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The Not-So-Tiny House Movement

September 30, 2014

Houses and humans are a binary. Both need each other to exist, and, with food and clothing, homes allow for our survival. But clothing can be haute couture, food can be gourmet, and our homes can be mansions. The essential can become the over wrought. In our huge cultural bandwidth from ascetic to hedonist, from survivalist the hegemonic, humanity effortlessly straddles extremes.

The architectural play pens of Mod/Trad, form/function, and style are tempests in the home values teapot as compared to the single central concern of almost every housing consumer: Cost. The cost imperative is not just the affordability of buy-in; it’s the subsequent over-mantle of monthly mortgage, utilities, taxes and maintenance. If we own where we live, that liability is open ended, and in a Great Recession, its implications are scary. Into the contexts of our collective fiscal fear and predilection for extremity, comes a reductionist ethos that has bedrock appeal: Own Less.

When your largest possession is our home, then owning less means living in less. Just as philosophy can become religion, “less” can become “tiny”, and if our values are reflected by what we own, extreme values are found in extreme possessions.

The Tiny House Movement has hundreds of heroes – it has matured from fun diversion into alternative reality into a well-reasoned ethic with thousands of exemplars. Its devotees indict our full-fat house history, and at its fringes prescribes a spatial anorexia that verges on the messianic. The rationale is not arguable: 40 years ago our families were rounding up to 4 humans and our homes were rounding down to 1,500 sq.ft., now families are rounding down to 2 1/2 souls, but our homes have larded up to over 2,500 sq.ft. Viewed in logical terms, it pulls at our puritanical Swamp Yankee heritage of “waste not, want not”. So, for some, guilt over domestic gluttony created a backlash.

Clearly the first decade of the 21st century created homes that needed to shrink to fit. The smaller the home, the easier you can build it yourself, the less financing you need, the lower your energy costs, taxes, utilities, upkeep are, and perhaps most importantly, the more each tiny home builder can get control in a time of threat. The smaller your house is, the less liability it presents: as our futures become more uncertain, being able to know and understand every stick and cubic inch of where we live is an anchor against a changing world.

The anti-consumer counter culture of the 1960’s spawned the Whole Earth Catalogue, full of yurts, teepees, communes and other ways to run away from suburban sprawl. One of the catalogue creators, Lloyd Kahn wrote “Shelter” in 1973, extending that perspective and architect Lester Walker took that a step further in 1987 with “Tiny Tiny Houses” a book of intricate beauty and gutless message of brevity having wit in home design.

In 1983 McGraw Hill asked me to write a version of this human impulse, “The Small House” and its 1994 sequel that advocated that all new houses, no matter what their builders’ desires and requirements were, could go on a diet. Sarah Susanka got Oprah’s attention and blew the doors of shelter book sales with a series of “Not So Big” books.

Jay Shafer and Greg Johnson literally went the extra mile by countering the extreme static deadness of McMansions with tiny, crafty, sheds-for-living on wheels in an early internet obsession, the “Tumbleweed Tiny House Company”. Marianne Cusato was in the right place at the right time, and 308 sq.ft. “Katrina Houses” became a cultural symbol of coping with a natural disaster that also put a mirror to our ultimately disastrous focus on “more” in 2005.

The recent OCD Design compulsion of using shipping containers as full size home Lego’s is yet another architect playpen that has a fascination in the moment, but may go the way of millions of roof-top mounted hot water heater feeding solar panels – good intentions that were just too clunky.

There are monetary costs in owning any home, but there are also costs to the quality of life when you reduce your living pattern to fit into an SRO: for some the costs are joyously endured, but for how long? For most living in a space far smaller than a garage forces a full rethink – a good thing. But if this new home suit is too tight, you cannot return it for a larger one – you will probably do what every generation has done before ours – expand its too-small-ness to fit.

Good ideas that save resources are popular in all economies, but in our present place of bottomed-out, permanently limited expectations those values get new urgency. The Green/Sustainable versions of rejecting mindless glut are approaching conventional wisdom, versus counterculture, and “downsizing” has a popular cache for empty nested Boomers.

There are now thousands of Internet voices railing against the excesses that were proven totally bogus in 2008. When our darker angels of greed and hubris helped developers sell size over value, our common capacity for distorting common sense in our own self interest was, once again, etched in folly.

But if “Less is More” is “Tiny” best?

Where culture leads, popular culture exploits – and, now, of course, a new reality TV show, “Tiny House Nation” has debuted and that may just signal a jumping of the shark for this quirk-cum-salvation, where thoughtful circumspection about our shared values morphs into a freak show of extremity.





7 Comments leave one →
  1. September 30, 2014 10:19 pm

    Duo, thoughtful and well said. As a former student, I find it inspiring that you are writing about this topic at such a time as I am embarking on my own tiny house journey. It’s not just out of economic uncertainty in our profession, it is a deep desire to push this experimental typology beyond the quaint cabin to create a new machine for living.

    Tiny living may be more than a destination for boomers, it can be a way to reimagine what the ‘American Dream’ can be. And while tiny houses don’t need to be designed for ‘market appeal’ they not only become a mass customization opportunity, they can be seen as precious family heirlooms, following the family members in their life journey – no matter where it takes them, especially not being ground bound.

  2. October 22, 2014 5:57 am

    Natural spin-off or crass piggy-back marketing?

    • ODwyerPW permalink
      December 29, 2014 11:49 pm


      I was too late to lay out my challenge:

      • ODwyerPW permalink
        December 29, 2014 11:52 pm

        Sorry, about that I thought I had only pasted a small amount of text under that photo..not the whole facebook photo with it’s accompanying comments… Feel free to delete it as it really ruins the presentation of the comment section of your blog…


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