Ready to Roll—Or Not

For an avowed nomad, the ideal home is a tiny house on wheels.

Kelley Riley in the sleeping loft of her 180-square-foot tiny house on wheels (THOW). Her Maine coon cat, Finbar, likes to lounge on top of the cabinets. Through the open door is the generously sized bathroom with a composting toilet and tiled shower.
Riley's THOW is built on a flatbed trailer. To get as much height as possible inside, and builder Seth Van Patten decided to cover the wheel wells (at floor level, left) rather than raise the entire floor.
Tucked into the trees for now, the shed-roofed THOW is wrapped in board-and-batten western red cedar siding stained flat black.
Riley poses with one of the chickens that share the wooded property.
Above the countertop Van Patten built a custom pass-through window that opens on a hydraulic hinge. Riley plans to add two swing-out stools below the countertop. Finbar demonstrates his impressive size in front of the open pass-through window.
Riley's THOW is flooded with light from 11 windows and a glass-paned door.

On screens, tiny homes remain an enormously popular topic. No fewer than eight streamable TV shows feature them, and there are Pinterest boards on tiny house living that have millions of followers. But while downsizing and paring back on possessions makes sense for most of us, the idea of living in a less-than-400-square-foot space (the broadly accepted definition of a tiny house) is largely relegated to binge-watching and fantasy scrolling.

Not for Kelley Riley, who says that her 180-square-foot “tiny house on wheels” (THOW), temporarily located in the Maine woods, is her ideal home. “She fits the description of someone perfect for a tiny house,” says Riley’s friend and the builder of her THOW, Seth Van Patten. “She came to Maine from Colorado with all of her belongings in the back of a Ford Explorer.”

Riley’s THOW suits not only her minimal possessions but also her deliberate lifestyle. She was living in San Diego, California, working as a caregiver for a little boy with cerebral palsy when the physical effort of lifting her client exacerbated an old injury to one of her legs. She moved in with her mother, a nurse practitioner in Colorado, while her leg healed and she pondered her next chapter. Although she adored the boy, “I was putting in 50 hours a week trying to pay for my little 400-square-foot beach house—I didn’t want to work that hard,” Riley says. Inspired by her best friend, Maine resident Pilar Van Patten, she decided to make a move and enlisted Pilar’s husband to build a THOW. She started her own business to help busy mothers in Maine, and after receiving a flurry of interest, she now works for five clients. “I do anything but childcare: dishes, grocery shopping, meal prep, laundry, cleaning, all so moms can spend more time with their kids or have time for themselves,” says Riley, who is also a professional photographer. “I spend 25 hours a week checking off their lists.”

Riley knew exactly what she wanted for her THOW, which Van Patten built on a flatbed trailer. The modern, shed-roofed house is 8’6” wide by 14’2” high and wrapped in board-and-batten western red cedar stained flat black. The interior is flooded with light from 11 windows, including a fixed pane that covers most of one short wall. Baltic birch plywood cabinetry and white shiplap walls add to the feeling of spaciousness, which is punctuated by industrial-style elements such as the kitchen racks and loft railing, made by Van Patten from cast-iron pipes, and the ladder to the sleeping loft, which is part of an old fire escape that Riley found on Facebook Marketplace. “I hate stairs in tiny houses—they take up so much room—and the ladder is obviously lighter,” she says. Weight and height are key factors for THOWs, which have to be able to fit under highway overpasses when they are on the road.

Instead of knobs or other hardware, which Riley dislikes, the flush-mounted cabinets have fingerholes for pulls. Her choices for the kitchen add to the sleek, Scandi-style design: the Chambers Vintage Series counter-depth refrigerator in “Butter Cream,” the European ash butcher-block countertop, the Kraus Oletto single-handle kitchen faucet, and the deep, single-bowl Kraus sink with built-in removable drying rack and cutting board. Two floor-level drawers roll out on casters for additional storage; Van Patten hid the plumbing behind one of them. Riley cooks most of her meals using a Crockpot and a two-burner gas cooktop. “I didn’t want an oven because I’m not much of a baker,” she says. A propane tank fuels the cooktop, her water heater, and a Rinnai heater in the sitting area; she is also connected to the local electrical grid for lights and her bath- room fans.

Her overall esthetic may be minimalist, but there is nothing minimal about Riley’s bath- room. Occupying one end of the house, it boasts a generous-sized walk-in shower with vertical subway tile and a Luxier rainfall showerhead and single-handle faucet in matte black. “It’s just shy of five feet wide and seven feet tall—that’s more than most of America has,” says Van Patten. Still, Riley is consider- ing reducing the width of the shower to make room for more storage and a tucked away “bathroom” for the THOW’s other occupant— an enormous Maine coon cat named Finbar.

On the other end of the house is Riley’s sitting area, at once bright and cozy with a nearly floor-to-ceiling fixed window topped by a plant shelf, an oversized armless chair— Aria by Sixpenny, upholstered in neutral linen—and a narrow antique wooden sawhorse draped with blankets that serves as a footrest and an additional seat. Her computer/TV sits on a butcher-block shelf that extends along the wall opposite the kitchen. She plans to add two swing-out stools under the shelf, which will face a pass-through window built by Van Patten. It swings up on hydraulics for easy access to the deck outside, which Van Patten designed to be moveable.

Riley’s plans include a much larger deck when she finds a piece of land to call her own and to park her THOW on, but maybe not forever. “I always move; I lived in Africa for a while, Virginia, San Diego, New Hampshire . . .” she says. “I do love Maine and what I’m doing, but that could change.”

One advantage to having her own land would be connecting to a well for running water; currently Riley has to fill a 35-gallon tank elsewhere and siphon it out with a utility pump—a laborious process that she accepts as part of the tiny house lifestyle, for now. “I designed it around an RV model,” says Van Patten. “She has the option to tie into a hose bib, and she has a shut-off so she can tie into a well. She has a composting toilet, so she doesn’t need a septic system.”

Riley’s is the first tiny house for Van Patten, but after years of home remodeling, he hopes to refocus his career on off-grid projects. Working with a close friend who knew what she wanted was an asset. “She had the confidence that this was going to be a house in the woods. With all the glass, she can be up in her loft and she can see everyone else, but no one can see her,” Van Patten says. “She didn’t fixate on trying to create a space for all of her belongings, because she doesn’t have much. She didn’t skimp on what she loves the most.”

For an avowed nomad, it makes sense that a house on wheels would feel just like home. “For a year I’ve been wandering around in people’s spaces; I lived with my friends, with my mom, with a family I know in Boston,” Riley says. “Nothing felt like me, and I went a little cuckoo for a bit—feeling sad—which isn’t like me. And when I moved in here, I went, ‘Ah, I feel like me again.’ I wake up really early; my routine is to have coffee and stretch and listen to music—you can’t do that at 5:30 a.m. in somebody else’s house. It’s just been a dream to be here.”