Tiny House Living

Dan's van

by Ron Tanner

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.

grow homes

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.

grow home

interior

ideal home

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.

shotgun house

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.

work space

In living in my camper van for months at a time, I’ve come to appreciate what tiny house living offers:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

tiny house

interior     interor

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).

tiny house  van interior

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.

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Catherine Paull - December 6, 2013 Reply

The common sense of “how much space does a person need” is a useful way to look at housing needs. The other factor is how much space does a person want. And then the bottom line of what does a person want to afford (both in terms of finances and in terms of management and burden.) I’ve never lived in a huge house, most have been in the 2,000 sq. ft. range and have recently downsized into a 1,000 sq. ft cottage that has everything I need and want in a home. Finding the balance of comfort and need for a home (instead of trying to follow some movement towards cramped living) is the key IMO to making a real difference in many people’s lives. And that might be what is needed to make the move to a downsized, manageable home.

Debbie - December 6, 2013 Reply

Really enjoyable article. Honest and informative.

Bob Ratcliff - December 6, 2013 Reply

Having lived in RV’s for years and of course multiple homes since, I’m embarrassed to admit my most enjoyable years (ease of care – spending more time enjoying things I REALLY like) was during my RV years. Now I’m wheelchair bound hence it made sense to gut the family 113 year old 1,900 square foot farmhouse on five acres. Since I too am TOTALLY convinced smaller is better, our next project is to build a less than 1,000 square foot two story guest house that’s TOTALLY wheelchair friendly. That will eventually leave us with the option of renting out one or the other thus creating income. My bet is once one of us passes on (we’re getting up there in years), that’s when the survivor will move into the smaller home that will MORE than meet ALL our needs. As much as I love the tiny house movement, the one issue I have is it doesn’t plan ahead for physical infirmities. You once again proved we can have our cake and eat it too. It’s time to make life simpler. Meanwhile your camper is a hoot!

Brooks - December 6, 2013 Reply

Excellent article!

In 1981, while still single, I purchased a 1076 sq. ft., 3 bedroom, ranch-style “starter” house. I later got married and we had one child, but after nearly 33 years, we are still in the same house. Since it also has a full basement, I have never felt that we were lacking space and I must confess that we are still not using space nearly as efficiently as we could be. The Tiny House movement provides a lot of inspiration for ways to further improve.

Many times over the years, we have resisted the pressure to move into a much larger house, which seemed to be motivated less by actual need than by the fact that nearly everyone we know has a much larger house than we do. I have found it interesting that most of these people still only use a portion of their houses on a daily basis, typically no more than the area of ours. The formal living room and formal dining room, for example, are there “just in case” they want to have a large gathering. The irony is, if they do, they’re usually in the summer with tables set up in the garage or in a rented tent in the back yard.

So, I make no apologies for choosing to live in a modestly sized house and I am glad to see others starting to think the same way. That mentality has not yet reached our area of Western NY, as McMansions still seem to be the rule, rather than the exception. I remain hopeful, however, that some day we can claim to be trendy, rather than cheap.

BOB HENRY - December 6, 2013 Reply

I am on a similar path. I am reducing to a 5oo SQ Ft stelth home. Stelth because the county will not allow a home with less than 750 Sq Ft. I had attempted to get my 120 Sq Ft caboose a home to no avail. I am building in an unheated 3000 sq ft steel building. The beauty of this is I can keep my junk and still have a tiny home for economy.
Here is a link to my 3 month effort with lots of pictures.

http://www.tnttt.com/viewtopic.php?f=48&t=57551

Margo Fernandez - December 6, 2013 Reply

What kind of van and what year? I am interested in designin and fabricating one. Do you have more pics or suggestions where I can get info? thanks

    Kent Griswold - December 6, 2013 Reply

    Go to the link in the article. Van adventures.com

Sqeila - December 6, 2013 Reply

Talking the talk is not the same as walking the walk.

    David Remus - December 7, 2013 Reply

    Oh, to afford converting a Mercedes Sprinter to a camper AND having a 4,500 Victorian backup plan!

