For all of us, homes are a lot like clothing and food—meaning essential for our survival. But clothing can be haute couture; food can be gourmet; and our homes can be mansions. The most recent aspirational home type, the McMansion, was based on the insane logic of the last building boom: that no matter how much you spent on your home, an ever-rising tide of home values would catch up to your excessive debt. But today’s house market has done a full 180 degree turn; consumers are now terrified of the possibility of overspending.
Into this newly chastened world of frugality, there comes a perspective with bedrock appeal: Own less. When your largest possession is your home, then owning less means living in less.
What’s resulted is known as the Tiny House Movement. It aggressively advocates for exquisite, simplified homes. Tiny House devotees indict our full-fat house history, and at its fringes prescribe a spatial anorexia that verges on the messianic. Their rationale makes sense: 40 years ago our families were rounding up to four humans and our homes were rounding down to 1,500 square feet. Now families are rounding down to two and a half souls, but our homes have larded up to over 2,500 square feet.
When you build tiny, you need less financing, to the point where advocates tout debt-free home ownership—the reverse paradigm from the last decade. The smaller your home is, the lower taxes, utilities, and upkeep become. And perhaps most importantly, owners of these homes can get control in a time of threat. But the Tiny House Movement isn’t just a nod to the current market; it has roots in our culture that go back a generation or two.
The anti-consumer counter culture of the ‘60s spawned the Whole Earth Catalogue, full of yurts, teepees, communes, and other ways to run away from suburban sprawl. One of the catalogue creators, Lloyd Kahn wrote “Shelter” in 1973, extending that perspective, and architect Lester Walker took that a step further in 1987 with “Tiny Tiny Houses,” a book celebrating intricate intimate beauty.
In 1983 I wrote my screed, “The Small House,” which argued that any new house could go on a diet. Sarah Susanka then got Oprah’s attention and blew the doors of shelter book sales with a series of “Not So Big” books. Jay Shafer and Greg Johnson literally went the extra mile by countering the extreme static deadness of McMansions with tiny, crafty, sheds on wheels with the “Tumbleweed Tiny House Company.” Marianne Cusato was in the right place at the right time, and 308-square-foot “Katrina Houses” became a cultural symbol of coping with a natural disaster that also put a mirror to our ultimately disastrous focus on “more” in 2005.
Into this minimalist mindset come variants based on the theme. The recent design compulsion of using shipping containers as homes has become an architectural playpen that’s too old to be trendy and too established to be passé, but while its intentions may be good, its single shape may prove too limited for many. There is also the pure fantasy of tree house living—a literal tiny house offshoot that has a similar romanticism to the Tiny House group think.
But the idea of living with less is not just for a radical reductionist fringe. The Green/Sustainable versions of rejecting mindless consumption are catching on as “downsizing” has a widespread popular cache for empty nesters. But if “Less is More,” does that mean “Tiny” is best? Where culture leads, popular culture exploits and, now, of course, there is a new reality TV show, “Tiny House Nation. In obtaining reality TV status this movement becomes oxymoronically Big. Just like the Kardashians, that status may just signal a jumping of the shark, not unlike the poor McMansion itself.
Duo Dickinson is an architect based out of Madison, CT with over 20 years experience. He has written numerous books and pieces on small homes in America, including “The Small House: An Artful Guide to Affordable Residential Design” and “Small Houses for the Next Century.”