Joel Weber arrived in Nicaragua with nothing but a suitcase and a one-way ticket in search of a culture that would not only allow him to find himself, but also accept whoever he may be.
Long before the 26-year-old design senior constructed the tiny house sitting outside the Art building and museum, he found himself searching the world for something personally fulfilling. Weber said he boarded the plane to Nicaragua in hopes of escaping the materialistic culture of the U.S. and didn’t plan on returning.
“We live in excess,” Weber said. “We tend to forget what life is really about. We fail to give priority to our relationships and continue this culture of idealism where you look down on people who are different than you.”
Weber said he knew he was making the right decision, but the journey wasn’t easy — he was on his own.
“There were times in Nicaragua where I thought I could disappear and nobody would miss me,” Weber said. “I remember thinking, ‘Why do you have to be incredibly alone to learn things about yourself?’”
As time went by, he started building relationships in a culture that was much simpler than the one he managed to escape.
“I camped down the coasts of Costa Rica and lived in mosquito infested tents and met beautiful people who lived within their means,” Weber said. “They had so little but they gave so much. I felt so much more at home in the Latin culture.”
After three months, Weber returned to the States.
At the age of 25, Weber was accepted into the design program at UT. However, one of the most expensive obstacles in pursuing a higher education in Austin remained: housing.
Instead of taking out student loans to pay for housing, Weber decided to build something inspired by his experience in Latin America — a tiny home.
“The interest in tiny houses all started when I came back from living out my suitcase in Central America,” Weber said. “I was the happiest was I’ve ever been and I knew I wanted a sense of ownership.”
Weber said rather than using official blueprints, he just used hand sketches to scale and design his ideal tiny house, and with the help of an electrician and carpenter, they began construction on the 18’ trailer.
One year later, Weber’s tiny house came to life. Due to a limited budget, Weber said much of his house was built with reclaimed material, allowing him to finish the house for less than $15,000.
Now, Weber’s house made its way to the 40 Acres.
“For our senior show I wanted to show people how they could potentially live more sustainably,” Weber said.
Weber’s tiny house, which will allow him to graduate debt-free, was originally approved to spend just two weeks on campus. But after such a positive reaction, he said it may stay until he graduates, serving as an educational installment.
Weber masterfully placed two beds elevated above the kitchen, which has a stove and sink, allowing the house to feel much more spacious than 145 square feet.
Carma Gorman, the associate professor and assistant chair in the department of Art and Art History said what Weber was able to do was remarkable.
“The single most impressive thing is how he got UT to let him hook up water, gas and electric to our building,” Gorman said. “I don’t know how he did it and I don’t think I want to know.”
Gorman said she’d like to see the small house movement continue to grow, but as people continue to desire large houses, it doesn’t look promising.
“There’s a place for a much more modest space,” Gorman said. "You don’t need a huge house for all moments of your life. It’d be nice if we could find a way in our country to make it possible to support not just the giant houses, but also the little ones.”
Weber’s house has been featured on The Huffington Post, Wall Street Journal and most recently HGTV’s Tiny House Hunters on April 3.
The tiny house consistently draws curious tourists and students from around the world, as Weber continues to emphasize what he learned four years ago — the importance of sustainable living.
“We need to diversify our communities,” Weber said. “Whether it be socioeconomically, culturally or architecturally, we have to start thinking of our neighborhoods in a much more sustainable way.”