    Oh well, the site is about living in small spaces everywhere even for short periods and not only the ones I can afford.

Cathy Johnson (Kate) - December 6, 2013 Reply

Great overview and background…smaller houses DO encourage less stuff, and it feels good!

Laura G. - December 6, 2013 Reply

I totally agree. I have always been fascinated by small spaced and living with the economy of space. I doubt I could transition to true-tiny, but I could surely do smaller.
A few years ago my brother got flooded out. His family was safe, thank goodness. BUT he commented that often we are a slave to our “junk” – and after the flood he had a sense of freedom.

imahaug - December 6, 2013 Reply

Know exactly what you are saying. Moved from a B&B business, not having time to sell, but downsized from 15 to 5 bedrooms to “dream” house (5000 sf) and location. Making plans in my head to downsize to my “dream” garden house of 200 sf. in my dream location. Thanks for the insight.

Michel Filion - December 6, 2013 Reply

THX for the interesting article. I totally agree that for most of us,there has to be some sort of transition between our present living conditions and climbing into a loft in a 180 square foot micro house. Georges Carlin once said that a house is only a place to keep your stuff…The bigger the house, the more stuff you have. I for one cannot believe how much stuff we’ve accumulated since me moved into our house. That’s why a camper’s looking real good right now. A while back I was fortunate enough to meet some very socially minded architects who designed a row of efficient small urban row houses in Montreal. You can see them at…http://www.affleckdelariva.com/index.php/fr/fr-projets-liste/ensembles-dhabitation/83-les-habitations-georges-vanier
Cheers

Corri - December 6, 2013 Reply

I live in Philly. It is a city made up of twins and rows 500-1400 + sf. Many neighborhoods have primarily homes 500-800 sf. — built probably 1900-1930’s. Of course, as a small house enthusiast, I am interested in these — the smaller the better.

http://activerain.com/blogsview/2166845/2-bedroom-home-for-sale-in-port-richmond-philadelphia-great-location-and-fantastic-value-for-1st-time-buyer

Lelia - December 6, 2013 Reply

Great article, thank you for sharing your thoughts. As a mother of 3, now grown, kids and extremely sentimental about family items and photos, I have gone through 5 years of getting rid my “stuff”. Some of it went to help other families, some of it was left behind to give away as I had no choice (tears, but over it) My disabled Vet husband and I have lived in our RV in a really awesome RV park/resort for almost 3 years. We still have “stuff”! It gets in the way, very frustrating, I can not believe I have been giving/throwing things away for over 5 years and still have more. Plus he is a computer geek who insists on keeping all manner of computer parts, speakers, technology, who knows! Well, gotta go, just got 8 boxes delivered from my office I have to go through before it rains! Happy Holidays!

Alexandra - December 6, 2013 Reply

I appreciate your thoughts and the photos of your camper van. As someone living in a fairly large home with thoughts of scaling back at some point, I do know it is a process. I think back to the house my mother grew up in. She was one of 9 children and she and 2 of her sisters happily shared not only a bedroom but one big bed. It was a wonderful house but small by today’s standards. Yet the family was very happy there. We can find ourselves becoming quite grandiose in our expectations. When I watch home-buying shows on TV for example, I am amused/dismayed at reactions of the featured home-buyers to the most trivial of things like “A bathroom with no double sinks. no walk-in closet…what!?”. On the other hand, I get it because sometimes having those things is nice.
I enjoy this website because it gives me so much food for thought and encouragement as I look to simplify my life and make do with less stuff.
Giving things away does provide a sense of peace.

