Big Lessons From the Tiny House Movement
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.
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.