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May 07, 2009

When it comes to quality of living, today’s tiny houses prove bigger isn’t always better.

By Amy Van Vechten

Somewhere it must be written that the American dream includes owning a house big enough to hold all the spoils that come with living the good life.
Since the 1950s, Americans have been living large. In 1950, the average family of four lived in a house that measured approximately 1,000 square feet. According to the American Housing Survey, by 2008, the average had grown to 2,500 square feet. But is all this extravagant expansion coming to an end?
In 2009, for the first time in 60 years, the average size of the houses on the market decreased. Granted, it’s only one year, but a series of factors—including the housing crisis, the economic recession and the green movement—have many Americans rethinking the need for such luxurious living spaces.

Tiny Beginnings

When architect and designer Jay Shafer grew tired of cleaning and maintaining his large apartment, he decided to downsize.
First, he moved into a small metal trailer. But it quickly became clear that the trailer walls were too thin to protect him from the frigid Iowa winters.
Unable to find anywhere that fit his needs, he decided to design and build his own tiny, insulated abode.
At only 89 square feet, Shafer’s home is the size of a typical household bathroom. But the tiny size, he says, sets him free.
“It’s so liberating,” Shafer says. “Now I have time. I don’t have to prostitute myself at some crappy job. I do what I love to do and design small houses, because I don’t have a mortgage to pay.”
But his freedom doesn’t stop there. By building his tiny house on wheels, Shafer also made himself mobile. When  he decided to relocate to California, he took his house along, driving from Iowa to Sebastopol,a small town north of San Francisco, where he now lives.
The key to making his mini-home work is making maximum use of the space he does have. Shafer does this by compartmentalizing it into a “great room,” kitchen, shower and bathroom, porch, workspace and sleeping loft. He also built was he calls “an  inordinate amount of hidden storage space.”
Turns out Shafer wasn’t the only one with space to spare. When others saw his tiny house, many wanted one of their own.
For the first five years, Shafer’s Tiny Tumbleweed House Company sold about one house per year. But what started as a personal project has now become a profitable business.
“It was hard to make ends meet in the beginning,” Shafer admits. “But now, it’s great. I’ve been selling more and more houses—but mostly plans. There are now a lot of do-it-yourselfers out there that want to try building my design for themselves.”

Bigger Isn’t Always Better

The average American household emits approximately 18 tons of greenhouse gases per year with typical natural gas use, and living smaller is an obvious way to reduce our environmental impact.
But many of those who are downsizing or buying tiny homes don’t list saving the environment as their primary motivation.
“I think it’s important for each person to really look at what they need,” says Tammy Strobel, who lives in a 400 square foot apartment with her husband, Logan Smith. “For us, downsizing from a large two bedroom allowed us to pay off our student loans and our other debts. Our parents think we’re crazy. But for us, this is enough.”
Strobel and Smith agree that the hardest part of downsizing their lifestyle and expenses was shedding their car and television.
“Of all of the things to get rid of, the car is definitely the hardest,” Logan says. “It’s so addictive to cruise around in your bubble through the world. But for us, embracing cycling was a revolution. It’s better for you, and you save money.”
The couple was first inspired to live smaller after stumbling upon an 80 square foot house online. In the near future, they plan to buy a 140 sq foot house from Tortoiseshell Houses. The cost? About $30,000.
“Instead of being trapped in a consumer mindset, we’re trying to think outside of the box,” Tammy adds. “Rather than getting sucked into the shopping syndrome and buying the next biggest toy, we’re examining what we need and the impact of our choices.”

The Future of Small

Greg Johnson, the founder of the Small House Society, says the growing popularity of small living means that there are a growing number of alternatives for families looking to downsize.
“When the Small House Society formed back in 2002, doing a Google search for ‘small house’ was like doing a search for ‘small whale’ or ‘small elephant,’” says Johnson, who lives in a 90-square-foot Tumbleweed Tiny House in Iowa City. “But as of this month, we’ve now broken the one-billion-results mark. People are getting very interested.”
But for Shafer, it’s simply makes sense.
“I only have to spend $70 a year on my house. It’s astronomically cheaper. But mostly, it’s an empowering way to live.”

Big Ideas About Living Little

Dissatisfied with their excessive lifestyles, a growing number of Americans are embracing the idea that living right means living small.
Living in small quarters is not a new concept. Thomas Jefferson’s Honeymoon Cottage, Henry David Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond and George Bernard Shaw’s writing hut were each diminutive in size.
But these days, living small is catching on with a new generation. Small House Society facilitator Gregory Johnson says the growth of the small living movement can be seen around the world, but it’s especially big in the United States.
“Since 2002, when the Small Housing Society was formed by just a handful of people, it has grown to be an organization representing hundreds of people from around the world,” Johnson says. “Each week, we receive thousands of visits to our site. There are now over a billion results for ‘small home’ on Google.”
Kent Griswold, a contributor to the Tiny House blog, experienced the increase of the movement firsthand.
“I started a blog about small houses two years ago. Initially, I did a few posts over a few weeks, but it was only getting 10 or 15 hits a day,” recalls Griswold, who lives in a small cabin. “Now I post almost every day, and I get 1,500 to 3,000 visits per day. That’s a huge increase in a little more than a year.”
Many who consider themselves “small housers” don’t buy really tiny places. But by adopting the tenants of the movement, which includes downsizing, prioritizing and optimizing their lives, they feel they’re part of something bigger.
“It’s a really diverse community,” says Stephanie Reiley, who writes the Coming Unmoored: Life in a Tiny Floating Home blog, chronicling her adventures living in a floating home in Portland, Ore. “It’s not like we have some sort of badge of membership that you must be in the tiniest space possible. People are going about it different ways.”

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