Engaging Journeys, Engaged Journalism

Is It Time for Tiny Houses?

In An Era of Tight Budgets and Other Limits, Small Looks More and More Beautiful

Once Jay Shafer gets done explaining the virtues of tiny houses, you feel embarrassed living anyplace larger than, say, an obscenely spacious 500 square feet.

A key reason to live small – or at least much, much smaller – is that it represents the biggest step most people can take to minimize their environmental impact and live more sustainable lives.

“The average American house consumes about three quarters of an acre of forest and produces about seven tons of construction waste,” says Shafer. “It emits 18 tons of greenhouse gases annually, and, at more than 2,349 square feet, it would most definitely not fit into a single parking space.”

Yes, parking space. Many of the charming natural wood hand-built homes Shafer designs and builds also have wheels – a practical fact that makes pulling up stakes quick, quite simple, and almost literal.

Shafer’s first three Tumbleweed tiny houses totaled just 70 to 89 square feet in size, and each easily fit into one parking space. The symbolism is particularly attention grabbing, given that the average U.S. home emits more greenhouse gases in a year than a car.

Many tiny houses are built for complete mobility, making it quick and easy to move house. (photo by Tammy Strobel of the blog Rowdy Kittens) http://www.rowdykittens.com/portfolio

Many tiny houses are built for complete mobility, making it quick and easy to move house. (photo by Tammy Strobel of the blog Rowdy Kittens)

The largest two of the early Tumbleweeds consumed only about 4,800 pounds of building materials each. During construction each generated fewer than 100 pounds of landfill waste – 140 times less than most homes. Even with the need to overcome typical Iowa winters, Shafer says, each of those tiny houses generated only 900 pounds of greenhouse gases annually. He describes the evolution of his concepts of quality tiny house construction in his new The Small House Book, available only on the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company website.

Money – the desire to spend much less of it on housing – is another founding principle of the tiny-house movement. Owning your own home yet being able to live free of banks and mortgage payments is clearly a plus in such tight-fisted times. Young people who can’t yet manage buying a house can still “own,” plus move that home around as needed to follow job opportunities. Oldsters who have taken a bath in the national housing disaster or are otherwise underwater can start showering in their own tiny house.

The average American home consumes three-quarters of an acre of forest, whereas tiny houses use few resources. (photo by Tammy Strobel)

The average American home consumes three-quarters of an acre of forest, whereas tiny houses use few resources. (photo by Tammy Strobel)

The desire to enjoy quality hand-built housing is another factor. Travel trailers, mobile homes, and various pre-fabricated options can supply mobility or relative low cost but generally don’t offer all-natural materials, quality workmanship, and truly homey ambience.

Now married and a new father, Shafer and his family recently settled into a hand-built 500-square-foot home – one with room for family, friends, and just enough stuff for a comfortable, semi-minimalist life.

One secret to successfully living small is exceptionally well-designed space that provides everything you need (but nothing more). Part of that good design is making sure that most floor space is used for multiple purposes – a sleeping loft located above the tiny kitchen and bathroom, say, or a pull-down Murphy bed that tucks away in a “great room” cabinet during the day.

Keeping life simple and serene is the main reason for living tiny. Rather than spending free time and resources improving and maintaining a large home and yard, you can spend it pursuing cultural and outdoor interests.

As Shafer puts it, superfluous living space “gets in the way of contentment.” In a tiny house everything is within arm’s reach and nothing gets in the way of the life you want to live, “not even space itself.”

Living Large By Living Tiny

The time for even the most eccentric idea has arrived once it shows up in the pages of The New Yorker. And so it is for the tiny-house movement and its most notable celeb, Jay Shafer, featured in Alec Wilkinson’s July 25, 2011 article, “Let’s Get Small.”

But it’s not as if we haven’t been tiptoeing up to this idea for quite some time. Not long ago architect Sarah Susanka dazzled the housing design scene with her best-selling book The Not So Big House and its sequels, thoughtful work that demonstrates how well-planned smaller spaces create more intimacy and efficiency. And how many books about scaling-down, downsizing, and de-cluttering have made it to market in recent years?

What’s very different about the tiny-house movement is just how much the push for a new perspective comes from people at large – just plain folks – and not so much the professionals. The same is true about much of the innovation, too. Jay Shafer is tiny-house star, to be sure, in part to introduce and promote his own line of houses, DIY construction plans, and workshops. But he is the exception. The general rule is populism, people’s own hand-built homes and the creative companies that grow out of related innovations.

To experience this personally head on over to the The Tiny House Blog, which explores every imaginable approach to “Living Simply in Small Spaces.” The Tiny House Blog touches on it all, from young couples who get their start as homesteaders by remodeling chicken coops and grain silos to entire communities in rural England and elsewhere who are returning to the past and traditional low-impact construction techniques to create a more sustainable future.

Innovations may target particular challenges, such as garden sheds fashioned into well-built historically suitable backyard guest cottages, in-law units, and tiny primary residences so retirees can rent out the “big house” to generate extra income. Sometimes the tiny-house adventure continues over many years as several generations hand-build a shared getaway. Some tiny houses are boats, or are built on floating lakeshore docks. And some are becoming safe harbors for people who have lost, or will lose, their homes as part of the ongoing U.S. housing market meltdown.

Beyond the need for suitable and safe domestic housing, the tiny-house movement has broader moral motivations. Ingeniously designed tiny houses made of inexpensive and abundant local materials could house the world’s 2.5 billion poor people. The $300 House Project, for example, started out as blog post for the Harvard Business Review by Vijay Govindarajan and Christian Sarkar but has become a movement of its own that is now attracting powerful partners from the worlds of education and business.

Some tiny-house innovators showcased in The Tiny House Blog are working on more individualistic solutions to the same problem, such as designing mobile microhomes on wheels that are light enough to push around like shopping carts. One vendor cart-style design provides a business platform by day and safety and security at night.

Conspicuous overconsumption is not OK in the tiny house movement. (photo by Ken Dow)

Conspicuous overconsumption is not OK to tiny housers. (photo by Ken Dow)

Living tiny does not necessarily mean living tony, though some tiny houses are very upscale – including small guesthouse adjuncts to monster mansions.

That, however, is the least acceptable use among the many options embraced by the tiny-house community. Conspicuous over-consumption is just not OK, even if that consumption is “green.”

“Under no circumstances does a 3,000-square foot house for two qualify as ‘green,’ says Jay Shafer. “All the solar gain and reclaimed materials in the world can never change that.”

American homes are the world’s largest, he says, four times the international average. Large even in 1950, since then median home size has more than doubled while the number of people per household dropped more than 25 percent. Our houses now have entertainment suites, more bathrooms, more bedrooms, two- or three-car garages, and all the requisite stuff to fill them. Few of us ask whether we truly need, want, or will even use the heavy load of material goods we carry through life. Fewer still stop to ask whether “bigger” and “more” lead to human happiness.

Jay Shafer, however, is certain that extravagance and excess have no redeeming social value. Further, they block the road to a more sustainable future. Accountable consumption is a big part of the solution to many problems now facing the world.

“If you do only one thing to make your new home more environmentally sound,” he says, “make it small.”

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