Big Lessons From the Tiny House Movement

by Kentin Waits on 24 April 2013 7 comments

Have you heard the buzz about the tiny house movement or seen one moving down the road toward its new (semi) permanent home? If not, chances are you soon will. (See also: McMansion to McCottage: Why Smaller Houses Are Smarter)

The tiny house movement is a social movement in which people voluntarily reduce their living space in order to live more simply, to live debt-free, or to reduce their carbon footprint. Tiny homes come in all shapes and designs and are as varied as their occupants. Although there are no formal parameters, these houses can be fixed or on wheels and range in size from 250-400 square feet.

As the movement gains steam and evolves from a fringe curiosity to a full-blown phenomenon, I thought it might be interesting to explore what we’re learning from tiny houses and the lessons that continue to motivate new converts every day.

Smaller Can Be Better

According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the size of the average American home in 2012 was 2,480 square feet. Since the size of families is shrinking, one has to wonder what we’re doing with all that extra space. Is it really worth it to finance, heat, clean, and furnish rooms we don’t need? Tiny homes start conversations about expectations, wants, needs, and norms that we seldom explore.

Houses Are for People

We spend a lot of time and money building bigger to house more...things. The beauty and logic of the tiny house movement challenges the notion that our homes need to be large enough to warehouse our unchecked and always-growing inventory of stuff. The primary purpose of a home is to shelter people and — secondarily — the optimal amount of useful, beautiful, and sentimental objects that support and enrich our lives.

Simple Living Requires Constant Editing

The British craftsman and poet William Morris said, “If you want a golden rule that will fit everything, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” Wise words.

Reaching that optimal level of “stuff” requires constant attention and editing — especially in tiny spaces. But isn’t editing something that should be happening anyway, regardless of the size of our homes? Do we really revel in stuffed closets, garages that no longer fit our cars, basements that look like the National Archives, attics that creak with the weight of dozens of storage bins? Tiny houses require us to do what larger houses let us neglect — minimize the material albatrosses we travel through life with.

Our Lives Are Mobile; Our Housing Should Keep Pace

Since I graduated college in 1992, I’ve lived in four different cities in three states, and for my peer group, that’s a relatively low number. Society is more mobile and adults are more transitory than ever before, but our housing options are still tethered to old social norms. Tiny houses offer ownership benefits that apartments can’t, design considerations that traditional mobile homes don’t, and financial flexibility that typical houses can’t come close to matching.

Prefab Can Be Fab

The reputation of prefab is changing. The old idea that prefabricated structures are quickly and cheaply tacked together is fading away.

Prefabricated tiny houses are designed, customized, and built with an unrivaled attention to detail and durability — often using reclaimed and repurposed materials. Their potential to revolutionize the way we build on a much broader scale shouldn’t be underestimated. With reduced waste, greater cost controls, and year-round climate-regulated building processes, the new prefab really is fab.

Design Matters

Optimizing the costs of any structure begins and ends with the maximizing the space within it. Many tiny homes feel much larger than their footprints because great care has been paid to design, space planning, and other efficiencies. Vaulted ceilings with sleeping lofts, Murphy beds, vertical storage, and versatile furnishings make every square foot matter. It’s a lesson that can be applied to any house, regardless of size.

Mortgage-Free Living Is Possible

Perhaps the most profound lesson we can take away from the tiny house movement is its lesson about debt-free living. Mortgage typically represents the single largest debt that most of us will ever face — one that will track and tax our financial freedom decade after decade. The notion that we can rethink our housing, still enjoy the benefits of home ownership, and reduce or completely avoid long-term debt should be sparking conversations across the country.

Maybe you’re not ready to downsize to a 250 square foot home — and I’m not sure that’s even the point. This style of living isn’t for everybody, but there are important lessons we can all learn from it. If we start reexamining the notions that more is always better than less, bigger is always preferable to smaller, debt is an unavoidable part of life, and traditional employment is necessary to fuel a constantly-expanding cycle of consumption, then the tiny house movement has challenged a narrative that is seldom questioned. And to me, that’s really big news.

Do you know someone who lives in a tiny house? Have you daydreamed about living small? Share your story below.

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Guest's picture
Kathy

I lived in a small house for 34 years. I am not that "sold" on them, frankly. Mine was harder to clean. Not having enough storage space was the bane of my existence. Because the house is small, the lot size also tends to be small, which puts you closer to neighbors. If they are good neighbors, you are blessed, but if they are bad neighbors, it is horrible. If you are not working, being in small surroundings can be depressing. I had to go back to work to escape. Home should be your refuge, where you are happy.
The good thing about small houses is that they are easier to DIY. Because they are small, there is less to go wrong, and they tend to be "stronger" than larger dibs.

Guest's picture
Marsi

I purchased my mother's home in 2011, this was the house my 3 sisters and I grew up in, 850 sqft, 2 bdrms. There was 55 years of memories and stuff in this house and my mother was a master packer. After I emptied one closet I had no idea how everything could possibly go back into the same very small closet. Over the last years I have donated over 80 large storage totes to charity filled with everything from Christmas decorations to linens to plates to knick knacks. It is an emotional process to sit in the home that shared with your family and going thru items, everything has a memory attached to it. The more I go thru the more I realize I don't need that much to live and that giving away "stuff" does not take away the memories I have of my parents. I would like to move to a even smaller home in a few years and am considering one of the Tumbleweed homes.

Guest's picture

Yet the tiny houses are themselves a horrific investment. They are typically priced as high per square foot as a Manhattan apartment--$30,000 for a 300 sqft tiny house isn't unusual. And then you must find a place where you are allowed to put the tiny house and pay for utility hookups--these aren't exactly RVs we're talking about here.

Then, when you decided to get married or have kids or just get tired of living in a "movement," you have to sell the house, and you find that it's lost value as fast as a single-wide trailer...because that's what it really is. A very, very expensive, very small single-wide trailer.

The houses are cute. But they don't make financial sense.

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MotherLodeBeth

Have been a member of the Small House Society (a real group) for years and could never live in a place bigger than 300 sq ft. It's been a blessing. What I have gets used. No dust catchers. More money in savings. More free time. Less stress.

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Rob

There's a show on PBS called b.organic (borganic.net) and they had an episode (#302) that showed a couple who built their own 572 square foot home. They had some really creative ways to solve storage issues and other small space challenges. It's worth checking out for anyone interested in living this way.
I think this would be a fun way to live for a single person or a couple. Living like this would definitely keep me from accumulating so much unnecessary stuff!

Guest's picture
Guest

Our first home was less than 900 sq ft. We lived there with our two small children for six years. It was very difficult having baby stuff everywhere. The kids had a hard time playing and we had to step over everything all the time. Yes, it was cheaper, but we all got on each other's nerves. Now we live in 3000+ sq ft and love it! The kids have the upstairs, hubby and I are downstairs. No troubles. Plus, it is handicap accessible and has space if in-laws need to move in.

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Jen2

I lived in a 425 square foot basement efficiency apartment for 7 years when I was single. It was what I could afford. Somehow, despite its size it felt like home. However, I can't imagine more than one person living there. I had to institute a one-in, out-out rule for newly acquired items. If I got something new, I got rid of something. Clothes for example. It worked and it certainly has helped me be less cluttered since then. I do have to say that I love having rooms now, with doors. Also, I don't want to live in the basement. No finished basement for me. I'm done. After the apartment, I moved into a 2 bedroom row home with my now husband. 2 kids later and we just moved into a small 3 bedroom with a nice yard. It's neither tiny nor huge. We are forced to share space, which I think is a good thing. Also, the smaller the house, the less there is to clean and maintain.