Baylor University clinical assistant professor Ann Theriot has lived in her new small home on Tyler Street for about three months, but sometimes has to think hard where to find something.
Is it in the drawer tucked under the first step of the stairs? Behind the door in the back of her upstairs closet? The broom closet under the stairs that looks like Harry Potter’s room in the Dursleys’ house? How about the storage space under her bed?
“There are times I could use an index,” Theriot said with a laugh.
Her small slate-blue house, a two-story Greek Revival with about 1,260 square feet of floor space, is one of several intentionally small houses or cottages built near Elm Avenue, forerunners of what one local builder says may soon be a trend in Waco.
Small houses, generally defined as 1,000 square feet or smaller, are a trend for new builds nationally, particularly in cities where real estate prices are soaring. They are also appealing for home owners interested in shrinking their environmental footprint, since they use less material and are generally more energy-efficient, while others find them the right size to fill in older city neighborhoods with smaller vacant lots.
Waco’s “Fixer Upper” couple Chip and Joanna Gaines tackled a small house project in their show’s third season, renovating an old shotgun house, so called for its linear layout, and relocating it to South Seventh Street.
Theriot, who teaches interior design and its history in Baylor’s Robbins College of Health and Human Sciences, had a more specific reason for a small house: She let her design students plan her house as a class project.
“I love when students have a tangible project to work on,” the 40-year-old assistant professor said.
She had been thinking of moving from a “very charming” small house in Castle Heights to a place of her own when a bigger picture popped into her mind.
“God gave me the vision for that project,” she said.
Letting students plan house design, room layout and furniture and appliance location, with her guidance, would be a real-world project promising plenty of helpful experience. Theriot, a Baylor graduate who returned to her school five years ago after a decade in hotel design, saw beyond a growing home construction trend.
“What we’re trying to teach is how to use space economically,” she said. “We want to understand the value of every square foot.”
She took her proposal to Nancy Grayson, owner of Lula Jane’s Bakery on Elm Avenue, who with her husband Bob is building small houses as a way of filling in the established neighborhood in East Waco. Grayson approved of Theriot’s idea, sold her a 50-by-115-foot lot, and by October 2016 Theriot and her classes started to plan.
To figure out the most efficient floor plans, students asked their professor a lot of personal questions. Did she eat her meals in the dining room or in front of the television in the living room? How many people did she invite when she threw parties or dinners? What furniture did she have? How much space did the 5’4” tall Theriot need for clothing? Where did her golden retriever, Mr. George Knightley, sleep?
“I love that my class learned the importance of interviewing the client,” she said.
Theriot wanted a two-story Greek Revival house, which took some planning to fit into the small lot. She and her students drew on space-saving tips and strategies including drawers and small closets built into stairs, spaces between walls used for storage and deep shelves, nine-foot ceilings allowing tall closets, a stacked washer and dryer, walls ending in a built-in bookcase, a shower tucked under an eave that required an angled ceiling and custom-cut shower curtain.
Home builder Jerry Barrett, who has constructed other houses for Grayson, added his own suggestions, and Theriot supplemented the designs with her own tastes, choosing oak flooring, antique hardware, a dresser crafted by a great-grandfather and walnut kitchen countertops, among others.
Her Tyler Avenue house with its two bedrooms and 2 1/2 baths cost $178,000 and was not completed until after the spring semester, so many of her Baylor students have yet to see the final product. After three months, it is starting to feel like home, she said.
“I know about where everything is,” Theriot said. “My dog has a yard and school starts Monday.”
She moved into a neighborhood with other small houses, new and old, nearby. Next door is a light yellow, shotgun-style house owned by Steven and Pamela Rosenbaum while nearby on Dallas Street is the small house where Jim Petit and Joann Bristol live.
It’s part of Grayson’s neighborhood building strategy in the Elm Avenue area, where new development fills in open spots with the intent of fostering a walkable neighborhood conducive to connection and relationships.
“This is still a cohesive neighborhood. It’s not a dangerous area nor is it fragmented,” Grayson said.
Rosenbaum, a Dallas area financial wholesaler, and his wife bought their small house last year as an investment and as a home for their son Dane during his years at Baylor. The couple will not be staying in the house as much with Dane, an entrepreneurship and aviation student, starting classes this week, but have enjoyed the time they spent there, Steve Rosenbaum said.
“Because of the size limitations, you can’t clutter it up,” he said. “We have to be disciplined. We’re much better housekeepers in our cottage than our home and we’re careful how much stuff we bring in.”
It has been a learning experience, and Theriot has offered help, he said.
“We’ve learned so much from Ann about efficiency and how to use a small area,” he said. “She’s an awesome neighbor. … There are little things you don’t think about much, like where do you store the lawn mower, that suddenly become a big question.”
The Rosenbaums’ solution was to hire someone in the neighborhood to mow. Theriot built a tool shed for hers.
A renovated small house will be added to the Elm neighborhood in upcoming months. The Graysons are in the process of restoring a 1920 shotgun house at 210 Peach St. and are seeking historic landmark designation for it.
Simple shotgun houses were more common in Waco in the early part of the 20th century, when they provided cheap housing for day laborers, clerks, plumbers, painters and the like, said Kenneth Hafertepe, chairman of Baylor’s Department of Museum Studies and a member of Waco’s Historic Landmark Preservation Commission.
A few are scattered around Waco, but most were torn down for larger houses or other buildings as new residential development moved to the suburbs where bigger lots and bigger houses were available. The growth of apartment buildings and complexes also attracted the single workers and small families that earlier might have lived in small houses.
For now, much of the new small house construction has been in East Waco near Elm Avenue. City of Waco planing director Clint Peters said his office frequently fields calls and emails from people interested in small houses, but building permits for new construction haven’t followed.
“Nobody wants to pull the trigger,” he said.
Peters estimated a third of the city’s houses are 1,000 to 1,500 square feet in floor space, but below that is “not the norm.”
Waco has no ordinances specifying a minimum house size. There is a minimum 50-foot lot size, but a recent change allows 25-foot lots on a case-by-case basis with city council approval. The smaller lots are meant to encourage fill-in development in older parts of the city.
“I have a feeling more will follow,” Peters said.
Waco builder Steve Sorrells, president and CEO of Sorrells & Co., agreed that Waco will start seeing more small houses being built. His company’s Cameron Heights development offers several stand-alone cottages of about 1,000 square feet and costing between $180,000 and $230,000.
The combination of pent-up demand for housing, rising construction costs, a desire by many young homebuyers to live closer to work or downtown and more retirees wanting to downsize adds up to small, smart houses as a solution, Sorrells said.
That is a change from past attitudes about housing where bigger was better, both in house and lot size.
“We’re spoiled in Texas. We’ve been able to sprawl all these years,” Sorrells said. “But the bigger it is, the more stuff you have to worry about over time. We’re reinventing the way we are thinking about housing.”