Matthew - December 6, 2013 Reply

So what? You have just found a way to take up even more space and resources. As long as you have the comfortable safety net all your doing is dabbling. Like the trust fund kids who deliberately tear their cloths and then pretend to be street people so they can brag that they know what it is like to be homeless. Sorry, this doesn’t cut it.

    cheryl - December 6, 2013 Reply

    I agree. Am quite tired of the chest-thumping of the ones who live in small spaces…a fraction of their lives. I’ve gone full circle: first 1000 sq’ and four babies, moved to 2200 sq’, up a little more as the kids became teens with tons of friends, then they left, I downsized to 1200 sq’ at the beach, down to 1000 sq’ condo, to 600 sq’ in Italy apt, and now we want to unload the condo and build a tiny little attachment to my old 1200 sq’ beach bungalow. it’ll be 250 sq ft total. can’t wait!! btw: my daughter and her physician have our 1200 sq’ bungalow and their “friends” raise the eyebrows. He’s a doctor, after all. shouldn’t they be living the upscale style?? nope – she takes after me. no pretensions! I love her thinking!

      cheryl - December 6, 2013 Reply

      correction: that would be my daughter and her physician HUSBAND. LOL

alice h - December 6, 2013 Reply

I split my time between a 250 sq ft studio apartment in my son’s city basement and a 13′ Boler trailer in a rural location I can get to by public transportation and walking so I don’t need a car. I was just given a free 24′ trailer that I can hopefully retire to until I save up enough to build a small house. 250 sq ft is just right, especially with high ceilings. The trailer will have low ceilings but the outdoor environment will make up for that.

Wilbour - December 6, 2013 Reply

We have raised a family of 6 in a 1000 sq.ft home. We have a finished master bedroom in the basement which is about 500 sq.ft. so I guess we live in 1500 sq.ft. altogether. Funny thing is my wife and I have purchased a small cabin in PEI thats about 240 sq.ft. to get away from our sprawling home. Most people laughed at us for staying in our starter home but after 20 years it’s paid for. Guess who’s laughing now

Linda - December 6, 2013 Reply

I raised 5 children in a 750 square foot house with a 500 square foot basement. I never considered it “small.” Now they are all gone and I am considering moving into an RV. I feel like I am in such a huge cave now, rambling about in all this room. I agree that the tiny house movement is meant for inspiration. We all need to make our own decisions as to what is the right amount of square footage for our personality/needs. Some feel more claustrophobic than others. As for me, I would love to have a tiny house – and “tiny” to me is 400 square foot or less.

Walt Barrett - December 7, 2013 Reply

Mr. McDonald did not start the tiny house movement. Tiny homes were much more common as you travel back in history.

Robin Boucher - December 7, 2013 Reply

“One of the biggest impediments to the small house movement is the building industry. Builders make more money when they build large.”

I agree with the above statement, but in addition to builder’s making more money on large homes, so do the mortgage companies. We own and handbuilt our small home and because of the size and design (under 1000 square feet, 2 buildings)the comparables for the home have been non-existent. What appraisers have compared our custom-crafted, handbuilt home on three wooded acres have been appalling. Mostly they were rental houses in town six miles away on small lots that had been built in the 40’s (when houses were still small). As a result, when we have needed a mortgage or equity line, we have never been able to borrow fairly against our home. Since the collapse of the banking industry, home mortgage rules have become even more stringent, requiring homes to fit into a very narrow parameters for financing. As we stand now, we need to expand our small home by adding bedrooms for our children. In spite of the high tax assessed value and recent appraisal we have been told that we cannot refinance our mortgage because our home does not fit into the standards required for reselling to Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac…thus requiring us to borrow with a variable interest rate. When we ask what the problem is it has always been the “size” issue. Although the objective is ultimately to be mortgage free, as many folks above have stated, our space needs change as our circumstances change. Do it yourselfers, and anyone thinking outside of the box will need a more creative way to finance their dreams.

    CHinle Miller - December 7, 2013 Reply

    I’m sure it must be frustrating trying to get the money to enlarge your house, but look at it this way: the banks are doing you a huge favor by turning you down. Now go out and find a better way w/o having to deal with them (they really are crooks) – be creative – maybe add on a couple of small trailers or something that won’t cost much. When your kids are gone, you won’t want all that extra space to have to heat/cool/pay taxes on anyway.

