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Tiny House, Meet Roving Caravan: Olympia's Zyl Vardos


Zyl Vardos in his first tiny house.

Zyl Vardos in his first tiny house.

April Baer/OPB

Ten years ago, the quintessential tiny house was a repurposed shipping container — industrial-modern and proud of it. That was fitting for a movement whose rising appeal was tethered to the global financial crisis, but the aesthetic is changing.

Just ask Abel Zimmerman Zyl, a Washingtonian whose company, Zyl Vardos, makes decidedly whimsical tiny-house caravans. The company specializes in organic shapes and has been happily installing undulating rooflines, circular Hobbit-esque doors, and bright expanses of cedar shingles into the tiny house design lexicon since 2007.

Zyl's Pinafore design shows off one of his signature curvy roofs.

Zyl's Pinafore design shows off one of his signature curvy roofs.

Guillaume Dutilh/Courtesy of Zyl Vardos

The tiny house movement may have gained traction in austere times, but, for Zyl, building small, movable houses is about more than saving money.

“Culturally we are due for a little change from the manufactured, expensive world,” he said. “Not only is the money part of it, but also people finding a more zen way to live.”

Zyl’s “tiny living” history began when he moved onto a sailboat in the aftermath of a major breakup — a time for zen if ever there was one — but he also traces the thread back to childhood.

“I’ve been a fan of small spaces and tree houses,” he said. “I had a hayloft that I inhabited when I was a kid. We used to build all kinds of weird forts by weaving sticks together in the bushes. My parents could never figure out quite where we were.” 

Now he and his crew of five craftsmen and women work long hours on the growing list of orders for Zyl’s designs. Standing inside one of his creations, you can’t help but register the maritime feel of an arching roof and large wooden flanks.

“There is something a little bit boaty with all the wood and planking,” he said. 

Many of Zyl's tiny houses sport an arched a-frame design.

Many of Zyl's tiny houses sport an arched a-frame design.

Courtesy of Abel Zimmerman Zyl

One of his formative building experiences was attempting a boat in his senior year at Evergreen State College. He never finished it, but the aesthetic stuck. 

“I can make these into a houseboat pretty easy,” Zyl said, pondering his creations. “Structurally they’ll stand up to the marine environment.”

And why not? Even if you live in a tiny house caravan, you never know when it might be time to make some drastic changes to your way of life.

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