Tiny houses beginning to make an impact in East Bay

The backyard ‘tiny house’ made by Berkeley-based Avava. Photo: Avava

Stacey Wiggall stood in the doorway of the new tiny house in her West Berkeley backyard recently and surveyed the interior. She didn’t have far to look; the home is 490 square feet.

“It looks much bigger,” said Wiggall, who chose Berkeley-based tiny home company Avava Systems to design and build the eco-friendly, three-room abode. Her father, who often visits Wiggall and her family from out of town, will live in the house when he visits, she said.

Unlike many prefab homes, Avava homes aren’t long rectangles, but squares. This, plus the high, sloping 8 to 10-foot ceiling, the natural lighting from the many windows and the warm colors of the white oak floor of Wiggall’s house, give the illusion of more space.

The house, composed of a front room with a kitchen on one end and space for furniture on the other, plus a bedroom and a bathroom, cost $215,000 “and they (Avava) are doing the landscaping too,” Wiggall said. That total bill from Avava included the installation of water, electricity and sewer lines, and Wiggall paid about $10,000 on top of that for permits and major appliances such as a stove and fridge. The Britespace, Avava’s name for its prefab homes, comes in five sizes: 270, 360, 490, 650 and 750 square feet. The lowest price is $160,000.


Stacey Wiggall stands in the doorway of the prefab tiny house designed and built by Berkeley-based Avava Systems in her West Berkeley back yard August 17. Photo: Janis Mara

Wiggall is by no means the only homeowner in the area to invest in a tiny home. In the East Bay, cities are increasingly open to accessory dwelling units, such as the Britespace, as a way of addressing the housing crisis.

In 2015, Berkeley’s City Council voted unanimously to streamline the rules for homeowners who want to add such units, also known as granny units or in-law apartments, to their properties. The changes eliminated the need for a planning permit and eased parking requirements.

Additionally, new statewide laws — AB2299 and SB1069 — went into effect in January. The laws, along with a third one that took effect in September, eased or eliminated the onerous off-street parking requirements and utility-hookup fees involved in creating a second dwelling.

“What I really like is the eco-friendly construction,” said Wiggall about her tiny home, before leading the (extremely short) way to the kitchen, pointing out specks of red in the countertops. “These are crushed, recycled traffic lights. There’s oyster shells in there too,” she said. The countertops are the work of Martinez-based Concrete Interiors, and the warm brown kitchen cabinets are bamboo veneer on plywood from San Francisco-based Plyboo.

A concept born at Burning Man

Avava has an impeccable Bay Area pedigree, straight out of Burning Man.

“The structural system is the invention of David Wilson and Michael Kozel,” said Benjamin Kimmich, Avava’s chief executive. Co-founders Kozel and Wilson built a 20′ by 20′ cube that was assembled by volunteers at Black Rock Desert in 2005.

“They figured if a bunch of people who had been baking on the playa could do it, it would be a snap for licensed contractors,” Kimmich said.

Nick Buccelli, creative director for Berkeley-based Avava Systems, chats with Elka Karl, an Avava spokeswoman, in the kitchen of Stacey Wiggall’s new backyard tiny house designed and built by Avava Aug. 17, 2017. Photo: Janis Mara

Avava Systems is by no means the only tiny home company in the Bay Area. The prefabricated MicroPAD — a fully furnished, 20′ by 8′ steel box, reminiscent of a shipping container — is another example of a tiny home designed by a local company, Panoramic Interests. Panoramic owner Patrick Kennedy is positioning the tiny homes as potential housing for the Bay Area’s homeless. Avava’s goal, by contrast, is to help individual homeowners add to the area’s housing stock.

A more established company, New Avenue Homes, was founded in Berkeley in 2009 and has managed 60 projects in the city in the past five years, most of them accessory dwellings.

In some cases, architects like Elmwood resident Eric Haesloop, a partner at architects Turnbull Griffin Haesloop, have designed units for their own backyards – the ultimate custom home.

A backyard unit in Berkeley’s Elmwood neighborhood designed by architect Eric Haesloop. Photo: AIA East Bay

While Avava’s designs are prefabricated, its customers do have some choices. Patricia Carpentieri, who is Avava’s architect and its product design development director, worked with Wiggall to give her options for the home.

“We have different packages for floors, cabinets and countertops,” Carpentieri said. Customers can choose the home’s size, color scheme and other elements on the company’s website.

Wiggall was the company’s first customer. Now, Avava has 12 homes in the pipeline, to be built in Oakland, Berkeley, Milpitas and the North Bay, Kimmich said.

Darlene McCray of Oakland, who attended an open house Avava held in August at Wiggall’s place, said she’s thinking about building a backyard dwelling of her own.

“This approach minimizes waste,” said McCray, who is an environmental scientist. “Because they have a set product, when they order materials, they know how much they need and don’t order too much.

And McCray described Wiggall’s place as “wonderful.” “I’d take it just the way it is,” she said.