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April 21, 2017

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Irvington High School junior Dina Pekelis uses a miter saw as she and other students construct the house on April 14.

Teens build tiny house based on big idea

By Jackie Lupo

IRVINGTON — Seventy years ago, when modernist architect Mies van der Rohe described his philosophy as “less is more,” he probably did not envision a future generation of architects who would take his words so literally. Today, “less” may refer not only to less ornamentation in design, but also to less square footage.

The age of the “tiny house” has arrived — not just as a hipster oddity on reality TV, but on Irvington School District property, next to the dumpsters behind Dows Lane Elementary School. There, board by board, nail by nail, student volunteers are building a solar-powered tiny house that will rise to a height of 13 feet, including the trailer bed it sits on, and have about 320 square feet of interior space, including an overhead loft for sleeping and utilities.

Construction of the house began April 8 and continued over the spring break with a rotating crew of student volunteer labor supervised by Irvington High School architecture teacher Pat Costabile and Remy Mermelstein, the Irvington High School senior who designed the house. The deadline for completion is in August, because that’s when Mermelstein is scheduled to leave for college in upstate Ithaca.

The story of the tiny house began two years ago, when Nicole Chase, then an IHS freshman, submitted a grant proposal to the Irvington Education Foundation’s Innovation Fund to build a tiny house that would be “a classroom for both students and citizens of Irvington to learn more about conservation.” Her goal, she stated, was to “give our community a better view of the ways in which individuals can lower their carbon footprint and live responsibly.”

A passionate advocate for climate change awareness, Chase was intrigued by people who had built tiny homes, because they were making a decision to live sustainable lives on a small scale.

“While called 'tiny homes,' these homes still enable the people who own them to live comfortably,” Chase, now a junior, explained. “However, to build a tiny home is to choose a life of environmental consciousness.” Chase noted that not everyone might opt to live in a tiny house, but the presence of one in Irvington would remind residents that “there are tiny changes we can make in our own lives that can improve the environment.”

After the IEF awarded a grant of $3,500 in 2015, Chase turned to Mermelstein, who began interning with Gotham Design & Community Development in Dobbs Ferry five years ago and has been taking Costabile’s architecture classes throughout high school. At Cornell, he'll enrolled in the university's five-year Bachelor of Architecture program.

The tiny house is his first job — albeit an unpaid one — as lead architect, and as he moved around the worksite on April 14 wearing a heavy tool belt slung from his hips, a pair of rugged work boots, and carpenter’s goggles, he directed middle and high school students who were clambering all over the frame of the house. Architectural drawings sat on a pile of lumber; the plans showed a contemporary structure with a sleeping loft cantilevered above the main level.

While the house will initially sit on a knoll near the Dows Lane basketball courts, it “will travel between the [district's] three schools, and hopefully to other schools, to teach kids about sustainability,” Mermelstein said.

The house will be insulated and have indoor plumbing (including a shower), with gravity-fed piping coming from 200-gallon water tanks in the loft. Solar panels on the roof will provide electricity. There will be built-in closets and shelving in the kitchen area, but Mermelstein wasn’t sure about Wi-Fi. There isn’t going to be much room for furniture. “Maybe something from IKEA,” he said.

As for the design, “It’s definitely a modern take on the tiny house," Mermelstein explained. “I tried to use a zigzag pattern... I consulted the Tumbleweed Tiny Houses website, and I spent many hours on the phone with the American Tiny House Association.”

He noted that this job is tricky because everything has to be perfectly squared. But because the house is being built on a trailer that sits on tires, the structure tends to move, leading to a lot of measuring, re-measuring, ripping out, and rebuilding.

Mermelstein estimated that the house would cost about $18,000 to build. Copp Construction of Irvington has been helping out with trucking and materials. The crew has received private donations, and would welcome additional contributions. They are also in the process of seeking an additional grant from the IEF.

Costabile has been at the site supervising the volunteer laborers, many of whom have some prior carpentry experience as members of the tech crews for student theater productions. “They’ve been unbelievable,” Costabile told the Enterprise. “The kids are excited to finally get into it. Every day there’s somebody new.”

Of the 13 volunteers working last Friday, four were girls. “That’s a good sign because there’s a shortage of girls in the field,” Costabile noted, adding that he doesn’t get a lot of girls registering for his architecture classes. “I’d like a lot more,” he said.

To contribute to the tiny house building fund, contact Mermelstein at

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