Tiny Town

Ski resort communities turn to miniature solutions in a dual effort to affordably house employees and satisfy an ever-increasing number of visitors.

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It’s no secret that rents are sky-high in ski towns, so when Aspen Skiing Company committed to more affordable employee housing, it turned to a small but growing trend sweeping mountain communities: tiny homes. 

The resort erected six tiny homes at the Aspen Basalt Campground, about 20 miles from town, in 2016 as a pilot project and, due to their popularity, purchased another 34 in 2017. Each 300- and 400-square-foot energy-efficient home costs $100,000 to build. “I love it,” says Zac Dopson, a groomer at Buttermilk who rented a tiny home last winter. “As soon as I saw it, I wanted it.” 

Each home features bamboo floors with radiant heat, solid wood cabinets, large double-paned windows, kitchens with a microwave, small oven and two stovetop burners, and a wall-mounted flat-screen TV beside a couch that doubles as a storage unit. Exterior walls are constructed of structurally insulated panels with six inches of insulation, and the roof is made from one piece of material for easy replacement (though it has a 25-year lifespan).

 “When you build small, you can do high quality,” says Philip Jeffreys, a planning and development project manager for Aspen Skiing Company. No materials with volatile organic chemicals, or VOCs—which can be a health hazard—were used on the interior. An energy recovery ventilator circulates, filters, and freshens the air. Each home has a combined washing machine and dryer, a full-sized energy efficient refrigerator and dishwasher—and lots of creative locker and storage space. 

The rectangular abodes have two 100-square-foot bedroom lofts accessed by steep stairs on each end. Larger units also have a downstairs bedroom. Each home is built for either two or three people, and rent is $400 to $600 per month each. “People are definitely psyched about them,” says Jeffreys, “and everyone is surprised by how nice they are.”

Tiny homes are big. The TV show “Tiny Home Nation” has a devoted following, Instagram is filled with pictures of adorable tiny houses (#tinyhouse), and tiny home consumer shows attract thousands. But Aspen isn’t the only ski town banking big on the tiny trend.

“Tiny homes satisfy a craving for freedom—from mortgages, from locations, from the same old design restrictions,” says Stew MacInnes, founder of Maximus Extreme Living Solutions, a tiny home builder in Ogden, Utah. “They have an inherent ‘wow’ factor that makes people smile. 

MacInnes has built tiny homes for several clients in Park City, including a “tiny ski lodge” with a wood-heated hot tub, a refurbished chairlift, a collapsible table made of old skis, and a snowboard coat rack. “From an economic perspective, ski resorts need to look at tiny homes because you can put them virtually anywhere and create mobile, comfortable, and affordable housing with low upkeep and little maintenance,” he says.

So why are there not more tiny-home communities? Zoning. Many towns, wary of trailer parks, have minimum-square-footage restrictions and zoning rules that prohibit tiny-home neighborhoods. That is why Aspen’s units are built on wheels, allowing the resort to place them in an RV park it already owns. They are essentially travel trailers—albeit deluxe.

“Despite their popularity, there are huge biases against tiny homes,” MacInnes explains. “That’s unfortunate because they are a great solution. Life today is big and complex. Tiny homes satisfy a craving for simplicity.”

The latest trend-within-a-trend is taking place in the lodging industry, where hotels are offering tiny homes as nightly rentals. Fireside Resort near Jackson Hole has twenty-five 400-square-foot units for rent, ranging from $169 to $515 per night. “Guests enjoy them because it’s not a typical hotel experience,” says Kate Thomas, guest relations manager. Not far away, Snake River Sporting Club rents four tiny homes with Restoration Hardware furnishings and sliding glass doors that open to decks and fire pits. Diminutive they may be, but cheap they are not: Prices range from $225 to $625 per night.

Last winter, Mountainside at Northstar erected three tiny homes at Tahoe’s Northstar for use by members and their guests. “The idea is to get families to hang out together,” says Ron Barnes, a senior partner with Mountainside who came up with the idea for the units. Two of the structures are for overnight lodging, while the third is filled with games and books for daytime use. “These cabins harken back to those memories we had as kids, camping together with our parents.”

Artist Zaria Forman used one of the Northstar tiny homes last winter as a studio while visiting as an artist in residence. Forman enjoyed it so much that she returned last September, and she hopes to stay again this winter. “They are definitely cozy, but they don’t feel small because you are so connected with the nature that is right outside the windows,” she says. “Lying in bed, I could just open my eyes to watch the sun rise. I didn’t even have to pick up my head from the pillow.”

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