Tiny House Movement

Susanka by Brian Stauffer

The tiny house movement is a popular description for the architectural and social movement that advocates living simply in small homes. In the US the average size of new single family homes grew from 1,780 square feet in 1978 to 2,479 in 2007, despite a decrease in the size of the average family. Reasons for this include increased material wealth and prestige. The small house movement is a return to houses less than 1,000 square feet, some as small as 80 square feet.

Sarah Susanka has been credited with starting the recent countermovement toward smaller houses when she published ‘The Not So Big House’ in 1997. Earlier pioneers include Lloyd Kahn, author of ‘Shelter’ in 1973.’ Tiny houses on wheels were popularized by Jay Shafer who designed and lived in a 96 sq ft house and later went on to offer the first plans for tiny houses on wheels, initially founding ‘Tumbleweed Tiny House Company,’ and then ‘Four Lights Tiny House Company’ in 2012. 

In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina, urban designer Marianne Cusato developed Katrina Cottages, that start at 308 square feet as an alternative to FEMA trailers. Though these were created to provide a pleasant solution to a disaster zone, Cusato received wider interest in her design from developers of resorts, for example. With the financial crisis of 2007–08, the small house movement attracted more attention as it offers housing that is more affordable and ecologically friendly. Overall, however, it represents a very small part of real estate transactions. Only one percent of home buyers acquire houses of 1,000 square feet or less. Small houses are also used as accessory dwelling units (or ADUs), to serve as additional on-property housing for aging relatives or returning children, as a home office, or as a guest house. Typical costs are about $20,000 to $50,000 as of 2012.

Tiny houses on wheels are often compared to RVs. However, tiny houses are built to last as long as traditional homes, they use traditional building techniques and materials, and they are aesthetically similar to larger homes. In 2013, an Alliance of tiny house builders was formed to promote ethical business practices and offer guidelines for construction of tiny houses on wheels. In 2014, the first ‘tiny house friendly town’ was declared in Spur, Texas, however it was later clarified that a tiny house may not be on wheels but must be secured to a foundation. One of the biggest obstacles to growth of the tiny house movement is the difficulty in finding a place to keep one. Zoning regulations typically specify minimum square footage for new construction on a foundation, and for tiny houses on wheels, parking on one’s own land may be prohibited by local regulations against ‘camping.’ In addition, RV parks do not always welcome tiny houses. DIYers may be turned away, as many RV parks require RVs be manufactured by a member of the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association. In 2015, the nonprofit ‘American Tiny House Association’ was formed to promote the tiny house as a viable, formally acceptable dwelling option and to work with local government agencies to discuss zoning and coding regulations that can reduce the obstacles to tiny living.

Smaller homes are less expensive than larger ones in terms of taxes and building, heating, maintenance, and repair costs. In addition to costing less, small houses may encourage a less cluttered and simpler lifestyle and reduce ecological impacts for their residents. Small houses may emphasize design over size, utilize dual purpose features and multi-functional furniture, and incorporate technological advances of space saving equipment and appliances. Vertical space optimization is also a common feature of small houses and apartments. As small houses may be attractive as second homes, their increased utilization may lead to development of more land.

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