Tiny houses and big opportunities.

I can’t turn around without a book or an HGTV show on tiny houses, retreats, camps, trailers, etc. Where did this come from and why? And where can this movement inform our sustainability, where is it not yet informing us, and where is it causing some troubles?

It can be said that classic wooden boat galleys, amazingly adaptable to confined and clever living, are the foundation for much in the tiny house movement. Even earlier, the Shaker style of community created smart ways to simplify living while providing flexibility. But the contemporary tiny house movement began with Jay Shafer, the founder of Tumbleweed Tiny House company, with their first home, built in 1999. A tiny company that is changing the world.Tumbleweed Houses

The movement was reinforced after Hurricane Katrina, with the Katrina Cottages, which were a solid option to FEMA trailers, small and healthy. Then the final push was the financial meltdown of 2008 which helped many in the USA in particular to see that a large home with a large mortgage could be a dead weight to a golden future. Our fascination with small living has been additionally reinforced by the popularity of IKEA, with modular furniture and inventive storage solutions, by a realization that more is not, perhaps, better, and by the increasing move of people into urban environments, where living space is at a premium.

The best historic and contemporary example of tiny homes, in my mind, are in Denmark where the core city dwellers often made use of “leftover” land outside of the congested city center to have a gardens and they built tiny little vacation homes in those plots. I was fascinated when I toured in the late 1980’s some of these complex communities outside of Copenhagen. I saw architecturally diverse three season neighborhoods with well-functioning, tiny vacation homes and gardens, busting with activity and pride. Some of these allotment gardens have since received permanent status.

Denmark History – City Farmer

“Small House” thinking in the mainstream residential design realm in the USA can certainly be credited to Sarah Susanka, whose architectural books on small house design advocate getting to the core of the problem; de-cluttering and recognizing the real needs for the home as well as putting money into quality, not into square footage.

Sarah Susanka ROCKS

Sarah Susanka ROCKS

I have long touted the wisdom in Sarah Susanka’s books and I have benefitted personally from implementing the common sense practices she details. How many times have I cautioned people to assess their stuff and their needs first before adding on another closet or bedroom? How many times have I been struggling with the layout of my own home, only to recognize that I needed to use the space more effectively? This awareness translates also into designs for hospitals and schools and commercial places, if we let it. I was very pleased, when touring a LEED Gold research facility in Buffalo, NY to learn that the new labs were significantly smaller than the labs in the old facility, which helped to reduce material use, costs and space conditioning. They were able to do this by educating their users as to the efficiency built into the new spaces, and showing them that yes, they would have fewer square feet in their new labs, but way more usability.

Our house, in the middle of our street: I am currently thumbing through an excellent book on tiny homes. I have several books on boatbuilding, clever storage and the like on my shelves, as well as all of Susanka’s publications. We like “clever” so long as it is usable, and have had so much fun making our home nearly Weasly-tent-like in that there is so much more capability within its 1,100sf than you would think from seeing the outside.

I am thrilled with our guest room that has now two murphy beds – one full-sized and one twin. The twin is placed above the built-in work desk, so when we have guests we has no need to clear off any surface, we just fold down the bed and add the ladder. Our best friends (Kita, Steve and daughter Caitlin) can rest comfortably during a visit, and my husband still works from home every day in his dedicated office. We love multi-use approaches.

Check out Rockler – an excellent resource for DIY

Our living room is highly visitor friendly, with no TV, but is very easily transmogrified into a movie house with 7.1 surround and 8-foot movie screen as well as an LED popcorn sign. The movie screen doubles as our security control when we are away from home. We use Smart Things home automation system to lower the screen and close off the front three windows, making it appear as if we are present. This was cheaper that trying to automate three separate roman shades AND it gave us the excuse we needed for BIG movies. The couch can be set to lean back for optimal viewing, and in a pinch folds flat to also become an extra bed.

Smart Thing page

Our 600 foot backyard is grass-free, with a simple wood floating deck. It houses kayaks, bikes, our car, a beautiful seating area surrounded by berms of woodsy areas with shade perennials and shrubs, storage of 3+ cords of wood, container vegetables, pear trees, two compost bins, a rainbarrel, a basketball hoop, a dog run, an eating table, and laundry line. All readily available when needed, without compromising any of the uses or the simple contentment of sitting with a cup of coffee and a book under the trees.


Diverse backyard, working for us and with us!

Where can this movement inform our sustainability? It certainly is helping many to see the real usability of smaller spaces. Maybe we will one day get past the notion of vacuous square feet of space as the end-goal. McMansions must die. It’s almost as if we’ve lived in an all-you-can-eat buffet of bathrooms and real-estate, and we have not yet understood that the value of each inch has dropped to barely worthwhile. all you can eatIt’s time to welcome back slow foods, and purposeful homes. We are slowly learning to focus on re-use and exemplary design instead of 16 foot soaring cathedral ceilings that suck up our thermal conform and leave is feeling…echo-ey and alone.

Where is it not yet informing us? Mostly it seems to be yet another add-on approach. Only a few hard-core folks move into a tiny house and divest themselves of all that is extra and unneeded. Few people actually take a photo of the things they love but have not used in five years and then get rid of the thing itself. It’s hard. It can be painful. And it goes against a long USA cultural history of “more”. Furthermore, many people treat these tiny homes as get-away places, so in effect we’ve just mini-sized the vacation home. This is an okay step, and hopefully truly a step that will lead to better living, but it is not yet informing our daily lives. Tiny houses tend to be creative with space and to embrace re-use of materials, but the creativity has not yet been adopted into our culture of Weekend-Warrior buy it at Home Depot American-Dream. We still need to find the translation to get there.

Where is it causing some troubles? All of this is still a curiosity and extra, and many of the TV shows portray the people who choose tiny houses as not normal people with jobs and kids and responsibilities that have been grown over time, but as fringe radicals. It is all still in the realm of reality-TV. It is very easy to see and admire, but the people portrayed are so different from “us” it makes it even harder, in some ways, to try to do this. It seems also that it must be all or nothing as there is no one yet translating the smarts that go into tiny houses into our work-a-day world. What clever storage ideas could be part of my home? What lessons can I take from this tiny house show about de-cluttering one room? Does this show help me see that a fridge can be pretty darn small and be useful, and now that I know that, where do I find that fridge? Does any show help me to identify how I live, and what will work for me? And what about technologies such as on-demand heaters, composting toilets, fold-away furniture? Finally, can dressing up your own, standard 2,700sf starter home re-use materials well; not only use found lumber, for example, but do so in a way that creates stories and connections to make your home even more livable and rich?

Where to go from here? I’d like to see some of these synergies explored more in design, construction, and living in buildings. This may be the time to understand that “small houses”, “clever storage”, “sustainable sourcing” and “innovative (and I mean GREEN) products and services” are all mutually supporting endeavors that will improve the quality of our lives and support the sustainability of our finances.

Yup. Time to think tiny, no matter the size!

Send me your thoughts,





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  • Jodi

    Another great post!

    I want to make you aware of work my sister-in-law is engaged in here in NJ where she is spearheading efforts to do a tiny-house village for homeless in Trenton, our Capital City.

    I will send her a link to your post, her name is Sherry Rubel.


    • Sam,
      I’m actually toying with the notion of planning an expo for “small” to explore the tiny house ideals, clever storage solutions, and green product innovations including energy and water solutions. These are all connected, and all would be of interest to home owners as well as designers and sustainability folks. I don’t think this realm has been promoted well in the NE.
      Any thoughts? Think your sister-in-law might be interested? Fair warning…this is truly the barest of thoughts in my head at this point.

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