Thoughts About Tiny Houses: When is Small Too Small?

by ziggy on May 8, 2012 -- 9 comments -- Follow

The Good Life

I have zero doubts that the average American house is way, way too big and consumes far too much energy (in its construction, and especially through its use), and produces far too much waste. This is a huge problem.

Thankfully, there is now a shift towards a tiny house movement, with some forward-thinking folks designing, building, and residing in ever smaller homes, in opposition to the “bigger is better” mentality that has plagued modern American homes. But when is small just too small to be practical? How realistic are tiny homes for a non-consumer lifestyle?

I’ve been pondering that question recently. For individuals living a more “conventional” lifestyle, with a full-time job, perhaps a commuter job, who shop for groceries and do not grow much or any of their own food, who live in the city or suburbs, who do not have work that involves the land, or farming… the need for a lot of space is indeed questionable. As many people are familiar, if there is space to fill, it will get filled (see: your parent’s attic full of crap that no one has sifted through in years).

As a homesteader, a food producer, an aspiring self-sufficient type, or some one that lives in a rural setting, etc., space is valuable, and a necessity. Have a significant-sized garden? You’ll probably want to can and put up a lot of your homegrown food, and quart jars take up a lot of space. Do you raise animals? Where are you going to process wool, or make the cheese from this morning’s milk, or make your sausage from your pig in the fall? Probably not in your 120 square foot home.

I suppose my question is: where do you draw the line on tiny houses, especially if you do work or maintain a lifestyle that involves providing more for yourself? You simply couldn’t put up 200 quart jars of food in a small space.

I think it is important to recognize that American homes are, on the whole, way too big, and those folks leading more “conventional” (for lack of a better word) lives could probably benefit from downsizing their space. (Middle class Americans are probably familiar with that one room in their house that almost no one ever uses, or the one or two that are completely full of crap. Wealthy Americans probably have half a dozen or more of those rooms.)

I’ll speak for myself here (as someone who is trying to provide more for myself) that space is definitely a premium, and I am frugal with the space that I build for myself, but there is definitely a threshold at which a space is not useful, since growing your own food, raising chickens, keeping bees, making candles, woodworking, home building, etc. — all that stuff takes space. Tools and equipment take space. Preserved food takes space. A tiny home would never be enough.

(By the way, yes, my current home is very small at 200 square feet, but I am in a unique position living at Dancing Rabbit because I share kitchen space, showers and toilets, and computer space elsewhere. So really, my “home” is more than the 200 square feet that I sleep in.)

Just food for thought.

Image credit:  Tiny House Paintings

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  • My husband and I are building a house we have been planning for almost a decade, and we have wrestled for at least that long on how small to go.
    Your position at Dancing Rabbit seems ideal in many ways with the shared facilities, but that was not our option. We have some land and plan to contribute to the local food shed. We also will need to store our own food, and have a mechanical room that can accommodate the somewhat bulky requirements of a solar heating tank, etc.
    We have the additional challenge of fitting our job into our home. As freelance writers, we need office space to work efficiently. Not much, but it adds to the footprint.
    Our building choice of straw bale walls and unmilled, branching timbers are both very green (all the timbers were chosen from our own land and selected to make the woods around them healthier) but they also add to the dimensions.
    In the end, we whittled down to under 1,600 square feet, which sounds enormous next to your 200, but is a move in the right direction.
    We are building outside Madison WI and will put our house on every green tour available to demonstrate that small can be beautiful, and we have made most of our decisions with that in mind. It’s probably unrealistic to expect many Americans to make the leap down to 200 feet, but if they see a modest size home that really works – it will nudge them in the right direction when they make their next housing choice.
    That’s our hope.

  • mike

    I think as with anything you do it should be determined by the need. So many families buy homes as a testament to how much they have or a showing of how hard they have worked. What should happen is each home should fit the need of the family. We have a small group of three families in the planning stage of a building co-op, our plan is to build 3 homes in three years and pay for them together & build them together so as not to have a mortgage If people work together & pool their resources some much more can be accomplished why does everyone feel they should face the challenges of life alone. One of the many things we are discussing is the size of the houses that we need to build and the compromising situation that this has brought to light is each family has unique needs I have 3 children however the other 2 families only have 2 children so my home would need to be a little larger than the other 2. That brings to light the emotions of the human nature He or She should not have a larger house than me because this would somehow not be fair. My final thought is if you can live in a tiny house and that would work for you great however sometimes your family needs more space & ideally you should only consume what you need. Don’t take more just because your neighbor has or needs more just because you think it not fair.

  • Jay C. White Cloud

    Thank you for speaking to this. As I have been watching over the past few years this push in micro architecture I have been truly amazed at the extremes folks have pushed themselves to and, perhaps, a false reality.

    I specialize in Folk Style architecture of Asia, the Middle East, and many indigenous cultures. It is a niche that few, in North America, have come to appreciate. It has allowed me a chance to see the vernacular “Tiny House,” up close, and guess what, more than half would not fit this new concept of a “Tiny House.”

