The little house that makes a big impression

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TinySol, Claude von Roesgen’s small solar houseboat, has plied the waters of Lake Winnipesaukee all summer. The house part

of the boat was a featured attraction at this year’s Old Home Day. (Photo by Carla Schwartz)

by Karina Coombs

Labor Day is upon us and with it the unofficial end of summer. Claude von Roesgen, who has been living on Lake Winnipesaukee since early July, is about to lock up his vacation house, pull it out of the water, swap out its pontoon base for a trailer and tow it back to Carlisle.

TinySol

Built by Bob Wallhagen of Wallhagen Construction Company, von Roesgen’s tiny solar house, christened “TinySol,” made its first appearance during Old Home Day and continues to receive a lot of attention for its size, energy efficiency and especially its versatility. At 128 square feet, the house has a kitchen, sleeping quarters, work and living space and storage. A roof made of solar panels provides ample electricity to power everything in the house.

Von Roesgen’s goal of transforming the tiny dwelling into a houseboat was met in July when the house was lifted from its trailer and lowered atop a pontoon boat also built by the pair this past spring. “That was the real [engineering] test, picking it up,” explained Wallhagen. “We hadn’t done that before.” The boat gives the house an extra ten feet of outdoor living space with the addition of a deck. The electric outboard motor is also powered from the solar panels.

“[The house] is as or more comfortable than I thought it would be,” said von Roesgen, admitting he had initially worried about its lack of space. “The kitchen works well and I’ve [been cooking].” He added that he has been reading more this summer than usual, meeting a lot of new people, and enjoying “going swimming when I want to.” As a self-employed software consultant, von Roesgen has also been working on the houseboat. “I use a cellular network to work [with my laptop] and have a card table where I sit at the window,” he said.

While it can only travel between three and five miles per hour, von Roesgen is “very pleased” with how well the motor functions. “You have to have patience traveling at three miles per hour,” he said, “[but] I can travel for miles on a sunny day without using the battery.” Initially concerned by his lack of boating experience, von Roesgen has learned to look ahead at weather forecasts given the vulnerability of houseboats to wind.

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From the top bunk, you can see built-in benches and a table, as well as the kitchen area. (Photo by Claude von Roesgen)

The small house movement

After years of renting cottages on Lake Winnipesaukee, von Roesgen knew he wanted a place of his own. Already a homeowner, he was hesitant to build or purchase a traditional vacation home given their expense and time commitment. He was also intrigued by the idea of having a small and portable vacation home, ultimately determining he preferred traditional building materials to those used in mobile homes. “I was very familiar with the small house movement,” he said, explaining why he ultimately chose to build his house.

Taking the adage, “less is more” to heart, the small or tiny house movement is both a social and architectural movement that emphasizes simple living in smaller spaces. Houses are generally no more than 500 square feet, with many well below that, and are used for primary residences, vacation homes and as extensions to existing houses, among other uses.

While it can be traced back to the mid to late 1990s, the movement gained mainstream attention and popularity after the 2008 economic collapse and subsequent housing crisis. The idea of downsizing both in terms of housing and possessions resonated with an audience that needed to do both and not always by choice. In the years since, numerous blogs, magazines, design books and tiny home construction and design companies have appeared.

One of the most popular and visible proponents of the movement is Jay Shafer, a self-described “Claustrophile” who has written a number of books on the subject of living small and also has a design business, Four Lights Tiny House Company. It was his book, The Small House Book, which von Roesgen brought to Wallhagen, also a neighbor and a mechanical engineer. “I gave him [Shafer’s book] and asked him to build something between a trailer and the solar panels,” said von Roesgen.

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Claude von Roesgen captains his houseboat with ease. (Photo by Carla Schwartz)

A tiny house takes shape

Wallhagen had plenty of experience with construction and was not concerned about building a small house, but there were also other, unique constraints. The building needed to be strong enough to be picked up and light enough to float since it would be moved between a trailer and pontoon base. “[Bob] had a lot of fun with this I think,” said von Roesgen of the project’s complexity. “It was an engineering challenge.”

Because they fall well below minimum building size requirements, tiny homes are often unable to secure building permits. To get around this restriction, many homes are instead built upon utility trailers giving them the added benefit of being portable. The home is not intended to come off the trailer.

“My first reaction was, ‘say what?’” said an amused Wallhagen when von Roesgen explained the project. “A mini house? Okay, but also light and strong? It was a totally unique project.” Working together, Wallhagen and von Roesgen designed the house using Shafer’s book as inspiration. Von Roesgen wanted it to have a traditional New England look and feel, both inside and out, and the two settled on materials that would allow them to obtain the look, but also keep the weight of the structure low. “As an engineer, Claude [von Roesgen] understood and appreciated the tradeoffs,” said Wallhagen.

