Tiny House Builder Shows What Teens Can Accomplish

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Anybody who says that today’s youth prefer to remain ignorant, complicit, and lazy hasn’t met Austin Hay, 18, of Santa Rosa, California.

Three years ago, Hay began building his 130-sqaure-foot mobile home, replete with a bed, kitchen, sink, shower and composting toilet. Hay’s desk also looks out three large windows, offering a panoramic view of wherever he lays his head. I recently spoke with Hay, among the most humble individuals I’ve chatted with, who tells me that this mobility is his favorite feature.

“I can’t believe I get this amazing view in just a tiny house,” Hays says. “Wherever I park it, I can park it where the prettiest view is. It’s not like a normal house. You get a room and you get stuck with an ugly view, sometimes. With this one, I get to position it in any way I want to get the good, gorgeous views.”

The exterior exudes an authentic log-cabin feel, and for just $12,000, Hay completed his own abode. I’m not surprised to learn that to date, YouTube postings about Hay’s tiny house have over two million views.

Hay learned about the small-house movement as a high school freshman, when he needed to complete an independent research project. He contacted the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, a Sebastopol, California-based business that designs and builds tiny houses. After attending an open house held by Tumbleweed founder Jay Shafer, Hay didn’t look back: “I just fell in love right away. I ended up building my own house within a year or so,” he says.

I’m curious to hear from Hay how he learned his craft, and how he became so proficient at such a young age. He tells me that his family home burned down in 2007, and that while thankfully everybody survived, everything else was completely lost. But following this horrible disaster, Hay learned construction skills by working alongside his father, who rebuilt their home as head contractor.

Hay’s father also offered support with the tiny house: “He showed me the ropes. He would show me how to do one thing, and then, after that, I would pretty much be on my own during the rest,” Hay says. “He’d teach me how to cut at a certain angle, then I’d cut all the rest of the boards. Then he’d show me how to do an electrical piece, and then I would do all the electrical.”

As impressed as I am by Hay’s construction skills, I’m all the more awed by his endless drive and time-management skills. Last year, while putting the final touches on his mobile home, Hay also served as varsity wrestling captain and yearbook editor.

As a former yearbook advisor, I know what sacrifices student-journalists make, and how hard they work. I can’t imagine how Hay did it all, and so gracefully at that, but I’m happy that the newsroom instilled in him an even greater sense of efficiency.

“I was on a strict deadline every time, and I had to get stuff done. I was the only editor and designer in my class,” Hay says.

Hay is also dyslexic, and it takes him longer to finish reading assignments. But this didn’t stop him from also finding time to earn money for his tiny house. He had five jobs over a three-year period, including work as a lifeguard and camp counselor,

“I saved up two weeks’ pay, and then bought the lumber for the construction for the sub‑flooring,” Hay says. “Then bought flashing. Then started building the walls. After the walls came the roof. The roof I needed a little help on, so I called on one of the guys that helped build our house. He taught me how to do it, and then he left. I paid him 20 bucks for just an hour, and then I did it myself.”

Hay is currently living in his tiny house, studying architecture at a local junior college. This is one young adult who really understands how to make the most of his educational experience, and I’m intrigued by his philosophy on selecting courses: “What I do is I take at least two classes that make we want to be there,” he says. “The teacher either wants me to be there, or I want to be there because of the teacher. That way I stay engaged–I’m learning stuff I need for the trade that I’m working at.”

Hay also says that junior college is more affordable, and he doesn’t want to be saddled with debt after graduating. Of course, Hay is also saving by living in his tiny house: “Everything fits around my height, my weight,” Hay says. “It’s so durable–looks brand new.”

Hay is a giant in the tiny-house movement, and he’s inspired several local schools to teach students how to build their own tiny homes. Hay now also works for Tumbleweed, and he’s excited to introduce their cause to an even wider audience.

“After I finished my house, they said, ‘We want you on the team. We want you to help design. We want you to help us speak. We want you to be here and here and here,’” Hay says. “Working with them, meeting new people, speaking to other people, and learning more about the tiny house movement has just been a real eye‑opener.”

For such an accomplished young man, Hay is remarkably humble. At every turn, he uses his relative fame to encourage others to pursue their own passions.

“You’ve got to do what you love. If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life,” Hay says.

Interview transcript

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As a coach, history and journalism teacher at Brimmer and May, a wonderful independent school in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, I have the absolute best job in the world. I am thrilled to get up every morning to engage with interesting young people, and I'm equally fortunate to have such amazing colleagues and mentors. As the founder of Spin Education, I encourage you to check-in frequently and submit posts and lessons—all in an effort to better our practice as teachers.

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