By Kayla Robbins
There’s a new craze sweeping the nation and it’s taking over both Pinterest and HGTV. If you haven’t heard of it by now, you’ve either been living under a rock or in a McMansion so large you’ve forgotten how to reach the outside. It’s (drumroll, please) the tiny house movement! Regardless of what you think of them, tiny houses have had a big impact on our culture lately. It’s worth a look at why that may be.
What are they, exactly?
Tiny houses require little explanation, since they’re so descriptively named. There is some debate about what exactly the square footage cutoff point is for being considered an official tiny house, but for our purposes, we’ll call it less than 400 square feet. Many tiny houses clock in well below that, with floorplans more in the 200 square foot range. That’s less than one tenth the size of the average American home! Many of them are also mobile, being built atop custom made trailers that allow you to take your home with you wherever you go.
Different from other small sized and mobile housing options, like trailers or RVs, tiny houses are designed to resemble traditional housing as much as possible. They share many of the same building materials and amenities as a traditional house, just in a smaller footprint. It’s not uncommon for a tiny house to feature a full-size shower, washing machine, or marble backsplashes behind an apron front sink.
Likewise, many a tiny house has been built from mostly or solely reclaimed materials. They can be as simple or luxurious as their owner desires. There is also an element of being custom-built, since the vast majority of tiny houses are either built by their owners or to the owner’s specifications. Despite these common trends, a tiny house can really be built anywhere, by anyone, with anything.
For an idea of the variety present in the tiny house movement, take a look at one of the most famous tiny house building companies that really helped the movement take off, the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company. Their designs are among the most common, with a traditional-style small home built on a flatbed trailer for portability. Their designs and building blueprints have sparked a whole new generation of tiny house plans that take their basic idea and improve upon it. You can see some of the results of this design evolution in this roundup of 50 impressive tiny houses.
There is also a multitude of other tiny housing options, from shipping container homes to traditional Mongolian nomadic dwellings. The latter has caught on surprisingly well in the Western world, with more and more people renting and building their own yurt homes. There is even a housing community of yurts and yurt-based dome dwellings on the campus of UC Davis in which students can live. Other tiny house dwellers live in treehouses, earth houses, and surprisingly comfortable structures made out of plastic bottles and sand. The options are plentiful.
The tiny house movement also takes inspiration from the Japanese art of utilizing surface area. I guess it comes naturally to a country with a population density of nearly 900 people per square mile, but Japanese interior design is laser-focused on making the most possible use out of the smallest possible spaces. That often means that certain areas need to pull double or even triple duty. For example, a bed may fold or slide into a couch during the day, or a simple-looking staircase may be packed full of valuable storage drawers and cubbies. Fold-down tables attached to walls offer a place to eat breakfast or get some work done.
Who does this and why?
At this point, you may have a few questions about who would willingly stuff themselves (and sometimes their entire families) into a space roughly the size and shape of a school bus. That’s understandable, but so are the many and varied reasons people have been getting involved in the tiny house movement. Tiny houses offer a solution for people from all walks of life with all sorts of values, from retirees to environmentalists to those with an unquenchable wanderlust.
Some people choose to go tiny as a way to reduce their environmental impact, and you’ve got to admit - it’s effective. Without a single solar panel or wind turbine, a typical tiny house can be maintained for a month on utilities costing less than $20. Incorporating those things could easily power your home entirely on clean energy. Energy usage in a standard size American home equates to roughly 28,000 pounds of CO2 per year, while in a tiny house that number decreases to 2,000 pounds. That’s a huge difference when you consider that 18% of the world’s greenhouse gases come from houses. Rain catchment systems and composting toilets can take your tiny home completely off the grid for those who are dedicated to the cause.
Others choose tiny houses for the reduced cost of living. Not only are they vastly cheaper to buy than a traditional home, but they are much cheaper to maintain. In today’s economic climate, more and more people of all ages are becoming more frugal and more adverse to taking on debt. On average, 89% of all tiny house owners have less credit card debt than the average American, with 65% of them having none at all. They are also earning more and saving more than the rest of us. Earning more, spending less, and saving it up is the perfect recipe for a financially secure future, so if that’s something that interests you, you may want to look into buying your own tiny house.
Others love the tiny life simply for its sense of freedom from possessions, from the typical rat race of life, and from settling down in one location. There are many who seek out tiny living as a way to simplify their lives and focus more on cultivating meaningful experiences than collecting meaningless stuff. A motto for many tiny house owners is “smaller home, bigger life.”
What it all means
The popularity of the tiny house movement points not only to a cultural desire to refute the claim of previous generations that “bigger is better,” but also a desire to address the elephant in the room. For many individuals and families across the nation, traditional housing has become unaffordable. Wages have stagnated while costs of living continue to rise, leaving middle and lower classes increasingly strained. For many millennials, owning a home like the one they grew up in is simply out of the question. Likewise, retirees are beginning to discover exactly how far their savings will take them. As income inequality increases, more and more people are making drastic changes in the way they live just to keep their heads above the water. For most of us, the tiny house movement is not a form of voluntary “poverty appropriation,” but rather a very real response to the world that we now live in, and a desire to change it however we can.