How big of a home do you need, really? Some people believe they can’t live in anything smaller than 20,000 sq ft. For most Americans, it’s probably closer to several thousand square feet.
But for a growing minority, a home can be even smaller. Think 100-600 sq ft. They call them “tiny houses.” And they could be coming to a neighborhood near you – eventually.
Less Is More
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The Tiny House Movement is dedicated to encouraging miniaturized dwellings with low energy requirements, reduced furnishings, and minimal expenses. The price range for tiny homes is comparable to the recreational vehicles (RVs) market.
Small-scale housing affords a parsimonious lifestyle with an impressively tiny carbon footprint. Inspired by sustainability and minimalist concepts, tiny homes combine thrifty design and energy efficiency with cultural notions of the simple life, reduced to its bare essentials.
According to Jay Shafer, who identifies himself as one of the movement’s founding thinkers, there is a spiritual dimension to the idea of tiny living, too. “Necessity exists in all of nature,” he says. “People are really into the idea of what they really need to be happy and comfortable and surviving, and a small house really encapsulates that.”
“Extra stuff and extra square footage dilutes a sense of vitality.”
Shafer sells pocket home plans to people interested in the concept of ultra-downsized quarters. He is the founder of the Four Lights Tiny House Company, based in California.
A History of Small Houses
It’s worth noting that small-scale housing is not all that new in the U.S. As proponents point out, most American families lived in households that were less than 1,000 sq ft. at the dawn of the industrial economy – back when most of the population lived in the rural countryside.
America has a long and enduring history of emphasizing sustainable housing, simple residences, portable dwellings, and back-to-Nature lifestyles. Once upon a time, it inspired Henry David Thoreau and the transcendentalists. It’s why we still speak with pride of Abraham Lincoln and his log cabin. It’s why Americans love boondocking, think gypsies are fascinating, and buy more RVs than any other people on the planet.
Today’s Tiny House Movement traces itself to the late 1990s, when a disparate group of authors, consultants, designers, artists, educators and community activists, many living on the West Coast, began to collaborate on their common interest in small-scale living. The Small House Society was founded in 2002, emphasizing the utility of portable tiny homes on wheels.
The Tiny House Movement aims to transform the typical, sprawling American residence into something much more modest. But there’s just one, not-so-small obstacle the movement must defeat to survive and thrive: tiny homes are largely illegal.
Most jurisdictions have minimal size requirements for residential units. Even when very small habitats are allowed, they cannot occupy their own lot, but must exist only as accessory dwellings beside a larger structure.
It’s also hard to get a home loan or insurance on minikin homes. Banks and insurers seem reluctant to invest in the structures. And while conventional water and sewer systems are required and often desired, they are prohibitively expensive compared to the actual size of the home – which defeats the purpose, some say.
These are all serious and significant obstacles. Restrictions on permanent small homes built on a foundation have pushed many aspiring tiny homeowners to put their pad on wheels and call it an RV, semi-trailer, or mobile home. Although not viable everywhere, doing so can make it possible to get registered and live within the bounds of the law – sort of.
Once you’ve got a pint-sized home on wheels, however, there are parking issues aplenty. Short-term limits govern how long you can live in an RV in a single location. A semi-trailer cannot legally be used as a dwelling. A mobile home has to sit in a park full of them. Many tiny homeowners aren’t interested in traditional trailer parks, and there aren’t any ‘tiny home parks’ – not yet, anyway.
Role of Ingenuity
Ingenuity is a strong suit of the movement. Creative pioneers have come up with enough alternatives, workarounds, and loopholes to keep the movement going in spite of institutional inertia. Some progress has been made in Portland, Oregon, considered one of the movement’s hot spots. The City recently waived certain development charges for tiny homestead builders.
Meanwhile, advocates say there need to be changes in the law to allow petite houses to proliferate. Others suggest tiny houses need their own intentional communities to bolster their legal standing and local clout.
The movement is definitely still in its infancy. Under the current circumstances, advocates and homeowners face more than one uphill battle. As more people join the tide of micro-housing, though, there could be some interesting legal conflicts and changes in the years to come.