26 Jul Tiny House Living

Currently, I am living in a house that offers only 55 square feet of habitable space: my camper van. You make think such an arrangement would be impossible, but actually it’s quite comfortable and I like it a lot. My friends find this ironic because Jill and I live in a 4500 square foot Victorian. You could argue that I may be able to tolerate, even enjoy, life in a 55 square foot home only because I have the luxury of living most the time in a much larger home. Still, as the tiny house alternative intrigues me, I put to you the same question I put to myself: how big does your house need to be?

In 1983, architect Donald McDonald built three tiny rowhouses in San Francisco. Each was no bigger than 800 square feet but surprisingly spacious and enthusiastically welcomed as upscale affordable housing. Thus the “tiny house movement” or “small house movement” got its start. In 1990, architects Witold Rybczynski and Avi Friedman created a then-experiment called the Grow Home in Montreal: a three story rowhouse on a 13 x 24′ plot, offering less than 1,000 square feet of living space. The first floor was finished, the top two floors were left unfinished so that the prospective home-owners could complete them to their own needs. As attractive, affordable housing, the Grow Home was wildly popular. There are now 4,000 in Montreal alone.

In 1950, the average size of an American house was about 1,200 square feet. Houses in America’s now iconic automobile suburb, Levitt Town, started at about 750 square feet in 1947. Now, the average house size in America is about 2,400 square feet. Recently, I stopped by the first house my family of five owned: a modest rancher of 1,000 square feet. I couldn’t believe how small it looked.
By the 1960s, these houses were called “starter homes” because it was assumed that the family would grow into someting bigger. Bigger meant better because it suggested more presitge and more comfort — and for Americans, it guaranteed more storage for their junk. As funny and sad as it sounds, it may be fair to say that, more than any other factor, American’s accumulation of belongings accounts for their desire for larger houses. More than half the people I know, for instance, use their garages for storage, not for parking cars.

My point is this: as outlandishly small as the so-called tiny house looks today, historically it has more validity — more predecessors — than the large houses that most of us seem to favor. A tour of the historic districts of most cities will bear this out. You’ll see high-density construction and many tiny houses. Even many large middle class, or upper middle class, houses of the last century followed tiny house principals when they were built as row- or townhouses. Their narrow lots (ours is 20 feet wide) and shared walls were energy efficient; they were built to last (more energy savings in their longevity); and they maximized space by housing extended families.

In living in my camper van for months at a time, I’ve come to appreciate what tiny house living offers:

1) No junk. Mind you, I love my junk at home and, honestly, I have a lot of it. But when I’m away from my junk and don’t have to store it or step over it or worry about organizing it, I feel liberated.

2) No maintenance. Or minimal maintenance. A small roof is easy and affordable to repair. One toilet is easier to care for than three or five.

3) A sense of control. Although Jill and I love our grand old house, it is sometimes overwhelming and, truly, we never feel in control. It’s like riding a whale: you hang onto a fin and let that monster house carry you into the deep of home ownership. In my camper van, on the other hand, I feel a sense of calm because everything is right here, literally within arm’s reach.

4) Minimal impact. Admittedly, a camper van is hardly green. But a small camper van (5 cylinder) that gets good gas mileage (25 mph) has minimal impact — and I feel good about that. I have solar panels on the roof so that I am mostly self-contained. The computer I’m writing on at this very moment is being powered by those panels. Also, I recycle everything I consume while on the road.

Does this mean I’m ready to sell our grand Victorian and move into a tiny house? No, alas. I’m far from ready. But mentally I’m prepping myself for a change. The biggest change is the realization that, as much as I love my junk, I can live without it. This is easier now than it used to be because the computer and its Net brings us so much. As a result, I have digitized many of the things that cluttered my life — newspaper articles, music collections, photographs, and all kinds of paper artifacts. And I am now as fascinated by the prospect of going small as I once was with the prospect of going large (i.e., living in an antique mansion).

One of the biggest impediments to the small house movement is the building industry. Builders make more money when they build large. As a result, building codes in most municipalities prohibit — yes, outlaw — dwellings that are smaller than 1000 square feet. Early on, the restriction was meant to keep people from living in shacks and thus bringing down the values of neighboring houses. Now that so many small houses, even tiny houses (less than 500 square feet), have proven to be beautiful and well made, it’s time for a change in building codes. Post-Katrina communities like Cottage Square and Ocean Springs, Mississippi, have shown that small house neighborhoods are lovely, humane, green, and thoroughly affordable.

To get around restrictive building codes, many tiny house owners have put their homes on wheels — in the tradition of Gypsy vans. The interiors of these tiny homes rival that of the classic American travel trailers. Which brings us back to my camper van, which I designed to match the aesthetic of those old travel trailers. The advantage of having a camper van is that I’m not hauling anything behind me — it’s all right here, a tidy package behind my steering wheel.

More Reading About Small and Alternative Housing:

the tiny house blog

Behind the Ever-Expanding American Dream House

Building and Social Housing foundation promoting innovative housing policy and practice.

The Evolution of the Grow Home & What the Dutch Are Doing

For more on the camper van, Vanadventures.com