Some people want to live with less.

“It’s been pretty liberating, selling all of our stuff, because it’s just stuff,” said Tony Fishburn, standing in the 200-square-foot “tiny house” under construction that he and his wife, Charlie, hope to call home.

The Fishburns, who are in their 20s, moved from Bloomington to a small apartment in Brown County about three months ago. They sold or donated most of their furniture and many of their possessions.

From their perspective, living in a large house surrounded by unused possessions is what seems odd, Tony Fishburn said.

“More people in the existence of time have lived in something about this size than they have in several-thousand-square foot homes,” he said, motioning to the walls close around him.

Charlie and Tony Fishburn sit with their hound dog, Boogley, on what will be the back porch of the tiny home they are building.
Charlie and Tony Fishburn sit with their hound dog, Boogley, on what will be the back porch of the tiny home they are building.

It’s the little things

This won’t be the first time the Fishburns have “lived small.”The couple met while working at a YMCA camp in Michigan five years ago. When she moved permanently to the United States from England, Charlie Fishburn had only what she could carry with her.When they moved to Bloomington, everything the couple owned fit in a Subaru.

“Moving into a place, we had too much space, really,” Charlie Fishburn said. “Then, when you go to downsize or move, you realize that you just filled this place with all this stuff that you don’t actually really need.”

Yet, some things still are worth holding on to.

Tony Fishburn said his aunt grew up in a house that is being demolished. He was able to salvage more than enough flooring for their entire tiny home, so the new structure will have an heirloom element.

When they came to Brown County, the Fishburns purposefully sought a small, one-bedroom apartment to share with their hound dog and began the process of building their tiny home.

They had a trailer with a goose-neck custom-built in Valparaiso and worked with a Louisville, Kentucky, company to have custom Structural Insulated Panels made that fit their design.

The panels, made from insulating material sandwiched between pieces of oriented strand board, are commonly used in energy-efficient house designs. The Fishburns’ home, which they nicknamed “Taluga,” has floor, ceiling and walls made of Structural Insulated Panels.

“We like to think that we’re environmentally conscious as well, so, not wasting so much would be good too,” Tony Fishburn said. “And financially, it seems smart. We won’t have rent or a mortgage when we’re done.”

The couple have plans for solar panels and are even looking at refrigeration options that conserve energy, he said. Because of how cold air and hot air move, a chest-style refrigerator can use about 5 percent of the energy of a refrigerator that opens from the front.

On up the road

One appeal of the tiny home concept is the idea of being somewhat mobile, they said.Once they have a spot chosen, they intend to build a patio and have the house tied to a foundation, Charlie Fishburn said.Yet, they want to do it in such a way that it can all be disassembled — the patio stowed under the trailer, the wheels reattached for travel.

Tony Fishburn has family all over the country, from Florida to Seattle, and they would like to be free to pack up everything they own and simply travel the country if they want to.

But that isn’t to say they don’t have roots.

Charlie Fishburn works at the Blue Sky Veterinary Clinic in Bloomington during the week and drives horse carriages around Nashville on weekends.

Tony Fishburn works as a caretaker on a property in Brown County but formerly was a direct support professional at Life Designs in Bloomington, and ultimately he wants to get back into working directly with disabled people.

The Fishburns like the idea of living in Brown County. They have found their sensibilities for simple living and independence and care about the natural world echoed in the local community.

But pioneers hewing logs for their hand-built cabins didn’t have planning commissions to deal with.

Living by a code

Local government has a lot to say about where a person can legally lay their head at night, even in the deep woods of their own property.In Bartholomew, Morgan and Brown counties, there’s a minimum square footage requirement — 1,000, 950 and 600, respectively.Johnson and Monroe counties have no minimum square footage for a home, but state law still comes into effect. Any house for permanent occupation must have a separate room for a toilet, at least one room of 120 square feet or greater, and 70 square feet of space for food preparation.

Monroe County Building Commissioner Jim Gerstbauer said it is possible to have a single room that meets both the 120-square-foot requirement and the food preparation space requirement, but the distinction is up to the jurisdiction the home is built in.

None of those five counties allows a recreational vehicle or any house that is sitting on wheels to legally be used as a permanent residence.

Only Brown County permits a manufactured house to be placed on a temporary foundation on personal, private property. In Monroe, Bartholomew, Johnson and Morgan counties, any residence outside a mobile home park has to be secured to a permanent foundation.

In addition, any residence in one of those five counties has to maintain either a septic field or a sewer connection.

In Monroe County, a composting toilet is permissible, said Monroe County health department wastewater sanitarian Randy Raines. However, a septic field would still be required, both to deal with gray water from sinks, showers and the like, and for resale purposes.

In Brown County, the current minimum septic field allowed is based on the needs of a two-bedroom house, said Brown County health department environmental health specialist John Kennard.

The Fishburns would like to set up here, but if they can’t do it legally, they’re thinking of going to Bloomington.

Local takeaway

Since Brown County Building Commissioner Lonnie Farlee started his job last winter, he has received about four inquiries from people interested in building tiny homes in Brown County.Nashville Town Manager/Economic Director Scott Rudd said the only concern he would have with allowing tiny homes in Nashville is that any permanent structure should be a livable space that won’t be abandoned and fall into disrepair in the long term.“There is some risk there in the long-term viability of a tiny home,” he said.

For young couples just starting out, such as the Fishburns, a tiny home — which may cost as little as $20,000 to construct — can mean the difference between having a home now or renting from someone else for years to come.

That $20,000 includes the cost of appliances and most furnishings, Tony Fishburn said.

Yet, finances aren’t the only allure of scaling back.

County commissioner Diana Biddle said in early September that someone approached her to ask what they would have to do to build a tiny home as their retirement home.

David Watters, owner of The Beamery in Helmsburg, is working with a man who’s moving to Monroe County from Colorado who wants to build a 600-square-foot home.

Fully furnished, Watters’ version will cost about $100,000. Yet, in a county where a fixer-upper home may run $130,000 to $150,000, even that cost may not seem that pricey.

As to the local square footage requirement, Brown County Planning Commission Attorney David Schilling said someone who wished to build a house smaller than the local minimum could seek a variance.

“I think what we’ve got to look at, in regard with that whole movement, is, ‘How are other communities dealing with it?’” Biddle said. “We’re not reinventing the wheel, here.”

She added, “As far as government is concerned, our concern should be public health and safety. So, as long as the waste is being properly disposed of and the environment is clean and healthy, then I think that we should be willing to look at some of these different alternatives.”

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Ben Kibbey is a Brown County transplant from the cornfields of central Ohio. He covers county government, business, outdoors, sports and general news.