(MintPress)— In what some are calling a reversal of the American dream, where bigger has always been perceived as better, and the failure to “keep up with the Joneses” has been seen as a mark of socio-economic inferiority, the tiny house movement is slowly building momentum.
Sarah Susanka, an American architect, and the originator of the “Not So Big” philosophy of residential architecture, said in an interview with Mint Press that “culturally people are saying we don’t want bigger, we want better.”
A history of American homes
The average size of an American single-family home has grown exponentially over the years.
According to the National Association of Home Builders, the average home size in the United States was 2,700 square feet in 2009, up from 1,400 square feet in 1970.
However, previous generations managed to live in much less square footage, and often with much larger families.
But with the bursting of the housing bubble, American are rethinking the “bigger is better” mantra and opting to inhabit smaller spaces.
According to information provided by the U.S. Census Bureau, in 1963, the average purchase price for a home was $19,300 dollars.
That figure continued to grow over the years, with housing prices peaking in early 2006, at an average of $305,900. But, after the housing bubble burst, average prices started to decline in 2006 and 2007, and have continued to reach new recent lows in 2012. Increased foreclosure rates in 2006 through 2007 among U.S. homeowners led to a far-reaching financial crisis in 2008, which was caused largely by the inability of a large number of homeowners to pay their mortgages as their low introductory-rate mortgages reverted to regular interest rates.
And home sizes have been shrinking alongside price tags. The median home size was about 2,300 square feet at the peak of the market in 2007, with many McMansions topping 10,000 square feet. However, in recent years the median home size has fallen to about 2,100 square feet and more than one-third of Americans say their ideal home size is actually under 2,000 square feet, according to real-estate survey site Trulia.
Socially responsible homes
Jay Shafer, founder of the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company in California, coined the term “tiny house”, referring to a dwelling under 300 square feet.
Today his company sells over twenty tiny house plans and designs homes that range from 65-874 square feet with “a socially responsible platform.”
The company allows potential customers to purchase plans to build a tiny house, order a kit or buy it ready made and delivered to their site. Tiny house kits start at about $20,000 each and plans for those wishing to do-it-themselves for around $600.
Tumbleweed Tiny House Company’s website says that the company “isn’t just a business, it is a movement!”
Shafer is recognized as an expert in small living. He is a designer specializing in sustainable architecture and urban planning and has lectured within the Eco-Dwelling program at New College, the Boston Architectural Center, and the University of Iowa’s School of Art and Art History.
Shafer says, “Since 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. My houses have met all of my domestic needs without demanding much in return. The simple, slower lifestyle my homes have afforded is a luxury for which I am continually grateful.”
Advocates say smaller homes are also better for Mother Earth. One example of this would be that as Shafer told the San Francisco Chronicle, a typical Tumbleweed Tiny House produces only 4 tons of greenhouse gases during a typical Minnesota winter compared to the average home that emits 18 tons per year.
“From an environmental perspective by far the greatest thing we can do for our homes is to build them smaller. It’s more important than anything we can do,” Eli Spevak, who owns Orange Splot LLC, which specializes in building tiny homes, recently told the Portland Times.
But not everyone opting for smaller quarters is motivated solely by saving the planet or riding this new trend. For many people, the decision to downsize is connected to their quality of life. Kirsten Dirksen, co-founder of faircompanies.com, a news/blog/video site focused on simple living recently wrote for the Huffington Post, “I continue to discover people who often aren’t even aware there’s a movement of their type (see Small House Society) of living in shipping containers, shacks, houseboats, converted garages, caves, tool sheds, former pigeon coops, Airstream trailers and treehouses. They don’t all think alike, but all those I’ve interviewed see their decision to live small as a choice, and often as the most direct path to an examined, and happier, life.”
Location, location, location
As tiny house advocate Kent Griswold says many who look to build a tiny house flock to rural areas, believing that negotiating zoning regulations and dealing with neighborhood association rules (which are often at odds with small house goals) will be easier.
However, Griswold says that older and historic neighborhoods may be a good choice for building a new small home for those who are hoping to live closer to walkable stores and restaurants (and perhaps ditch their cars) and enjoy sociable neighbors. A downside to building a tiny home in a rural area he notes is that site development costs for utilities can be prohibitively expensive on undeveloped land.
“For those interested in living more economically in a smaller footprint without having to build from scratch, looking for a house in a historic district may be a great opportunity to both live in an attractive home and neighborhood and to recycle an entire house. If the perfect house doesn’t already exist, or is not within budget, building a new small house within a historic district may be just the right combination,” Griswold recently wrote on recently wrote on The Tiny House Blog, “There are many established neighborhoods with precedent for small homes.”
Griswold says that many established areas are historically laid out with small lots, often a reflection of the neighborhood’s working class past, which he says can be particularly evident in neighborhoods platted from the 1890s to 1930s. Moreover, “ local zoning in designated historic districts is often tailored so that new construction within the district remains in scale with the historically smaller homes in the neighborhood. In addition, many historic neighborhoods also allow accessory structures behind the main home that can be even tinier than the main home,” he said.
Many areas do not require zoning permits for structures smaller than 120 square feet in the U.S.
Griswold recommends those looking to build in an established neighborhood avoid developments where the trend has been to demolish the older small homes and replace them with “McMansions”.
Not so big home movement gains steam
Increasingly, Americans are seeking to do more with less.
Sarah Susanka, who has been credited to have initiated the small house movement, after publishing her book The Not So Big House which was a New York Times Best Seller, and landed her on Oprah and in a host of other publications, has noticed the trend.
Susanka herself lived in a 96 square-foot home while in college.
“It taught me an incredible amount. You become really smart about making everything do double duty,” she said, recalling that her kitchen table was affixed to the back of a storage closet door, and at Christmas time, she had a hanging Christmas tree. “What makes them liveable is the charm. It’s like being on a sailboat. Everything is beautiful and intricately placed.”
Susanka, who has been an architect since 1983, has noticed a steady demand for quality over quantity in what people who came to her looking to design homes have wanted over the years, but with the downturn of the economy she noted that “people are looking to use dollars more wisely.”
Susanka points out that her “Not So Big” philosophy isn’t about a specific size as much as “using your resources to make the best house for you” and says that many people today are
less interested in impressing the socks off their neighbors and more interested in making a place that feels comfortable.”
She believes that more and more people are “reassessing” their housing needs, and “a lot of people are very skittish about over-extending” given the recent economic turbulence in the United States.
Susanka encourages people, through her books and speaking engagements to use individual financial and the planet’s resources in more effective ways. She says this “rebalancing” is the “way of the future.”