    Even though I design and build beautiful architecture, my other passion and career of being a Guide and Indigenous Life Skills Instructor, has kept me living outside. I, for the past 30 plus years, still live and sleep outside, on average, 300 plus days a year. I believe much of the micro architecture we are all hearing about is no more than, “Glorified Bed Rooms,” many of witch are mobile and/or transient in nature. Many of the occupants of this new push in small architecture are spending a lot of time under someone else’s roof, even if it is nature’s, and calling that home. So in reality, is their living space really that small, I think it might be more a matter of semantics than actual architecture? I am not faulting or condemning these folks, no, I am please to see this more communal and/or conscious way of living. However, I would rather see this focus on “consciousness,” in personal architecture, than this some times manic push for small.

    I have just begun sharing this viewpoint with folks, and have been eagerly waiting for some good debate on the subject. Having spent a life time in, let us say, “Earth Cultures,” from my child hood with First Nation Elders, to my apprenticeship with the Amish learning Timber Framing and other Master Crafts People, I think I can speak with some authority, that folks need to very much stop thinking about the size of their architecture, and concern themselves more with it’s balance in nature, efficiency of their individual sense of space, the homeostasis of the materials it is constructed with and the future generations that will call it their hearth.

    I follow your blog and enjoy much the work you are trying to achieve. Keep up the good work, there are many that are supporting you, if not in person, they are in spirit.

  • Chuck

    We live out in the sticks, with a yard full of chickens, sheep, and dogs, and are plenty familiar with storage issues. I’m a big fan of separate outbuildings. All of my hobbies and interests require space. However, I don’t want to have to heat and cool that space when I’m not using it. Even food storage (for items like canned goods, veggies, et cetera) can be accomplished just as efficiently (if not more so) by a stand-alone, earth sheltered cellar or pantry.

  • Chris

    200 square feet is a very generous bedroom for two.

    If I had it to do over, I would probably follow the ecovillage/parks system model–a fairly large simple structure for common utilities (kitchen, bath, “family room”, etc.) and small bunkhouses or personal cabins for the bedrooms. Even in zoned areas, that central structure can have a single bedroom to count as “the house” with a few small outbuildings.

  • Great article. How I agree with you! Just heating and cooling some of the huge homes is ridiculous in this energy-conscious world. You were kind and solicitous to the over-sized-home owners. I’m much more scathing. We are well passed the point in history where we need to keep up with the Joneses.

    I suggest, in your case, that separate storage and processing buildings could be built. I see no reason for you to share your minimal accommodation with the harvest each year.

    But you knew that.

  • Scott

    What size home you need depends on individual circumstances-my house, at just under 900 sq. feet, is very small by modern standards-yet my grandparents lived comfortably for decades in a small house whose ceiling was a couple inches over my head, and the whole house was maybe 500 sq. feet. Two 15 amp circuits supplied the house,and met their electrical needs(a lot of older houses had 30 or 60 amp service-modern houses have 200+amp service)just fine..their heaviest “electron eater” was the fridge. Since they heated with wood/coal that was harvested/dug out of a seam in the side of a mountain by hand, they didn’t heat anything that wasn’t absolutely necessary.
    I could probably get by on 300 sq. feet-most of that would be a shop.

  • I’ve never commented here before, but have been following your story here for quite some time. I love what you’re doing. My (soon to be) husband and I used to live in a 600 sq.ft. cabin for almost two years. It was just what we needed to find importance in the “stuff” that we had. Certain objects were definitely useful and stayed, but others that were bulky and meaningless had to go. It was a good assessment. At first we thought the cabin was the perfect size for us, but over time we realized that its design could have been WAY better. I think for two people that space was more than adequate, and with better design it could have even worked for one or two kids. However, we had nowhere but outside to go when we wanted to just be alone for a while. The only room with a door was a tiny bathroom. The other design issue was storage. There could have been built-in shelves and drawers galore, but there were not. We built what we could, but the cabin was not built for long-term living, so the architect wasn’t concerned with efficiency. There was also a stairway with a wall leading up to a crawlspace in the dead center of the house. It divided the place up and made it much smaller than it really was. If it wasn’t there, we could have had a huge table for shared activities like processing wool (which was otherwise impossible) and canning (which tended to just be done outside on the porch). I’d say that with the right design, small spaces work very well. But we need to keep in mind the tendency for people to want some alone time every once in a while and also their different creative/work-related needs. (Cooking, drawing, writing…)

  • Joel

    Excellent discussion. There are currently countless thousands of people living in tiny houses, and they’ve done so without much debate for years. They live in mobile/trailer homes (arguably not tiny, but pretty darned small, yes?). And, contrary to common belief, many (like my great grandmother until her passing at 102) live there simply because it is all they need. While not quite energy efficient, these countless thousands can certainly speak for the feasibility of living with less and have proven that it’s quite easily done.

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