Friday, September 12, 2008

The Tiny House Movement

It's only 8 feet by 19 feet, with 117 square feet of living space on the first floor, complete with porch, bath, toilet and shower and a sleeping loft above, but Tumbleweed Tiny House Company's $46,997 Lusby can be moved over the highway or parked permanently.

Until last Wednesday, when the New York Times published a story headlined "The Next Little Thing?", I had never heard of the Tiny House Movement. (It hasn't even got a Wikipedia entry.) Now I am utterly entranced by the idea.

The people who advocate living in homes as small as 100 square feet (that's 10 feet by 10 feet!) are realistic about their passion. It's not for families, but two people max -- and they'd better like each other a lot. (Those who feel the need to display their wealth conspicuously can look elsewhere.)

Very, very tiny houses, their champions acknowledge, are often intended just to make a green statement, but even on wheels they can be remarkably useful for people looking for summer cottages, or homeowners seeking to build separate quarters for in-laws. More livable, permanently rooted tiny houses can run up to 800 square feet.

The advantages to tiny houses are considerable:

Construction costs are minimal: $20,000 to $90,000, depending on the size of the tiny house, and whether it's on wheels or a full foundation. It needn't be a boxy Unabomber cabin, but can be designed with high style by a gifted architect. (At the other extreme, some people build only with free materials they can scrounge; this is recycling with a vengeance.)

Property taxes are small.

Energy costs and carbon footprint are also minimal. (One would feel exceptionally virtuous parking one's Prius next to a tiny house.)

So is upkeep labor. A well-built little house uses top-grade materials and will last.

Finally, there is maximum freedom from the encumbrances of stuff. (These little houses have almost no storage space.)

And the disadvantages? No place to stash one's crap. No spare bedroom to stomp into and slam the door when one has a fight with one's spouse or partner. But that's about it.

The Lady Friend and I spend our summers in a cabin by Lake Superior that's designed for three seasons. The Writer's Lair is fairly roomy, with three bedrooms, a kitchen, a bathroom and a great room, but it has no heating plant, save for an open fireplace in the living room and portable electric heaters in the bedrooms). The water system can be used only from April to November.

But if in one corner of the property we built a full-fledged tiny house of, say, 350 or 400 square feet, complete with all-season plumbing and a modest LP gas furnace designed for mobile homes, we could spend winters there. During summers, when the children and their families noisily pack the cabin, the Lady Friend and I could escape to our tiny house.

Full disclosure: We've got a 12x20 garden shed on the property for the usual crap, and for my wood workshop (it's electrified).

Of course a tiny house is just a dream, for we've got a house in the city and the market is terrible. Still, let me tell you, it's an awfully enticing dream. A tiny house that I could maintain myself, with the Lady Friend's help, despite my advancing age and bad back . . . what's not to like?

A very good resource for those who are interested: Small House Style is a blog that specializes in current news about the topic. It has a growing listing of tiny house manufacturers, including one whose wares are now available at Lowe's home centers.

The Small House Society web site ably explains the philosophy behind this style of living.

Think small. Save the globe.


  1. This had caught my eye when I was helping Rick McKay in Mass build square timber saunas. They were about the same size, and a heckuva lot cheaper (though still really expensive for a sauna). We talked all about getting our pictures in Martha Stewart's Living as purveyors of the next big thing, only we'd still look like grizzled UP sawyers.

    You could always talk to Rick if you are interested. I'm sure he'd be happy to fire up the ol' planer again. Here's a pic of the smallest size we made, on display in Ashland.

  2. I love these, too.
    But I have a hard time with the cost/sq. ft. $50,000 for a building the size of a garden shed? Nice as these small houses are, the cost would gnaw at me incessantly! "Sucker," it would be chortling...

  3. Pete, remember that those quotations ($50,000 for 120 sq ft) involve premium materials, such as knotty pine tongue and groove paneling instead of drywall, and special stainless steel fixtures for the bathroom, and the wheels and frame, and so on.

    If you were building a similar house on a foundation and chose drywall to finish the interior, and standard mobile-home fixtures as well as a potbelly wood or pellet stove, your per-square-foot costs would be a lot lower.

    Some folks build their tiny houses out of found materials, such as wooden pallets.

    And don't forget, the yearly heating, electricity and maintenance costs for a tiny home are MUCH smaller.

  4. This blogpost has sent me to rereading Thoreau's "Walden." Oh, for the simple life!

  5. I've used outhouses bigger than that!

  6. Why not use drywall with the house on wheels?

  7. I suspect drywall is too rigid for a structure on wheels -- movement is probably likely to crack the joints.

    Wood has more "give".

  8. And here I thought the tiny house movement had gone by way of the Sears-Roebuck catalog a long time ago.

  9. Most of those Sears (and Montgomery Ward) mail-order houses were fairly substantial -- even five bedroom McMansions.

    But in 1916 Sears sold a 300-square-footer that could qualify as a "tiny house."

  10. Oh, should have said: I thought that the "tiny house" "movements" had already been pretty well "wiped out" by Sears-Roebuck's catalogs.

  11. Ah. Well. That first one went right past me. Now if you had specified a one-holer or a two-holer . . .

    Anyway, you got me interested in the Sears mail-order houses. They were once a big thing, from about 1908 to 1940.

  12. I just realized that that little Sears house for which I provided the URL a couple of messages ago has no bathroom.

    Sears didn't sell outhouses, I guess -- you had to build your own.

  13. You've given me an idea: an outhouse on wheels. When one pit gets too stinky, fill it in and move the outhouse. Maybe I can patent this idea and sell it to Sears,

  14. Our family built our own tiny cottage two years ago. It is about twice the size of the one in the photo you have above but only about 1/5th the price. We've spent less than $7,000 to build it.

    Beyond the usual advantages of tiny living such as less housework, lower taxes, less stuff, etc our house is made of stone, concrete and brick. This reduces the fire risk and got us a better homeowners insurance rate. Additionally the house's high thermal mass (100,000 lbs) makes it super easy to keep warm in the winter. It soaks up enough passive solar energy to keep well above freezing even in our frigid Vermont winters. We burned 3/4 of a cord of hardwood last year to cook and warm the cottage up to a very comfortable level. The stone construction also means less (almost no) maintenance.

    The biggest reason we built small was because it was doable. We had a month or two before winter was going to set in. With two adults, a 14 year old, a 9 year old and a 3 year old anything more would have been too much since we were doing it all ourselves. As it was, it took us a solid two months of intensive work to close in the tiny cottage. Two years later we're very happy with it. The one thing we miss is more space for books. Someday we'll build a library. :)