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Interview with tiny house builder Marc Hyman

Last week I got to talk with Marc Hyman who builds custom tiny houses in California. His company’s name is Custom Cabins. Enjoy the interview, ask questions in the comments, and visit his website.


Alex: Can you tell us a little history about yourself and what got you into the world of tiny houses?

Marc: I moved to Santa Barbara from New York City almost 20 years ago. I had gone to law school in New York City, passed the bar and disliked urban living.

I came to California for a friend’s wedding and I was sold on the great outdoors and sunshine. I discovered the amazing back country real estate that was priced very cheaply because there were no utilities in reach.

This was way before the off-the-grid movement but I was always looking for a way to make those remote places livable.

I’m talking 20 acres of high desert or Sierra land for $20,000. I always thought, what a bargain there has to be a way to live there cheaply.

Fast forward 10 years later, I got into real estate as a licensed agent. Prices in Santa Barbara were going through the roof and once again I got to thinking about living in a beautiful place without all of the expensive trimmings.

At the same time, one summer I needed extra space in my house in Santa Barbara where visiting teen age cousins could sleep since all of the bedrooms in the house were full.

So I decided to build my first cabin to house the summer visitors. The structure had to be spacious, affordable, and well designed.

Custom Cabins - Tiny House

Photo credits: Marc Hyman

I learned a lot that year about small house designs and that first cabin got me hooked.

At the same time my real estate clients started expressing their needs for extra space, say an office, a yoga studio, or a music room to me. I realized they needed exactly what I had designed for myself.

During this time, by chance, I came across a reference to an accessory structure that was under 120 square feet with no utility hookups and no permits required.

I researched “accessory structures” and found that in most jurisdictions such structures were allowed with minimal or no permits required, as long as set backs were respected.

Later I learned that cabins built on a trailer aren’t considered structures, they’re trailers and are governed by different rules and regulations. That was the final aha moment.

From then on I decided I wanted to be in the cabin business.

Along the way living off-the-grid became much easier with things like solar collectors and composting toilets.

In addition, eco-awareness exploded and living in smaller greener spaces began to make sense to people.

Everything came together and Custom Cabins became a reality.

Alex: Both cabins are beautiful, plenty of windows and I love the french doors. Tell us more about your new cabin on wheels and what exactly inspired you to build it? Is it for sale?

Tiny House on a Trailer by Marc Hyman of Custom Cabins

Marc: Light is the key to making a small space livable.

Windows and doors with glass panels really open up the space and make living in a small space much more enjoyable.

The cabin-on-wheels, like all of the other cabins, is a result of much contemplation and the need to have the structure serve multiple purposes.

The shed roof style takes less work to build and gives the structure a different type of look and feel. I also think it offers better space solutions when facing a 13.5 foot height limiter for the road.

The tall side of the cabin allows for a line of windows above the door.

I have always admired Jay Shafer’s tiny houses and his concepts have helped motivate me. I want people to buy into the concept that they can have a low cost home in an off-the-grid area where nature is close-by.

In response to your last question, the cabin-on-wheels is for sale. The base price unfinished inside is $12,450.

However, as the name of the company implies, we want to build custom cabins with lots of input from the buyer about windows, doors, height, length, width, etc.

We have also decided that in order to make our cabins more affordable for a wide range of buyers, we would leave the interiors mostly unfinished.

This lowers the cost for the buyer and gives them the chance to design the space according to their needs.

While getting feedback on our cabins, we received lots of inquiries from potential buyers who wanted a cabin that was as “green” as possible. You know, things like low VOC paint, using materials that did not “off-gas”, FSC wood, non-treated wood, cementaceous exterior siding, recyclable metal roofing, salvaged wood, recycled denim for insulation, and using solar power for light and heat.

We will build a custom cabin that incorporates any of these elements and any new techniques that may be developed.

Alex: I completely agree with you on the lighting the more the better and I love the windows above the door.

I also like the concept of customizing the cabins to each customer’s needs, it makes so much sense because you never know what the buyer is intending to use it for.

These little houses have so many possible uses… if more people knew about them they’d be used more often as backyard offices, art galleries, writing studios, hobby rooms, and things like that. The word is certainly getting around.

By the way, this career sounds so much more fun than being a lawyer or real estate agent!

So tell us what’s in store for the near future. Can you talk to us about any products, plans, projects, or new cabins that you’re working on?

Marc: Now that I have built a few cabins and have learned about the process and the market, I am ready to begin following several paths.

Building a Tiny House on a Trailer - Construction

I want to empower unemployed carpenters by helping them start a custom cabin business. This will help those who are out of work while promoting the concept of smaller living and making it accessible to more people.

I plan to continue building small cabins in my area, on wheels and on the ground, while developing new designs as large as 400 square feet.

I have been contacted by people who want to build sustainable off grid communities using my cabin designs and techniques and I’m looking forward to projects like these.

I’m looking forward to help the small house movement move forward by showing people what can be done and how.

With the help of some CAD techies I am putting together a service that will allow someone with a laptop to go to a client’s home, design a custom cabin on the spot, and show it them in 3D with full color.

Once the client approves the design the CAD program creates a materials and cut list.

Another goal is to pre-cut and prime all materials in a factory then ship them to the site. This will save time and money while allowing me to cut down on waste by re-using scraps of wood that would otherwise be thrown away.

Contact Marc at 805-242-1286, by e-mail at CustomCabinsSB at yahoo dot com or visit his website directly.

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Alex is a contributor and editor for TinyHouseTalk.com and the always free Tiny House Newsletter. He has a passion for exploring and sharing tiny homes (from yurts and RVs to tiny cabins and cottages) and inspiring simple living stories. We invite you to send in your story and tiny home photos too so we can re-share and inspire others towards a simple life too. Thank you!
{ 5 comments… add one }
  • Myriam Sawdey
    April 3, 2012, 1:53 pm

    Very nice. Looks like the PERFECT place to build one too. And he’s got a large enough door to get it out when it’s completed. I also love the reclaimed wood he’s using for the flooring and siding. Looks really nice. Gotta say it a custom made or more “rustic” salvaged door would really top it off so it matches.

  • Glema
    April 8, 2014, 1:14 pm

    You do the insulation and hurricane joists ect. for the under $13000 price tag as well? What if we added the heater and on demand hot water systems? I love the slanting roof for more space in the loft as well. But indoor pics would be helpful in seeing your styles. ty for sharing. Still dreamin Alex but plans are laying all over my desk top hehehe. ty for Sharing this with us Alex

    • Alex
      April 8, 2014, 1:59 pm

      Thanks Glema glad that you enjoyed it please beware his pricing may have changed by now as I did this interview with him a few years back

  • Lisa E.
    April 14, 2014, 9:10 pm

    I’d like to see more interior pics. This looks really interesting and I’d like to see the spatial articulation. 🙂

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