Typically measuring between 65 and 400 square feet, tiny houses are small in size but expansive in possibilities. Some people build one as a backyard work studio. For others, a little house provides handy lodging for guests, living quarters for recent college graduates, or simply an escape from an overcrowded home. Then there are those people for whom a tiny house has become their primary residence. Whatever the choice, “it’s an opportunity to build something tailored to fit you, the things you do, and the way you want to live,” says Dee Williams, a leader in the tiny house movement who started Portland Alternative Dwellings (PAD) and wrote Go House Go to help others create their own small spaces. “Building a little house is an invitation to examine what’s essential.”
The idea of a tiny house isn’t particularly new. After all, Henry David Thoreau retreated to a 150-square-foot place in the woods for two years, detailing the experience in Walden. Though most houses weren’t historically quite that compact, living in somewhat limited space was the standard as recently as 1950, when the average American home was just under 1000 square feet.
Now, however, the average American home is over 2,000 square feet, according to 2010 census numbers, and Americans are spending over 40% of their budget on housing costs (up from just over 25% in 1949). After the recent housing crisis, recession, and resulting spate of foreclosures, however, some people are now questioning the way they live. “The interest in tiny houses has redoubled every year over the past few years,” says Williams. “People want to be less encumbered by debt and to live more simply. Tiny houses offer a solution.”
Williams speaks from personal experience. In 2004, “tired of working to pay my mortgage and utilities, and spending my time and energy fixing my house,” she sold her 1,500-square-foot bungalow in Portland, Oregon. Instead, she built an 84-square-foot cabin on wheels out of salvaged wood, denim insulation, and solar panels, in which sunshine streams through skylights and a sleeping loft has a view of the stars. Costing only $10,000 total and taking three months to construct, she now parks her place in a friend’s backyard in Olympia, Washington—and pays only $8 in monthly utilities. (Watch a day in the life of her house here, as featured in the National Building Museum’s House & Home exhibition.)
Admittedly, not everyone can pare down their possessions to only 300 items, as Williams has done. For some people, having a small space in the backyard of their larger main house is an excellent option. In the how-to workshops Williams teaches across the country, including places like Nashville, Kansas City, Dallas, and Minneapolis, she says that about half of participants want to live in a little house full-time. Other people simply want to create a flexible living or working space, or create a closer sense of community with friends, creating their own mini-neighborhoods with multiple little houses. Aging baby boomers may choose to build a tiny house now for visiting adult children, with the option of one day renting their main house and living in the small space themselves. Since many tiny homes are on wheels, there’s also the potential of people one day picking up and moving somewhere else—and taking their tiny home with them.
Whatever the use, it’s become ever easier for people to create their own small space. Williams’ book, Go House Go, is a 52-page DIY primer with photos, diagrams, and straightforward text that covers the process, from permits to framing to bathroom design. The Small House Society offers a full page of resources, including an active discussion forum. Tumbleweed provides house plans for handy types, along with already-built versions, and there are modern prefab versions like kitHAUS. For those who are interested—but not ready to commit—there’s even a tiny house hotel now in Portland, Oregon, where people can try one on for size.
Yet even though Williams now lives in a space that’s the same size as her former living room rug, she echoes a popular sentiment of tiny-house dwellers when she says that she considers the boundaries of her home to range far outside her small four walls. She spends her weekends playing with her neighbors’ children, chatting with friends across backyard fences, and walking around her neighborhood—activities she often didn’t do when she lived in a larger place. Instead of finding her small space limiting, “my tiny house has proved expansive,” she says. “It connects me to the outdoors and to a larger community. I really think that the smaller you go, the bigger your life gets.”