Opelika resident builds 190 square foot home

By Alison James
Associate Editor

“The American dream” has been the subject of countless books, essays, poems and songs. It can be hard to quantify and varies in meaning from slices of apple pie and games of baseball to white picket fences and the self-made man. But for one portion of the population, including Opelikan Emily Key, the American dream is taking a slightly different shape, and one tenant is absolute: less is more.
That is why Key built a 190-square-feet home on wheels.
The home is a part of a global growing fascination with “tiny houses” or small houses, loosely defined by being less than 1,000 square feet.
“People are realizing you can be happier in a smaller space,” Key said. “Many people look at the tiny houses and think there’s no way they could ever live in them, but if you really sit down and think about where you spend most of your time in your own house – maybe standing right in front of the stove, using the restroom or laying down in your bed, maybe even sitting on a couch – the size of the house, that just determines how far you’re walking to get from one of those to the other.”
Key, 23, said she happened upon the “tiny house movement” when she was 15.
“You see the pictures of them and you think, ‘Oh that’s cool. I want to do that one day,’” Key said. “Last year I just realized, ‘I just want to go ahead and do this.’”
Key is a south-Georgia native who moved to the area to attend Auburn University and purchased a house in Opelika following graduation. By many people’s standards – even by the standards of the tiny house movement – Key was already living tiny, in 760 square feet she renovated herself in Opelika.
“I thought it was going to be my dream home. I put all of my personal touches on the house,” Key said. She soon realized she needed to downsize. “It was still just too big. It didn’t feel like home.”
Financial freedom, Key said, was the main factor that drove her decision to build a tiny house. She estimates she spent about $10,000 on her tiny home. She has no mortgage and, because she made the decision to go off-grid, she has no water or electric bills.
Key built her home in her parents’ front yard, using plans purchased from Tumbleweed Tiny House Company. She incorporated about 40 percent recycled materials, like cabinets she salvaged from a remodeled home and discarded lumber she found on the side of the road.
“I can tell you where every single stud is and every little mistake,” Key said. “I know everything about that house.”
With nine months and a little help from a neighbor and her father, Key’s home was complete – or very nearly.
Inside Key’s home are the basics, done a little differently: she has a two burner propane stove; a shower basin made out of half a wine barrel; a European futon that can pull triple duty as a couch, lounge chair or extra bed; a narrow wooden gateleg table; and a composting toilet – and that’s just on the first floor.
Custom-built stagger step stairs lead up to Key’s sleeping loft, featuring a queen sized memory foam mattress topper Key says sleeps comfortably on the pine floor. The loft is also where Key stores her two water tanks – one for the toilet, one for the shower; upstairs storage allows gravity to do the work.
A battery with an inverter and breaker box provides power to the tiny house.
“The truck that will be hooked up to the house when I’m moving it will charge the battery, and then in the future when I have more money, I will buy solar panels, and the solar panels will be what charges the battery,” Key said.
The goal is to keep the house in motion often; Key said she hopes to use the home to travel the nation, although Opelika will always be home. With that in mind, some have asked why she couldn’t just buy an RV.
“If you think of something everyone else would do, I’m probably going to do the opposite,” Key said. “The idea of buying an RV and pulling it around – I couldn’t see that as home for me. This is meant to be my home.”
Key has a Ford F250 to pull the 7,000 pound tiny house on wheels – she estimates she’ll get about eight miles to the gallon. Once she saves up the funds – rental properties provide the majority of her income – and works out getting the tiny house insured, she’ll be ready to hit the open road.
Key said although her version of tiny living might be extreme – not having a water heater, showering in a wine barrel and using a composting toilet – she believes tiny living is a good option for anyone.
“People assume living tiny means you’re giving up certain things … but you can live tiny but have every amenity,” Key said. “The population’s growing, and the country’s not … (I think it’s a good idea to) start limiting the sizes of houses in America.”