The allure—and challenges—of going tiny in the Berkshires
Photos by Lisa Vollmer
Robin Berthet grew up in England where the mobile shepherd hut has been a veritable way of life for 150 years. These functional accommodations, providing protection and a place to rest for shepherds tending their flocks, make sense where land is abundant and shelter a necessity. Fittingly, Berthet created Berkshire Shepherd Huts in 2014—minimalist spaces in which to live, off the grid for the most part.
Deep connection to the land and family roots also spurred Sarah Zukowski and Jonathan Ferguson to build their tiny cabin in Otis. With the arrival of their daughter, Jazlynn, the challenges of tiny living have become greater, and more rewarding. Their lifestyle—one that values health and meaningful work—is the only way of life their three-year-old has ever known.
Then came the practical reasons. Both structural therapists, Zukowski and Ferguson use their physical bodies effectively and efficiently. This approach to physical well-being is reflected in the couple’s home, where every element of the 12-by-16-foot structure is rooted in function. “We are investing energy, time, and resources into what we believe makes healthy humans,” says Zukowski. This translates into procuring their own food and fuel, gardening, foraging, wildcrafting, and living in a footprint just shy of 200 square feet. (Photo above and left.)
The tiny-house lifestyle advocates simple living in small spaces. The trend, attracting attention at a steady clip, proffers no shortage of hip, environmentally conscious, young people keen on its merits. How accessible is this small-scale approach to housing in the Berkshires, where many millennials would like to put down roots but find traditional housing unaffordable?
“We almost left the Berkshires because we couldn’t afford to live here,” says Pooja Prema, who found the Berkshires as a student at Simon’s Rock. A decade later, she and partner Justin Torrico are using “tiny living” to remedy their conundrum.
“It’s the most optimal space we could have,” says Prema of “The Caboose,” a well-insulated shell of a tiny house they purchased from Sage Radachowsky and are finishing themselves. Their transition to a low-impact life is made possible by the Torrico family’s stake in more than 200 acres of land atop Mount Washington, where The Caboose is sited.
The pair, committed to establishing a relationship with the land on which they live, largely meet their needs themselves. They farm, forage, and actively pursue living off the land. “It’s how we can be here,” says Prema of her small-footprint dwelling in the Berkshires. The couple, not unlike Ferguson and Zukowski, put down ostensibly “temporary roots” and built with the idea that their home—or more accurately its location—would be impermanent.
This very impermanence has ruffled the feathers of many who view the presence of tiny homes, largely considered glorified mobile homes, to be in conflict with traditional bucolic landscapes the Berkshires boast.
“Why on earth would you want to live in a small space?” is the most-often fielded question for Chas and Ellie Gonnello of Tyringham. They were drawn to tiny living as an affordable way to return to the Berkshires where Ellie grew up. Their tiny home, staged on the 400-acres where Ellie’s family has farmed for eight generations, was both a conscientious and a functional choice. Fewer possessions in return for a greater quality of life was also alluring.
There was one snag: Tyringham’s zoning prohibits mobile homes and recreational vehicles as permanent dwellings. Last year, the Gonnellos worked to address this issue; they wrote a two-part bylaw for defining and allowing tiny homes as well as allowing for accessory-dwelling units. The former did not pass due to difficulties distinguishing tiny homes from mobile homes; the latter bylaw, which allows for small structures to be built/converted into dwellings, did pass. For the time being, the Gonnellos will have to designate their tiny house as an art studio.
In a region where wind turbines and solar fields are considered unsightly—despite an environmentally conscious population—tiny homes present numerous challenges. “There is a broader importance in choosing to go tiny,” says Chas Gonnello. “It’s not just slapping a few solar panels onto your roof and ignoring how much you consume. Many people with tiny homes struggle to find acceptance in their communities.”
“There is a stigma behind it,” says Jason Koperniak, of living in a small home that is mobile. Koperniak, of B&B Micro Manufacturing in North Adams, is working to change the aesthetic of a concept that has, historically, had a negative connotation. Building what Koperniak has dubbed an “architecturally chic, trendy version of housing at an affordable price point” is challenging the concept of mobile homes. At present, Koperniak and partners are searching for local municipalities willing to accommodate a development of tiny homes. Both beautiful and unique, the launch of such a project would provide affordable housing that not only creates pride on the part of homeowners, but also cultivates acceptance from communities at large. Until this model is piloted in Berkshire County, aficionados of the tiny lifestyle will have to utilize their micro environments creatively.
Sage Radachowsky likens his tiny house in Stockbridge to a getaway spot. And the allure? “There is space to breathe and remember who I am, to hear my own thoughts,” he says. Radachowsky is not a landowner—his tiny home sits on acreage a local friend and farmer leases—but he has always been drawn to small spaces thanks to a fascination with the gypsy wagons of Europe.
A builder by trade, Radachowsky constructed his tiny house on a shoestring. Apart from the siding—purchased shiplap pine—the dwelling was assembled using repurposed materials. For practical reasons (he has a partner, a young daughter, and a stepson), full-time tiny living is not a reality. But neither is home ownership, so Radachowsky rents a home in Monterey and escapes to his hand-built retreat.