Currently, I am living in a house that offers only 55 square feet of habitable space: my camper van. You may think such an arrangement would be impossible, but actually it’s quite comfortable and I like it a lot. My friends find this ironic because Jill and I live in a 4,500 square foot Victorian. You could argue that I may be able to tolerate, even enjoy, life in a 55 square foot home only because I have the luxury of living most the time in a much larger home. Still, as the tiny house alternative intrigues me, I put to you the same question I put to myself: how big does your house need to be?
In 1983, architect Donald McDonald built three tiny row houses in San Francisco. Each was no bigger than 800 square feet but surprisingly spacious and enthusiastically welcomed as upscale affordable housing. Thus the “tiny house movement” or “small house movement” got its start. In 1990, architects Witold Rybczynski and Avi Friedman created an experimental project called the Grow Home in Montreal. Grown Home is a three story row house on a 13 x 24 ft. plot, offering less than 1,000 square feet of living space. The first floor was finished and the top two floors were left unfinished so that the prospective home-owners could complete them to their own needs. As attractive, affordable housing, the Grow Home was wildly popular. There are now 4,000 in Montreal alone.
In 1950, the average size of an American house was about 1,200 square feet. Houses in America’s now iconic automobile suburb, Levitt Town, started at about 750 square feet in 1947. Now, the average house size in America is about 2,400 square feet. Recently, I stopped by the first house my family of five owned: a modest rancher of 1,000 square feet. I couldn’t believe how small it looked.
By the 1960s, these houses were called “starter homes” because it was assumed that the family would grow into something bigger. Bigger meant better because it suggested more prestige and more comfort — and for Americans, it guaranteed more storage for their junk. As funny and sad as it sounds, it may be fair to say that, more than any other factor, American’s accumulation of belongings accounts for their desire for larger houses. More than half the people I know, for instance, use their garages for storage, not for parking cars.
My point is this: as outlandishly small as the so-called tiny house looks today, historically it has more validity — more predecessors — than the large houses that most of us seem to favor. A tour of the historic districts of most cities will bear this out. You’ll see high-density construction and many tiny houses. Even many large middle class, or upper middle class, houses of the last century followed tiny house principals when they were built as row- or townhouses. Their narrow lots (ours is 20 feet wide) and shared walls were energy efficient; they were built to last (more energy savings in their longevity); and they maximized space by housing extended families.
In living in my camper van for months at a time, I’ve come to appreciate what tiny house living offers:
- No junk. Mind you, I love my junk at home and, honestly, I have a lot of it. But when I’m away from my junk and don’t have to store it or step over it or worry about organizing it, I feel liberated.
- No maintenance. Or minimal maintenance. A small roof is easy and affordable to repair. One toilet is easier to care for than three or five.
- A sense of control. Although Jill and I love our grand old house, it is sometimes overwhelming and, truly, we never feel in control. It’s like riding a whale: you hang onto a fin and let that monster house carry you into the deep of home ownership. In my camper van, on the other hand, I feel a sense of calm because everything is right here, literally within arm’s reach.
- Minimal impact. Admittedly, a camper van is hardly green. But a small camper van (5 cylinder) that gets good gas mileage (25 mpg) has minimal impact — and I feel good about that. I have solar panels on the roof so that I am mostly self-contained. The computer I’m writing on at this very moment is being powered by those panels. Also, I recycle everything I consume while on the road.
Does this mean I’m ready to sell our grand Victorian and move into a tiny house? No. Alas, I’m far from ready. But mentally I’m prepping myself for a change. The biggest change is the realization that, as much as I love my junk, I can live without it. This is easier now than it used to be because the computer and its Net brings us so much. As a result, I have digitized many of the things that cluttered my life — newspaper articles, music collections, photographs, and all kinds of paper artifacts. And I am now as fascinated by the prospect of going small as I once was with the prospect of going large (i.e., living in an antique mansion).
One of the biggest impediments to the small house movement is the building industry. Builders make more money when they build large. As a result, building codes in most municipalities prohibit — yes, outlaw — dwellings that are smaller than 1,000 square feet. Early on, the restriction was meant to keep people from living in shacks and thus bringing down the values of neighboring houses. Now that so many small houses, even tiny houses (less than 500 square feet), have proven to be beautiful and well made, it’s time for a change in building codes. Post-Katrina communities like Cottage Square and Ocean Springs, Mississippi, have shown that small house neighborhoods are lovely, humane, green, and thoroughly affordable.
To get around restrictive building codes, many tiny house owners have put their homes on wheels — in the tradition of Gypsy vans. The interiors of these tiny homes rival that of the classic American travel trailers. Which brings us back to my camper van, which I designed to match the aesthetic of those old travel trailers. The advantage of having a camper van is that I’m not hauling anything behind me — it’s all right here, a tidy package behind my steering wheel.
More Reading About Small and Alternative Housing:
- the Tiny House Blog
- Behind the Ever-Expanding American Dream House
- Building and Social Housing foundation promoting innovative housing policy and practice.
- The Evolution of the Grow Home & What the Dutch Are Doing
- For more on the camper van, Vanadventures.com
by Chinle Miller
There’s not a lot you can do to a cargo trailer, or so I thought when I bought mine. Then, I got a wild idea to paint one wall a deep sunburst yellow, and one thing led to another. I ended up painting the other wall a Taos blue, which I initially thought might be a bit much, but then decided since I was going to live in it, why not make it like I wanted?
