Written by Emily Ballard | Photos by Anthony Harden
In an era where for many, bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better, Wishbone Tiny Homes is promoting a vision whose time has clearly come.
Many family businesses have been passed down from one generation to the next, with a history of successful business decisions at the core and a concrete plan for succession in the future. This has not been the case for Wishbone Tiny Homes.
Gerry Brown has enjoyed a long and thriving career in building and construction for over 40 years. Just as he was beginning to slow down and ponder the idea of retirement, his son, Teal Brown, came to him with an idea that Gerry can only describe as “irresistible.” In two short years, this father and son duo have created the Wishbone Tiny Homes business and generated an overwhelming amount of interest and support in a burgeoning industry steeped in values they hold close to their hearts.
Building a Business
On the company website there is a picture dated 1981 in which Gerry and a young Teal are tinkering with wood. Beside it is a recreation of that picture 30 years later, and although the side by side photos show the playful humor that these two possess, it is also a clear indication of the strong relationship that they have developed over their lifetime of working and learning together. As Teal recounts the story of how he came up with this business idea, there is an obvious admiration for the man sitting across the desk from him, the same man who sparked his interest in building at an early age, but also supported and urged him to find his own path along the way. “My parents really encouraged me to explore what I wanted to do,” Teal explains. “They were awesome supportive parents that way.”
Although Teal had shown great promise and interest in woodworking, he felt a strong drive to be independent and discover his own direction in life. His passion was music and, after graduating with a percussion and drumming degree, he attacked his dream with full force. For six years he travelled the world with his band, Asheville’s acclaimed Toubab Krewe, and made a life for himself, fulfilling his adventurous ambitions. Along the way he got married and his priorities began to change. The prospect of starting a family seemed impractical with a touring schedule.
After years on the road, Teal decided to pursue a job opportunity in Charlotte, and his focus began to shift back to the building industry. He quickly moved into a management position with a company that trained builders on the standards of certified green building. Teal found himself enthralled with the idea of sustainability, renewability, and efficiency—and solar energy in particular. He took this time to educate himself in these areas, and the entrepreneur inside him began to develop some interesting ideas of how to incorporate these into a business. He didn’t want to work for a corporation, and he says that in the back of his mind he knew he wanted to work for his father.
After doing some research, Teal found that there was a serious interest in tiny home construction, and he felt that Asheville was the perfect location to test this theory. Gerry was operating a workshop on Biltmore Avenue, building custom carved high end entrance doors when Teal presented the idea to him. “We both pivoted from what we were doing and decided to build a model out of my shop and that became our prototype,” Gerry remembers.
“I thought at a minimum it couldn’t hurt just to build a tiny house with my Dad,” Teal adds. “There was no big agenda other than just build a great tiny home and see where it takes us.” This first project was an experiment, but the interest that it attracted was undeniable. They knew they had tapped into something unique.
People were taking note of this interesting construction and they were asking questions. “A tiny home is like a big billboard, and they attract the most interesting people who want to come see and talk about it,” says Teal. They decided that they wanted to try and take the business to the next level. Gerry went to the city to apply for a business license which they were happy to grant, but due to the industrial nature of the business the men weren’t given permission to operate downtown.
Teal’s wife happened to see a listing on Craigslist for a space in West Asheville, formerly the home to Steebo Sculptures on Haywood Road. As luck would have it, the location is also directly across from Builders FirstSource, a provider of building materials. They jumped at the opportunity to buy the building and start the Wishbone Tiny Home business.
Tiny home construction is much more than an economical home building option. It is a worldwide movement that has generated a significant amount of media attention and the curiosity and interest continues to grow. Behind this increasingly popular minimalist idea is a whole community of followers that support environmental sustainability, financial freedom, and an overall decluttering of space and lifestyle.
And as their business began to grow, Teal and Gerry took to social media to generate attention, sharing their building experience and posting pictures to relay their progression. Industry bloggers picked up the story and soon the inquiries were pouring in from prospective clients across the country—as far away as Alaska, California, and Oregon—and around the world. Teal and Gerry say they were blown away by the attention they were receiving, explaining that sound construction of a tiny home is certainly the first step, but having eye-catching pictures taken of the process and the final product is what has propelled their business forward. “That’s kind of every business owner’s dream, but it’s also one of those good and bad things,” Teal adds. “Now we had to figure out how to ramp up, scale up, and accommodate without disappointing.”
Now the time had come to really evaluate the feasibility of not only building the homes, but also transporting them to far away locations. The reality quickly sank in that hauling a tiny home to Alaska was not cost effective to either Wishbone or the customer. Gerry and Teal began to explore their capabilities and ride the wave of a fairly steep learning curve.
Wishbone’s approach to the business is based on a concrete knowledge of building practices, but perhaps most importantly, a sincere passion for not just the product they are selling but the idea as well. They admit there is no business plan to speak of, but that their success stems from meticulous planning and a collaboration with the community both industry-wide and locally. “As a company we believe in partnering with nonprofits, and creating an overall positive thing for the community is our business model,” Teal says. “It is definitely from the heart, and there is a lot of trust in that.”
