Live Tiny


By Cody Fenwick

Photo courtesy of Tammy Strobel.

New Yorkers, packed tightly as they are, know first-hand about living in modestly sized dwellings. But a growing group of individuals, known to some as the “Tiny House Movement,” are deliberately choosing to live in extremely small houses–not out of necessity, but out of love for the lifestyle.

Those who do choose to live tiny are certainly bucking the broader societal trend. Though American families have on average shrunk over the past 40 years, the average size of an American home has steadily grown.

In 2013, the average size of a new American home was 2,600 square feet, outdoing even the greatest excesses of the recent housing bubble. Oversized houses–those measuring over 4,000 square feet–comprised 6.6 percent of all homes in 2005, which rose to 9 percent eight years later. Since these numbers only account for new houses and do not include additions to existing structures, they likely underestimate the nation’s total housing footprint.

Though some might see these statistics as indicating wealth and prosperity, tiny house dwellers are skeptical of the value of extra square footage. Consider Dee Williams’s 84-square-foot house in Portland, Oregon. Including the porch, her structure’s floor plan is smaller than some area rugs and there is no running water. Williams built her $10,000 home herself, much of it with salvaged materials and all of it purposively constructed to fill her own needs. Her loft bed can allow her to stand on her knees, though a taller person would have to crouch.

These miniature homes vary in shape and size as much as any other and there’s no explicit size limit that classifies something as a “tiny house.” A 1,000-square-foot house might be a tiny for a family of five, after all, who might see a single person’s 300-square-foot house as luxurious.

Nevertheless, a slew of the stories of the people who choose tiny homes share some common themes. Many had larger houses or high-paying jobs, which failed to bring happiness. Others took a hit in the recent economic downturn and sought a way to dramatically reduce housing expenditures.

Abandoning the traditional 30-year mortgage, but still attaining the security and autonomy of owning a residence, tiny homes can provide a freedom that some find elusive. Although, many come to embrace the benefits of reducing environmental impact and rejecting consumerist assumptions.

Unfortunately for some tiny house enthusiasts, the norms and laws of society do not always accommodate outliers. Regulations differ, but numerous localities have minimum square footage requirements for homes, so residing in a tiny house can be illegal. A great deal of tiny houses are on wheels, which can place them into unclear regulatory status, thus warding off close scrutiny. Should zoning problems arise, the house is easily relocated.

So despite the wishes of many proponents, a tiny house is not the ticket to a simple life. In addition to the legal complications that may arise, someone choosing to move into a tiny house will face a plethora trade offs, decisions, and logistical questions. What kind of fuel is best for running stoves and space heaters? Is using solar panels practical? Should the toilet be a traditional flush model, a composting unit, or an incinerator?

But for tiny living enthusiasts, perhaps asking these questions is the point. Every choice that we take for granted when renting or buying traditional houses and apartments is brought to a decision point when building from the ground up. Being in touch with the different options can help clarify the costs of the choices we make, both for ourselves and for the rest of the world.

Philosophically, these themes are hardly new. Henry David Thoreau famously built a small cabin in the woods of Walden Pond to determine what it is he really needed to survive and to figure out how to get better in touch with nature. Much of the Tiny House Movement seems to echo his 19th century sentiments.

The underlying set of beliefs behind reducing living space and simplifying one’s life challenges not only greater architectural trends, but also some popular assumptions in economics. Economists often assume that higher consumption leads to greater happiness. Plenty will agree that, at a certain level, wealth admits of diminishing returns, but most people imagine this occurs somewhere around the upper-middle class income bracket. Nevertheless, a lot of tiny house dwellers would claim that they’re happier in a $20,000 house than they would be in a house worth half a million dollars.

Which isn’t to say that the Tiny House Movement is filled with ascetics. It’s common knowledge that people reside in tiny apartments and mobile homes all the time out of financial necessity. The Tiny House Movement isn’t about living on the bare minimum, or reducing one’s consumption as much as possible, but systematically questioning which factors are important in a person’s lifestyle and living space.

These people ask, “What is it that I really need to lead the kind of life I want to lead?”

The answer, it seems, is “not much.”