Missoula startup looks to build city’s first tiny home village

Bonsai Communities, founded by Clare Weiler, right, and Mark Trepanier,  is looking to build Missoula’s first tiny home village on 19 acres located just north of I-90 and North Reserve. The goal is to construct around 80 new homes and sell them at affordable rates. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

Back when Mark Trepanier worked at Home Depot, he often asked the customers what nature of project they were working on. On more than one occasion, the answer came back in something of a whisper.

They were building a tiny house.

“There’s a lot of people doing this under the radar, so I began to wonder, what if we could get everybody together to do it,” Trepanier said. “Those people at Home Depot were living tiny, but they couldn’t showcase it because it wasn’t legal. It clicked that I could actually do this.”

That moment of realization brought them to Thursday when Trepanier and Clare Weiler pitched their upstart business – Bonsai Communities – to a roomful of judges gathered for the John Ruffatto Business Startup Challenge at the University of Montana.

Bonsai Communities is looking to build Missoula’s first tiny home village on 19 acres located just north of I-90 and North Reserve. The goal is to construct around 80 new homes and they’re currently vetting the concept.

“We’ve started meetings with First Interstate Bank, and we’ve met with the Missoula County commissioners and have had our first meeting with the county health department to talk about water and sanitation,” said Weiler. “We’ll be connected on backup to the power grid, but we’ll be mainly running on solar with our own micro-grid.”

Their efforts to build the city’s first community of tiny homes is somewhat personal. Both Weiler and Trepanier have faced homelessness and eviction in the past. They’re also aware of the rising cost of housing – something that has plagued local governments and prompted a new study by the Missoula Organization of Realtors in search of solutions.

As planned, Weiler said, Bonsai Communities would offer roughly 10 different housing options ranging from 300 square feet to 700. The homes would sell from $85,000 to $130,000, with $100,000 being the median. That’s well below the city’s current median home price of $256,000.

“Every room basically has double duty, and you realize how little you actually need,” said Trepanier. “It allows you to get out more. Instead of working 40 hours or 50 hours to afford that house, you can work 25 hours and go skiing because that’s really what you want to do.”

The International Residential Code approved tiny houses in the construction appendix in December of last year. The changes now allow people to receive a certificate of occupancy for their tiny house when it’s built to meet the provisions of the code.

Prior to approval, Weiler said, the IRC’s lack of recognition for tiny houses had served as a major barrier to legal creation of tiny home communities across the country.

“We’ve been working with Missoula County now for a while and they’re looking at the 2016 IRC that has tiny house wiggle room,” said Weiler. “Once they implement that, we’ll be able to move forward and start building tiny houses legally.”

If their effort wins county approval, Bonsai Communities will secure its bank loan and begin construction. The homes will sit on permanent foundations and contribute to a housing cooperative.

“There’s just not enough affordable housing in Missoula,” said Weiler. “There’s definitely plans for it in the future, but it’s not fast enough. We’re trying to get into that little gap before it comes through.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com