The 400-square-foot dream home
Teeny-tiny houses are the next big thing on the horizon. Those who've downsized say you can save a ton of money and time -- if you can handle the challenges of living small.
Could you live in a home that's 400 square feet? How about less than 200 square feet?
Greg Johnson does. His house in Iowa City, Iowa, is 140 square feet -- a mere 7 feet by 10 feet. It's just large enough for a little kitchen on one side, across from a desk where Johnson can work and eat. Upstairs is a loft that fits a queen-sized bed and is "just big enough to crawl upstairs and go to sleep. It's cozy," says Johnson, co-founder and coordinator of the Small House Society, which encourages people to get interested in living small -- and he means really small.
"I think it's the ideal size, at least for me," he says of his domicile.
Tiny is getting big
Anecdotal evidence suggests that a growing number of Americans are intrigued by so-called "micro-homes." Call it a fringe offshoot of the anti-McMansion trend. Johnson says his monthly e-newsletter has grown to 477 recipients from just a handful since the Small House Society began in 2002.
A variety of companies, sensing the growing interest -- and potential future need -- for compact housing offer interesting tiny homes. For example:
- Central Virginia's Tiny House Co. sells a 400-square-foot, one-bedroom log cabin with a covered porch that starts at $36,900, and offers plans for the Weekender, a 12-by-24-foot gabled-roof cabin with a kitchen, bath and storage loft.
- Phoenix's v2world goes a different route, using stackable, welded, steel-frame modules to create living spaces. Its 448-square-foot v2flat model is a 16-by-16-foot box connected to a 16-by-20-foot box. The v2flat is a high-design, customizable space -- and includes all furniture and high-end shrunken fixtures that maximize space. The steel-frame design means that floor-to-ceiling windows can be added on multiple sides to make the space feel larger without losing strength.
- For its, ahem, small size, Jay Shafer's Tumbleweed Tiny House Co., with some 15 different models and variations of mini-homes, is a big source of inspiration and homes for tiny home lovers. Shafer helped Johnson design his Iowa City home and now sells plans, consultations and homes on his site.
- Perhaps the most mainstream person to bring attention to the tiny-house trend is nationally lauded Pacific Northwest architect Ross Chapin, who has made a reputation for building smaller homes around community-fostering spaces. In the Backyard Neighborhood he designed in Langley, Wash., Chapin built two smaller homes on each lot -- a 1,200-square-foot home and a 425-square-foot backyard cottage -- and placed them on a shared alley. Though the latter is often used as a studio by its owner, Chapin calls it a "relatively fully livable cottage" that could be used by, say, a mother-in-law or a return-to-the-nest child.
Prices of tiny homes can vary wildly, with some going for as little as $20,000 or $30,000. But architect Dennis Fukai points out that even a tiny home still keeps the spaces that are most expensive on a per-square-foot basis in a home -- bathrooms and kitchens. He estimates that even a tiny house might cost $75 a square foot in an inexpensive area, "and you could double that, easily, for a custom home" with lots of nice touches and amenities, from space-saving built-in cabinets to a Murphy bed to granite countertops. (Johnson's home is an exception here in that it omits the restroom altogether; it's designed to rely on the facilities of an adjacent home.)
Tiny houses are hardly a new idea. Henry David Thoreau lived in one on the banks of Walden Pond. And Thomas Jefferson lived in an 18-foot-by-18-foot, two-story, 648-square-foot box with his new wife while building his grand Monticello. Today's tiny-house advocates extol their virtues, including:
- Time for what you love. Johnson says he started the Small House Society after seeing that if people bought and lived in smaller, less expensive spaces, they'd have more time to get out in their communities and do the things they love to help affect society. "I'm looking at ways to empower activists," he explains. A smaller home "saves incredible amounts of time. It saves incredible dollars."
- Less of … everything. Fukai, a former Fulbright scholar with a Ph.D. in architecture and author of "Living Small: The Life of Small Houses" focuses on smaller building with his firm, Insitebuilders. "Almost all consumption becomes reduced" when you move to a very small house, Fukai explains -- even that extra pair of shoes gets tossed out. Fukai and his wife traded in a 3,000-square-foot home for an 800-square-foot house in Florida about 18 months ago -- and haven't looked back.
Besides paring down your own belongings, you can feel good about consuming less in other ways. In a small home, "automatically everything becomes less energy-demanding," Fukai says. Even pets and appliances such as computers suddenly heat the small spaces in winter. And since walls must be well insulated by general code today, heat doesn't penetrate the house in summer, Fukai has found. What's more, the rooms cool very quickly with just an open window.
- Little cleaning. A tiny space with less junk in it translates into less time spent cleaning and maintaining it, say owners.
- The rewards of intimacy. Humans gravitate toward small spaces if they're cozy and well-considered, says architect Chapin: "Benjamin Franklin used to say that the conversation around the table is much livelier when knees are touching, than at a formal dinner with proper distance."
The many challenges of living really small
So, small may be beautiful. But it also may not work for everyone, and it poses some unique challenges.
Johnson, of the Small House Society, says micro-homes seem best suited to "people under 25 and over 45" -- that is, people who haven't yet had children, and those whose children have left the nest. Patricia Foreman and Andy Lee, in their book "A Tiny Home to Call Your Own," suggest others, too: adult children returning to the nest; retirees; grandparents returning to live with the family; newlyweds who don't mind the very cozy quarters; people in transition; even "couples who make better neighbors than housemates."
