MADISON, Wis. - On a modest lot on Commercial Avenue, you won't see any house hunters or celebrity renovators.
There is no camera following the carpentry work, nobody chronicling the do-it-yourself projects installed in each living space. But there's a common thread between this Madison College construction and remodeling program and some of the latest home improvement reality TV shows.
"Not a lot of people know that we're here," program director John Stephani said.
Stephani, who is also an instructor, said building smaller homes was a perfect way to give students hands-on experience.
They started constructing the quick, compact units about 10 years ago after another instructor saw small cabins in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Now they work on tiny houses that range from about 400 square feet to 600 square feet.
"They are really a great fit for what we do," Stephani said.
Before the tiny house movement gained popularity, Stephani said it wasn't easy to get the transportable houses off the lot. He said from the late 1960s to the late 1990s, homes trended bigger and bigger, often serving as a status symbol. Even this year, the U.S. Census found the median home size across the country is 2,500 square feet, more than six times the size of some of the tiny houses built at Madison College.
"It's not real estate because it's not attached to the ground. So it's essentially a giant, durable good," Stephani said. "So how do you sell that?"
Stephani said he notices a definite shift in what's important to buyers.
"Now people are moving toward a smaller house with a better footprint, a better energy footprint, but then they'll spend a little extra money on the amenities in the house," Stephani said. "So they'll get a better countertop, a nicer bathroom, maybe a little bit better kitchen in a smaller space, which seems to be a trend in building as a whole."
Stephani said the main markets for these smaller living spaces are money-conscious millennials and retirees looking to downsize.
Along with the savings in energy bills, Stephani said a tiny home unit can cost as little as $25,000. Even once the house is set on a foundation and basic needs (like water, septic and electric) are hooked up, Stephani said it runs around $110,000 to $120,000.
According to the Wisconsin Realtors Association, the average single-family home in Dane County costs $244,000, double the price of a tiny home.
"Is it a fad? Yes," Stephani said. "But I think it also is a sign of a movement toward downsizing in homes."
Lucas Ketrykowski sought out Madison College's program after deciding he wanted to downsize.
"Just living a more simple life, downsizing, decluttering," Ketrykowski said. "And really just having things that are more meaningful instead of a lot of things that don't mean much."
Ketrykowski plans to build a tiny home on his 3-acre property and move in sometime next year. He then plans to rent out the 2,600-square-foot home in which he now he lives, not only saving money on a mortgage, but also gaining an extra line of income.
"A lot of people think that living in a tiny house is not realistic. But once they tour a tiny house and check it out, I think they realize that it's very possible," Ketrykowski said.
Tiny homes were once difficult to sell, but Stephani said he now has a waiting list of people who want to purchase them from the program. The main priority now is building for the Garver Feed Mill property behind Olbrich Gardens, where developers plan to put 50 micro-lodges for visitors to stay or simply try out tiny living.
Madison College is one of many places tapped to build small homes for the project.
"The other idea is they think people will come from all over the country, in fact, all over the world to try the tiny homes and see how they fit," Stephani said. "And it works great for us because we're able to build them and send them over there, and really, it's a win-win all around."
Stephani said the one-year construction and remodeling program is always looking for enrollees. He said students who come out with skills in the trade almost immediately get good-paying jobs. For more information, visit the program website.