Bigger Doesn’t Have to Be Better
The concept of tiny living is not a new one. Japanese culture has been utilizing this model for decades, and Gerry has not only been interested in, but also has firsthand knowledge of living this way. He explains that this business has brought his life full circle in a sense. As the country was in a state of political and social unrest in the ‘60s and ‘70s, a movement emerged that advocated a return to the land and a simplification of life that Gerry really connected to.
With the tiny house movement continuing to grow in popularity, Gerry finds that the same ideals that attracted him to it decades ago still hold true today. “I realize that there was a lot about that era that was misguided, but there was a lot that wasn’t,” he remembers. “A lot of those values about efficiency, right use of resources, and consideration of the land are the things that really appealed to me when Teal brought up this idea.”
Over the years there has been exponential development across the country and houses have grown in square footage. Now there is a trend to minimalize and efficiently scale down this space. Millennials and baby boomers are both strong proponents of this philosophy.
Teal refers to this as the “Apple Effect.” This theory suggests that as Apple iPhones have become a staple in our lives there has been a shift to digitalizing, hence putting more into less space. He describes it as a way of organizing your life and possessions in a way that streamlines and eliminates clutter, and he feels that this closely parallels with building tiny homes. “People want to get their lives put away to a tiny little space. I think it is the whole subconscious part of this movement. Something about tiny houses attracts a very unique segment. People have figured out in their life that experience is more important than possession, yet they still value aesthetics and their space.”
As the population begins to contemplate this move from material abundance to a simplified living experience that enables a freedom to live unburdened of debt with less impact on the environment, it is easy to be swept up in the idealistic values. Therefore, when customers come to Wishbone with high hopes of converting to a tiny home there are often some harsh realities that Gerry and Teal present to them.
Challenges of Small Living
Wishbone builds two types of tiny homes, some on wheels and some on foundations. The square footage varies upon the design and can range from 150 sq. ft. to 1,000. The majority of their work is building on platforms that are mobile and can be transported. Although the houses can be moved from one location to the next, they are not meant to be travel homes that are hauled behind vehicles on cross country trips. They are typically driven to a designated location and remain sedentary unless the owner finds a new location to move it to.
This is where tiny home construction moves into a grey area. If you build one on foundation, it has to be built to all new home construction codes and regulations, but if you are building one on wheels, which is the appeal to most, there are some tricky obstacles to overcome. The number one problem that prospective owners face is where to put their tiny home. Since they are on wheels, they are not subject to standard zoning and are considered recreational vehicles (RVs).
It is not actually legal to live in an RV unless it is parked in a designated zoning area such as an RV park. Unless you are able to get around municipal codes most people do not have the appropriate space to legally own and live in a tiny home. If a viable space is found to park the tiny home, the second piece of the puzzle is financing. Conventional home loans are not an option because it is a custom home on wheels, yet RV loans don’t work either because it is new construction. Therefore, individuals must procure their own funding for the project. Additionally, because this type of building is so new, there hasn’t been a clear resale value estimation, hence the hesitation by financial institutions.
Teal and Gerry are actively involved in perpetuating this conversation with zoning boards and city councils, urging them to consider feasible options, and they have seen great advancements in their short time in the industry. They are involved with groups such as the Asheville Small Home Advocacy Committee (SHAC), a group of individuals seeking practical solutions to these issues.
Despite these looming drawbacks people are still moving forward, but with any big purchase there can also be buyer’s remorse. Wishbone has certainly seen this firsthand. “There is a romantic attraction to it. People go into it with an idea that it’s really cool, but the reality of living in it is different than the anticipation of it,” Gerry says.
The Road Ahead
Tiny living is certainly not for everyone. There are endless aspects to consider. The team at Wishbone get to know the intimate details of their client’s lives so that they can build a custom house that will fit their needs. The planning process is extensive, and unorthodox building challenges present themselves, such as how to build in space for a cat litter box, or room enough for the owner to do daily yoga.
With tiny houses every inch of space must be considered to maximize efficiency and comfort. For Teal and Gerry, the design process may be a challenge, but it’s also their favorite part. “It is really cool that we get to dig into the microscopic level of what are the bare essentials that you need,” Teal emphasizes.
As they approach the completion of their tenth tiny home construction project they are able to examine what the future holds. They recognize that the media attention may begin to wane, but they only foresee growth in the industry. Nowadays, affordable housing options are in high demand and a shift in social consciousness paired with evolving personal lifestyles are the driving forces behind the Wishbone Tiny Homes business. For many, relocating to a tiny house is an unrealistic lifestyle change. For others, though, it is a legitimate consideration. If nothing else, Wishbone Tiny Homes offers a unique perspective on everyday living that is worth looking into.
“At first blush the idea of living in such a small space seems ridiculous, but I think that is the fascination of it,” Gerry concludes. “But what is really ridiculous is living in a house that you are a slave to the mortgage and that is robbing you of your spare time.”
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