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Shrinking your crib: when home is just 65 square feet

In a land where the average home size has grown steadily for nearly 15 years and is now over twice that of Europe, there’s a growing group of Americans embracing a small is beautiful philosophy and living in homes “smaller than some people’s closets.”

Call them tiny houses, wee homes, mini dwellings, “sensibly sized” or microhomes, there’s a new movement afoot in the United States, that the Small House Society explains includes “movie stars who have downsized into 3000 square feet, families of five happy in an arts and crafts bungalow, multifamily housing in a variety of forms, and more extreme examples, such as people on houseboats and in trailers with just a few hundred square feet around them.”

While they assert it’s not a movement aimed at being “tinier-than-thou”, there are those micro-homeowners like Jay Shafer who lives in a very wee 97 square foot home, which he admits is part political statement. He explains his small dwelling philosophy on the website of his Tumbleweed Tiny House company, where he sells homes as small as 65 square feet to the relatively expansive 837-square-foot model.

“[S]ince 1997 I have been living in a house smaller than some people’s closets. I call the first of my little hand built houses Tumbleweed. My decision to inhabit just 89 square feet arose from some concerns I had about the impact a larger house would have on the environment, and because I do not want to maintain a lot of unused or unusable space.”

The end of “bigger is better”

Shafer is being joined by a growing number of homeowners looking to downsize from the typical American home. During most of the first decade since founding his company, he sold just one tiny home per year, but last year he sold 5, along with 10 plans. Shafer recognizes this new era of small is being driven by bigger societal changes. “It seems like a perfect convergence of a bad housing market meeting a bad economy and more awareness about global warming.”

Nationwide, the average home price dropped in late 2008 for the first time in 15 years, shrinking 9%. Of course, the new average of 2,438 square feet doesn’t come close to qualifying as a small house- informally defined as less than 1000 square feet-, but it’s all part of a new way of imagining a dream home. “It feels like a chapter of American history might be ending”, explained Shay Salomon, author of Little House on a Small Planet, to the New York Times, “the chapter called ‘Bigger is Better’.”

Homeowner Michael Janzen, who admits he bought his current 1800 square foot home with pool “for prestige”, has built an 80-square-foot tiny house in his backyard from materials found on craigslist. While his family won’t fit in his tiny creation, he is ready to downsize from his current home. “I don’t want this life – the life of someone who’s working too hard to pay a large mortgage to live in this house.”

Micro-homeowner Dee Williams sold her 1,500 square foot home 5 years ago and built herself an 84-square-foot mini dwelling for $10,000 “to unshackle myself from a mortgage and doing repairs”. Since she views her new downsized home as a way to live more in step with her eco-consciousness, she built it using salvaged wood, recycled blue jean insulation and solar panels.

For some tiny homes are a way to enter a pricey real estate market. Twenty-something Tara Flannery spent $40,000 on her 100 square foot tiny house. “I wanted to buy my own place by 30, and the way the housing market is going that’s not going to happen.”

San Francisco’s Hauser Architects designed and built 98 tiny condos ranging from 250 to 350 square feet for less than half the median price of a San Francisco home (starting at $279,000 versus the July 2008 median of $749,000). “It’s not the last place a person might own”, explains designer George Hauser, “but a great place to spend three to five years as a young single … to build equity and move up.”

Big design for small spaces

Tiny houses, like Williams’ which is parked in a friend’s backyard or Shafer’s which is stationed on his father’s lot, are commonly built on trailers, but they’ve escaped the stigma of mobile homes, partly due to an increasing focus on design. Jared Volpe devotes an entire blog to the topic- smallhousestyle.com- and see building small as an investment in quality. “When you build small you can spend money on higher-quality materials.”

Helping to draw attention to the small house movement are some very high style examples garnering attention in the mainstream design world, such as:

  • The 73-square-foot Micro Compact Home, influenced by the scale and order of a Japanese tea house, was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in 2008.
  • The Rotorhaus allows the inhabitants of the 388-square-foot dwelling to rotate among three living “pods”: the kitchen, bathroom and sleeping room.
  • The tiny Beach Chalet measures 388-square-feet and was designed by London’s Nina Tolstrup.
  • The 341 square foot weeHouse.
  • The Williams Cabin mixes Thoreauvian minimalism with modern design.
  • The LV Series homes by Rocio Romero have been described as “a poor man’s Mies”.
  • The Box House in Sao Paulo, Brazil is a 10’x16′ cube made of re-used wood and waste material, overlooking the ocean.
  • The Wingardhs Mill House is a pricey Swedish mini home based around
    traditional sauna and bathing rituals.
  • R4 House micropiso, by Spanish architect Luis de Garrido, is a 322 square foot micro-apartment built from recycled shipping containers and zero waste design (For a faircompanies video of the micro-flat with Luis de Garrido, in Spanish).

