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Joe Mugavero, who along with his brother Matt Hitchcock, went at breakneck speed for the last two months trying to complete the first tiny house in Lancaster city on Friday, March 12, 2021.

A recent construction project in Lancaster city gives “less is more” a whole new meaning. Just over a year ago, right before the coronavirus became a pandemic, Joe Mugavero told his wife he wanted to build a tiny house. He admits, there was plenty to consider.

Besides the design and amenities he wanted in it, Mugavero, 36, pondered the legality of a tiny home, since most cities and municipalities across the country still seem to be wrestling with developing a code that is specific to these small dwellings.

“It started as an idea, but once we were sure we wanted to do it, we just kept moving forward, dealing with one road block at a time,” said Mugavero, a business developer.

The result is a 255-square-foot freestanding structure that is just 30 feet long by 8.6 feet wide. The tiny house project all-in cost was approximately $50,000. It was completed in six weeks.

“It’s not a luxurious house, but it’s very nice and it has all the amenities of a real house,” said Mugavero, who hopes to find a renter for the home.

It’s also the first tiny house built in Lancaster city. More on that later.

Big on design

Mugavero built the tiny house inside a warehouse on a trailer that serves as its foundation. It was moved upon completion and set on an open space between a two-car garage and an existing original house built in 1900 at 765 St. Joseph St., a property Mugavero co-owns.

The trailer always will stay with the house but, to meet city codes, the wheels and axle were unbolted once the house reached its new destination.

The tiny house features a diminutive but well-equipped kitchen, living area, bathroom, bedroom, a loft, high ceilings, cooling and heating system and energy-efficient windows that allow natural light to filter in and create the illusion of space.

“You need to have all the basic areas of a house at a much smaller scale, and I came to realize how much every detail truly counts,” Mugavero said. “Every inch of space has to be utilized, every item has a specific purpose and place, everything has to fit the right way and there’s no room for mistakes.”

To access the inside of the house, a three-step staircase was installed once the house was placed on the lot. They lead to a 3-foot wide wooden porch platform enclosed by a railing.

The entire living area is visible from the front glass door.

Upon entering, guests are welcomed by an open living area — with a sofa and a small folding wall-mounted wood table for dining — that connects to a kitchen on the right.

The kitchen is fitted with dark blue cabinets, butcher-block countertops and floating shelves for storage. High ceilings with recessed lights and faux ceiling beams are found throughout the house. Ceiling fans were installed in the living area and the bedroom for additional airflow.

To the left of the living area, there’s a three-quarter bathroom with a shower, toilet, sink and small storage space, and a bedroom furnished with a built-in full-size bed and nightstands. There is a designated space for a washer and dryer in the bedroom and adjacent to the bathroom.

A loft, accessible by a ladder, rests above the bedroom and can be used as additional storage space or a second bedroom.

Brain power

Mugavero spent much time researching, planning and designing before any construction work began, and is familiar with building and renovation work. His father is an architect, and Mugavero himself did a lot of construction work after college and even worked for a builder in Virginia who became a very influential person in his life.

The tiny house project was a real test of his skills and abilities.

“There’s only one place for the TV,” Mugavero said. “I had to search the exact dimensions of a full bed and then work backward to build a built-in bed to make the bedroom function. It just blew my mind.

“It just required so much brain power,” Mugavero said. “It wears on you, your family, your marriage, plus I have a full-time job, so I wanted to get it done in two months mostly for my own sanity. I had to frame my days to pull it off.”

Mugavero also got help from his brother, Matt Hitchcock, 33, a carpenter from Nags Head, North Carolina.

The materials and color palette of the tiny house play off the original structures in the property but with some modern flair. The dark-colored traditional asphalt shingle roof matches the existing house on the property. The exterior cladding is vertical wood board and batten.

“This is a timeless look for our area, and one that was frequently used if a structure wasn’t made of masonry,” Mugavero said.

The exterior is painted in a shade of gray with black trim on windows and the front door. Contractors assisted with plumbing, electrical, insulation and painting.

Mugavero has never lived in a tiny house and says the one he built wouldn’t offer enough space for his family of four, but hopes to rent it out as a standard long-term unit.

Tim Patches, broker at Lancaster property management company Trinity Management Associates, thinks Mugavero might be on to something.

“We get a lot of requests from people wanting to reside in the west area of the city,” Patches said. “This is a freestanding structure in a good neighborhood; it has access to outdoor and parking. There are lots of people who would be happy to pay a premium price for something like that.”

The city’s first tiny home

The concept of limiting your living space to minimal square footage seems very attractive to some people and it continues to grow in communities across the country.

Mugavero’s is the first tiny home that has been permitted in the city, according to bureau chief of community planning and design Douglas Smith.

Most of the special considerations for Mugavero’s project came in the form of location and design, but most importantly, a review process that involved the Planning Commission, the Historical Commission and a final approval by City Council. In all, the approval process was completed in about one month.

“Tiny houses are not just permitted by right throughout the city, but rather, under specific conditions and with specific approvals,” Smith said.

Mugavero feels there’s demand for a small, but polished living space like his tiny house.

“We know there are people who are doing freelance work and move to a different place every couple of years, parents whose kids are no longer living with them and want to downsize, or perhaps people who came to Lancaster and fell in love with it but can’t find a nice, affordable place,” Mugavero said.

Both city and county planners seem to agree.

“The city welcomes new ideas for providing good-quality, safe, affordable residences,” said director of community planning and economic development Chris Delfs. “For tiny houses or other innovations, the city staff and our boards and commissions will approach these on a case-by-case basis to ensure they are compatible with the design fabric of the city.”

Scott Standish, executive director at the Lancaster County Planning Commission, says tiny houses are a positive addition to the housing stock.

“We’ve always had a limited choice of housing in the county, and there are a lot of other opportunities out there that we need to explore, especially if there is a market in it for some people,” Standish says.

However, Standish doesn’t think the county will be seeing entire communities of tiny houses around the county like Tiny Estates, a community of 200- to 400-square-foot “tiny” homes in Elizabethtown.

“The more options we can provide, the better we will be. In fact, we looked at possibly creating a guidance for municipalities for how to regulate the tiny houses and provide that as another opportunity for people to have a house choice since they are bit more affordable,” Standish said. “However, we wouldn’t want the houses to be just anywhere. We would want to see it happen where we want growth to happen."

Mugavero’s best piece of advice to anyone wanting to build a tiny home is “think it through and do your research.”

“This project wasn’t easy, but I was able to manage and enjoy it,” he said. “I hope that if we pave the way, this will blossom into something people would want to copy and turn it into another housing option.”

Mugavero plans to put the tiny house on the market as a rental unit June 1. For inquiries, email Mugavero at joe@twodudes.com.

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