When it was all done, I added a handmade quilt a friend made for me, and it all matched perfectly, though I hadn’t planned it that way. Serendipity! It’s kind of cozy, like a gypsy vardo. I run everything on solar, and the trailer is insulated so it stays warm in the cool weather and cool when it’s hot. After a certain point either way, I do have to turn on the propane heater or my 12-volt fan.
After doing a bit more research on converted cargo trailers, I was pretty amazed at some of the things people have done. Some were simple, and some were as nice as anything I’ve seen. At 6 ft. by 12 ft., mine’s pretty modest, but the storage under the bed is great. I’ve now full-timed in it for a couple of months, and I’ll say it’s much more livable than any of the half-dozen other trailers I’ve had, which include a Casita and an Aliner. It’s also very easy to pull, and I can stealth camp in it about anywhere—I actually camped in a Montana DMV parking lot once when on the road.
Living in a converted cargo trailer feels much more like living in a little cabin, except I can change the views when I want. It feels more substantial, more sheltering, than living in a trailer. And what I really love about it is the simplicity. There’s nothing to break or need repairs. I cook outside (unless it’s too windy), and I use a solar shower and porta-potty.
Life is simple and I can devote my time to writing, hiking with my three rescue dogs, cuddling with my three cats, and watching the sunrise and sunset. People think I’m crazy when I tell them I live in 70 square feet with six animals, but everyone’s happy. We get to be outdoors most of the time, even the cats, as I have a special cat-tent for them. I also take them for walks on leashes.
I’ve owned several nice houses (with the bank) and used to work in a high-paying professional field (computer consulting), but one morning I just flung it all over my shoulder and hit the road, traveling and living in a tent. Sure, being a nomad can be hard sometimes, but the benefits more than make up for it. I can live on almost nothing, and I find myself wanting little. I take great pleasure in things that some would consider unimportant, like watching the bluejays eat the nuts I throw out.
I’ve discovered that having a nice place to live, like my gypsy cargo trailer, gives me the underpinnings to enjoy a life of simplicity. Who could ask for more?
You wouldn’t normally think of a 5th wheel trailer as a tiny house, but when I was invited over to Matt and Kathleen’s Forest River Cardinal trailer which is parked behind a friend’s home, I was astounded at how cozy and “house-like” it felt. The couple, who downsized from their home in Seattle to this 30-foot trailer about a year ago, have turned it into a little mobile retreat.
A few years ago, a trip to India opened the couple’s eyes to an alternative way of life and they decided to sell their home in Seattle and most of their belongings. Kathleen said they were both “ready for wheels on a house” and wanted more time for themselves and each other. Matt works as a freelance multimedia designer and Kathleen is an acupuncturist, so their jobs can go on the road with them. Their cats, Mojo and Chloe, also travel along with them and seem to love their new, sunny home.
The couple’s travels have taken them to several RV parks and campgrounds in the West and they spent last winter on a relative’s ranch in Arizona. They currently live in the large acreage behind a friend’s home and pay $500 a month which includes their utilities and Internet access. Since this winter will be colder than the one in Arizona, the 10,500 lb trailer has currently been fitted with a plywood skirt to protect the tanks and pumps. Matt mentioned that the skirting keeps the bay and bottom of the trailer about 4 to 10 degrees warmer than the outside air.
The reason the couple chose a fifth wheel rather than a wooden tiny house on wheels is simple: Matt is 6’2″ and needed the headroom. This particular trailer was also rated one of the highest in insulation value. The couple purchased the fifth wheel from Fife RV in Washington for $14,500 and it contains a slider for the living room, a cozy kitchen and dining area, a stand-up work station for Matt, a shower and separate toilet, full bedroom, and they keep it warm with the propane/electric furnace and small space heaters. Gray and black water is first sent through a grinding pump before being pumped into the home’s septic system.
Kathleen said that while it can be difficult to keep the trailer warm and that cleaning out the tanks is not fun, she loves the freedom of the trailer.
“I love the mobility and the idea of being totally self contained,” she said. Matt added that he also loves that there’s no wasted space and he totally digs the trailer’s “Command Center” where they can keep an eye on the level of the tanks, the lighting and battery system.
“We were a bit worried about what people would think of us,” Matt said. “But the response to our decision to move into the trailer has been overwhelmingly positive.”
Photos by Harry Thomas
On a recent trip to Yosemite National Park, the parking lots were dotted with some very colorful little campervans that reminded me of the long-term travel vans in Europe, Australia and New Zealand. It turns out that the Kiwi company that rents out the graffiti-inspired vans Down Under now has rental options in the U.S. The individually painted vans are available in several cities around the country for both short and long road trips.
Escape Campervans are available in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Miami and New York and each are hand painted by local artists. Prices are quoted for trips from 3 days to 85+ days. A young British couple we met in Yosemite were driving their Escape campervan from Los Angeles to New York for three months and the longer you rent, the cheaper the cost. Only a $200 deposit is needed to reserve a camper van.
The U.S fleet of Escape Campervans are economical Chevy Astros, Ford E150 and Dodge Caravans. Each of the campervans sleep two to four people and include beds, bedding and comforters, picnic chairs, sinks and running water, cooking and eating utensils, heat and AC, stereos, propane stoves, and ice boxes for food. Some of the vans include pop-up roofs with sleeping areas. Optional items can be rented including picnic tables, snow chains, rooftop storage boxes, GPS systems, tents, awnings, solar showers and child seats.
Photos by Escape Campervans