On a Wednesday morning in late May, the sun streamed through the windows into the high-ceilinged, warehouse-like Career and Technical Education Center at Sitka High School. It was the last Advanced Construction class of the school year. At one end of the center, students were putting the finishing touches on nightstands and dressers. At the other end stood a much larger project.
Construction of the Tongass Tiny Home
All year long, the Advanced Construction class has been hard at work on the Tongass Tiny Home, a multi-year project now in the final stages of construction and up for sale. The Tongass Tiny Home sits in the back of the Career and Technical Education Center, lit up by the direct sun as if by spotlight. The local wood from the Tongass National Forest used to construct the tiny home gives off a warm glow and a cozy feel.
Built on a trailer, the Tongass Tiny Home extends 8 by 20 feet, with a dozen windows offering views inside as you walk around it. When you step indoors, the surprisingly spacious interior smells sweetly of new wood paneling, and features a lofted bedroom, full bath, overhead storage nook, and plenty of space in the main room, where appliances and the custom red alder cabinets made by the students will soon be installed.
Since the project began in spring 2014, around 40-50 students have had the opportunity to work on the tiny home, about eight kids a semester. Mike Vieira, the teacher who oversees the project, has seen them all pass through his classes in the Career and Technical Education (CTE) program, which prepares students through hands-on, skills-based learning and exposure to professional performance standards and career opportunities.
Students both contributed directly to the construction of the tiny home themselves, and also observed expert contractors who came in to do the plumbing and electric work.
“We were able to talk about it with kids as they saw it happening, exposing them to those trades, which are some of the highest demand, highest wage jobs,” Vieira said, explaining that such exposure is one main goal of his program. “That’s what we do. We try to prepare kids to go out into high demand, high wage jobs.”
The Tongass Tiny Home allowed Vieira to offer an Advanced Construction course for the first time in a decade, giving students the chance to work on both exterior and interior finishes. Since the beginning of the project, Vieira has been able to offer an Advanced Construction class every semester. The variety of construction skills covered has made the class very popular, and has been successful in attracting students of all genders, a major goal of the CTE program.
The students have worked on everything from exterior siding to interior flooring and cabinetry.
“The size of the project is right,” Vieira said. “Kids can do a little bit of this, and then we can move on and do a little bit of that. So we got to do insulation, we got to talk about vapor barrier, which is talking about how a house functions, especially in a rainforest.”
Tiny House, big transition
Indeed, the Tongass Tiny Home is not only named for the Tongass National Forest, the largest remaining temperate rainforest on earth, but also built from it. Whenever possible, construction of the tiny home incorporated local young growth lumber, a more sustainable local wood resource harvested from the new trees that have grown up in areas that were clearcut for old growth in the past.
One of the goals of the Tongass Tiny Home project was to test out young growth within a learning space, in order to determine what works, what doesn’t, and how Southeast Alaska could adapt our regional milling processes to increase the use of local young growth timber. Vieira and the students learned to troubleshoot the challenges of using young growth, and also found successful uses of the wood that led to beautiful young growth products, such as interior paneling, cabinetry, and framing, which feature prominently in the tiny home.
Gordon Chew, owner and operator of Tenakee Logging Company, provided some of the young growth lumber for the project.
“The timber is light, strong and we hope to develop a market for it,” he said, describing the young growth Sitka Spruce he delivered for use in the tiny home.
Since the adoption of the Tongass Land Management Plan Amendment in 2016, the Tongass National Forest has been implementing a transition away from the extractive practice of old growth clearcutting toward a sustainable future of young growth timber management, on the basis of collaboratively devised recommendations from a diverse committee of local stakeholders from across the region.
In addition to charting a new path forward for forest management, the Tongass Transition includes a commitment to workforce development programs across Southeast Alaska that teach similar skills as Vieira does in his classes, with the end goal of preparing the local workforce to work with local resources through hands-on, professional experience.
The Tongass Transition means a new way of doing business for the timber industry, which presents both challenges and opportunities as mills retool for young growth, but mill owners like Chew are already adapting.
