney atop the stairs leading to the sleeping area

(Local zoning laws have been an obstacle for tiny-house owners across the country, who have formed industry groups such as the American Tiny House Association, the Tiny Home Industry Association and the United Tiny House Association to advocate greater freedoms for mobile homes.)

The home owned by Milcarek and McNurney has a living room, kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, McNurney’s office and recording studio and Milcarek’s art loft. It was constructed with a wood frame, galvanized steel siding on the front and vinyl “cedar” shingles on the back. The standing seam steel roof is pitched to handle snow load.

The interior has birch plywood walls, walnut butcher block countertops and hardwood floors. It uses a heat pump and wood stove, standard A/C with a backup generator, an electric induction stove and a composting toilet.

At 5-foot-8 and 5-foot-4, neither McNurney nor Milcarek would be considered tall. But height is a consideration in tiny house design. The under-loft hallway clearance is 6-foot-2 but the ceiling is 11 feet. “That makes a huge difference for how the space feels,” McNurney said. “Our builder did a house for a couple where the guy was 6-foot-4. They just made the ceiling higher.”

Before ordering their home, the couple attended tiny-house industry events in Colorado and New York and examined 30 models, McNurney said.

Tiny house

Milcarek in the living room

Milcarek added: “We also spent 10 days staying in a tiny house we rented on Airbnb to be sure we wanted to do this — and that we weren’t going to kill each other.”

The couple said part of their motivation to go small was the ability to relocate without all the fuss associated with changing traditional homes.

“I’ve lived in many places in the U.S. and am interested in continuing to do so,” Milcarek said. “And Rick hates moving, having to pack everything up and create a new configuration in a new house.” A tiny house solves that problem, she said, because the configuration doesn’t change and packing is minimal.

Ironically, one of the things Milcarek said she likes best about their mobile house is having more space.

“I have a loft, a dedicated creative space where I do watercolor painting and design and make clothes, something I didn’t have in the past 15 years,” she said.

For McNurney, it has been about simplifying things. “I didn’t expect to figure out how to fit my life into such a small box,” he said. “It’s easy to get cluttered; you have to distill it down to just the things you really care about.”

Outfitting and maintaining a tiny house does present challenges. “We spent an inordinate amount of time finding the right sized garbage can,” Milcarek recalled.

Tiny house

McNurney with the heater

The tiny house is the first they have owned, which presents the same challenges as homes of any size. “Things break,” McNurney said, although the difference is that the house is “an out-of-the-box situation; you can’t just go somewhere for a cookie-cutter solution — you have to get a creative.”

The time spent carefully designing their house has produced some results they’re especially proud of.

Milcarek’s loft is above the living room on a motorized floor. When the loft isn’t in use, the ceiling is raised, “so we got two rooms out of one space,” she said.

Cleaning the entire house takes about 15 minutes, McNurney said. “Everything is so compartmentalized; a Swiffer and a vacuum cleaner, and you’re done. “

Considering the size of the house, storage space abounds. The queen bed lifts and opens like a clam shell, providing space for seasonal clothes. Every piece of furniture has storage cubbies. There are no hollow walls; they double as storage units. The steps up to the loft contain drawers. A closet, 2 feet deep, runs the length of the house and is used for hanging storage.

The small indoor space has increased the couple’s appreciation for their outdoor space. They use their fire pit often. And because the house sits on a trailer bed, it can be realigned to ensure the deck is in the sun or the shade.

“You can change how you interface with your environment; big windows really help,” McNurney said.

True to their perspective and their desire to be able to relocate easily, Milcarek, McNurney and their tiny house moved to Utah this week.

More stories:

Printer Pod
A House Attune with Nature

4 thoughts on “You Think Your House is Small?

  1. Fantastic story, Mike! I’ve seen that house and wanted to know the details.

  2. I love knowing the story behind the little house that could. [via Facebook]

  3. Electric source? Water source? Sewage disposal? How do these items comply with local codes? [via Facebook]

    • The tiny house had electric and water hookups. Rick McNurney said he understood that “Putnam County allows you to have one mobile home, as long as the property also has a house on a foundation.” However, the county says tiny houses are considered under local laws. Greg Wunner, the Philipstown code enforcement officer, did not return email messages or phone calls, but according to the Philipstown zoning code, a tiny house with wheels would be a recreational vehicle regulated by the DMV. The Tiny House Society notes that local ordinances vary widely but “are not always enforced unless you are giving someone something to complain about.”