Tiny Houses have been getting more and more popular in recent years. While the first tiny homes probably popped up in the 1960’s, the increasing environmental, financial and social challenges make this lifestyle attractive to a growing number of people. The Tiny House Movement is less to be understood as one uniform organization, but as the diverse mass of people living that lifestyle in highly individualized ways; mainly unorganized from each other but bonding as well as sharing experiences, tips and knowledge through a variety of channels such as social media, gatherings and numerous organizations. We understand that Tiny Houses are just one form of Living Tiny and are present all over the world. However in this paper, we want to focus on the Tiny House Movement in the United States.
Conventional Houses and Why “Bigger is Better” is problematic
The average American lives in a house of 2,171 square feet. This number has been rising dramatically over the last hundred years - from 1910 to 2010, the average size of a new build house in the US has risen 74%. Taking into consideration changing demographics and shrinking household sizes (from 4.54 people in 1910 to 2.58 in 2010), the space per person even increased a whooping 211% (Sheffield and Rector 2011). To set these numbers in context, in most European countries with comparable wealth and living standards, such as Sweden, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, average household square footage rarely exceeds 999 square feet (Sheffield and Rector 2011). Americans live big, and the idea of perceiving a huge house as a necessary status symbol is solidified in many minds.
For sure there’s counter-evidence for such, as millenials cram into cities like New York and San Francisco because horrendous rents keep them from living bigger, but the single family homes dominate the landscape not only since the urban sprawl of the last century. Additionally, this suburban show-off for the largest and shiniest homes created a quite bizarre mono-architectural landscape compared to other cultures and times in history (Brinkley 2010). Journalist Kate Wagner explains how these “McMansions” compromise good design, adaptation and functionality for the sake of sheer size and splendor on her viral blog mcmansionhell.org.
With the United States having around 330 million inhabitants (US Census Bureau 2018), the ecological implications of a dominant culture based on a “bigger is better” mentality. It exploits land, (construction) resources and, obviously, a lot of money. Conventional housing costs start at about $500,000 including purchase price and interest rate over 30 years (Hill 2011).
An alternative: Tiny Houses
Tiny Houses are one alternative that emerged to combat the issues of conventional living by sizing down dramatically. They usually have a size of less than 500 square feet, are often built on trailers to ensure mobility. While some have hookups for utilities, most are designed to operate independently. Most tiny homes are designed and constructed by their future dwellers themselves, so that they can fit their little space to meet their needs perfectly. Despite this individuality, working with little space seems to come with a similar attitude towards other resources; many tiny houses share minimalist and environmentally conscious design principles.
People go tiny for various reasons: The minimalism demanded by the space restrictions is experienced as liberating by many tiny house dwellers, they report being happier as fewer possessions means more time for the things and people they love. The ability to build and design the structure yourself gives autonomy in the creation of the home and the option to express personality through architecture. A mobile setup and off-grid technologies allows personal freedom to be at home wherever preferred (Kaufmann 2015). Limited indoor space pushes for embracing the surroundings, exploring the outdoors and reconnecting to nature (Patel 2015).
Tiny Houses are less expensive than building or buying a standard sized house and even compared to rent in most densely settled places of the US should pay off on the long term. A D.I.Y. Tiny House comes with a price tag between $20-$40,000, plus additional labor cost if help with plumbing, water or electricity is needed. Given the size and popular off-the-grid modifications, utility bills can often be avoided, so that maintaining and monthly costs are held to a minimum (Kaufmann 2015).
Besides all these personal benefits, many Tiny House Dwellers are driven by the ecological advantages, as the nature of a Tiny House and the lifestyle that comes with it normally have a minimal environmental footprint when it comes to resource consumption, energy use and waste management.
The Environmental Footprint of a Tiny House
One of the things Tiny Houses outcompete conventional homes is their environmental footprint. Tiny Living cuts down on its environmental impact regarding both the production of the house itself and the benefits of purely the size of living space; they are way more efficient in terms of heating, cooling and powering.
Lighting up a Tiny House can require as little as six light bulbs (consuming 914 kWh a year), which is only 7% of what an average American household needs to brighten up their home. A large living space also means a lot of air that has to be brought to the right temperature: An average-sized household is responsible for about 8,000 pounds of CO2 a year only for heating. Tiny Houses, in contrast, emit only 558 pounds of CO2 per year on average. Cooling down an average-sized home is as energy intensive and causes around 4,000 pounds of CO2 emissions per year. The average Tiny House, again, emits only a fraction of that, which is 286 pounds of CO2 per year (Constellation 2016). So even if connected to municipal power supply, Tiny Homes are much more efficient than full-sized homes.