“We are pretty happy with supplying timber locally in the Southeast area. It is more work decking a larger number of smaller trees, but the quality is rewarding and the smaller logs are easier on our obsolete and aging equipment,” Chew said. “The proof that young growth is viable is seen in the Tongass, where young trees are already harvested and utilized across Southeast.”
Tiny living: More sustainable and affordable
The use of sustainable, local materials appeals to prospective tiny home owners, who are often attracted to tiny homes because of the opportunity to live simply and reduce their environmental impact. In general, tiny homes require less lumber to build than conventional homes, and their smaller size requires less energy to heat or cool. This greatly decreases electricity use and fuel consumption, which results in reduced greenhouse gas emissions — and a reduced cost of living, too.
Affordable housing is a pressing issue in Southeast Alaska, especially in Sitka, and increasing the use of tiny homes presents one possible solution. According to the City and Borough of Sitka, the median value of an owner-occupied home was $338,600 in 2015. This is the highest in Alaska by 35 percent, and presents a huge obstacle for the current residents of Sitka, as well as many people who would want to live here if it weren’t for the high cost of living.
By comparison, the Tongass Tiny Home is selling for $65,000, which accounts for the cost of materials and a small profit, which will be reinvested into local workforce development initiatives like Sitka High’s Career and Technical Education program. While $65,000 still doesn’t qualify as affordable for many people, the Tongass Tiny Home selling price does significantly lower the threshold necessary for home ownership and helps to diversify the available range of housing options to rent or buy in Sitka.
The portability of tiny homes comes with a necessary trade off: a purchase of a tiny home doesn’t include land, so new owners still have to find a location to live. In Southeast Alaska, however, housing comes with a unique backyard: the 17 million acres of the Tongass National Forest provide easy access to the beauty of nature. Surrounded by public lands, it’s possible that having a conventional backyard may not feel as urgent for prospective tiny home owners.
Individual Southeast Alaskans outpace some city governments in their embrace of tiny homes, as many city codes have yet to add provisions for tiny home living. At a planning meeting earlier this year in Sitka, tiny homes were one of the most popular suggestions for improving housing opportunities. The City of Sitka has stated that one of its goals in creating its new comprehensive plan is to “expand the range, affordability, and quality of housing in Sitka while maintaining attractive, livable neighborhoods,” but the city has not yet committed to updating its codes to be more inclusive of tiny homes. For now, tiny homes on wheels are considered recreational vehicles by the Sitka general code.
Because of this, local Sitkans who own tiny homes aren’t always comfortable talking about them publicly, even when their decision to live in a tiny home is what allows them to live in Sitka in the first place.
“I chose the tiny home route because I wanted to make a home in Southeast, yet the expensive cost of living in this area was the only thing deterring me,” said one tiny home owner from Sitka who wished to remain anonymous. For her, living in a tiny home was the right solution to the problem of affordable housing in Sitka.
In Sitka, tiny homes make a great deal of sense. In the CTE warehouse, looking at the Tongass Tiny Home and several garden sheds also built by Sitka High students, you can almost imagine that they’re actually a little neighborhood of tiny homes, tucked seamlessly into the landscape of Sitka life.
“Anyone who lives in this area knows the value in preserving the land here and keeping it pristine,” said the same tiny home owner. “I truly believe that opening the city doors to tiny homes opens the doors to many more families, which in turn creates more opportunities for this region. It’s paving a new path and I’d love to see this area take the reins.”
Once the Tongass Tiny Home is sold and the profits reinvested in workforce development, the project will come full circle, allowing its owner to live in a way that sustains both the forest from which the tiny home was created and the program whose students built it.
This is the most compelling aspect of the Tongass Tiny Home: for such a small house, it prompts some seriously big questions about community-led development and how we balance the needs of people, place, and economy. For some, tiny homes might be a great solution; others might find different options that better fit their needs. It’s not necessarily more tiny homes that are needed, but more people thinking creatively about how we build our homes and communities in ways that invest in a resilient future for Southeast Alaska.
• Maia Mares is a freelance writer currently living in Sitka. She also works for the Sitka Conservation Society, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the Tongass National Forest and developing sustainable communities in Southeast Alaska.