Tiny house on wheels has the Wright stuff

Tiny house on wheels has the Wright stuff
CNN image
The Vista towable RV from Escape brings the outdoors in with walls of windows.

Want a tiny house? A home inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright? A state-of-the-art RV you can tow to your Grand Canyon or Maine vacation?

If your answer is “yes,” that hybrid travel dream may be being assembled in a Quonset-hut-and-machine-shed compound on the outskirts of the small town of Rice Lake, Wisconsin, 100 miles southeast of Lake Superior.

It is where Escape builds luxury tiny houses on wheels. Owner Dan Dobrowolski — a former Chicago TV meteorologist and computer entrepreneur — is also a devotee of Frank Lloyd Wright, and his models are inspired by the iconic American architect.

The tiny/hybrid/Wright model — the Vista — starts in the upper $40,000s. A reviewer in Forbes magazine called it “the world’s most beautiful tiny house.”

Like other Escape models, the Vista is built on a steel chassis and is technically a towable RV. RV Industry Association-certified, it complies with safety standards and is street-legal coast-to-coast, according to Dobrowolski.

It looks less RV-like than the Airstream, is heavily insulated and can be pulled by a pickup. Tiny-home buyers can customize their orders and have them driven to their destination.

What arrives is … well, tiny. The length of the standard Vista is 21 feet — less than a yardstick longer than a Chevrolet Suburban. And it is essentially a wooden box.

But inside the Vista you’ll see the Wright stuff.

A giant who could downsize

Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) did more than pioneer sleek skyscrapers and low-slung mansions that broke away from European influences and led to America’s post-World War II yen for ranch-house homes.

The Wisconsin native’s far-ranging push for “organic” architecture led him to design modular multi-family housing and cottages, especially in the Upper Midwest. His interests extended to a warehouse in Richland Center, Wisconsin, and a gas station in Cloquet, Minnesota.

He divided his later years between his Taliesin architecture schools in Spring Green, Wisconsin, and Scottsdale, Arizona. He was an early “snowbird” and toyed with automotive design.

But did he have any interest in RVs?

Maybe. Mark Keane, an architecture professor at UW-Milwaukee, remembers a friend from his own undergrad days who found an image of a mobile trailer home Wright designed, since the ’50s were the boom period for trailer homes.

That drawing could still exist: Wright was a compulsive draftsman, and the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives collected at New York’s Columbia University are still being cataloged.

Wright was not opposed to small. One of his last projects was a two-room cottage, just 880 square feet, now preserved in Wisconsin’s Mirror Lake State Park.

In his projects big and small, Wright advocated a simplified architecture based on utility and in harmony with the surroundings. Wright-designed residences integrated common rooms — kitchen, dining and living areas — and provided large windows for sunlight and views.

Dobrowolski grew up in Oak Park, Illinois, a Chicago suburb where Wright had a studio and designed many Prairie-style homes in the early 1900s.

In 1992, Dobrowolski bought a defunct church camp on Lake Wahdoon, near Chetek, Wisconsin, an area where his ancestors lived.

What is now Canoe Bay — Dobrowolski’s Relais <><><><><><><><>& Châteaux resort — began when he hired architect John Rattenbury, a former Wright apprentice, to design luxury cottages there. With Kelly Davis, a Minneapolis architect and fellow Wright devotee, Canoe Bay was further populated with Wright-inspired cottages./ppThat led to Escape homes in 1994, decades before the minimalist “tiny house” became popular./pp”We modified resort designs slightly and then made them mobile,” Dobrowolski says. “There is a love among architects for well-designed small spaces. Most residential designs are bloated — a lot of dead space. Wright said that Americans have a lust for ugliness. Most tiny houses are a mess — no aesthetics. But you can pare back to essentials, and get a cleaner, simpler design that’s extremely efficient. Tiny-on-wheels came naturally.”/ppDobrowolski, 57, is a bear at 6-foot-2 and 250 pounds. He says Escape homes/vehicles are designed to maximize space. That includes the bathrooms, which accommodate standard, non-Munchkin commodes./ppThe Vista “tiny home,” front to back, is a bathroom and — with big windows — a kitchen/dining area and a built-in bed. Interior walls are all sheathed in pine; cabinets, drawers and shelves are built into the space. Size: 175 square feet.

The tiny-house experience

Heidi Denecke came across Escape on the internet. She owns the Maui Animal Farm in Hawaii, was looking for a cottage, and opted for a Vista after visiting the Rice Lake factory.

Her order was driven to California, shipped to Hawaii, then driven to her property and parked with panoramic views of mountains and the sea. Denecke says she pretty much lives in it.

“I ordered it customized, with a tub-shower combo, composting toilet, a one-unit washer dryer, queen-size bed and an induction stovetop without an oven.”

Denecke doesn’t feel cramped, though “I’m a big woman, at 6-feet-1.”

Campgrounds are a growth market for Vistas. Mountain Springs Cabins has properties nationwide and Vistas at several locations, including Candler, North Carolina, in the hills southwest of Asheville. The site, overlooking Hominy Creek and the mountain on its other side, also leases traditional cabins and yurts.

A Vista and a larger Escape model were added to the lineup in 2017, according to manager Ray Gambil. The Vista goes for $120 to $130 per night, “and most who rent it are looking for a tiny-house experience. They’ve seen them on do-it-yourself TV channels and want to know if this lifestyle is for them.”

Gambil says those who have booked the Vista range from millennials to seniors thinking about downsizing.

He says maintenance is minimal: The unit is well-insulated, and energy-saving cellular blinds can be lowered over the windows.

Last winter was especially cold, with temperatures dipping as low as 6 F; the Vista handled that well, though connecting water pipes underneath the chassis froze once. This time around, he plans to put hay bales around the Vista. And next spring he may re-park it close to the creek for even better big-window views.

Meeting of form and function

On the move or permanently parked, Dobrowolski says the Vista “has a sound design that is functional and aesthetically appealing while also energy efficient. Monthly utilities run from $25 to $35.”

The Rice Lake compound usually builds eight to 10 models at a time in a 10-step build-and-check process. Trailer assembly and welding is standard, but depending on customization, completion can take two weeks to 120 days. Time and cost can vary with, say, refrigerator size and a host of other tweaks.

The newest model is the just-launched Boho — slightly larger than a Vista but $900 less. It is aimed at millennials.

The various Escape models share the Wright flourishes, Dobrowolski says: “Open floor plans, use of glass, wood and other natural materials for a design where form and function are one.”

If Frank Lloyd Wright bought a Vista, would he park it as a tiny home or tow it as a vacation RV?

“Probably park it, and use it as a private office and getaway space,” Dobrowolski thinks. “He would love the concept as it is small, functional, connected to nature and not pretentious or overly adorned. It does not overtly call attention to itself but, rather, it connects outward to the environment.”

No assembly line or automation here. Master electricians, carpenters, plumbers, etc., move from one project to another. Materials ranging from steel bars to ceiling fans, most purchased from area wholesalers, line the factory walls. A heavily insulated ceiling — it gets cold in Rice Lake — muffles the sounds of drills, saws and hammers.

Throughout the complex is the light dust and smell of cut wood, particularly pine planking, used for interior walls. The scene would be familiar to Wright, who grew up in rural Wisconsin.