They epitomize simplicity, a life without debt or clutter. They taunt us with non-conformity. They suggest freedom. Alles In Ordnung. Zen.
Tiny homes and micro apartments have drawn cult-like fascination in recent years. They’ve inspired books, blogs, and builders. They’ve spawned TV shows, movies, conferences, and, next month in Colorado Springs, Colo., a Tiny House Jamboree.
Why these wee abodes have drawn huge attention almost defies logic, especially in the United States—home to the Big Mac, the Hummer, and the McMansion. To be sure, they’re practical. They cost less and use a fraction of the energy of the average new 2,690-square-foot single-family U.S. home.
Yet their lure seems bigger. Tiny homes, typically 100 to 400 square feet, can free people from 30-year mortgages, allowing them to live on their own terms and reject soul-sucking jobs. Besides, they’re cute—the all-in-one housing equivalent of the iPhone and Swiss Army knife.
The Stylish Pinafore
Zyl Vardos, a tiny home maker based in Washington state, makes clever use of space in its Pinafore model, which features a combined kitchen and living area with a sleeping loft above.
“They give you experiences,” says Ross Beck, operations manager of California-based Tumbleweed Tiny Homes, one of a rising number of companies that manufacture miniscule homes on wheels. Tumbleweed offers four models that start at $57,000 to $69,000 and also hosts two-day DIY workshops.
Customers include recent college graduates, many of them underemployed and saddled with debt. “They don’t want all these possessions,” Beck says, noting their ability to store library-sized book collections on hand-held devices and rent—rather than buy—what’s rarely used. Also, he says they witnessed the housing bubble and Great Recession: “They don’t believe in the security of the system … They don’t believe in Social Security.”
Every generation sees benefits, says Sharon Read, founder of Seattle Tiny Homes, another manufacturer. She says half her homes are bought by aging parents who want to live in a child’s backyard or a similar situation.
“Zoning is the biggest obstacle our customers face,” Read told a builders’ group in May, noting many municipalities bar property owners from adding tiny homes to their lots.
Still, to provide affordable housing, more cities are allowing eco-villages and mini-apartments, which are also called "aPodments," "micro-lofts," "metro suites" or "sleeping rooms." These units aren’t just popping up in typically energy-efficient Japan or Europe. In the U.S. Lone Star state of Texas, Spur touts itself as the “nation’s first ‘tiny’ house friendly town.”
Micro units, often bigger than a one-car garage but smaller than a double, have growing appeal and staying power, especially among young urban hipsters, according to a recent report by the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Land Institute.
Could You Mini-Size?
A tiny home is hardly new, or rare. The one-room cabin, common in America’s frontier times, helped elicit prose from naturalists like Henry David Thoreau. In poor countries, it’s often a shack or shed for families who can only dream of something bigger.
In wealthy economies, perhaps ironically, people are choosing less. They’re not just downsizing; they’re mini-sizing. They're paring back and living simply. Yet even fans say tiny homes, despite some of today’s tricked-out features, aren’t for everyone.
“No one can really tell you what it will be like for you,” writes Tumbleweed employee Ella Jenkins on her blog, “littleyellowdoor”—the name she gave the “wee” house she built. “Nothing is 100 percent perfect 100 percent of the time. In a big house, you miss the efficiency of a small house. In a small house, you miss the convenience of a big house.”
Jenkins uses someone else’s washing machine when cleaning things too big for her “wee” sink, and she temporarily vacated her itsy-bitsy place when a kidney infection left her too weak to climb the ladder to her loft bedroom.
"When my house feels too small, I strive to classify the problem not as ‘I don’t have enough space’ but as ‘I have too much stuff in this space and it’s making it feel small’. Then I downsize, reorganize, and move on," she writes.
Overall, she says the positives outweigh the negatives. Because her tiny house gives her financial freedom, she writes: “I work my dream job and do so only 1-2 weekends a month...I live in my dream location and swim in the ocean every day...I have the time to spend my days writing music and drawing and creating and sewing most of my clothes by hand.”
Others are skeptical. “What the hell happens when your tiny house partner farts Mexican food farts, huh? Where do you escape to? Nowhere. You have nowhere to run,” writes Lauren Modery in a half-in-jest post on her Hipstercrite blog. “All you a do is walk three feet to the other end of the house and pray.”
Modery, who says she kind of admires the simple-living crowd, has other questions: “What if you’re having a s----y day and you just want to be alone? You can’t be alone, right? Because your partner or children are sitting two to 10 feet away from you at all times. Don’t you feel like a rat trapped in a cage?”
“No,” Tristan Davies replies. He says he and his wife lived in a miniscule house—only 80 square feet—for four years. “You get used to it,” he writes. “Humans are just really good at adapting. I spent a few hours thinking 'this is really small' and then it started to feel normal and every other dwelling started to seem absurdly huge.”
He says the experience isn’t “all peaches and cream” but a “different way of life” that can “blow your freakin mind.”
As for Modery’s question about dealing with Mexican food farts, his answer: “Open a window.”