How to Build a Tiny House (and Teach Your Kids a Life Lesson at the Same Time) with The Slade Family

New year, new you — new hobbies. In the 2016 edition of Project PHX, our annual how-to guide, we're here to help with DIY projects that range from doable to dreamy. Learn how to build a tiny house and make your own chocolate. Become an embroidery artist, publish your first novel, and maybe dye your hair gray (or not).

Let's say it's Christmastime and you're looking for a new hook for the annual holiday video you create for family and friends every year. You want something clever and warmhearted, but you'd also like to teach your four children a morals lesson, to boot.

That was the challenge that faced Whitney and Micah Slade early last year. Their previous holiday video greetings had found the family swimming in a Yuletide pool one year, and literally climbing the walls of a 1950s living room the next. This year, they were hoping to impress on their children that some people don't have as much — or need as much — as the Slades do.

Inspired by the song "There's No Place Like Home for the Holidays," the Slades decided to build a tiny house and give it away to someone in need. Their frankly arty video, featuring cameos from a live lobster, a dead trout, and the family's pet snake, depicts the Slades building the house while Micah lip-syncs to Perry Como's version of that popular Christmas tune.

"It took us about three months and a couple thousand dollars to complete the little house," says Slade patriarch Micah, who owns a Chandler-based concrete company specializing in residential foundations — an irony not lost on Micah or his wife.

The video asked for short essays about why applicants needed a super-efficient place to live, and requesting a $20 donation to Charity: Water, a nonprofit organization that provides clean drinking water to people in need. "We got about 75 entries," Micah reports. "Family members helped narrow the list down to a Top 10, and we made the final selection."

They weren't necessarily proponents of the living-small movement, a response to Recession-era debt that's been gaining ground in recent years. But the more the Slades worked on the tiny house, the more they came to appreciate the concept of living simply. "After a while, it started to change the way we looked at everything," Micah says. "Like what was important to us, and how easy it is to help someone, and how little people really need to be happy."

"Little" is a key word, here. The completed house measures 160 square feet, with a 100-square-foot loft space; a wee, fully functioning bathroom and kitchen; even a hookup for a tiny washer/dryer combo.

Although it was teeny, building the house turned out to be more work than the Slades counted on, Micah recalls. "After the first couple days we were like, 'Holy cow, what have we gotten into here?' There's a lot that goes into these little houses."

Rather than start with one of the many tiny-house kits available online, Micah selected several different plans, combining them and modifying them to get a design he liked. He framed out the house, then the Slades went to work — with some professional assistance.

"I had a couple friends in the industry, an electrician and a plumber, look things over," Micah says. "I didn't want the house to flood or burn to the ground when you flushed the toilet or turned on the lights." A pair of general contractors also kept an eye on the project as it moved along.

The Slade kids had a leg up on construction work. "They come to work with me all the time," Micah says. "They know about hammering, shoveling, cleaning up a job site after you're done. With this job, I could say to them, 'The floor of the trailer needs to be insulated and a base built,' and then I just handed them screws and said, 'Okay, it's all yours!' They worked for hours, nailing walls and tightening bolts. They were there every step of the way."

Each of those steps, Micah says, contained a lesson bigger than How to Drive a Nail. "We really want our kids not to feel entitled," he confides. "We like to get our kids stuff for Christmas, but I don't want them to feel like it's expected. As a kid, I always expected stuff. If I didn't get what I wanted, I was disappointed. I want my kids to see things in a more realistic way."

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Some of his tiny-house lessons were about more than carpentry, Micah says. One day, during an especially wet rainstorm, he and his kids walked from their back door to the little house they were building. "We'd finished putting the roof on," he recalls, "and we ran inside the little house, and it was dry in there. It sounds simple, but they got the message. Hey, you have food to eat. You're lucky! Be happy!"

Do the Slades plan to do this home-giveaway every year? "If you had asked my wife that while we were building the house, she probably would have hit you," Micah says with a laugh. "We worked on that house every single day until the sun went down, and all weekend every weekend. The kids were starting to ask, 'Dad, when are we gonna have fun?'"

The Slade family of Gilbert
The Slade family of Gilbert
Tom Carlson

But those hours of work, the memory of all those hammered thumbs and cramped muscles melted away when the Slades delivered the little house to its new owner, a single mom in Pensacola, Florida named Lindsey. She and her young daughter had been living in the maintenance room of the local RV park where she worked, yet her story rang with a kind of optimism that impressed the Slades. It didn't hurt that Lindsey was an advocate of small living who had recently started a small house of her own.

"She'd bought a tiny house shell that she was about to start work on," Micah says, "and it got damaged during a flood. It was ruined. She'd put all of her savings into that, and now she was broke."

So, the Slade family hitched the little house to the back of their truck and headed for Florida. They survived a couple of flat tires and a rainstorm that nearly blew them off the road, arriving in Pensacola where they surprised Lindsay with her big win at the end of December. She was, Micah reports, speechless.

The fallout from the holiday tiny-house project surprised Micah. "We spent a big chunk of last year building the house," he says, "and we didn't end up doing a lot of Christmas shopping. So my kids only got a few things, and I was worried they would be unhappy. But it turns out they really saw the bigger picture here. One of them said to me, after we got back from Florida, 'Why do we own so much stuff?'"

Building little houses, it turns out, is addicting. "A month ago, I'd have said no to ever doing this again," Micah says. "Now I'm thinking I might be hooked. I'm looking at other designs, like, 'Wow, that one is cool!' Plus, our kids thought it felt great to do something for someone else. I'm thinking about maybe doing another one. But next time, I'm going to get a lot more help."

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