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
Following is an update from Victoria Whitcher on her adventure to Alaska. This is a reprint from her blog. To keep up with her story please continue to follow Victoria at the Tiny Adventure blog.
We are a family of three. We currently live in Alaska. We built a 200 sq foot house and live in it full time. We live off the grid. We choose to live the life WE wanted. Not the life everyone thought was right. My husband is such an amazing man to make this dream I had come true!
We have arrived in Alaska after a 4,200 mile journey. What an adventure it was. My husband drove the tiny house towed by a U-Haul. I drove the truck towing the solar system and the plow. It was suppose to take a total of 4 days. It ended up taking a total of over a week. All due to an accident we got into right after we crossed the border into Canada. Upon entering the border, we went over a snow drift that turned out to be 4 inches of ice. I did a 360 and landed almost sideways in the snow. The house the same. The accident involved 6 other cars. Thank God no one was hurt. I have to credit the tow company. Removing the U-Haul and the truck from the waist deep snow should have cost thousands. Instead it cost $800. We did rest that night and continued on the journey. The tiny house received some damage due to the accident. The frame was damaged. After strapping it together several times in the Yukon we carried on. Driving the Alaska highway was an experience of a lifetime. Really crappy roads carved onto the side of a mountain is the best way to describe it. I am terrified of heights. So it’s something I will avoid for the future. We probably changed a tire every 45 miles. Plus it was zero degrees out and a snow storm in APRIL! So on top of driving the tiny house damaged, towing on the side of the mountain, the ground was cover with slippery slushy snow. The positive side of the trail, it was so beautiful. I saw every type of animal I can imagine. Wild horses were the highlight for me. We stayed in the house the entire way. I highly recommend that everyone take a large trip across the country. It really shows you that you’re so small in such a large world.
We have been in Alaska for several months now. We are 100% off the grid. We have put the 250 water gallon in the tree. It is gravity feed into the house. With hours and hours of sunlight we have constant power. The vegetables in the garden grew at a very fast rate. Everyone is adjusting to the wonderful weather. We see moose every week. This is the happiest my family has ever been. I highly suggest everyone take their family at some point and move away. We love Alaska. It is a place where so many people think outside the box and do as they please. No one has given us crazy eyes because of the house we live in. As a matter of fact, most people live like this up here!
Some things I have learned in the couple months I’d like to list.
- Do not put your tiny house in the backyard of someone you don’t particularly get along with. They won’t respect your privacy and space.
- Write your list of daily needs you’re not willing to part with prior to the build.
- People will have nothing but negative things to say about everything.
- Don’t let others idea of your life define your decision.
- Canada needs better plow standards.
- Living off the grid has its challenges, but it’s awesome.
- You know your family, live life for them.
- God is great have faith in him.
Here are some pictures.
I covered Ted Fort and his scrap house back in 2009. This is a home he built for free while in high school. You can check out his blog thescraphouse.wordpress.com and learn more about the project. Yesterday he sent me an update on how it is holding out so far through Hurricane Sandy and I wanted to share his note and photos with you.
I thought I’d send you a photo of the scrap house fighting off Hurricane Sandy. Currently about 55-60 MPH winds, with 6 or so feet of flooding. That’s about two feet deep where the wood is floating. During Irene the water was half way up the door, so this is a lot better so far. Proof that tiny, and in this case freely built, houses can withstand some serious weather!
This will be the fourth or fifth major storm it’s been through. I also attached a photo looking towards Pamlico Sound, about 100 feet away from the Scrap House. Hope you’re doing well, I still read your blog regularly. -Ted Fort
I also asked about the scrap house and here is a short update from Ted.
No, I haven’t really worked on it much since high school back when I was updating my blog. I’ve done some more interior work, but nothing substantial. The last update to thescraphouse.wordpress.com was April 2011, which is a bit sad I must admit. Overall, though, I’ve been extremely pleased how well it’s held up considering it was built for free. Nothing leaks, etc. It is eventualy going to be moved, likely several hundred miles, so I’m hesitant to put too much more effort into it until it’s in a permanent location. I’m starting to see why building on a trailer is a good idea.
Thanks Ted for the update and keep us posted if you should move the home, etc.
Here is a tiny house I saw recently while I was traveling in the Sierras in California. No one lives in it. It’s built right into the side of a cliff. I don’t know that it was ever inhabited actually and might have been some kind of utility shed for the river. Nearby they route to the lower valley for water. It was padlocked, but otherwise looked intact.
Have a great day, Jennifer Nicholson