Urbaneer reveals its tiny homes model


Bruce Thompson and Urbaneer soon will bring the cottage model to market. This version has a 576-square-foot footprint. Photo by Ehren Wynder

Urbaneer has unveiled a new frontier into its “small space living” concept. The company originally founded by Bruce Thompson in 2014 has taken off into the single-family home market with the unveiling of a new style of home that can address the housing needs of the “missing middle.”

Early last week, Thompson and his wife Brenda, also co-founder of Urbaneer, opened their own home to the public to showcase real “small space” living.

“It’s more of a lab than a showroom because we are constantly updating it and trying new things,” Thompson said. “We’ve been here two years, we’ve learned a tremendous amount and we’ve learned how to live larger in a small space.

Urbaneer started coordinating with Dave Morren, president of Insignia Homes, about four years ago to explore the option of smaller-scale single-family homes. Mike Dykstra, CEO of Zeeland Lumber, came on board last fall. For Dykstra, Urbaneer’s new home design could equate to lower build costs even as the construction industry struggles with labor shortages and material costs.

“One trend that you’re seeing in our industry is what we call off-site assembly … building the panels off-site,” Dykstra said.

Zeeland Lumber has three locations where it manufactures prefabricated wall panels, reducing material waste and labor time on-site, Dykstra said.

Similarly, Morren envisions the new home concept as an opportunity to gain efficiencies on a job and keep the cost of construction down.

“Historically, homes were all rafter-frame homes, and distributors like Zeeland Lumber came up with ways to build trusses and floor systems and these sorts of things,” Morren said. “We’re already doing this with roof and floor systems, so is there a way to gain efficiencies with panelized wall systems to keep the amount of labor on the job site as low as we can?”

Insignia Homes will be Urbaneer’s first authorized homebuilder for this new series of homes.

Aside from adding efficiencies in labor and materials, Urbaneer’s approach to meeting the housing needs of middle-income households involves creating compact spaces.

“We’re working with designers and architects to make sure that it’s a buildable plan that we can use the efficiencies in,” Morren said.

“It’s worked very well in the multifamily business, and we think with the right kind of design, thinking and partnership, we can really gain something in the single-family market,” Dykstra said.

Thompson’s home is about an 800-square-foot footprint, which he said could amount to 1,200 square feet because of the flexibility features. In addition to the cost savings from living in a smaller footprint, Urbaneer’s flexibility features — being able to turn a bedroom into a dining room — can equate to “lifecycle cost” savings, like taxes, insurance, heating, cooling, etc.

“Even in the polar vortex days, which we all are trying to forget, we were paying a little over $100 per month in this home, and with a conventional build, you could be at about $200,” Thompson said.

The company also has two other models that it intends to bring to market: a 300-square-foot carriage house and a 576-square-foot cottage design with an optional basement. Aside from working to reduce the cost of buying a home, Urbaneer and its partners are looking at different metrics in determining the cost of living.

“We’re going to start finishing homes quicker, just because of the efficiency,” Morren said. “In terms of the raw cost, it’s a little hard to know on some of this because it’s uncharted territory. We know that eventually, there is going to be a lot of efficiency worked out.”

The Urbaneer lifestyle is good for anybody age “22 to 102,” Thompson said. Regardless of people’s individual phases in life, the models Thompson is promoting are geared toward people who want to live a more compact, walkable lifestyle.

“Walkability is probably the single biggest attribute that people are striving for right now, and so we’re trying to serve that part of the market that will make that tradeoff in square footage for a location and a higher quality product.”

Mike Morin, director of Start Garden and another partner on the Urbaneer venture, said it plays well to West Michigan’s innovation strengths.

“If we look at what the startup and innovation system is going to look like in West Michigan, it’s not going to look like Silicon Valley. It’s going to play to our strengths,” Morin said. “The convergence of technology in a built environment is that strength. We’ve been using design and technology to innovate spaces for a very long time.”

Thompson said West Michigan could see the first Urbaneer home come to market within the next couple of weeks. The partners are currently pursuing spaces throughout the region, including in Holland and Muskegon.

The Business Journal previously reported Urbaneer spun out of Rockford Construction early in 2018. Urbaneer also gained national attention when it showcased its wireless kitchen concept at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier that year.

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