Just over a year and a half ago, Jane Ingalls retired as an Earth Sciences Librarian at Stanford University. Now on a fixed income, Ingalls knew she wouldn’t be able to afford to continue living in the Bay Area. But she did have land in Mendocino County. And she had known Stephen Marshall for years.
Marshall owns and operates Little House on the Trailer, a Petaluma-based business that has designed and manufactured secondary units for the past nine years. Also known as accessory dwelling units, these homes range from 400 to 800 square feet, are fully customizable and delivered with utility hookups, generally within two months.
After much research and consideration, Ingalls purchased her own Little House in September of 2016. “They were so pretty, so nicely designed,” she said, noting the showroom on Petaluma Boulevard North. She wanted windows that would take advantage of her property’s beautiful views, and she wanted the living room to be big enough for her family’s Oriental rug. She also opted for sliding glass doors, a deck on the south side, and linoleum wood flooring.
“From the time I ordered it until the time it was ready [for delivery],” said Ingalls, “it was just like two months—it was really fast.” Ingalls even went with Marshall to the manufacturing factory in the Central Valley, and was fascinated by the efficiency of the assembly line.
Ingalls’ home, which she is using as her primary residence, is 800 square feet with three bedrooms and two baths. “Even though the rooms are small, I have so many windows and it looks out on so much open space that it doesn’t feel confined,” she said.
Little House on the Trailer also designs and manufactures smaller secondary units, but unlike the media darlings seen on TV, they can only be moved by a professional transport service. As of this year, new statewide legislation lowers costs and reduces requirements for secondary dwelling units. Sonoma County is currently considering implementing villages of accessory dwelling units to tackle homelessness. And in unincorporated areas of Sonoma County, home care cottages receive special permitting.
Marshall and his team are currently working on a project in Healdsburg, where the City has completed all of its policy revisions to the new state regulations and have reduced fees by about half. The City also removed requirement for sprinklers, which can run to $10,000 potentially, and removed parking requirements mandated by the state. “All together I’d say there’s been an easy $20,000 removed from the burden,” said Marshall, who noted that prior parking requirements killed 90 percent of secondary unit projects.
A 70-year-old general contractor, Marshall built his first house in Inverness in 1973. After building about a dozen conventional houses, he became a cabinetmaker for 30 years, mostly supplying high-end houses in Stinson Beach and Pacific Heights. But after a few years, he changed course. “I decided to open up this other business because I kind of finished with the high-end world,” he said, “and I was curious about affordable housing—that’s actually driven my interest.”
Marshall attended Stanford University in the 1960s and studied product design, building some geodesic domes and recycled shacks up in the hills above Palo Alto with a community of design students. “And it’s really where my passion was,” he said. “I just couldn’t find an outlet for it. I thought about going to work for a mobile home manufacturer in Indiana, but at the time, they weren’t interested in radical young design students. So I moved to Marin County and became a builder.”
At Little House on the Trailer Marshall initially built everything by hand, with his crew. Now he’s using major factories, just to get the prices that his customers need. He used to do accessory dwelling units in Marin County for $300,000—just for the unit alone. But that’s not what’s inspiring to him.
“I’m excited, actually, passionate about, something being affordable, even more than something being the most extravagantly well built,” he said, “because I’ve done that. In my experiences it goes into second or third homes for very wealthy people. No one’s really benefitting.
“I’ve always felt this way—that there are people that have everything they need and people that don’t have everything that they need, and the people that don’t have it outnumber the people that do have it,” said Marshall. “I just think that even though I’ve got mine, I would be much happier that everybody had something modest than a few people having something grand.” SD