By Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

BILLINGS - A trio of local architects is hoping to do something different, something big, with the concept of tiny homes.

Brian Johnson, Nick Pancheau and Jeff Kanning, partners in Collaborative Design Architects, started a sister business, Arch 406, to cater to clients whose smaller, custom-designed projects weren’t quite big enough to interest most contractors.

The architectural firm would design a garage or a kitchen remodel, but then their client would have trouble finding a contractor to take the job and finish it. Johnson, Pancheau and Kanning came up with Arch 406 to help clients design a project, then hire the subcontractors and see the project through to completion.

And they were determined to focus only on small projects.

“We work with a lot of big contractors in town, so we didn’t want to step on toes,” Johnson said.

In the process of brainstorming about other services and products Arch 406 could offer, they hit on the idea of tiny homes. But their idea was to offer something more than a shed on wheels, to custom-make tiny homes with the same construction materials, windows and fixtures they used for million-dollar houses.

That’s why their working motto is “More than tiny,” Johnson said.

And once they decided to go into tiny homes, they started thinking of other possible uses for tiny-home-style structures. They have fully designed three kinds of houses and an office pod so far, and you can see plans and three-dimensional drawings of them on the Arch 406 website.

But Johnson said they could use the tiny-home template to build just about anything, including a catering trailer, a luxury ice-fishing house, a contractor’s trailer with a meeting room to talk to clients, and food trucks.

“We’re not interested in competing with S-Bar-S,” Johnson said. “We’re interested in working with people who value custom design. … We’re not going to build 15 or 20 of these and put them out on a lot and hope they sell.”

They are now working on two projects, both of which are nearing completion in the Arch 406 studio and workshop on Moore Lane. One is a food truck that will double as a mobile bakery for Matt Melvin’s new business, Rudeboys (see related story), which he plans to use for street sales in Billings and at music festivals and other events around the state.

The second project is a 300-square-foot house, based on their Nomad model, for a writer who lives in Bozeman and wants to downsize. Her plan is to live and write in the tiny home on some property she owns outside of town.

The base price for the Nomad is $68,000, or $72,500 with all furnishings, appliances and kitchenware. At the higher price, Johnson said, “the only thing you really need is your clothes and your bedding.”

The Nomad has a bathroom with a walk-in shower, a sleeping loft above the kitchen, a small dining area with a fold-up table and a raised living room—or, in the case of the Bozeman writer, a little office for writing. That space sits atop a compartment containing a trundle bed that can be rolled out for guests.

The house has a composting toilet, but if an owner wants to put the house on skids and make it permanent, it can be hooked up to conventional plumbing. The 2-by-4 walls have polyurethane insulation, with an R-value of 21. The R-value of the ceiling is 28, and the floor is 19.

The house is 8½ feet wide—the maximum width allowed on most roads—and 13½ feet high. It sits on a custom-designed chassis made in Colorado.

Johnson said he couldn’t imagine living in a tiny house himself, but “if you own acreage outside the city limits, this is a great idea for a second home or a cabin.” And if you live in a rural area where fire is a concern, you could hitch up the house and pull it to safety at the first sign of danger.

One of the bigger challenges at the moment is working with city building codes, Johnson said. If you put a tiny home in the country there are few barriers, but city codes do not address tiny homes, and it might be tricky to obtain the necessary permits.

Pancheau said that international building codes for 2018 are expected to include guidelines for tiny homes, and since municipalities generally incorporate new rules into their own codes after a year or two, Montana should be up to date by 2020 at the latest.

There is a similar lack of rules regarding health and safety, Johnson said, so when they were designing the Rudeboys food truck, they reached out to Riverstone Health, the county health agency, to make sure their design would pass muster.

As a result, the food truck includes walls made of fiber-reinforced panels, which are easy to keep clean, and slip-resistant sheet vinyl floors that are chemically sealed so there are no grouts or openings, and a cove base that slopes up to contain spills.

The partners look forward to using the tiny home concept to meet any other needs their clients might have. Some communities around the country are even using tiny homes as a means of dealing with homelessness. Johnson said tiny homes could be rented cheaply, with an option to buy, giving homeless people something to work toward, plus pride of ownership.

“It think that’s an opportunity,” he said.

Ed Kemmick has been a newspaper reporter, editor and columnist since 1980. Except for four years in his home state of Minnesota, he has spent his entire journalism career in Montana, working in Missoula, Anaconda, Butte and Billings. "The Big Sky, By and By," a collection of some of his newspaper stories and columns, plus a few essays and one short story, was published in 2011.