This is not only due to less space, but a smart, energy-saving design most Tiny Houses make use of. A lofted bed for example not only saves space and is more comfortable, but as heat rises up also doesn’t require additional heating “upstairs”. Large windows (on either side of the house) can support passive heating and cooling, and a solar-powered blackout shades on these side windows and skylight prevents 40 percent heat loss and 60 percent heat gain.
This resource conscious, energy saving mentality benefits many Tiny House owners’ ambition to operate their homes off the grid. Electricity can come in the form of solar panels on the roof, which often can meet energy needs consistently and without major problems. Going off-the-grid sure entails other necessities such as water, which can be solved with rainwater catchment systems for flushing the toilet etc. Such renewable off grid systems can be immune to external influences such as fluctuating energy prices, system disruptions and outages (O’Brien 2010). The drawbacks with solar power is that it requires some precious metals and scarce materials such as silver, tellurium, indium and gallium and which have been acknowledged as finite and hinder the progress of PV technology (UNEP 2016).
Legal Status, Laws and Regulations
When is a house a home? Political theorist Hannah Arendt argued that a home’s characteristics, rather than simply the designation of the private and public, are defined by its social and intimate descriptions (Arendt, 1958). However today, zoning laws and building codes can make it hard for Tiny House enthusiasts to find sites to legally reside on. While the first say where which time of (residential) building is legal, the latter affect constructional requirements that Tiny House builders have to consider. Zoning laws and building codes require a minimum square footage for homes.
For example, in Oregon and Washington local laws specify that permanent homes must be built to one of two standards: either the locally or the state-adopted building code, typically adapted from the International Residential Code (IRC), or the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s national standards for manufactured homes. Tiny Houses have a difficult time meeting these regulations, because of things like minimum size and height rules. The IRC, for example, requires that habitable rooms have at least 70 square feet of floor space, and not be less than 7 feet wide and tall (Nelson, 2016).
After building, zoning laws pose another problem Zoning laws specify designated use and building type for each district or neighborhood in an administrative area. They are a means of land use management for sure, but as Elaine Walker, founder of the American Tiny House Association, states “I think that originally these laws were there to protect people, and then they grew to be more about keeping the neighborhoods standard and keeping property values high.”
Despite the growing enthusiasm for Tiny Homes among the public, these laws are only slowly adapting to fit tiny houses, so meeting local building codes and finding a legal space to live can be a hassle that discourage people moving forward with Tiny Living. Regulations are often confusing or do not consider Tiny Houses, and not every local government is welcoming this new type of living arrangement. Cities and towns that have started to accommodate Tiny Homes have typically been pushed by grassroots organizers asking government officials for changes to local building and zoning codes (Craig, 2017).
One way to get around both zoning laws and building codes is registering a Tiny House on wheels as an RV and travel or find (more or less) temporary parking arrangements. Staying in a friend’s backyard or park on their driveway would be an option. Paying to stay at a camping or RV site is another. Although not all RV parks favor long-time stays and a monthly payment has to be made, this option is the only legal way to live full-time in a Tiny House classified as an RV in most states. As the laws can obviously only enforced if your Tiny House on wheels is reported or complained about, some people ignore the codes and simply change up the scenery whenever they feel like they could be reported.
Besides the legal restrictions concerned with the logistics of how to build and where to put up the house, there are other factors that can complicate living in a Tiny House or even make it impossible. Living in a Tiny House requires a minimalist lifestyle for sure, and even if an external storage option is available, people are likely to have to part with their possessions - while some perceive this as a relieving act of freedom, others might struggle with condensing their belongings.
Having children can pose another challenge. Although there are families happily living in Tiny Houses, some critics wonder if kids won’t need more room and privacy than a Tiny House can provide for. Many Tiny House families compensate the tiny indoor space with emphasizing the use of their outdoor areas.
