Coffee With: Zack Giffin

Zack Giffin is a professional skier and contractor who is co-host of Tiny House Nation. We spoke with him about function-first, tight budgets, and Operation Tiny Home.

Q&A With Zack Giffin

Casaza: How did you get your start?
Zack Giffin:
I worked as a landscaper/rock mason during high school and after graduation, I started working as a carpenter in Boulder, CO. I didn’t get into Tiny Houses until after moving to WA state in 2003 where I built a series of small dwellings including a treehouse, van conversion and RV rebuild. I was instantly drawn to the freedom of design and problem solving that is inherent when building small spaces. I think carpentry was a way that I could utilize the patience and perfectionism that I had cultivated as an artist for an occupation that could provide a decent living.

C: How would you describe your style?
I have a function-first mentality. However, when it comes to pure aesthetics, I love mixed mediums and I’m very sensitive to the way contrasting materials highlight one another. I’d say it gives most of my work a kind of a modern/industrial/craftsmen style. For the most part, I’ll use wood as much as possible but it’s usually necessary to build steel mechanical elements or reinforce the frame. Many people try and hide away the moving parts, but to me these are the most interesting aspects of the work. I try to make them a focal part of the attraction and it gives most of my projects a little of industrial quality.

Tiny House Nation | Courtesy of FYI

Because Tiny Homes are typically done on a very tight budget, I am always searching for ways to elevate the owner’s appreciation of the home without large material expenses. My strategy is to incorporate a select number of truly stunning custom elements that allow many price point choices to go unnoticed. So my style is usually fairly simplistic, yet I’m always open for extravagance it just costs more.

C: Where do you get new ideas and inspiration?
For me, new ideas come from being challenged with new problems. First, is identifying what needs to happen (example – living room turns into a pool hall.) Then I start thinking about all the ways I can see to make it happen. Once I see a clear path to a finished solution, I try and just let myself develop that concept without second-guessing myself along the way. I think everyone has new ideas all the time, but second-guessing is paralyzing.

I’m also fortunate that I get to travel all around the country and work with Tiny Home builders far and wide, so inspiration is always near at hand. I’m continually learning little tips and tricks and using them to increase my own depth of knowledge. I also get to work with a great team and their unrelenting effort and dedication are also a source of motivation. Above all though, my dedication to tiny homes comes from the strong belief that permitting Tiny Homes as ADUs may be the most effective single thing we could do to help millions of older and younger Americans navigate the affordable housing crisis.

Tiny House Nation | Courtesy of FYI

C: Favorite room in the house?
In a Tiny Home it is usually the living room that provides endless opportunity to incorporate multi-functionality. A tiny home living room may also need to serve as a dining room, extra sleeping space, playroom, entrance or more. Figuring out how it all interacts in such a small space provides endless options for custom design. I also like the living room because it’s where people and families interact with each other. Using design to facilitate positive human interaction is something that excites me.

C: Design rule you don’t subscribe to?
I really don’t like it when design decisions are made specifically for resale value. I want to create a beautiful home, not maximize an investment. I think the only thing that matters, is that I get the right reaction from the person who’s hired me. I don’t care about my own taste, or anyone else’s – I design specifically for the homeowner and many times that means building things where the true value can never be transferable.

C: Recent project that inspired you?
I work with a nonprofit called Operation Tiny Home and our mission has been to assist in the creation of tiny home villages for homeless veterans. This spring we partnered with a Native American tribe – the Lummi Nation for our first nonveterans Tiny Home workshop. At all our workshops we regularly create an atmosphere where titles don’t matter and where civilians work alongside veterans toward a common goal. Through this process, I’ve felt welcomed by veterans into their inner circle in a truly authentic way. When working with members of the Lummi Nation it was a similar experience, yet because the culture is even more reserved, it was additionally rewarding to be included in ceremonial aspects of the Lummi culture. The most inspiring thing was seeing how building a home became an accessible path for people to exchange friendships and begin a process of trust.

C: Favorite texture/pattern/color?
I love wood grain! Each variety has their own unique qualities and the more warped or twisted, the better. Stone can be pretty cool and fire is amazing, but to me, wood has always been a symbol of life and the positive aspects of this world. Also, when you sand and polish wood it completely transforms.

C: What is “good design” to you?
Good design should address functional requirements first, yet never discount the function of aesthetics. Homes are in many ways an opportunity to make a statement about the owner’s identity and correctly portraying those values can greatly affect their overall enjoyment of the space. Whether I am designing for a homeless veteran or for a Hall of Fame football player, the only thing that matters, in the end, is that they love their home. Regardless of the size, what matters is that they are proud of it. That the home supports all their needs and that the aesthetic and stylistic elements are indeed in-line with the homeowner’s personal identity.

Walden Pond | Image Courtesy of

C: Pack your bag! You’re moving into a famous home. Whose is it?
Henry David Thoreau’s cabin made famous in “Walden Pond. It is the iconic image of a tiny home and sometimes sighted as being the original Tiny House. It would give me mad hipster street-cred.

C: What’s your rule when entertaining?
Make sure there are activities for little kids! If the kids are happy, the parents are happy and since all my friends are now having kids it’s an important part of the equation.

C: Best advice for DIYers?
Do it! You won’t be sorry. Remember that good design is about creating your own personal pride in your home. There is no better way to create a deep contentment and connection to a space than to have a personal hand in its creation. Also, use screws and get yourself a Zack Rabbit!!! Available at

C: Best advice for those hiring a pro?
Find a home you like, find out if the owners had a positive experience during construction and then find out who built it. Hire that person and try not to alter their process too much. Let them use materials they are experienced using, let them work with contractors they are familiar with and suppliers they have already use. Basically, make your call up-front and then do everything in your power to facilitate a smooth construction process while staying flexible to changes. Then, hold yourself accountable for staying on top of the progress and hold the builder accountable for keeping on schedule.

The final tip – Become comfortable having uncomfortable conversations. Cost, timeframe, finances, work schedule etc… These are the conversations you just have to dive into and try to not let any uncomfortable subjects go unaddressed for too long.

Tiny House Nation | Courtesy of FYI

C: What is one design trend you are most excited about this season?
I’m extremely excited to see more and more people starting to recognize the desirability of mixed neighborhoods. Building developments with more variety of homes are starting to be seen as an important way to maximize the future desirability of properties. I think it’s great! There is a new project in Longmont, CO that is a great example of this type of trend. It’s a large neighborhood development that will feature a wide variety of homes, everything from large single-family homes to workforce housing and this one even includes a Tiny Home community for homeless veterans. It’s part of an increasingly shared mentality that life is better for everyone when we include space for all members of the community.

C: How do you take your coffee?
With cream, or anyway it is served. At home, I’ve started using an Aero-Press and it’s awesome. Also, my wife turned me on to light roast coffee a few years back and now I’m all about dry processed beans. The dry process means the beans are laid on drying beds and the bean is fermented with the fruit still attached. It gives it a more fruity almost sour flavor that I’ve come to love. I specifically like Ethiopian coffees but as I said, I’ll drink it black from a burned pot if I have to!

Share This Story:

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on email

You might like…