WHITE BEAR TOWNSHIP — They’re on wheels and not much larger than a camper.
But with a lofted bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and even a front porch, Jim Wilkins’ rolling residences have all the elements of a traditional home — all cozied into less than 350 square feet.
After decades working in the construction industry, the White Bear Township entrepreneur now designs and custom builds miniature environmentally-friendly homes in his backyard workshop. He aptly calls his business Tiny Green Cabins.
Wilkins’ cabins provide a unique but expensive option for eco-minded cross-country travelers, city-dwellers seeking a cabin get-away, young adults looking for a portable first home and retirees wanting to downsize.
While miniature homes are gaining popularity, especially on the coasts, Wilkins says he is the only such home builder in Minnesota. He’s one of only a handful of independent designer/builders who will “take the time to listen” and custom-build each home to best fit its future owner, he said. He says he’s also the only such builder in the country offering what he calls “nontoxic homes.”
All his homes are made mostly with local natural and recycled materials. The nontoxic homes avoid any chemicals or allergen-causing natural materials.
Wilkins has designed 11 models and is working on several more. The smallest is just 19 feet long and 8 feet wide with a petite kitchen, bathroom, living room and closet on the main floor, plus a lofted sleeping area and a covered porch. At 333 square feet, the largest model adds a main-floor bedroom, room for multiple sleepers in the loft, and a fold-out deck. Prices have ranged from $26,000 to $80,000.
The tiny cabins all have electricity and water hookups. Toilets can be connected to a sewer system, or an incinerator or composting system can be installed.
The interiors have all-wood paneling and floors and feature creative storage spaces such as stairs that double as drawers.
The cabins are well-insulated, according to Wilkins (some use insulation made from recycled blue jeans) and several heating and cooling options are available.
One of his cabin buyers uses it as an arts studio adjacent to his Denver home. All his other buyers use them as their primary residence, including a North Dakota teacher who had had difficulty finding housing due to the oil boom, and most recently a graduate student in Boston who is now living in one in a relative’s yard. A Wisconsin furniture maker with extreme environmental allergies resides in a custom cabin that includes a decontamination chamber between the entrance and living quarters.
Wilkins cautioned that his cabins wouldn’t meet minimum size requirements for permanent primary residences in most communities; most users have licensed them as RVs or accessory buildings.
All the cabins can be pulled behind a pickup and are within road load limit maximums.
Wilkins lived in his smallest model cabin for nearly a year. The divorcee gave his main house to one of his sons and his family. Instead of moving into the guest house where he lives now, the elder Wilkins lived in a cabin on his township property until he sold the cabin.
“Someone issued me a challenge that if you’re going to sell small houses you should live in one,” he said. “And it was a great learning experience because it gave me an idea of where to change things.”
Wilkins started his business in 2008 after being laid off from his job as a construction estimator. The early months in the business were the most challenging, because he was “dumping money into it before getting anything out of it,” he said. He was also set back by a broken ankle, but used the recovery time to develop a voluminous website. All of his customers have found him via the Web, he said.
He was blessed, he said, to have steady work for the past few years. During the busiest of times, two of his sons helped with cabin construction.
He currently has no orders, but he’s starting work on his most popular cabin, and based on the number of inquiries he’s received, he said he’s “pretty confident” he’ll find a buyer.
Wilkins also sells plans and holds workshops for people planning to build their own small home. He noted do-it-your-selfers need to be well-educated because many building materials, even natural ones, give off emissions that can be harmful in confined spaces.