Jay Shafer's tiny houses -- like this one one -- show just how compact and efficient a home can be.
Cabin Fever: Are tiny houses the new American dream?
Tiny houses have seemingly taken over the landscape of aspirational real estate, and not just for the green-minded. When it comes to choosing a compact cottage of one’s own, tiny house fetishists need only adopt the guiding principle of sage philosopher Ludacris: What’s your fantasy?
Ranging from impossibly twee to space-age minimalist, with rustic cabins in snow-covered woods lying somewhere in between, there’s seemingly no limit of miniature dwellings to fill the Pinterests of a growing audience. The prolific Tiny House Swoon website, for example, offers pages upon pages of shelter porn for those who dream of downsizing: a fairy-tale treehouse in Germany; a stark West Virginia cabin built entirely of recycled materials; and a transparent cube unit in Switzerland that may as well have been abandoned by an extremely adorable Martian.
What’s the appeal of a home the size of a toolshed? You can’t scroll through a page of design sites such as Inhabitat and Dwell without hitting at least one. Graham Hill, founder of TreeHugger, launched LifeEdited, an online publication about downsized living inspired by his own 420 square-foot apartment, in 2010. Outside of niche publications, tiny houses been featured in The New York Times, The Independent, and even Fox News – and that’s just in the past two months. Is all this hype a real push toward more sustainable lifestyles, or is it just a manifestation of widespread preoccupation with cuteness?
I spoke with Sally Augustin, an environmental psychologist based in Chicago and founder of design consultancy Design with Science. I asked her about how our most primitive instincts can cause this fascination with pocket-sized homes.
“If you go back to [prehistoric times], when we didn’t have all the tools and such that we have now, certain types of environments were really desirable to us,” she says. “They’d be places where we were protected, felt secure, but we could survey the world around us easily — think of the mouth of a cave in a hill, with a view out over the valley. I think a lot of tiny homes have that sort of arrangement, and so appeal to us at a really fundamental level, psychologically.”She has a point. The most titillating tiny house photographs tend to feature a lone structure perched on a cliff over the ocean, nestled in a mountainside, or presiding over a vast prairie. But what about the more pragmatic placements of tiny houses — in cities, for example — where a million-dollar view isn’t an option? What’s the appeal there?
“Small spaces give you a lot of control over the experience you have there,” says Augustin. “You can be certain that you’ll have control over all the different sensory experiences, and you can also really personalize a small space so it sends exactly the right messages about who you are and what you value about yourself. McMansions, on the other hand — nothing is very distinctive [about them.]”Without even taking the environmental or economic benefits into account, tiny houses appeal to both our most primitive instincts and our desire to be unique snowflakes — a pretty enticing combination.And those benefits are certainly real. It’s logical that a small house would use fewer resources than a large one, but the size of that margin hasn’t been extensively measured.
However, a 2010 study of small homes by the Oregon Department of Environmental Equality (DEQ) — and one would expect nothing less from the Most Delightfully Offbeat State in the Union — found that among 30 different green construction practices, reducing house size had the greatest environmental impact in terms of greenhouse gas reduction. According to the DEQ, a 50 percent reduction in a house’s square footage corresponds to a 36 percent reduction in carbon emissions over its lifetime.
In this study, a “small” house was defined as one measuring 1,630 square feet, and “extra-small” as 1,150 square feet. The prototypical tiny house tends to range from 120 to 500 square feet.
Ryan Mitchell, founder of The Tiny Life website, did some investigation into the financial advantages of tiny houses by surveying 120,000 tiny house owners. Mitchell found that the average cost of an owner-built tiny house is $23,000 — one-twentieth of the average cost of a house in the United States, with mortgage interest included. And for 68 percent of tiny house dwellers, mortgages aren’t even a concern.
I spoke with Nithya Priyan, 39, and Ally Muller, 29, who just finished construction of their own tiny house in Chico, Calif. Nithya works as an architect, and Muller, as a yoga instructor. Even on the spectrum of tiny houses, theirs is small, measuring just 120 square feet. The couple has lived in the house for about six months now, five of which were spent “camping” in the unfinished structure, which Muller readily acknowledges was a horrible idea. But now that it’s fully functional: “I love it,” she gushes. “I was shocked — I had my reservations, to be honest, but I absolutely love it.”