But not only with children the surroundings of the Tiny Home seem to play an (sometimes important) role in the attractiveness of the lifestyle and consequently, settling down in an urban area comes with additional challenges. Not only regulations are much stricter, but sitting on the porch might be impossible and kids can’t always run as freely in cities as in the countryside. In densely packed areas Tiny House dwellers are also more likely to be faced with complaints by neighbors and critics, as the stigma around Tiny Living can be quite passionate. Besides wellbeing concerns for children, the Tiny House Movement has been criticised for it’s escapist and idealistic mindset and blamed for trying to evade authority (Erickson 2016) and there is a general suspicion against mobile homes and their occupants, which is partly fed by media like the portrait Russell Banks gave in his Trailerpark short-story collection from 1996. In a culture of “bigger is better” and size being a status symbol, Living Tiny can quickly be associated with being poor or unfit and therefore trigger negative reactions.
Also the resources and knowledge it takes to build a Tiny Home can be cumbersome. To build a Tiny Home, the materials is only part of the calculation. Tools, carpenter or plumber skills (either yourself, a friend or a contractor), a dry long-term construction place, lots of time and the money to make all of this happen are necessary. Unfortunately, banks tend to reject loans for building Tiny Houses as the banks do not see any resale value or collateral associated with tiny homes.
Social Injustice and Poverty Appropriation
Although Tiny Houses are much cheaper than standard-sized houses, they are still not available for everyone. As mentioned above, banks are reluctant to grant loans for Tiny Houses so without having sufficient funds and the time necessary to work on the house, access to what we called ‘The Tiny House Movement’ is limited to those who have the funds, resources and time. Speaking of money, over half of Americans (57%) have less than $1,000 in their bank accounts (Huddleston 2017) while the growing GDP tells of prospering wealth.
The wealth distribution is object to huge income, race and gender inequalities, as the 2013 Federal Reserve Survey of Consumer Finances shows (ValuePenguin 2018). Not only does the account balance of high income people exceed those of the lower income groups disproportionately, but also this group is made up by 89% white people. Racial disparities through all income groups show that on average, white people have four times more savings than black or hispanic people. Further, male-headed households have 300-400% of the funds a female-headed household has. This gender inequality could further be amplified by single-parent households, which are overwhelmingly mothers raising their children on their own (ValuePenguin 2018).
There are no studies on the demographics of Tiny Living yet, but scrolling through blogs, books and YouTube channels it Tiny House Dwellers appear to be a homogenous group of white, somewhat wealthy people, who report of their newfound solitude and happiness through the simplification of their home and consequently their lives. Along the lines of a rising popularity of the lifestyle around the Danish word ‘hygge’ (cozy), living tiny is heavily romanticized through social media and against the original idea, is increasingly being commodified. A ticket for the “tiny houses, big conference” in Portland, OR, last April cost $349, featuring events about how to be happy by living with less (Tempest 2017).
It’s this romanticising and commodification that fuels the claim of the Tiny House Movement appropriating poverty. By focusing on these aesthetics and narratives, an important part is left out - that this is wealthy people deciding to live small out of choice, not necessity. Judy Westhale, who herself grew up poor in a trailer park reminds that the element of choice is crucial to who’s resource conscious life is accepted and who’s isn’t. The Tiny House Movement, she argues, is posing just another struggle for acceptance on people in poverty, who live in run down trailers instead of aesthetic, custom build, cute Tiny Houses that still cost more than they might earn in a year.
“[I]t’s really more of a re-implementation of lost skills that makes more sense than maintaining the status quo and is meant to be respectful.”, argues Katherine Martinko and to be fair, most people that actually live tiny seem to have made this choice not because they’d like to ‘play poor’, but because they want to direct their time, money and resources more consciously. The criticism is more directed at those who romanticize and commodify the lifestyle to a point where not wanting to live that way (anymore) is portrayed as the wrong way. “We need to shed light on the fact that many people who grew up wanting for more space and access to foods that weren’t available to them don’t understand the glossy pamphlets offering a simpler life.”, says Judy Westhale, “Because, let me tell you, there is nothing simple about being poor.” (Westhale 2015).
The Tiny House Movement shows up a wonderful eco-friendly and resource-conscious alternative to conventional housing and living. There are tons of resources for those who want to go tiny themselves, many of them for free through the internet. Even if living that small not suitable for everyone, Tiny Living stretches the definition of what a home is and questions social narratives around houses and size as status symbols. Building and living full-time in a Tiny House has some legal implications that vary from place to place and should be taken into account. Although the promises of autonomy and a money-saving life are main selling factors, the Tiny House Movement reminds of the fact that in order to save money, you first have to have money. It is important to stay aware of the privilege to have the choice to live tiny and more inclusive strategies (such as available loans) are needed to make Tiny Housing more accessible.
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