Tiny Houses: The New American Dream?

Over recent years, a movement centered on small-scale living has taken society by storm. Proponents view tiny houses as a gateway to personal economic freedom and environmental sustainability. However, there are many legal and cultural obstacles that pose a challenge to tiny house developers.

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Image by Andy Thies

The problem with the Joneses

Throughout history, neighborhood and housing development has changed drastically. In the modern day, it seems that “bigger” is always “better”. The average American house size has more than doubled since the 1950s, now standing at 2,349 square feet. Post-World War II has seen a gradual increase in housing size and amenities. This is often correlated with the influx in wealth and lax bank lending of the last half century. Houses became an expression of status with institutions put in place to protect people’s investments and neighborhood value.

However, consumer spending quickly grew out of control. Economists generally agree that to stay financially stable, families should keep housing costs below 30% of their yearly income. Despite this, in many cities across the U.S., average housing costs can comprise up to 45% of annual household income. With the increased pressure of rising housing costs, it is no wonder why the average American household is carrying around $225,000 in debt, $148,000 of which is dedicated to a mortgage.

Housing development is also moving farther away from the city core. As transportation systems progressed toward modern automobile-centric infrastructure, it became possible to live far away from where one worked. Greenfields are now converted into subdivisions; forests become roads. Meanwhile, urban cores suffer from disinvestment and economic decline.

Consequences also extend to the environment. According to the EPA, 40% of all raw materials are used for construction. When building a typical sized home, an average of seven tons of waste is produced. Larger homes also mean higher energy consumption, placing strain on infrastructure and contributing to local emissions of greenhouse gases.

The Tiny House Movement

Rather than focus on sleek, energy-efficient appliances and tedious waste reduction strategies, many people have found an alternative solution: build smaller houses.  The “tiny house” movement tries not to be a one-size-fits-all for every traditional nuclear family. Instead it encourages each individual, couple, or family to build a home that fits their exact needs. This is accomplished through several overarching goals for tiny house construction:

  1. Focus on the efficient use of space.
  2. Rely on high-quality design to meet the needs of residents.
  3. Serve as a vehicle for a lifestyle that residents wish to pursue.

Not only are tiny houses economical, they represent a lifestyle that is both environmentally sustainable and enhance quality of life. Supporters of the movement enjoy both geographical flexibility as well as a better sense of togetherness for families and couples.

It’s the principle

A tiny house is architecturally centered in order to efficiently use what little square footage the structure contains. The value of houses and apartments today is determined primarily by size and location. Architectural quality counts for little, so it is less prevalent. The majority of construction budget goes toward maximizing square footage and supplying status-symbol appliances, fixtures, and fittings. In the book, “The New American Dream; Living Well in Small Homes,” author James Gauer outlines ten architectural principles that abandon conventional “nuclear family” based architecture in favor of small-scale precision. They are: proportion, modularity, scale, transparency and spatial layering, hierarchy and procession, light, multifuncitonalism, simplicity, economy, and modesty.  He demonstrates how tiny places can be beautiful while maintaining great utility and comfort.

On-Grid/Off-grid

The novelty and economic benefits of tiny houses have driven people to take the initiative and build their own. Well-known author, designer, and activist, Jay Shafer, holds a prominent role in driving the tiny house movement. His business, Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, has been manufacturing tiny homes on wheels since 1999. All Tumbleweed homes, like many other brands of tiny houses, are able to hook up to the municipal power grid as well as city sewer lines. These homes also allow many environmentally-friendly, “off-grid” capabilities such as greywater recycling and solar power hookups.

These options provide flexibility when placing or moving a tiny house. Not only can these homes be configured to utilize clean, eco-friendly resources in a more naturalistic setting, they can also be easily adapted to suit more urban landscapes.

Challenges

Legally, tiny houses exist in a somewhat grey area. Often, tiny homes are considered too small to be considered a legal dwelling within city limits. Municipal codes, enacted to prevent slum development and sub-standard living now present a real challenge to those wishing to live small.

As a result, tiny house owners often need to find creative solutions. Many communities of tiny homes have been built with special permits or even outside city limits. Another popular solution is to simply register the house similarly to an RV.

Though many cities are recognizing the need to update these laws, progress takes time. Building codes are often defined by a multi-layered, fractured system with individual cities and counties having a high degree of autonomy. However, this small-scale legal framework could prove to be a benefit as smaller groups of people can have a more direct impact locally than on a national level.

Another common challenge faced by tiny house owners is the acquisition of land. Even neighborhoods that do legally allow tiny homes often don’t want them, for risk of lowering property values. Often times, it takes a collective of tiny house owners to start communities themselves to avoid this problem.

The third, and perhaps most significant challenge to tiny house development is financing. Acquiring a loan to buy a tiny house can be very difficult due to low resale value. The overall demand for tiny homes is just too low for private banks to risk a large investment. As a result, many people look for alternatives either via personal loans or by seeking out the help of many growing non-profits that assist in this kind of development.

Tiny House Communities

Due to the many obstacles and confusing regulations involving tiny house development, it is not surprising that communities have started forming to support the movement. There are dozens of tiny house communities cropping up all over the country. Some of these simply represent support communities for tiny house builders. Others are essentially neighborhoods with community infrastructure and even limited legal codes unto themselves.

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Infographic and Jesse Howe and Andy Thies

One example is Micro Showcase (formally Boneyard Studios) in Washington D.C. What started as a vacant lot has now evolved into a full-blown working demonstration of the tiny house lifestyle. The community shows how tiny homes can be a creative solution for urban infill, enhance quality of life, and allow people the chance to truly visualize how this alternative lifestyle functions in practice. Boneyard Studios was the first ever attempt at a livable tiny house community and set a precedent that continues to be followed by tiny house communities throughout the United States.

Vehicle to Happiness

Though the benefits to tiny living are diverse and often quantifiable, the true reward is simply a happier life. Tiny houses provide a way for everyday people to achieve a new kind of American dream, one that includes a house, family, and community. It’s the freedom to live outside the hard parameters of mainstream consumerism. It’s the ability to live with minimal harm to our natural environment. And above all, it’s the ability for people to pursue their own destiny that has made the tiny house movement grow so huge.

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