Living large in tiny houses
Friday, April 22, 2016
Tiny houses have been making big news in recent years, with TV coverage on networks like CNN, HGTV and FYI, articles in House Beautiful, Country Living, Mother Earth News and BusinessWeek, and countless appearances on YouTube, Pinterest and other social media forums.
Your first reaction, like ours, will probably be how darn cute they are — these itty-bitty, pocket-size domiciles that appear straight out of a fairy tale. On second thought, you might wonder how people fit in there — or why they'd ever want to.
Whatever your personal choice when it comes to living space, there are tens of thousands of Americans embracing the architectural and social movement that advocates living simply in small homes. Proponents say tiny footprints are making a big impact — on the environment, owners' wallets and their quality of life, changing the notion that living small means living with less.
The movement may have been inspired in part by the burgeoning popularity of motorhomes and the growing number of "full-timers," i.e., those who have taken up residence in their rigs. Or it could be a countermovement to the increasing size of single-family homes in America. A recent Pew Research Center study reports that the average size of a new single family home grew from 1,780 square feet in 1978 to 2,657 square feet in 2015.
The Great Recession and the subsequent real estate collapse likely played a role as well, causing many among the hundreds of thousands who lost their homes to turn to more affordable mini-home living.
Regardless of the reasons for it, the microshelter movement is marked by an enthusiastic embrace among its advocates of abodes that typically range from 500 square feet to as small as 100 square feet. Construction costs average about $80 per square foot, which translates to a total cost of $20,000 to $40,000.
Author Lloyd Kahn is often credited with starting the movement when he published "Shelter" in 1973, followed by "Tiny Homes: Simple Shelter" in 2012. Another early pioneer was Sarah Susanka, author of "The Not So Big House" (1997).
Others say the seeds of this housing revolution were sown in 1999, when Sonoma, California-based Tumbleweed Tiny House Company began designing and building tiny houses on wheels. They're still at it today, selling plans for both stationary and mobile mini-homes and building trailers upon which to mount those tiny houses.
Not only are there tiny houses on wheels but also microapartments (apodments) and microhotels. Seattle, for example, has seen a microhousing boom. At last count, nearly 900 apodments — most sized from 300 to 400 square feet, and renting for $500 to $1,000 a month — have been built in and around the city's Capitol Hill neighborhood, with another 1,500 units in the pipeline.
Portland, Oregon, is home to the country's first tiny-house hotel, Caravan, which offers six cabins ranging in size from 84 to 170 square feet. The cabins have ladders that lead up to cozy bedroom lofts.
Most tiny house dwellers are seeking to simplify their lives. Many of them live off the grid and are of the DIY persuasion. They've built a community through blogging about their space-maximizing strategies, renting out their homes on Airbnb, and getting together at conferences.
The annual Tiny House Conference is staged each April in different locations around the country — Asheville, North Carolina, this year; Portland, Oregon, in 2017 — offering panels and workshops delving into both design/building and lifestyle topics. Also featured is the Tiny House Tool School, where attendees can get hands-on training in the use of power tools.
Gregory Paul Johnson, president of the Small House Society, an organization that supports the development of smaller living spaces, points out that there are smart uses for smaller structures beyond serving as primary residences.
"Small, freestanding structures can make great sense," Johnson says, "as guest cottages, 'granny pods' for elderly parents, vacation homes, home offices or studios."
Although he's a dedicated supporter of small-house living, Johnson warns of zoning issues for those planning to erect a mini structure. He points out that many jurisdictions impose restrictions on residential dwellings under a certain size, meaning building permits can be difficult to obtain. Some areas also have regulations that prevent nonfixed structures (RVs and mobile mini-homes) from being used as full-time residences or from being connected to city water and sewer lines.
There are builders and architects around the country who specialize in the design and construction of tiny structures. A list of these is available on Johnson's Small House Society website.
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