The average monthly rent for a one bedroom apartment in Portland, Ore., in the spring of 2014—when Tina and Luke Orlando, newly married, moved into their apartment just outside town—was around $1,140. A year later it was $1,315. Within two years, it would rise to over $1,500.
“It was just rising, rising, rising,” says Luke ’11 (mechanical engineering) today. “We couldn’t afford it anymore. We knew there had to be a better option.”
Both engineers—Tina ’11, 13 (civil and environmental engineering) is also an alum—they set out to design one. It took them 18 months of mock-ups, 3-D models, zoning constraints and plumbing issues. Once the design was finalized, they hired a specialty firm to construct it.
But today they live in it: a two floor, redwood-sided, solar-powered, 204-square-foot “tiny house” with an upstairs sleeping loft, downstairs living area (with L-shaped convertible sofa), walk-in kitchen, fenced roof deck, redwood counters and cabinets complete with wall-mounted TV, composting toilet and shower, rainwater collection system and propane-fueled cooking—all mounted on a three-axle trailer 20 minutes southwest of Portland.
It was a remarkable feat of engineering: fully off the grid, with not an inch wasted. There is storage space in every wall and corner (even the chairs and tables are storable). And most of the skills they brought to the task, they say, they learned at UMass Lowell.
“No question,” says Tina. “The training, the knowledge, they definitely came from there.” Her favorite professor, she says, was Clifford Bruell, who “not only made classes relatable—he was funny, and a phenomenal role model as well.” For Luke, a class in renewable energy was particularly relevant to the tiny house challenge. “The training we got there, it was very real-world,” he says.
But the completion of their small home was just the beginning of big things for the couple. On June 25, they were featured on “Tiny House Nation,” an FYI Network television series now in its third year. As soon as the show aired, the calls began to come in. Three weeks later, they were still coming.
“Sometimes thousands in a day, from all over the world,” Tina reported in mid-July, explaining that the callers all want help or advice on how to build their own tiny houses. She guesses that roughly 10 percent of the calls are to likely lead to something—more than enough, she figures, to build a business around.
Their short-term plan, they say, is to offer their designs to buyers for around $300, roughly a fifth less than their competitors (the Pacific Northwest is the epicenter of the tiny house movement, so competition is plentiful), and to offer more options—such as specialty designs for off-grid and pet-friendly homes such as theirs, and, eventually perhaps, custom homes for retirees and vets. For more details, visit their website.
Longer term, they hope to partner with regional building contractors who would take care of the construction end of things. A typical tiny house, they say, measures between 150 and 300 square feet and costs between $30,000 and $60,000 to build.
Meanwhile, says Luke, “The goal is to keep our prices low, do good work, offer more, and that way create a reputation for ourselves.”
Judging from early signs, they’re off to a promising start.