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Green Building News

Tiny Houses Replace Tents for Homeless

In Olympia, Washington, one-time tent dwellers take up residence in 144-square-foot houses they can call home

Small houses, big impact: Quixote Village is a community of 144-square-foot houses rented by a group of people who until last December lived in a moveable tent encampment in Olympia, Washington.
Image Credit: Photo courtesy of Panza
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Small houses, big impact: Quixote Village is a community of 144-square-foot houses rented by a group of people who until last December lived in a moveable tent encampment in Olympia, Washington.
Image Credit: Photo courtesy of Panza
A community building at Quixote Village houses a kitchen and dining space, plus a laundry and showers.
Image Credit: Photo courtesy of Panza
Quixote Village takes shape. The 144-square-foot houses have a sleeping/sitting area and a bathroom, but the community building is where residents go for cooking, showers, or laundry.
Image Credit: Garner Miller
Residents wanted a horseshoe layout. They thought this site plan would encourage community more effectively than grouping houses in small clusters, according to The New York Times writer who visited.
Image Credit: Garner Miller
Simple rain screen: Vertical siding on the houses at Quixote Village is installed over Cor-A-Vent. The gap between the siding and the housewrap allows any water that gets through the siding to drain down the back side.
Image Credit: Garner Miller

Architect Sarah Susanka made a big splash with her 1998 book The Not So Big House, arguing that Americans didn’t need sprawling drywall palaces with two-story foyers and rooms that people rarely used. She wanted designers and homeowners to go on an architectural diet.

Susanka might not have been thinking of micro-houses barely big enough for a bed and chair. But very small houses are gaining ground, and in one Washington State community they’ve become an innovative way of getting homeless people out of leaky tents and under a dry roof.

In an article published this week, New York Times writer Michael Tortorello describes a settlement called Quixote Village just outside Olympia, WA. Each of the 30 houses is 8 ft. by 18 ft., or 144 square feet.

The houses were designed by Garner Miller, an architect and LEED accredited professional with MSGS Architects. Last Christmas Eve, Tortorello wrote, these new rentals were turned over to what members of a “homeless community called Camp Quixote, a floating tent city that moved more than 20 times after its founding in 2007.”

The project, on land the county leases for $1 a year, includes a community building with a kitchen, dining area and showers. Total costs were $3.05 million, according to the Quixote Village website, which came from federal, state, county and local sources. Miller cut his fee in half, and other professionals working on the project also donated services.

Designs differ from typical tiny house

Miller said by email that the idea of higher-end tiny houses gathered steam partly through the work of Marianne Cusato, whose Katrina Cottages were designed to house victims of Hurricane Katrina. In fact, there are a number of companies that sell very small houses online, including Four Lights, Tumbleweed Tiny House Co., and Molecule Tiny Homes.

But the Quixote houses, Miller said, are different in concept.

“The typical tiny house contains everything needed by the resident, including the kitchen, and usually starts at 500 sq. ft. and up,” Miller wrote. “It is still an individual and isolated way of living. The Quixote Village concept creates 144-square-foot cottages that contain only a sitting/sleeping room, a bathroom and a closet. Everything else — the kitchen, laundry, showers, living room — is in the shared community building.

“Quixote Village is closer to communal living,” Miller added, “where 30 residents share meals and spend time together, which they believe is a healthier way to live. “

The Quixote houses are stick-framed with 2×4 walls on 16-inch centers sheathed with OSB. On the inside, 2x2s run horizontally 24 inches on-center and walls are covered with 1/2-inch plywood. The framing creates a 5-inch wall cavity, which is filled with batt insulation, Miller said, adding that the design reduces the amount of thermal bridging through the wall.

“By adding the 2x2s, the only place thermal transfer can occur is where the horizontal and vertical studs cross each other, rather than the entire length of a vertical stud in standard construction,” he said.

The roof is framed with rafters. The area above the collar ties becomes a small attic, which is filled with 12 inches of batt insulation. Miller said exterior walls include a continuous vapor barrier under the interior plywood, with air leaks around windows minimized with flashing tape and caulk.

The siding was installed over a rain screen. For horizontal lap siding, builders used painted 1 1/2 inch by 1/2 inch furring strips. For vertical siding, builders applied horizontal strips of Cor-A-Vent, Miller said.

