Iowa teen used Scouting skills to build $1,500 tiny house in his parents’ backyard

Many teenagers have their own room. Luke Thill has his own house.

The 14-year-old Life Scout from Dubuque, Iowa, raised $1,500 performing odd jobs for neighbors and used a mix of reclaimed and purchased materials to build his own 89-square-foot tiny house in his parents’ backyard. The process took nearly two years.

Luke says Scouting gave him both the leadership skills and craftsmanship needed to complete the process.

“All the merit badges helped — Personal Management, Woodwork, Welding, Public Speaking, Communication,” Luke told me by phone. “All that kind of stuff plays a role.”

The project has made Luke something of a celebrity both in the burgeoning tiny house community and beyond.

He has nearly 45,000 subscribers on his YouTube channel, and his story has been featured by ABC NewsCountry Living magazine and many local media outlets.

How he did it

When Luke approached his dad, Greg, with the idea for building a tiny home in his backyard, the dad had just three rules.

Luke had to raise the money. Luke had to build it. And Luke had to own the house when it was finished.

In a way, the tiny house process was like a massive Eagle Scout service project. Luke needed to recruit volunteers, deal with adults and make tough financial decisions. It’ll be great prep for Luke’s actual Eagle project, which he’s currently planning and says it’ll be “a little bigger than normal.”

“[The tiny house] was a chance for a kid to do something more than play videogames or sports,” Greg Thill told the Des Moines Register. “It teaches life lessons.”

Luke raised money by mowing lawns, performing landscape work and doing side jobs wherever he could. He deposited every dollar at the bank.

“I put all that money into a savings account so it was harder to get at and spend,” he says.

Luke sits in the loft of his tiny house.

Learning the trade

He also did some bartering. An electrician neighbor agreed to help him with the wiring if Luke would clean his garage. A Scout leader agreed to lay carpet if Luke would mow his lawn.

About three-fourths of Luke’s tiny house is made from reclaimed materials. The 5.5-by-10 foot house includes a small kitchen, a sitting area, a table and a wall-mounted TV. Upstairs — yes, a ladder leads to a second-story loft — is a mattress where Luke can sleep.

The house has electricity but no plumbing.

Luke often spends a couple of nights a week in his tiny house, which is also great for entertaining friends.

“I haven’t had one friend not like it,” Luke says. “A lot of them didn’t know what it was, but a lot of them were open to the idea.”

The dining table folds up when not in use.

The accidental celebrity

Luke didn’t set out to become a YouTuber whose top video has been viewed nearly 10 million times. He just kept posting videos, and people eventually found them.

Now, in addition to the news coverage, Luke has been invited to speak at tiny house festivals like TinyFest Midwest in Colfax, Iowa.

“At first, I wasn’t too worried about the alternative lifestyle or the tiny house aspect of it,” Luke says. “But as I started building it, and started doing YouTube videos, I really engaged with the community. I was realizing that not many people can build the average house. But me, being only 13 years old, I was able to build that and learn a lot of things.”

And Luke’s learning more than just how to install a window or build a kitchen backsplash.

“I also learned a lot of communication skills, networking skills and how to work with other people,” he says.

In addition to the support from his Scout leaders and fellow Scouts, Luke has been wowed by complete strangers — young people his age who have cheered him from afar.

“One of my main goals has been to inspire others,” he says. “It’s awesome seeing the young generation, people watching my videos. … It’s awesome to see people getting inspired.”

Tiny house, tiny fridge. Luke’s grandmother made the curtains.

What’s next?

Luke and his twin brother, Cole, are thinking about ideas for Eagle Scout projects. They’ll do separate, but related, projects.

“We want to do something a little bigger than normal,” Luke says. “We’re in the planning stages — nothing set in stone yet.”

One thing is for sure: Luke wants to build another tiny house when he turns 16. This one, he says, will be a full-functioning home with plumbing and a shower.

You can follow that journey on — where else? — YouTube.

About Bryan Wendell 2800 Articles
Bryan Wendell, an Eagle Scout, is senior editor of Boys’ Life, Scouting and Eagles’ Call magazines.