Among the considerations:
- Accumulators, be wary. "They're not for people who really want to have a lot of stuff," says Foreman, president of Tiny House Co. (Foreman lives in a home with a footprint the size of a two-car garage and boasts that she can vacuum it without changing plugs.)
- Ditto party-throwers. Johnson, of the Small Home Society, finds that some owners of tiny homes get frustrated by the lack of room for socializing. In his house, for example, two is crowded, and "if it's three people, it's standing-room only," he says. That's why decks are often crucial on tiny homes.
- Land rich, house poor. Often, land simply costs too much for it to make sense to build a $15,000 home. "If you have a lot that's $30,000, or in Seattle it might be $300,000, you don't put a 300-square-foot house on it," says Fukai. "People who pay $300,000 for a lot don't live in that kind of house."
- Zoning rules. Sometimes, building codes and local zoning rules expressly prohibit homes under a certain size (often 600 square feet or 700 square feet), perhaps under the notion that larger homes will keep the neighborhoods looking nice.
- Financing. If financing is necessary, it can be tricky. Simply put, banks are wary of tiny homes, says Foreman, of Tiny House Co. Banks want to see something bigger than a one-bedroom house, she says, adding "they're concerned about resale value." For example, in Buena Vista, Va., where her company is located, you could build the company's log cabin, but you couldn't leave it on wheels because then the home would be classified as a single-wide trailer. Nor could you even leave it on the metal frame because then it would not be considered a standard home, which would create financing problems. "They treat it more or less like a car," Foreman says. As a result, many of the very small homes the Tiny House Co. has built have been financed with home-equity loans from the owner's existing home.
Good design is a must
If nothing else, the mini-house trend is cause to re-evaluate just how much space we really need. Architect Chapin thinks that 500 square feet is a minimum for one person. (Chapin's firm is starting on a new development of homes in Port Townsend, Wash., that will be 10 houses and cottages around a common area, starting at about 600 square feet.) Foreman says that about 700 square feet is optimal, for one person. That allows for an office, an open living area with kitchen and one or two bedrooms. A home needn't double in size to comfortably accommodate two people, or triple for three, however. Space efficiencies increase with the number of residents, so that three people could comfortably live in as little as 1,200-1,400 square feet.
But whatever the bare minimum, good design is crucial, says Tim Russell, CEO of v2world. If you ask people whether they could ever live in 400 square feet they "categorically" say "no way," he says. Yet visitors to the company's 384-square-foot model often think it's 700 square feet or 800 square feet, Russell says, thanks to floor-to-ceiling windows and smaller appliances that are unobtrusive.
In reality these folks are returning to a simpler time. Not only were houses smaller, but so were mobiles. In the mid 60s there were a lot of 10x50 mobile homes, and a 12x60 was large.
So living small is not new, only retro.
Also, a century ago small houses of 2-4 rooms were quite normal for the lower end folks.
Have you ever been to Old Fort Harrod in Ky? They have a reproduction of the cabin that Lincoln was born in. My storage building is larger, and they had several kids.
To each his own, people...but, please don't insert yourself and your nine children into a space made for one or two people and then complain about it...common sense is the key. For those who don't want to move to smaller spaces...if you can afford something larger, good for you; but don't be critical of those of us who manage small spaces either due to necessity or the desire to trim down their lives.
I like the coziness and the smaller expense and upkeep. Is it perfect? No, but it will be when I get rid of more stuff that I don't really need!!
Honestly, I have a storage shed bigger than 78 feet. My house is only 980 sq. It is rough with all the kids' storage bins everywhere. I can't wait to get into my addition. The thought of 672 extra square feet is a torture. I've learned small spaces does not mean less clutter...just less open spaces. I wasn't even sure if the christmas tree was going to fit. Let.'s just say my dresser, bed and end table had to go to the shed. 1,652 square feet will be heaven. (what I had until 2 years ago) Smaller spaces are so much harder to clean. I used to be able to empty a room when spring cleaning. It is so nice to take everything out completely wipe down everything, sort stuff back into the bedroom or garbage can. Now, I don't have the space to do it. I like to do a room like this every week. I have more clutter than other because it is so hard to sort stuff out. Feels like I spend more time than ever cleaning.
It's like the grinch house..except it is the house itself that is two sizes too small. Finishing touches on the addition will be done by the end of February.
I've always loved small houses. I love the challenge of making your space work efficiently and creatively. EARTHMOMA: Check tiny house blog for info on small houses. There are even small house communities in North Carolina. Lots of resources on the website.
Check your math.
Seven feet by ten feet is 70 square feet.
Is this thing maybe seven feet by twenty feet?
Or more likely ten feet by fourteen feet?
I need a job and want to apply for the proof reader/fact checker/editor with you guys.
I do understand what you're saying and many people would probably agree with you. I don't think I could live in such a tiny space. However, I'd love it for a home office, or small art studio, which could free up space in our house.
We have a small home by today's standards. It's roughly around 1200 feet, not counting the bedroom loft & attic upstairs. Almost 30 years ago, at my hubby's urging, we bought the home he grew up in.
I've complained about the small size, and lack of storage space ever since. It was cramped when our kids were growing up. We do have an acre of land, however, and our garage, with an apt., built by my father-in-law, is bigger than our house.
However, now that we're retired, and with the economy the way it is, with people losing their McMansions left & right, I've changed my mind. It's just fine for us. And we can rent the garage apt. for extra income if we want.
Even though I did want a bit bigger house through the years, I always did think those 2400 + sq ft homes were ridiculous. Now they're a blight the landscape. Today, we're back to self-sufficiency, and raising rabbits, chickens, and our veggie & herb gardens, and couldn't be happier.