Most of the money went into site improvements

A cursory look at the numbers makes the little houses look awfully expensive. According to the Quixote Village web site, the $3.05 million total included permit fees, road improvements and infrastructure. Each cottage cost $87,789, the website says, which translates to $610 a square foot.

Miller says the community building plus some site improvements cost $420,000, while the houses and the bulk of the extensive site improvements amounted to $2.63 million.

On their own, each house would cost $19,000, Miller said. That’s about $131 per square foot.


  1. cussnu2 | | #1

    Only in America
    would we celebrate spending $3.05 million on 30 144sq ft houses plus a kitchen and a bathhouse.

  2. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #2

    Response to B.W.
    I feel confident in stating that anywhere on the planet that people care about whether homeless people have to sleep in tents, or have the option of sleeping under a roof, there will be some people in every community who will celebrate this type of good news.

  3. cussnu2 | | #3

    You celebrate stuffing them in a closet
    for $100,000 apiece when they could have given them a REAL home with REAL square footage, REAL kitchens and REAL bathrooms with REAL showers of their own. Real homes that would have space for more than just one person to turn around in.

    Instead what we get is a government owned and sanctioned hippy comune straight out the 60's. More unicorns and puppies from liberals pushing an agenda that has nothing to do with housing the homeless and everything to do with trying to remake society into a fairytale land they think it should be. The irony is that liberals utopia backfires again just as the massive housing projects were huge mistakes. You want these people to be part of a community but all you succeed in is isolating them altogether in their own separate community instead of integrating them into the whole society. You force them to live in a way YOU think they should live with group meals and group showers forcing them to interact with each other instead of respecting their right to choose when where how and if they want to interact with others. Might as well open Cabrini Green back up and tell us how its going to be a model of the future.

  4. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #4

    Response to B.W.
    I don't think that there is any evidence the the residents of Quixote Village are being forced to live there.

  5. wjrobinson | | #5

    $694/sqft sweet
    Let's figure out the profit stolen by the do gooders.

    Let's figure $100/sqft is the actual profitable cost to build this.

    $432,000 to build the "stand alone motel rooms."

    Let's spend twice that to build the kitchen/pingpong hall.

    $2 million in profit for the do gooders.... I'm in... will start doing good nationwide starting today.

    Let's build 20 per year for the next decade.... $400 millionaire.... here we come.

    Added content; Check out what's called "Recreational Resort Cottages"

  6. wjrobinson | | #6

    $2 million seems high? LOL
    Housing 30 people has the added cost of $2 million??? All over the US there are millions of people living 30 to one apartment... so they can save most of their income to send home to buy land back in their country and to make a living that works for their family.

    30 in one $50,000 apartment/home... No one but themselves pushing themselves ahead.

    And we want these hard working people to leave our country so we can coddle are own.

    I agree that separation is bass ackwards. We could take the homeless and help them help themselves get back on their feet by putting them in with an immigrant group and see what working does for the soul. I have worked with this hardworking group, the best of the best, I am no fan of borders, never found nature to draw arbitrary lines like we humans. Go to border of your town or city and look down and up for this "line."

    The only way I see good coming from this $3 million is if the ones living there are the ones that spread out across the homeless world to build all the next half way enclaves and for their own profit, not where ever the $2 million got lost on this project.

  7. Brent_Eubanks | | #7

    But Why, don't you read the article?
    So first of all, single-family housing housing in Olympia costs a lot more than $100K per unit, so your comparison goes out the window right there.

    But as the article makes VERY CLEAR, the majority of the $3M budget was spent on site work. I don't know the original condition of the site (and neither do you) but it's quite likely this money was spent on remediation of the previous condition. That's often the case with these "$1 lease-to-develop" deals, if the city has land that it owns but can't afford to clean up.

    But instead you choose to ignore this detail in order to build up a false comparison to support your ideological position. Please stop trying to manipulate the story to fit your narrative.

  8. HarrisDwight | | #8

    Response to B.W.
    $19,000 per house - not $100k. The site costs accounting for the other $2.1 million does seem high though. It may have been cheaper to build a large low-rise building with individual small apartments in order to reduce site costs. Who knows, though.

