Livin’ Small in a Tiny House

In the 1990s, McMansions ruled the exurbs. If you weren’t at least striving to move into a house with cathedral ceilings, more bedrooms than people, and at least 500 square feet that you couldn’t fill just yet, well, there was something clearly wrong with you. After all, not only did bigger mean better, but it was also synonymous with the American way of life.

But then a funny thing happened as gas prices cracked the four-dollar-per-gallon barrier and as the real estate market choked on a chicken bone and writhed around on the floor for a while before finally dying: some of us realized that we don’t actually need as much home as we thought we did. Some of us figured out that we could do just as well in a smaller house – sometimes a radically smaller house, so small that we might even call it … tiny.

The “tiny house” movement that has sprung up in the last few years is a complete rejection of the housing trends of the 1990s and a repudiation of the idea that bigger always means better. Some of these houses are small–like, less than 200 square feet small, and no I did not forget a zero on the end there. There’s no hard and fast upward limit on what can be called a tiny house, but most of the ones I’ve seen are under 800 square feet.

I’ve seen McMansions with garages bigger than that.

A lot of the people who’ve made the decision to live in a tiny house have – of course – blogged about it. Reading their stories, you notice a few motivating factors keep cropping up – an abiding desire for and commitment to a simpler and greener way of life, the claustrophobia of having too many possessions and feeling owned by them, a more practical need for lower-cost housing in a brutal economy.

One thing I don’t see is jumping on the tiny house bandwagon for the simple reason that it’s trendy. Sometimes this desire to be in on the next big thing can drive us to rationalize why we want to do one thing or another, but even if we don’t see it in ourselves, it can be obvious to other people. I think, though, that moving into and living in a tiny house requires a huge commitment, so huge that rationalizations don’t tend to hold up well under the weight of it.

You can tell the trend is taking off by looking at the industry that has sprung up to meet the demand. You can get your tiny house pretty much any way you want it: on wheels or on a foundation; pre-fabricated or made out of recycled materials like old shipping containers. Some people build theirs with purely local materials.

And where there’s demand, there is inflation. Sometimes tiny houses can cost quite a bit more than you might expect. Hell, even IKEA is getting into the game, partnering with Ideabox to create and furnish a tiny one-bedroom prefab house … that costs $86,500. There are other examples of tiny houses running into the $70,000 range, which honestly doesn’t seem to be the best first step on the path to a simpler life.

(To be fair, not all tiny houses are designed for people who are seeking a more spartan existence – like this one, for example. So YMMV.)

Cost isn’t the only issue either. Permitting can be a big problem – some localities won’t issue a permit for buildings that don’t reach a certain minimum square footage. And because there are often minimum lot sizes to deal with, you could end up having your tiny house on a lot that is much too big for it, which for some people would kinda defeat the purpose.

For that reason – along with a number of others – it would be unrealistic to expect tiny houses to sprout up in the ruins of bulldozed McMansions, creating a high-density landscape where there was previously so much wasted space. Ah, well, a man can dream, can’t he?

I’ll admit, ever since I found out about the whole tiny house movement, I’ve been fascinated by it and drawn to it, even if it doesn’t yet provide a viable alternative to suburbia. I have been working (sort of) on my own plans for a home made out of shipping containers, but there is a problem: I would ideally like to move to San Francisco within the year, and my design (like many of the already existing designs out there) would probably work better in a more open area, like in the mountains of western North Carolina.

Of course, housing is a completely different animal in San Francisco than it is in virtually the entire rest of the country. It’s expensive, small and in constant demand, and from my outsiders’ perspective, I can’t imagine how people can afford to buy homes there. It had occurred to me that I could save a ton of money, over the long term, on housing in San Francisco by buying an empty piece of property that’s too small for a traditional house or building, and then putting a tiny house on it. The undeveloped land wouldn’t be cheap, but by keeping things small, theoretically I could maybe make it happen. Throw on a tiny house made from two old shipping containers and there you go. Problem solved. I’m a homeowner in one of the world’s most expensive cities. Holla!

But then I remembered the earthquakes. And how the building codes in the San Francisco Bay area are pretty damn stringent because of them. And I wondered if it would be affordable / feasible / possible to even get a shipping container house up to code there.

So I guess what I’m saying is, I have more research to do.

What’s your take on tiny houses?

Spencer Fleury writes about urbanism, environment and geography at Beyond the Cul de Sac and can be found tweeting along at @antiburbia. This post was originally published there on his blog.

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