The architects drawn to the challenge of designing small are often simultaneously attracted to the idea of building green. BetsyGabler of Alchemy Architects, the designers of the weeHouse , explains that the entire process is focused on avoiding waste. “We use energy-efficient and highly rated doors and windows. We’re smart about design and planning, not throwing away materials.”

Brad Kittel got into building small dwellings in order to find a home for the collection of antique door hardware and salvaged material that was piling up in his architectural-antiques shop in Gonzales, Texas. As he explained to The Economist, he started Tiny Texas Houses in 2006 as a way to show off his wares.

A cousin to the prefab

The small house movement has also gained momentum due to its close connection with the increasingly popular prefabricated home trend. The compact nature of microhomes makes them ideally suited to ready-made construction. For about 68,000 dollars you have a Micro Compact Home delivered and installed on your property. The 65,000 dollar weeHouse is delivered with container siding, bamboo floors and the kitchen sink.

Some tiny homes are delivered as component kits, like Rocio Romero’s LV Series homes, which you, or your general contractor, then assemble. Bungalow In A Box offers a kit for as little as 13,700 dollars, including house raising, which “goes up on your foundation with a finished exterior appearance in one or two days“.

Homes that are built on wheels, like those from Tumbleweed Tiny Houses, are even more ready-to-go than the pre-fabs and simply need to be deposited somewhere. This lack of foundation means that owning a home doesn’t necessarily mean owning land.

Tumbleweed’s Shafer explains how living in a microhome can encourage an itinerant lifestyle, “in the past 3 years, I’ve moved my house 4 times. I’ve lived on a private estate by a lake, in the Redwoods, in a field, and in an apple orchard. One woman has her Tumbleweed House at a national park.”

Size discrimination

While tiny homes offer neighbors unobstructed views and more open space, they are illegal in many communities. Most building codes throughout the United States have minimum size requirements.

As Jay Shafer explains in his Small House Book, the housing and banking industries pushed for these standards throughout the 1970s and eighties to generate “more profit per structure”. They are now defended by many communities and homeowner associations as a way to maintain high property values.

In his book, Shafer offers advice for getting around strict building codes (as summarized by the This Tiny House blog):

  • Move out of the city. Many rural areas don’t have size restrictions.
  • Negotiate with your local building officials or neighborhood associations to convince them that your small house is not a threat.
  • Share property with a bigger home. Often, smaller dwellings, like “granny flats”, are permitted next to a larger structure.
  • Stay off the grid. If a dwelling is not hooked up to public utilities, it might not be considered relevant to housing codes.
  • Apply pressure to local politicians.

While Shafer and his tiny home companions are used to experiencing size discrimination, they tend not to return the favor when viewing the much larger homes around them. “I can’t say what the definition of a small house is,” explains Shafer. “Maybe it’s 4,000 square feet, if that’s what it takes to suit their needs. The idea is that the house is being well-used. Some people need more space than others.”

When the San Francisco Chronicle asked Shafer for his opinion on the size of Larry Ellison’s estate- which includes a nearly 8,000-square-foot main house, a guest house, three cottages and a gym-,Shafer refused to judge: “I don’t know his needs.”

Where to buy a microhome:

  • Tumbleweed Tiny Houses: 65- 140 square feet *; $37,000 to $50,000; Sebastapol, California. (*These are the “tiny houses”, but the larger-sized “small houses”- designed to meet international building code- range from 251- 837 square feet).
  • Tiny Texas Houses: custom creations of 160 & 336 square feet; from $38,000 to $90,000; Luling, Texas.
  • Nests by Dennis Fukai: 65 – 133 square feet; $5,000; Archer, Florida.
  • miniHome by Sustain Design Studio & Altius Architecture: 408 and 432 square feet; 139,990 Canadian dollars (97,000 US dollars); Toronto, Canada & Napa, California (via Healthy Buildings USA).
  • Micro Compact Home: 73 square feet; 34,000 euros ($46,000) for unit and frame or 50,000 euros ($67,000) includes delivery, installation, connection to services, taxes and fees; Uttendorf, Austria.
  • weeHouse by Alchemy Architects: 341 square feet; $65,000; St. Paul, Minnesota.
  • EcoPods: 160 square feet; designed to be off-grid; CAN$26,650 ($23,600 US); Ontario, Canada.
  • Bungalow In A Box: 192 & 288 square feet; $13,700 & $20,600; Woolwich, Maine.
  • LV Series by Rocio Romero: 625- 1453 square feet; $26,950- $46,050; Perryville, Missouri.