Smaller than Not So Big

People have lots of reasons for wanting to live in smaller homes – everything from environmental scruples to the tanking of the housing market.  Like any diverse trend there are all kinds of folks who are more or less interested in scaling back their homes size.  If the “Not So Big” movement is one end of the small spectrum then I think that Jay Shafer’s Tiny Houses are at the other end – the really small end.

Jay’s Tumbleweed House company sells plans and kits and fully built out Tiny Houses.  He also gives workshops around the country, asking people to question this American gospel of bigger = better.  Acording to him, the average American house takes up 2300 square feet of space, generates 7 tons of construction waste, uses a quarter acre of woodland and then is largely unused.

I got to hear Jay speak about his design philosophy and the details of building a tiny house in Boston last spring.  He told us his small house story: started living small in a truck parked in his parents back yard, then graduated to an air streamer but found its shoddy construction and zero insulation frustrating.  He wanted to settle down and build but was frustrated by his local building codes which allowed nothing smaller than 1500 sf.  Even the footprint of a stairwell to the second floor (400 sf) was larger than he wanted to build.  So he side stepped the codes by building on a trailer.  His first home for himself drew so much attention that he was soon fielding almost constant inquiries and requests for duplicates.  Soon the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company was born.

These images are all of the Lusby model –  a medium sized tiny house at 117 square feet.  It measures just 8′ wide (trailer width) by 19 feet long and has two sleeping spaces, a tiny three quarter bathroom, a kitchen with nearly as much work surface as mine and a little sitting area.  I find these tiny houses provocative – not as perfect finished objects, although any one could make a comfortable home for the right person, but as an open question about how much space is really necessary.

Interesting, Shafer and Susanka share the concept that building smaller allows one to build better.  Because his houses are so small he can use relatively expensive materials and yet not break the bank.  He prefers wooden siding to drywall, covers his whole roof in Ice and Water Shield, sides in red cedar clapboard and always uses a metal roof.  With less than 200 square feet to cover … why not?

Cost is also a factor: consider that the entire cost of construction for his first tiny house – $13,000  – was less then the down payments (if any) most people were putting down on their houses back when people still bought houses.  With a tiny house there is no mortgage to pay and the cost of moving is just the rental of a U-haul with a strong trailer hitch.

Asked if its difficult to live in so small a space Jay replies with a Japanese proverb: you need only half a tatami mat for standing and a full one for sleeping.  All the rest is elbow room.

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