Roxy - December 7, 2013 Reply

I downsized from 2200 sq ft to 228 sq ft. I have tried to explain to others how it feels to unburden yourself from a big house, but I don’t think anyone can grasp the concept unless they do it theirself. I had no idea until I did it. I felt like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. All of the maintenance,high utility bills and mortgage were gone. As I was having a mammoth garage sale I realized all I was really doing was spending a lot of money every month to house all of my ‘stuff’. I still have a lot of stuff but now I spend practically no money to house it, and I only have things that really matter to me.

    Chinle Miller - December 7, 2013 Reply

    I went from 2000 sq. ft. to 70. It was hard parting with a lot of nice stuff, but now I can’t even remember what it was that I spent so much time thinking I’d miss.

M Michael - December 7, 2013 Reply

Thoughtful article. It is valid and valuable to write about your experience of tiny house living no matter what stage (fully or partially committed) you find yourself.

For 5-years my husband and I lived 3-days a week on board an older, 45′ ketch in a small town 90 minutes away from our 1700′ suburban tri-level. We did it as a way of learning whether we really could live in the smaller space of a boat and to see if long range cruising was for us. (We chose an older boat as we didn’t want to ransom our future with boat payments on a new boat when we weren’t sure. A good choice because it taught us much about maintaining a home on the water.) During that time, we learned that long-range cruising wasn’t for us but that we loved the dock-side lifestyle and smaller space living. We ultimately sold that boat and our house and have lived happily in a 45′ x 15′ powerboat for 23 years.

David Remus - December 7, 2013 Reply

The building industry per se is not the problem with any movement towards housing that is smaller or different in some fundamental way. They do become the biggest part of the problem when they use political influence on local municipalities to set minimums for square footage on new buildings, or claim their methods of stick building for instance, are the only ‘safe’ way to build a house. I live in one of the poorest parts of the country yet the permitted minimums on housing in defined areas is often 2000-3000 square feet or more. This deliberately limits who lives there to a certain spectrum of economic class.

Jeremy Cook - December 8, 2013 Reply

I would totally agree that we have too much junk, although I’m certainly guilty of it to some extent. Is 2400 square feet really the US average? That seems a bit high to me.

Interesting blog, btw!

Jeremy Cook - December 8, 2013 Reply

Also, that little island house is pretty neat!

Rob Fairclough - December 9, 2013 Reply

I have had a multi- disipline work life and for a time, I lived in a Truck I owned. You actually live in an area of 7 feet wide, 5 feet deep and 5 feet width to include the area in front of my seat, i.e. My cab, (which In the UK, is really small, as opposed to the States.. Living in there, is really comfortable as much like living on a small sailing cruiser, which I also own and have done for the past 30 years. Life in small places can be OK. How much room do 1 or 2 people need to ramble around in?

Lisa - December 10, 2013 Reply

The pitch is on for going small but I can only imagine that once everyone is ensconced in a TH that the prices on these will climb and we will be right back in the same economic bind of home ownership only we will be paying extraordinary amounts for a fraction of the space; the travesty of a tiered society. I found the TH movement in its very early stages when the claim was you could build and own your own TH for seven and a half thousand dollars. Try and buy a TH for that these days. On top of this, finding a place to park one’s TH has only begun to be addressed. Land ownership is a cost factor that is going to have to be factored in together with running the utility lines (especially if ALEC gets its way and people are fined and perhaps jailed for installing their own solar panels). I’m really sorry that this once-upon-a-time affordable housing plan has become yet another money making venue; there are so many who really need affordable spaces to just live but local governments coupled with retail inflation are truly pushing the dream of TH ownership away.

Johnny - December 11, 2013 Reply

I really enjoyed the “Tiny House Living” article. I saw awhile back a tiny room article that converted a 10 x 10 sq ft room into a wonderful living space. It had a raised back floor where the kitchen was and even had a working bathroom. The bed folded and shelves moved but it was a terrific re-do. Lost the info and wonder if anyone can help with this? Thanks in advance. Johnny~

Suzanne - January 22, 2014 Reply

Towns and cities did not allow me to live in a 400 square foot house, but the low city rental was less than they demanded, how much sense does that make, I do need 1 acre to live on, i’m alone and I certainly do not need 1000 square feet, to heat, clean, maintain, renovate, pay taxes on.

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