The added challenges of the project increased both cost and construction time with Wallhagen making modifications as he went, at one point cutting down the size of the walls to ensure the building would easily pass under interstate bridges. Wallhagen also reinforced strategic places throughout the structure for added strength, with the building coming in at 5,000 pounds. Lifting eyes affixed to the top of the house allow it to be moved by a large forklift. “I had to put in a structural ridge beam which is overkill for a house this size, but it needed to be picked up,” he explained.

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Besides providing space for the kayak, the deck sports a mini garden of tomato plants. (Photo by Carla Schwartz)

The benefits of solar

It made sense that the tiny house would also be solar. Von Roesgen has been interested in solar energy since the oil crisis of the early 1970s, but explained the cost of using solar energy was just not practical at the time. When solar energy finally “crossed the threshold for cost and effectiveness,” he was ready. His current Carlisle home has a powerful array of solar panels allowing him to not only power his 2,800 square foot house, but also charge his Nissan LEAF and still receive solar credits from the electric company.

Here von Roesgen again took a different tack from traditional small house designs. Instead of having a portable and detached system of solar panels, he decided to make a roof consisting entirely of panels, 12 in all. “The panels are designed to last for 20 years and to survive snow and hail,” he said, explaining that their durability matched those of traditional roofing materials.”

“Bob installed and mounted the solar panels and designed the roof truss and gutter system to keep water out,” he explained. Von Roesgen, an electrical engineer, put a lot of attention into the home’s power management system and enjoyed wiring it himself. Once the system was up and running, he proudly explained, Wallhagen was able to run his power tools from the electricity generated by the solar panels as he finished building the home.

The system is capable of producing 2.4 kilowatts of electricity, powering the outboard motor, refrigerator and freezer, microwave, toaster oven, portable induction burner, interior lights, an exhaust fan and various portable electronics. A 125-pound lithium-ion battery holds a charge for up to five days and is stored in an interior closet.

“Seeing it inspires people to think,” said von Roesgen explaining the attention the houseboat has received since arriving on the lake, particularly for its solar power. “They are impressed that it is off the grid and independently functions [and] I think their opinion of solar changes.”

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At sunrise, the houseboat sits docked on the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee. (Photo by Carla Schwartz)

Anchor’s away!

One thing that has not changed completely this summer is von Roesgen’s status as a vacation property renter. Because the state of New Hampshire does not allow boats to anchor overnight on its lakes, he still needed to rent a dock or find land at which to anchor overnight. He is alternating between a weekly rental on Bear Island and at a 100-plus-year-old camp on Three Mile Island (TMI) where he is registered as a camper. While docking a boat at TMI is free for registered campers, “They were surprised by my boat,” said von Roesgen.

The docking arrangements do help in one important area however. While some tiny homes have bathrooms with composting toilets and showers, von Roesgen’s home is without such facilities. He is able to use the facilities on both islands, but in the future plans on installing a composting toilet of his own.

Turning heads

Von Roesgen anticipated a host of problems when he first launched the houseboat, from the floor falling out to something breaking as it was lifted off the trailer. Neither of these happened and he attributes this to Wallhagen’s engineering prowess. Other than a broken outboard motor the day of the launch, which required the houseboat to be towed to camp until a replacement arrived, there have been no surprises in terms of the home’s functionality inside or out. “It was an exciting project,” said Wallhagen. “I’m quite happy with the way it came out.”

What has surprised von Roesgen, however, has been the amount of attention his project has garnered, on the lake and off. “People wave and take pictures. [When I pulled] up to TMI, people were running aboard to take a look and I worried we would sink,” said an amused von Roesgen. “I didn’t anticipate how much attention it would get. Kids love to come in. They jump on the bed and say, ‘This is the most comfortable bed in the world!’”

Von Roesgen has also been receiving a lot of attention online within the small house community. YouTube videos made by his girlfriend Carla Schwartz have been viewed hundreds of times and linked to on a number of tiny home blogs including von Roesgen’s (http://tinysol.blogspot.com).

Wrote Shafer by email, “I’ve been dreaming of putting a little house on the water for years. In fact, I’ve Photoshopped my own tiny home onto a picture I took of the Russian River a couple years ago, but I’ve never actually floated a house. I can’t wait to see a tiny dwelling on real water. It’s a great idea, and I’d still love to do it myself. Hats off to this guy.”

“I’m happy with the way it came together,” said von Roesgen, who is already eager to experiment with the tiny home’s “thermal performance” back in Carlisle this fall and planning for adventures next summer.