Tiny home built by student with $5K grant makes big difference for NH refugee farmers

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Photos by Rob Greene and Katharine Silbaugh

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The tiny house made by Duncan Jurayj, right, was donated to Fresh Start Farms in Concord and will be used as an office space and respite from the elements for immigrant and refugee farmers who work the land.

CONCORD, NH – The story of the tiny house that helps to put fresh, Dunbarton-grown produce on Manchester tables and provides money for refugees and immigrants here begins in an urban driveway in Massachusetts.

Duncan Jurayj, 17 – you might know him from the TED Talk he did when he was 11 – is a student at the Beaver Country Day School (BCD) in Chestnut Hill, Mass. His school offers an annual “passion grant,” in honor of former BCD student Alex Cohn, to a student with a big idea. Past winners have built boats and powered exoskeletons, taken immersive trips to Jordan and Mexico, built recording studios, and made documentary films. Jurayj’s big idea was to think small.

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Duncan Jurayj, tiny-house builder, said his only previous woodworking project had been a set of shelves.

“I saw on the Internet and stuff, this wave of smart living and living a minimalist lifestyle,” said Jurayj. “So I thought that was really cool, and I got into the design of the houses and the freedom that it gave people.”

Jurayj searched on and started following the Twitter hashtag #vanagonlife, which collects photos and stories from people who have opted for life on the road. His passion came into focus: He wanted to build a tiny house. He applied for and got the grant – $5,000 – and the work began in his family’s Brookline, Mass, driveway.

Armed with YouTube videos and a new miter saw, Jurayj taught himself to design tiny houses and began the build, working weekends, after school, and on school breaks. A family trip to a Habitat for Humanity Build in Virginia provided some hands-on experience and bolstered Jurayj’s confidence. He needed both, he said, because his need for perfection was slowing him down.

“If you’re experienced, you kind of know what kind of margin of error you have, and I couldn’t find that on the Internet,” he said. “So I was just super, super careful to make sure everything was really nice. Then when I went to this Habitat build where things would be a little out of square, and the construction worker would just whack it with a hammer.”

At the end of the build year, Jurayj’s house, all 64-square feet of it, sat in the driveway, roofed in metal, wired for electricity, piped for water, and looking for an occupant. 

“We’re in the city so our driveway is like really, really skinny,” he said. “On either side, the house only had a couple inches of space. We wanted somebody to have it, but we also needed it out of the driveway.”

Below: Slideshow of the interior of Duncan Jurayj’s tiny house project

Jurayj had hoped to donate the house so someone in need could live in it, but zoning and building codes proved difficult to navigate. Finally, he found the Organization of Refugee and Immigrant Success (ORIS) in Concord. Among the group’s many projects is Fresh Start Farms, a collective agriculture space for refugees and immigrants. For a yearly fee, farmers can claim a plot of land where they can grow food for themselves, and/or grow produce to sell through Fresh Start’s CSA and at farmers’ markets around the state, including the one held 3-6:30 p.m. Thursdays, at Stanton Plaza outside the Hilton in Manchester.

Jurayj connected with ORIS around Thanksgiving through an acquaintance (the child of a sister of someone’s brother’s wife – “It was a really big Thanksgiving,” Jurayj said.)

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Duncan Jurayj tours Fresh Start Farms, a cooperative agricultural space in Concord for immigrant and refugee farmers. The 17-year-old Massachusetts resident built a tiny house as a school project and donated it to Fresh Start as an office and break space.

No one lives at Fresh Start Farms, a beautiful, albeit a rocky piece of Dunburton, so Jurayj’s house will be used as an office and break room. It will come in handy, said the farm’s program manager Jameson Small, especially in the winter.

“We’ve never had the ability to do any type of winter anything except workshops in Manchester,” Small said. “It limits your season to four months of being able to make any money. To be able to extend that [through the use of greenhouses and the tiny house] is massive.”

Jurayj said he has no big projects planned for this summer, and he is looking forward to his senior year of high school. He believes he might take a gap year before deciding on a college. 

“I’m interested in architecture, but I also like biology a lot, and I’m interested in the environmental benefits of living smaller,” he said.  “I think environmental science is interesting. I just need to figure out a way to put all of those together.”

And, yeah, he’d like to build another tiny house. He’s a fan of the aesthetic. “It’s like you have less, but it makes it appealing to have less if you know what I mean.”

In May, the New Hampshire General Court established a commission to study tiny houses and consider their future in the Granite State. The committee is expected to report out in November 2019. 


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