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Let's Reminisce: The tiny house movement

By Jerry Lincecum
Special to the Herald Democrat

The pandemic has sent many homebound Americans desiring more space to live in and scurrying to find it. Sales of large homes are booming. So too are tiny ones. These dwellings often are not much bigger than a standard hotel room. They are built mostly in suburban backyards or converted garages on the West Coast, where new laws designed to ease the region’s housing shortage have encouraged their construction.

The tiny-house movement is an architectural and social movement that advocates living simply in small homes. As you would expect, there are different definitions of "tiny.” One prominent Residential Code defines a tiny house as a dwelling unit with a maximum of 400 square feet of floor area, excluding lofts.

There are also a variety of reasons for living in a tiny house. Many people who enter this lifestyle have decided to rethink what they value in life and put more effort into strengthening their communities, healing the environment, spending time with their families, or saving money. Tiny homes can also provide affordable, transitional housing for those who have found themselves homeless.

In the US, the average size of new single family homes grew from 1,780 square feet in 1978, to 2,479 sq ft in 2007, and further still to 2,662 sq ft in 2013. Increased material wealth and individuals with high incomes are common reasons why home sizes increased. The median price paid for a home by a first-time buyer is currently around $266,500, according to the National Association of Realtors.

The small house movement is a return to houses of less than 1,000 square feet. Frequently, the distinction is made between small (between 400 and 1,000 sq ft), and tiny houses (less than 400), with some as small as 80 square feet.

Henry David Thoreau and his book Walden (1854), with its eloquent reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings, are often cited as early inspiration. The modern movement got started in the 1970s, with artists investigating the concept of choosing to live in a compact space.

Early pioneers include Lloyd Kahn, author of Shelter (1973) and Lester Walker, author of Tiny Houses (1987). Sarah Susanka’s book The Not So Big House (1997) is a more recent addition. Brand new is Living Little: Simplicity and Style in a Small Space by Hannah Jenkins.

Tiny houses on wheels was popularized by Jay Shafer, who designed and lived in a 96-square-foot house and later went on to offer the first plans. He initially founded Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, and then Four Lights Tiny House Company. In 2002, Shafer co-founded, along with others, the Small House Society. In 2006 a guide to the modern Small House Movement was published, entitled Little House on a Small Planet. Tiny houses on wheels are often compared to RVs.

With the Great Recession hitting the world's economy in 2007, the small house movement attracted more attention as it offered affordable, ecologically friendly housing. Overall, it represented a very small part of real estate transactions. Thus, only 1% of home buyers acquire houses of 1,000 square feet or less.

Small houses are also used as accessory dwelling units, to serve as additional on-property housing for aging relatives or returning children, as a home office or a guest house. Tiny houses typically cost about $20,000 to $50,000 (as of 2012). Tiny houses are built to last as long as traditional homes, use traditional building techniques and materials, and are aesthetically similar to larger homes.

While tracking all these mini-houses across the U.S. is difficult, listings that include either tiny homes or other types of guest apartments have increased 8.6% a year on average over the last decade. There are now more than 1.4 million homes that share a lot with one of these units.

Jerry Lincecum

Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches classes for older adults who want to write their life stories.  He welcomes your reminiscences on any subject: jlincecum@me.com