Story by Keeley Tillotson
Photos by Daniel Cheeks
Gabe Babcock wakes up in a bus, staring up at a welded metal roof, his breath making clouds in the air. The view through the closely spaced windows is obscured by thick condensation. He sits up, his feet brushing against a carpet of plastic grass turf. From his perch on the bed he can see two vinyl bus seats, a metal table, and through the windshield, the beginnings of a foggy Eugene morning. Cluttering this spare setting are all of Babcock’s worldly belongings: a few dishes on the table, papers strewn across the seats. Clothes are strung across clotheslines; fishing rods peek out from under the bed. The bus seems plenty lived-in, which isn’t too surprising. After all, Babcock isn’t just in his vehicle—he’s home.
Since Babcock started living in his remodeled short school bus in fall 2010, he has changed living locations several times, finally ending up in a friend’s driveway in order to evade Eugene’s temporary housing laws that prohibit living in a vehicle parked on the street.
“Basically, I’m lucky I have a friend with a driveway to park in,” Babcock laughs. “Well, actually, I’m lucky to have a friend in general. I live in a bus. Who wants to be friends with a guy who lives in a bus?”
Actually, more people might like to befriend Babcock than he thinks. After all, wouldn’t we all love to know the secret of living on less than $150 a month? Babcock spends only $50 a month on parking. The average student living on campus likely spends double this in rent alone. Babcock lived in campus housing for three years, and his mounting frustration with unnecessary costs led him to seek a better alternative.
Most people don’t think of a short yellow school bus as an impulse purchase, but to Babcock, it immediately sounded like a good idea.
“I was talking to some friends who were trying to sell me a giant full-size school bus this summer,” Babcock says. “I laughed that night, but I woke up in the morning and thought, ‘You know what? That might be a good way to live for a year.’”
Babcock isn’t alone in his quest for a more practical and inexpensive living space. In fact, he is just part of a widespread movement dubbed “Tiny Houses.” This resurgence of small living options is driven primarily by a growing number of people looking to downsize their economic burden and learn to live with less.
Babcock purchased his own short bus for $3,500 and renovated it over the summer. He did everything himself, from installing a carpet of artificial turf to building a bed frame out of bamboo grown by his dad. He even welded the table. He is currently laying out plans to build a wood-burning stove within the bus to replace his propane heater. All of this sounds very, to use a popular buzzword, “sustainable.” But mention the term to Babcock and all you’ll get is a hearty chuckle.
While Babcock’s way of living may be environmentally friendly—he uses no water or electricity and heats only rarely—he explains that this is just a side effect of living cheaply, not an overreaching dedication to the environment. The “green” features of his bus save energy, thus saving money.
“It’s all about simplicity,” Babcock says, shrugging his shoulders. “It’s fun. It’s cheap living . . . I spend a fraction of what I spent last year, and I am that much happier.”
Those looking to similarly enlighten themselves can find extensive information on the Internet, including the Tiny House Blog by Kent Griswold. Griswold posts daily about what he calls “tiny living.” Many of the posts showcase individuals who, like Babcock, have taken the initiative to build or seek out tiny living in unique ways. Griswold describes his site as a hobby that turned into a career—a personal journey toward simplicity that he found resonated with a lot of people.
“My readers are pretty much split 50/50,” Griswold says. “Some see tiny housing as a dream, an ideal, something they’d like to do. Others are out there doing it.”
In the past week of blog posts, Griswold posted a set of floor plans, a link to a new Eddie Bauer livable camping trailer, a for-sale tiny house posting, and the profile of a man who converted his boat into a primary living space. This kind of diversity is only some of what the Tiny House Blog covers.
Griswold says that, in one word, he considers his role in the movement to be “inspiration.” Most of his readers are either living small or want to be, and he tries to make that dream seem attainable. “To simplify their lives, to get out of debt, to be able to live on a smaller income,” Griswold says, reeling off common reasons cited by his readers for a shift to smaller housing.
However, not all of those interested in the “tiny house” movement are sizing down by necessity. Rich Daniels builds small mobile houses in Eastern Oregon and sells them to those who don’t want to build their own.
“Most of my clients have the money to live in bigger homes,” Daniels says. “They make the choice to live in these houses in order to live more simply. Energy cost is low and taxes aren’t as high.”
After all, living small is not a new concept or even a hippie phenomenon. Since the 1950s housing sizes have more than doubled, shooting from an average of 980 to 2,300 square feet. Before the 1950s, houses of this size were unusual.
“There is a very long history of people living in tiny dwellings,” says University of Oregon professor Robert Young. “We used to live small out of necessity. We now have the luxury to do it out of choice.”
As the world population rises, however, city planners and architects turn to the concepts behind these tiny houses. Countries such as Japan that have been struggling with rapidly increasing populations, have embraced the small home living model to sustainably provide housing for their highly concentrated populations.
“This attraction to conserving space is making its way to America,” Young says. “But mainly in larger cities such as New York. It hasn’t hit the West Coast yet.”
Because the need is not present, society has not yet adapted to accommodate small living—to situations like Babcock’s. Without the right housing laws in place, many would-be tiny home residents are left searching for a permanent place to live their desired lifestyles.
It is this kind of place Daniels hopes to provide in Eastern Oregon. He is planning on providing land on his property for tiny home owners to settle together to form some kind of community. However, on the path to making this dream a reality, Daniels continues to hit legal snags.
“There are housing laws that mandate the number of acres you need per house,” he says. “Meanwhile, these houses are only a couple hundred square feet . . . It’s frustrating . . . There is not as much freedom as you think.”
These laws also limit potential student tiny housing options and discourage those less resourceful and self-motivated than Babcock from trying out smaller living. Daniels is enthusiastic about the success tiny housing could have on a college campus if property was provided for students.
Babcock, Daniels, Griswold, and others who are living small seem to come to some kind of consensus, with a redefining of “need” at the very center of it. Griswold recommends thinking deeply about where you spend the most time in your home—what space do you really utilize?
It’s clearly a question Babcock has contemplated. He sits on the edge of his bed at the back of his bus, unlacing his shoes, looking over his Spartan living space.
“Living here has made me realize how easy simple living can be and you don’t need all those extra things,” he says, opening up a Western novel and settling back on his bed to read. “They make life easy and comfortable . . . but you don’t really need them.”