In Northeast Kingdom Woods, Tiny Home Enthusiasts Leave Behind Collection Of Houses

Sep 27, 2018

Since 2012, a group of tiny house enthusiasts has gathered in the woods of the Northeast Kingdom to participate in hands-on building workshops. It's known as Tiny House Summer Camp.

The event is the brainchild of Derek Diedricksen — who, along with his brother Dustin, runs tiny house building workshops around the country. Over the years, the camp participants have left behind several small structures in the Northeast Kingdom. 

On a beautiful afternoon last weekend, several students were helping instructor Chris Strathy build a staircase up to a treehouse dubbed "UB30." One end is painted red and with two plastic salad bowls serving as round windows, it resembles an owl.

“You want to make sure that this is the top right here,” Strathy said, pointing to a support for a step. “'Cause that's that little nib that Marty said we had to cut off," Marty being the Connecticut architect who assists the Diedricksen brothers in their traveling tiny house workshops.

The UB30 tree house built for Dustin Diedricksen. The windows are plastic salad bowls.
Credit Jon Kalish / For VPR

Strathy makes his living building gazebos in North Carolina. He hauled his mobile woodworking shop in a trailer to Vermont for Tiny House Summer Camp and parked it in a field where students were camping.

“This is like a playground I've been dreaming of since I was 10 years old,” Strathy said. “This is awesome. I'm in heaven here.”

The North Carolina builder is clearly a kindred spirit of Diedricksen. In addition to being the founder of Tiny House Summer Camp, Diedricksen presides over a YouTube channel and a blog, and he is a voracious scavenger known for re-purposing salvaged materials. One of the treehouses in his off-grid camp has a roof tiled with election signs from his town outside Boston.

The kitchen at Tiny House Summer Camp features artwork by Derek Diedricksen to the right of the serving counter.
Credit Jon Kalish / For VPR

Another structure, a cabin named in honor of an Adirondack woodworker who came to Tiny House Summer Camp a few years back, has a large number of windows Diedricksen has found sitting on suburban curbs waiting for garbage collectors.

“Like Derek, I can't drive past something without dreaming of making it habitable,” said Strathy. “Or sticking it in a tree or using it for something other than what it was originally designed for.”

Diedricksen's 10-acre camp near Orleans lacks running water and there's no electricity, so power tool batteries are charged with portable generators. 

A deck is added to a tiny house built in a previous Tiny House Summer Camp. The cabin is named in honor of the Adirondack carpenter Bill Rockhill, who supervised its constructions. The back wall of the structure has several salvaged windows Derek Diedricksen found near his home in Stoughton, MA.
Credit Jon Kalish / For VPR

Walking along a half-mile path that winds up and down hills and through the forest, Diedricksen shows off the tiny houses that have been built here over the last six years.

“We have all these cabins we keep building. We have so many structures here now that sometimes I kind of lose count,” said Diedricksen.

Actually, there's a total of 10 structures, including the Diedricksen family cabin and the UB30 treehouse that Diedricksen built for his brother Dustin as a birthday gift on Dustin's 30th birthday.

The structure's name is a pop music pun: UB30 is a reference to the British reggae band UB40, which had a hit in the 1980s titled "Red Red Wine." Dustin, who works for an environmental engineering firm, is now 38. He joked about his brother building a new treehouse for his 40th birthday, which could be actually be named UB40.

There are three other treehouses on the property. One of them is tall and rectangular. With a few pieces of decorative material added solely for artistic effect, it looks just like “a 23-foot tall robot treehouse and it lights up at night,” Diedricksen explained. He added that “hunters come through all the time, walking through like, 'What the heck is this? A giant robot in the woods?'”

The 23-foot tall robot treehouse. A photo of the structure went viral on the internet two years ago.
Credit Jon Kalish / For VPR

One of the Vermonters who attended this year's Tiny House Summer Camp is Rhonda Brace, who teaches art at a Montpelier middle school. She's planning to build a tiny house on a trailer and parking it, initially, in her driveway.

As a single mom with a limited budget, Brace said she'll have to acquire the material she needs for the project little by little.

“I have a bunch of friends that are architects and builders, so I have free labor available," Brace said. “I just need to get the money to get the trailer and materials.”

Brace met the Diedricksen brothers at a workshop held at the Yestermorrow Design/Build School in Waitsfield. She digs their offbeat sense of humor. Last weekend Brace attended demonstrations on deck-building and shingle-making.

“It's just nice to meet other people that don't think you're crazy [because] you tell them you are fine living in 200 square feet of space,” Brace said, with a hearty laugh. “'Cause not everybody can embrace that.”

During lunch around the Tiny House Summer Camp fire, the proud mom mentioned that her only child is an undergraduate at Princeton on a full swimming scholarship. Brace said that when she completes her tiny house on wheels, she plans to follow her daughter to medical school.