(© Tumbleweed Tiny House Co., small home, tiny home)

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.)

The advantages
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.