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The Byrne family lives in a 144-square-foot cabin. They cook using propane in a nearby cabin of equal size. Since their cabins don't have electricity and running water, they use an outhouse.

Tiny House movement is an alternative to the McMansion era 

At the Melleray Farmstead near Bear Creek in rural Chatham County, pine trees surround a field of garden beds, Icelandic sheep, chickens and ducks. On these 32 acres, the Byrne family lives in a 144-square-foot main cabin. They cook using propane in a nearby cabin of equal size. Since their cabins don't have electricity and running water, they use an outhouse.

Don and his father, a former professor, built this collection of tiny homes as an expression of their appreciation for the quiet, contemplative life. "We saw ourselves as building monastic cells," Don says. "Every monk has a place to live. Then there would be a common place where they would come together to pray or share a meal, and when we started we did all those things.

"The other side of it was that we wanted to live a lifestyle that made us learn new skills, learn about animals, things like that that we had never done before." Although tiny houses still make up less than 1 percent of the U.S. housing market, they are becoming more popular in the United States. All under 1,000 square feet, tiny houses can range from very rugged cabins to luxurious tiny palaces. And they're affordable. Even the most extravagant tiny home can be purchased for less than $100,000.

Their origin is often attributed to Sarah Susanska's 1998 book The Not So Big House. In it, she argues that new houses typical of the McMansion era—upward of 2,300-­square-feet—were too big and a waste of resources.

Nicole Byrne says she was intrigued by the outdoor regimen of living on a farm off the grid. "I was also attracted to the structure of it all, with me having a previous background in the military I liked that structure, where you have a set time to do anything."

Don and his father started looking for land for their farmstead in 2007, focusing on the area around Durham. "Orange was a little too expensive. Person County and some of the other counties to the north would have been good price-wise, but what we found in Chatham County was a real confluence of people who were likeminded," Don says. "There's just a whole bunch of people who are really into alternative ways to do country."

The Tiny House movement is part of the sustainable technologies curriculum at Central Carolina Community College in Pittsboro, which offers two-year associate degrees in the discipline.

"We do believe that part of sustainability is having a smaller carbon footprint and that means for us using fewer materials, using locally sourced materials and being extremely energy efficient in what we build," says Laura Lauffer, the coordinator of the sustainable technologies program. "The Tiny House movement fits all of that criteria."

The curriculum includes two classes in which students collaborate to build a tiny house. This year they will enter their final product in the competition. The Abundance Foundation in Pittsboro and Habitat for Humanity are sponsoring a tiny house contest in which novice builders will compete for best design. Each house must be less than 500 square feet, energy efficient and aesthetically pleasing.

Nicole has a smartphone; Don has an old-fashioned flip-phone. They go to the Chatham County Library to use the Internet. Without electricity, at night they use candlelight and headlamps to see.

"The thing I really like about it is that you get this sense that the things you are doing really count for keeping you alive ... the farming, the water pumping, the chopping wood," Don says. "You're not pushing that responsibility on some utility company somewhere. You're bringing it all back on yourself, and I really appreciate that."

At times, the adjustment to the tiny lifestyle has been difficult. "At first I did have the notion of 'Yeah, this is really weird,' but when he actually told me about the ideas of the property and the ideas behind living off the grid, that's what drew me to it," Nicole says.

That and memories of her grandmother's farm in South Carolina growing up. "I had to think when I was the most happiest and the most carefree, and it was living with my grandmother in the summers. I could just go out and pick some peas, or muscadines, or honeysuckle, and it was really nice."

Don stays busy with the farm and with his new business, Piedmont Pine Coffins, handmade coffins for people who are planning green burials. Don has built several coffins for people who do not want their last act to add to the carbon footprint.

The farm, the house and coffin business have realigned priorities for Don and his family.

"If you ask how it's changed me, it's been a process of putting me more in touch with the cycles of life and death and back to a basic level where birth and death are right in your face, with the animals, the cycles of the plants."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Let's get small"

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