Once upon a time, everyone wanted a big house. My mom, who grew up in the seventies and early eighties, says property was a status symbol for her generation, a way to show off wealth. Today, though, priorities are changing. While many still want large houses, recent generations face new constraints. In addition to financial considerations, which have long been an important factor, environmental concerns are playing a growing role in prospective homeowners’ decisions. Buying huge houses means contributing massively to carbon footprints (due to heating, electricity, and the environmental cost of simply building a big house). And millennials are more aware of their impact on the environment than ever.
Largely thanks to these concerns, the so-called “tiny house movement,” which began in the nineties, has been gaining popularity in recent years. Although downsizing is hardly a new idea (think Walden Pond), the movement began in earnest in 1997 with Sarah Susanka’s book, The Not So Big House. Susanka doesn’t make a specific push for tiny homes, but she encourages readers to consider building houses that are only as big as they truly need. In that same year (1997), a man named Jay Shafer built and moved into one of the first successful tiny homes, giving proponents of the movement an example to follow.
If you’re unfamiliar with the term “tiny home,” you might imagine a house around 1,000 square feet, consisting of two bedrooms and a bathroom—just large enough to squeeze in a family of four. But that doesn’t make the cut. While there’s no set size range, most agree that to be considered a real tiny home, a house must have a surface area of less than or equal to 500 square feet. To put this in context, consider the fact that an average single-family home is over 2,000 square feet, while an average living room is anywhere from 200 to 600 feet. In other words, a tiny home is essentially the size of one regular-sized room.
Some of the benefits of living in such a small home are apparent. For starters, a tiny home costs an average of $25,000, while most traditionally-sized homes cost hundreds of thousands. Average Americans devote anywhere from a third to half of their lifelong income to housing, whereas those who choose tiny homes only pay the price of a standard car. With this cost benefit comes a sense of ownership, since the tenants of tiny homes generally own their houses rather than slowly paying them off. The environmental impact is also significant: in addition to requiring much less lumber and lumber transportation to build, tiny homes contribute far fewer greenhouses gases. This quality becomes especially important when taking into account that residential houses are responsible for a startling 18% of greenhouse gas emissions.
A third, more unusual perk of owning a tiny home—and its primary benefit for some—is its portability. Buying a traditional home means being tied down to it for at least as long as it takes to pay off the mortgage. Building a tiny home, on the other hand, can mean as little as having a place to sleep: its owners can pack it up and take it anywhere they want at the spur of a moment. This freedom is particularly meaningful for people who don’t want to hold steady jobs, and for those who travel frequently. Having a tiny home means being able to have the freedom of a backpacker without the same feeling of rootlessness.
One extremely satisfied tiny homeowner lives just outside of Providence, Rhode Island. Doug Immel, a middle-aged teacher, built a 164-square-foot house for $28,000 and described himself as “infinitely happier” for it. Instead of putting money into a mortgage, he invested more in his retirement fund, and as a result planned to retire much earlier. Other tiny-home inhabitants are happiest about the lack of materiality that comes with having so little storage space. “You find other ways to keep those things in your memories and in your heart, because your memories really aren’t tied up in things,” says Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell, who lives with her husband in a 480-square-foot house in Arkansas. Whatever the primary reason—money, freedom or environmental benefit—plenty of tiny home inhabitants are happy with their decision.
But tiny houses are far from perfect. While they may work well for single residents and even well-aligned couples, they’re much harder to adapt for families of three or more. After extended time in such a small house, many find they don’t have enough privacy or space to grow. In her article “Teeny house, big lie: Why so many proponents of the tiny house movement have decided to upsize,” Erin Anderssen describes her experience of sharing a tiny home with her husband and two sons, which she does for ten weeks a year in Nova Scotia. Although the vacation is meant to be a bonding experience, in her article, Anderssen expresses concern over living in such a small space long-term.
And she’s not alone: “I can’t imagine anyone with children not going bonkers in them,” says Susan Saegert, quoted in Anderssen’s article, who studies the effects of overcrowding on families. Melanie Sorrentino, who lived in a 150-square-foot-home for a year with her husband before deciding to leave, echoes this sentiment. “My advice for anyone looking at a tiny house – or any lifestyle painted so perfectly – is to try to imagine whether you can grow as a human being in that space,” Sorrentino says, also quoted in Anderssen’s article.
So should we all leave our traditional, environmentally-unfriendly houses and downsize, or will they tear our relationships to shreds? As we’ve seen, tiny houses aren’t for everyone. Though idyllic in theory, they are, like any trend, highly variable in practice. But with environmental and economic concerns growing daily, it’s clear that our current system won’t hold on forever. We can’t continue to spend resources on housing at the rate that we’ve been going—a rate that continues to increase, with the average house size hitting an all-time high of 2,600 square feet last year (2016). For this reason, whether or not tiny homes are the answer, we should certainly be glad for their existence: if nothing else, they’re at least pointing us in a new direction.
Photograph by Kevin Dooley.