    The photo caption says the RESIDENTS chose the horseshoe layout to encourage communal living. No one is being forced to live in a way they don't choose.

    Regardless of cost, I love tiny-houses, and the idea of a tiny communal village is really fun.

    Edit: I'm not I'm not arguing that $2 million was well spent or efficient. My sarcasm wasn't apparent. My civil engineer was looking over my shoulder and gave a laugh and said something like "I'm not seeing how that's possible, but I could use a project like that right about now."

  9. HarrisDwight | | #9

    Good call on the remediation. It was an industrial park, after all.

    There was one of those in Pittsfield, MA and they chose to build a solar plant on it. Much more cost effective use of chemically destroyed land, if you ask me.

  10. cussnu2 | | #10

    I'll give them credit
    they named it aptly after the patron saint of foolish errands.
    Just for the record, niether piece ever mentions site remediation. Quite to the contrary, the second piece quotes it as a currently operating inductrial park. Nice try in making up the boogeyman to blame. and guess what, when you buy your home in a subdivision, you don't just pay the cost of the home, you pay for the roads, sewers, water, electric. Quoting some mythical cost per home without including the total costs is a fallacy only liberals could embrace to aid their delusion.

    and just for added irony, the people who only two months ago were living in tents NOW WANT CABLE TV. Any bets they get it and the taxpayers pay for it?

  11. Brent_Eubanks | | #11

    But Why do you hate poor people?
    BW: You don't know the circumstances of the land or its original conditions, and neither do I. My response was speculation, as I noted. But your utter certainty - in the absence of facts - that this was a waste of money speaks volumes about your prejudices and preconceptions.

    And, again, the FULLY BURDENED per unit cost of this development is half of the going rate for affordable housing. So what's your problem?

    You sound like one of those people who believe that poverty is a clear sign of personal worthlessness - gods forbid that someone might help them and upset your vision of the social order. Or maybe you're just a troll. Either way, please take your ideological claptrap somewhere else. No one here is interested in it.

  12. stuccofirst | | #12

    It's just a very cute, and
    It's just a very cute, and very expensive form of public housing. A large portion of this Great country you may not be aware of.

  13. stuccofirst | | #13

    $610 per sq. ft. and they had
    $610 per sq. ft. and they had to use fiberglass? I hope they air sealed first.

  14. wjrobinson | | #14

    Subsidiized Squaler soon to be
    More interesting reading;

    Has building homes that are just given out... ever ever ever worked? Name one, just one success... I would love to read about and support such.

    I lived in Harrison NJ for a year back in the 90s... driving by typical huge housing for the "needy." Finally asked what the heck I was driving by and why they looked semi abandoned. Found out they were built real crappy, (read up on HUD specs.) and were not supposed to have people living there. And actually while I lived there that year they all were demoed in a day. What a huge waste. Do good-ing without thinking ahead to any unintended consequences. Never ever involving the people to be "housed." Oh and another factoid about that area.... many if not all but one of the bridges between Newark and Harrison NJ are up permanently up. Signs on the main highway right there warn of Draw Bridge Ahead. Coming home from work everyday I did faithfully sketch one of the bridges as not to break the law though sketching at 65mph is probably illegal as some form of distracted driving. Anyway I had to ask about all these interesting always up bridges and a local diner crew said they were raised to stop the 1967 riots from spreading north and that they were up for so long that they became unlowerable so were just left up since then. Interesting to me anyway. The Newark area at one time had a huge number of high rise crap HUD construction do good needy folks housing units. And I bet the majors campaigns did very well and that the contractors too walked away quite done well to.

    Martin, where did this blog come from and why was it not critiqued prior to publishing?

  15. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #15

    Response to A.J.
    Q. "Martin, where did this blog come from and why was it not critiqued prior to publishing?"

    A. This is an accurate report; it is a news story written by Scott Gibson. Apparently, many GBA readers have extensive experience working in the field of low-income housing, as well as extensive experience on programs working to house the homeless, as well as strong opinions about the maximum reasonable cost of such housing projects.

    GBA welcomes comments. But the opinions expressed about the advisability of various efforts to house the homeless do not invalidate Scott's reporting, nor do they convince me that such reporting is unwise.

