How an Atlanta Backyard Became a Tiny Home Destination

In a forested property in the East Point suburb of Atlanta, Darrel Maxam has built a magical hamlet of miniature abodes that attracts staycationers and visitors from around the world.

Photography by Jared Soares

For many Atlantans, East Point is a flyover suburb between the airport and downtown. If they wander through it, they know it as a place of affordable brick bungalows and commuters who come and go on public buses and trains.

But when Darrel Maxam first came to East Point in 2014, he found it magical.

His awe was not due to any lack of worldliness. Maxam had already lived an eventful young adult life before coming to this 2.5-acre lot set back a few dozen yards from a pine and dogwood tree-lined street.

“The trees, the trees are what did it — the ability to be so pure in what’s such a large city,” he said of first seeing the property with some 600 trees, some of which he believes have been around for more than two centuries.

It would become the place where he would realize a simple but ambitious project: a secluded tiny home community in his backyard.

When Maxam bought the East Point house, he inherited an outdoor grill station, a stand-alone veranda, and an ample koi pond from the previous owners, a Honduran family ready to retire to their home country. He started his dream project by adding two tiny homes, each around four hundred square feet, and a larger three-unit home that Maxam calls his “tiny triplex.” This cluster of pint-sized abodes forms a loose daisy chain behind his own home and across his property.

The two completed tiny homes and the units of the tiny triplex feature woody, vintage tones from the recycled materials on their exteriors that harmonize with the earthy colors of the forest around them. The result is a wholesome hamlet that looks like a retreat space where a church could take their youth group for a summer bonfire. Maxam imagines being approached by large groups for bookings, and matching guests with interiors like wine pairings: airy barn for this couple, industrial-chic for that one.

Getting away from saturated real estate markets — and the ability to experiment that comes with that affordability — were the keys to Maxam and his wife, Patrice Coney, creating a rental success story in an area that had little like it. Born in Jamaica, Maxam spent his early years with his siblings and grandmother in a little concrete home. “It was the first tiny house,” he joked.

He came to the United States as a six-year-old, was raised in Connecticut, and later married Coney, a New Yorker who shares his penchant for travel, creative reuse, and design. He spent eight years in the military, including deployment to Afghanistan during the Obama-era troop surge. He still carries fond memories of forgoing lobster and steak at the base’s chow hall and instead sitting cross-legged with local Afghan employees to share heaping plates of rice. He relished the chance to share in foreign cultures even in times of war.

He also returned with a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. “My PTSD was so bad that I needed an outlet,” said Maxam, who found relief and satisfaction in creating comfortable guest homes to welcome travelers the way Afghans had welcomed him.

But the cost of living in the Northeast was still “astronomical,” Coney said. The couple’s desire to become homeowners drove them from Connecticut to Georgia: “We didn’t understand how we’d ever be able to afford a home and be able to afford to travel,” said Coney. “And to live life.”

Maxam and Coney were eager to create security for their family, and owning a home for themselves was just the first step. The goal is to establish a legacy for their three children and retire early so the couple can travel the world. Neither inherited any wealth from their parents. Maxam hopes his project will one day give his children a “good running start in life” when they venture out on their own.

Maxam had been pitching his wife on the idea of a rental project when he met a builder that impressed him — the company employed current and formerly homeless people as carpenters — at a tiny home festival. Three months later, in 2017, he was renting out the first tiny guesthouse he built, a vintage wood-paneled cabin with a miniature porch surrounded by greenery.

Maxam is a fast talker who will tick off the numbers he compiled in his MBA thesis on tiny home communities while walking his HVAC contractor through a repair over speakerphone. He’s not a get-rich-fast kind of guy, but a build-something-that-lasts one — and that goes for both his real estate venture and the historical scrap material he scouts to build it.

Maxam came to Atlanta in a moment when it is basking in newfound appeal, setting records for new construction boosted by the city’s growth as a film hub. Even as he has chosen a life more secluded for his family home, he makes his rounds among the top Atlanta shops and sites where the new wave of trendy intown dwellers cluster. He points his guests toward the BeltLine, a wildly popular High Line-style bike path that connects to an upscale food hall in what was once a brick Sears Roebuck warehouse from the days of catalog orders. At the northern head of the BeltLine, the beloved central Piedmont Park fills with festivals that draw tourists from across the South nearly every weekend from spring through fall. When Maxam needs greenery for his backyard, he goes to the impeccably stylish Flora/Fauna boutique garden store in the historic Cabbagetown neighborhood.

He also gets help from local home improvement specialists Brandon Thomas and Jay Rainey. They’ve been scouting reusable materials for years, following word-of-mouth networks and ads in the local farmers’ bulletin to demolition sites across the state. They often spend a month or more deconstructing Southern properties piece by piece, sparing many reusable materials from ending up at the dump.

Thomas and Rainey have brought Maxam some of his signature pieces, like the 200-pound chocolate-toned wooden door in a two-story tiny barn that is also home to a loveseat-size bench handmade from support beams from an actual barn in Lyons, Georgia. Thomas had torn down that one; it was so carefully hewn it was like interlocking Lincoln Logs.

Maxam and Coney bring their own finds from antique markets into the project. Thomas created a wall mosaic of green and turquoise boards rescued from a historic home’s kitchen and bathroom; Maxam then paired it with plush emerald seats he got from a former small-town cinema in northern Georgia. A green paint-speckled door with a rusted iron door knob leads into an industrial-style unit in the tiny triplex under construction. The door is so low Maxam ducks under it to enter. The piece came from a demolition site a few counties farther south, Maxam said, and a time when people were shorter.

In the past, many of Maxam’s guests were out-of-towners or overseas visitors, choosing his unconventional getaway to enjoy warm Southern nights under the tree canopy while sipping beers from a local brewery. Some don’t even bother eating out. Maxam has a community garden with kale, lettuce, and tomatoes, and offers guests fresh eggs from the free-range chickens that wander his yard.

Maxam has recently noticed a shift in his clients. “The core people from Atlanta are finding me now,” he said of his new wave of staycationers who come from other suburbs half an hour away to visit his little forest for the weekend.

As the growth of his East Point venture reaches a natural stopping point, Maxam is looking to create similar sustainability-conscious tiny home communities in other quiet spaces across the South. He’s fond of the Blue Ridge Mountains outside Asheville and the wineries of the Gold Rush-era Georgia town of Dahlonega, where Atlantans nowadays head in droves for weddings.

But for now, Maxam is piling up oversized, antique bricks to finish a wall inside the triplex, readying himself for high summer season in his improbable suburban hamlet.

Watch this video to learn more about how Darrel designs his place.

About the author: Taylor Barnes is an Atlanta-based journalist whose work has been published in the New York Times, USA Today, Marie Claire, and the Christian Science Monitor. Her food, travel, and lifestyle writing has been featured in Culinary Backstreets, Delta Sky Magazine, and the Holland Herald.