Twenty-year-old Liam Kohler has been thinking about tiny houses since he was a student at South Orange Middle School. “They’re environmentally friendly, cost-efficient, and seem like great places to hang out,” he explained. “I could see myself living in one.”
His friend Teddy Yablonsky, 19, couldn’t have been less interested when Liam first broached the subject. “I’d never heard of the tiny house movement, plus neither of us knew how to use a saw at that point. Our only building experience was with Legos.”
Nevertheless, the idea resurfaced when both boys decided to defer their fall 2020 college semesters due to COVID-19. “Neither of us wanted to study online, and our parents agreed that we could take time off,” Teddy recalled. “Their only condition was that we had to do something educational.”
And so the tiny house project (Instagram: @mapsotinyhouse) was born.
The first hurdle was getting their families on board. According to Liam’s mother, Kristina, “We gave them assignments. We wanted to know how they would do it safely and legally, how much it would cost, and where the work would take place.”
The boys prepared a full presentation, including budgets, timelines, and a set of plans purchased online (later revised). “They impressed us no end,” said Teddy’s mother, Alison Weir. “We still didn’t know if they could pull it off, but we could see they were willing to do the work.”
Alison volunteered her driveway and garage as a construction site, and Liam’s parents found a temporary home for the completed project on the property of a longtime friend “until we can afford our own land,” Teddy said. Funds came from the boys’ savings and parental loans.
Next, Liam and Teddy set about gaining the skills they would need to make their dream a reality. “We watched YouTube videos, read dozens of articles, and took a class at The DIY Joint in Hoboken to learn how to use basic tools,” Liam said.
“We made cutting boards,” Teddy laughed. They also helped repair a friend’s parent’s deck, “Which taught us how much longer things take than you expect them to.”
Realizing they needed additional guidance, the boys reached out to mentors, including South Orange parent Jesse Wilde and Teddy’s cousin Heilyn Jordan, a Connecticut-based timber framer. “Suddenly, terms like ‘crossmembers’ and ‘thermal bridging’ became part of daily conversation,” Kristina said. “They were obsessed.”
The two-man crew established a work schedule, arriving at the site every morning before 10 a.m. and working until 6 p.m. Home-cooked lunches quickly became part of the routine, with both boys improving their cooking skills and sitting down to eat in Alison’s kitchen.
The next challenge was dealing with vendors. “When deliveries were delayed, it really threw us off,” Teddy said. “Whether or not we are professionals, our time has value, and I needed to learn how to communicate that.”
Alison recalls hearing her son on the phone after a delivery didn’t arrive. “He was polite but firm, negotiating a huge discount and getting them to commit to a shorter timeframe. Suddenly, he wasn’t a kid anymore.”
The boys also had to learn to work together. Although they had been friends since fifth grade, “Our personalities are really different,” Liam said. “I tend to worry and can’t always keep my head on straight, but Teddy helps me focus on the facts.”
Teddy said, “Yeah, but I am so detail-oriented and meticulous that I get lost in the weeds. Without Liam, I don’t think we’d ever finish.”
Both boys are grateful for the opportunity to work on the project. “It’s become our lives,” Teddy said. “Some days are slow, and some are really fulfilling. We’ve seen our skills improve, and we know we can take on new challenges and succeed.”
“I’ve grown a lot. I honestly think this has made me a better person,” Liam said. “It’s a whole new way of engaging in life, a break from the routines I have been in since I was a kid. Now that I can do this, I’m more confident about change in general. Whether it’s travel, school, or something different, I feel like I can handle it.”
After two months of preparation and three on site, the house is well underway, with framing complete and the walls going up. But, knowing what they know now, would they do it again?
“Definitely. Not only that, but we’d do it better,” Liam said. “We’d use our own design and probably cut the timeline in half.”
“The skills are transferable, too,” Teddy pointed out. “From now on, the sky’s the limit.”
Follow Liam and Teddy at Instagram.com/mapsotinyhouse