  16. cussnu2 | | #16

    Brent Eubanks do YOU hate homeless people?
    I dare question putting homeless people in a room that is basically a storage shed with plywood walls and plywood floors at a cost of $100,000 each and I'm the one that hates homeless people. You celebrate sticking them in an industrial park in which they openly complain their is nothing to do and have them located within feet of what one resident calls mud pits (runoff retention ponds) that will be misquito farms all summer long and I'm the one that hates homeless people.

    For that same $100,000 you could have rented them a $750 apartement for the next 11 years with their own kitchen, bath living room and separate bedroom and as a bonus they likely would have had free cable and wifi in the deal and possibly a pool....and thats without a rent subsidized apartment. I checked and there are plenty of apartment options in Olympia Wa at the $750 range.

    BTW, both pieces note that the $100,000 per IS NOT the fully burdened cost of these units. "Miller cut his fee in half, and other professionals working on the project also donated services" The land cost alone leased at $1 per year is another falacy that would never happen in the free market. Only in government la la land is 2 acres of land worth a $1 per year. The best that can be said is that the already exhorbitant $100,000 per storage shed is understated.

    All puppies and unicorns in your kumbaya world.

  17. heidner | | #17

    Why of course!
    As the title said - these were small homes for prior residents of a tent city.

    Perhaps those that can't understand the value need to volunteer or help out at a tent city.

    Very few cities, businesses or neighborhoods want permanent tent cities next to them. They fight them constantly. So the tent cities move frequently - often every 60 - 90 days. Location for tent cities is quite difficult to find... these are not bums that spend their days in the tents... getting drunk, planning the next street corner to beg on. Instead most occupants in the tent cities in the western Washingon have formed communities that try to self police and kick bad guys out. Often the occupants or individuals that may have lost home, but still have jobs, some are ex-military that are out looking for long term permanent jobs.

    The locations of the tent cities; when they move are chosen to have good access to public transportation -- a necessity because many of the occupants have jobs. They are often trying to get back on their feet. Low income housing can be tough to get into -- often has long wait times -- and as alluded to in the story, some of the low income housing lacks the ability to form a sense of community.

    The village described in the story - tries to build that sense of community. That connection is important for many of the tent city occupants - they have become each others family. The community connection lets them help look out for each other if there are heath problems etc. It also means the community can help the residents work together and support each other -- if some members had substance abuse problems.

    Remember with the wet and cold climate in western Washington you don't just setup a tent on the ground... nope - you scrounge up wood pallets, lots of tarps, old rugs, -- you elevate those tents. That of course keeps them dryer, but the air flow underneath can keep them colder. Then there are all the porta potties that come with a tent city.. someone pays to dump and keep them clean.

    If you break up tent cities - the occupants do find other places to sleep... you can look under most freeway overpasses in any city of the nation and find impromptu homeless shelters.

    So when you ask "but why"... the answer should be "of course!"

    The small homes, the community, the structure add a sense of hope to the individuals. It provides another method to meet the needs of the nations homeless... for individuals that even a $100,000 mortgage would be impossible. But the mini-homes aren't $100,000 they cost about $20,000 each.. and I doubt that any of the occupants are expected to buy them. These would be very low cost housing. The model for such housing has been used for business travelers and college students in Japan. The Japanese has made them even smaller -- businessman suites.

    These homes are not depression era shanties! Drop the crazy bias. Washington State has some pretty stringent building and seismic codes. Look again at the pictures. They have plenty of windows, exterior with rain screens built into them. They include small bath (sink & toilet)... and are be heated. These are not un-insulated structures. And I doubt that they only had plywood on the floors. Unlike the tents - they do include closets, showers in the common area are warm...

    Tent city occupants - don't intend to or plan in living the small community life forever. For most the tent city or small home (in this case) is a temporary necessity. When they get their life back together and have permanent jobs - they move on to other housing - often buying homes.

    Perhaps if some of the "builders" around the country (upstate NY for example) would just start hiring more people, hiring more veterans, more women... there might be fewer tent cities.

    Critics need to visit a local tent city -- and volunteer. Perhaps AJ is right and he could spend many years building small replacement tent cities -- at cost....

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