Ulster County’s Rowan Kunz Builds a Tiny Home That’s Entirely Self-Sustainable

With a little help from her friends and family, a young Ulster County woman builds a tiny home that’s completely off the grid

Rowan Kunz’s mother, Penny, remembers how, when Rowan was a toddler and tackling something for the first time, she’d resist any help. “No!” she’d declare. “I do it I-self!” Rowan’s grammar has improved greatly over the past 30 years, but her independent streak remains as strong. When she decided to build a tiny home, she meant she’d build it herself.

In 2010, Kunz, then 30, moved back to her parents’ house in High Falls after a 12-year absence to take a position as an art teacher at Ellenville Elementary School. She’d long dreamed of building a small house on a large property; but with a new job, “serious student debt,” and an iffy economy, realizing the dream looked a long way off. “So I decided to work backwards: Build a tiny house and save up for land,” she says. Kunz, who’s spent time in Kenya and other spots where people live simply, was intrigued by the small-house movement. Building a tiny house on wheels (actually a heavy-equipment trailer) would make it movable, and required no permits. It would be a pay-as-she-went project, so no mortgage, either.

tiny home loft bed living area

Friends and benefits: A loft bed with storage underneath and a shallow closet at its foot anchors one end of the house. At the other end are the kitchen and bath

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The small-house movement has been growing fast over the last decade or so, and plans for such homes are available. “But no one system really worked,” Kunz says. “There’s not much info on winter living, so that required research. I looked at what other people were doing, and then let that inform my choices, rather than copying.”

Kunz drew designs, gradually paring them down. “It was a challenge, seeing how much I could do to have a positive impact on the environment. When I realized I could go off the grid, I thought, why not? We think of certain things as necessary, but we haven’t had them long in our history.” 

kitchen and countertops cypress bathtub

Maple countertops (left) were made by a friend, who jotted a note on the underside: “Not Made in China.” Another friend built the cypress bathtub

In spring of 2012, she took the plunge, bought a 24-foot trailer, parked it outside her dad’s special-effects workshop (which is full of useful gizmos), and spent Memorial Day weekend constructing the sub-floor. Kunz was familiar with most of the tools she needed. “But I had to become adept; I’m still learning the miter saw. I used surprisingly few tools: screwdriver, circular saw, drill. The hardest thing was figuring out ways to work alone — and wrapping my head around the electric.”

rowan kunz tiny home

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Kunz paid for consultations regarding the chimney and electrical wiring, and for Hudson Valley Green Insulation to blow in the foam. “That was very hands-off,” she says. Carpenter friends offered expert opinions; other friends and family lent a hand from time to time. But Kunz, a slender wisp of a woman, did most of the work herself. “I got a lot of advice from the guys at Slutsky Lumber in Ellenville,” she remarks. “They were amazing; they helped me problem-solve things that couldn’t be done in a traditional way.”

Natural materials include bamboo flooring, pine paneling for the interior, and cedar to line the bathroom and for the exterior siding, as well as a tin roof. (You can read a blow-by-blow account of the construction at Rowan’s Tiny Home blogspot.)

At right: Kunz paneled the interior with pine. Installing 15-foot boards on the ceiling by yourself requires “three ladders, wedges, and a variety of expletives,” she reports.

Bamboo flooring is lightweight (a consi​deration in a movable house) and feels comfortable underfoot. Reinforced pressed-tin ceiling panels form a fireproof surround for the woodstove.

rowan kunz deck

Al fresco living: Kunz enjoying the deck

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Kunz had the 192-square-foot house, which was not quite finished, towed to a spot on the edge of her parents’ property in autumn of 2013, then she and her cat, Willow, moved in. “It was basically just a box,” she says. “Every time I got a new utility, it was ‘yay!’ ” Those utilities include a little stainless steel sink and a propane cookstove, which seemed small until the miniature wood-burning stove was delivered. It may look like a toy, but the micro stove kept the house warm through last winter’s brutal weather, Kunz says.

hand pump loveable loo

A hand pump brings water from the rain barrel to a tank above the tub. “I’m a lot more conscious now of what I use and where it comes from,” Kunz notes. The Loveable Loo composting toilet (right) “works beautifully,” she says

Other practical features include gutters to collect rainwater (which is stored beneath the house and pumped manually to a tank over the cypress bathtub), and a low-tech gray-water drainage system — the pipes lead to a five-gallon bucket with holes in it, which is buried in mulch in the ground. A heatable camping shower set-up provides warm water in cold weather. The Loveable Loo (a composting toilet that Kunz delights in declaring “a bucket”) is “working beautifully,” she reports. “The composting was a lot easier than I expected.” Two solar panels generate enough power to run lights and the fridge, a laptop, and a few appliances.
The home cost about $25,000 in all. “It felt like a novelty when I began, but lots of people found me via the Web site who are currently planning or building a tiny house. There’s quite a community,” Kunz remarks.

The one drawback? “I miss my books,” she admits. “Otherwise, the house has enough living space for me. I have more comforts than most people in this world.”

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