Chesterfield retiree hopes his small idea will make it big in the local wedding business
By Pamela Sutton
As printed in "The Amelia Monitor" April 16th, 2015
The idea is the Tiny Chapel, a 100-square-foot structure modeled after a traditional country church, complete with Gothic-style windows and a steeple. The chapel can hold 20 to 25 people standing but also has two small pews. Mounted on a trailer, the chapel is also built to travel in Central Virginia, including Amelia County.
The chapel is the brainchild of Bil Malbon, a retired Virginia state employee and ordained minister who has been officiating weddings since 1992. Several years ago, he envisioned building a grand wedding chapel that could hold up to 200 people, had enough space for outdoor ceremonies and could accommodate two receptions at the same time. He drew up a business plan and started considering investors to pursue.
Then the 2008 recession hit, and Mr. Malbon’s dream was deferred. “With people cutting back, a large chapel didn’t make sense anymore,” he said. But in 2013, he stumbled onto a web site about the growing “tiny house movement,” in which people build houses of 100 to 400 square feet to live more simply—and less expensively. He also found that some of these houses were built on trailers and could be towed to different locations.
“That’s when the light bulb went off,” Bil said. Most of the weddings he officiated were small, intimate ceremonies. With a small chapel, he could help couples have a nice wedding without spending a lot of money. And the small weddings he officiated often were held in homes, backyards and public places like parks and monuments. “Sometimes it was hard to find just the right location, a place that had the right feel,” he said. “I figured, if they can build a tiny house, why not a tiny chapel? And why not bring the chapel to the couple?”
So Bil decided to downsize his dream and put it on wheels. Drawing on his architecture studies in college and the expertise of a friend, Blair Goodrich of Goodrich Architecture, he roughed out a basic design for the chapel. He showed the design to Robin Hayes of Build Tiny, a Berryville, Va. company that offers workshops on building tiny houses. She loved Bil’s idea. Ms. Hayes helped refine the design and coordinated construction of the chapel. “Robin made this vision a reality,” Bil said. He and other workshop participants helped with simpler tasks while learning to do more complex projects. Professionals were brought in to assist with installing the roof, electrical lines, heating and air conditioning as well as plumbing for a sink and toilet enclosed in a powder room at the rear of the chapel. Over the course of the eight- month construction, Bil went up to Berryville bi-weekly to work on the chapel, consulting on changes and materials and generally helping out where he could as the build progressed.
Authenticity was at the heart of the chapel’s design. “I really wanted people to feel like they’ve stepped inside an old-fashioned country church,” said Bil. To give the chapel a rustic feel, he used pine for the walls, oak for the floors and wrought iron for the liturgical banners. “There’s no laminate anywhere” in the sanctuary, he said.
But there was a major bump in the road to authenticity. A country church had to have a steeple. But because of Department of Transportation height restrictions, a steeple couldn’t be permanently mounted on the roof of the traveling sanctuary. Bil needed a solution that wouldn’t require climbing on the roof to mount and remove it. Ms. Hayes came up with a system in which the spire section is pushed up through a trap door in the base of the steeple to the roof, locked in place during a ceremony and then lowered back into the chapel for travel. “Once again, Robin came to the rescue,” Bil said.
Bil feels that the chapel’s standing-room-only size is not only practical but also makes a statement. “The couple’s family and friends are standing behind them literally and will be standing behind them on this journey they’re beginning together,” he said.
Bil’s micro-church—dubbed the Tiny Chapel—was finally delivered on Christmas Eve 2014. “It was the biggest gift I’ve ever gotten!” he said. He parks the chapel on a friend’s property because, at about 24 feet long, “it’s a little too big for our driveway.”
Currently, Tiny Chapel Weddings offers nondenominational packages ranging from a 30-minute ceremony at the chapel’s location to a one-hour ceremony with amenities for the couple and up to 20 guests at a location selected by the couple within a one-hour radius of Richmond. Bil can officiate the wedding or the couple can choose their own officiant. “Usually, if you get married at a church, the ceremony is done by a minister from that church,” Bil said. “The Tiny Chapel offers couples both a sacred space and the ability to have their own officiants.”
After making its debut at the Richmond Wedding Expo in January, the Tiny Chapel embarked on its maiden voyage on March 14, a 30-minute trek from Richmond to Ashland for the nuptials of a couple who wanted a small wedding near the Ashland Museum on “Pi Day.” The chapel was artfully nestled between the museum’s caboose and gift shop, which the couple thought made “a nice tableau,” Bil said.
Word about the Tiny Chapel is spreading beyond central Virginia. The micro mobile sanctuary has been featured by NBC’s Today show web site, the New York Daily News, The Huffington Post, Fox News and even the Daily Mail in the United Kingdom. But right now, Bil’s sights are closer to home. He hopes to find an affordable, wedding-friendly site for the chapel when it’s not on the road. “I’d like a nice setting that’s close to Richmond but has some privacy to it,” he said.
For Bil, the business of love is a labor of love. “It’s not just performing a ceremony,” he said. “I get to meet the couple and hear their story. They have so much joy, so much hope in the future that they want to build together. I like being part of that, and I try to make the day something really special.” And with the Tiny Chapel, he added, “couples can have a memorable intimate wedding without getting married to debt.” .