Tiny House or Small House?

Tiny houses are alluring: they’re cute, moveable and can be built with a set of basic skills, a simple tool box and a modest bank account, minus a whole bunch of red tape. They also have a pleasing scale, a size that just "looks" right. They're still subject to zoning laws but in many places their popularity exists because of a welcome loophole in our building codes, which is to say tiny houses, being built on trailers, are not subject to the same scrutiny as a house built on the ground.

While our building codes have made tiny houses attractive they’ve made more serious small houses difficult, oftentimes impossible, to design and permit. This is poor thinking at a time when smaller houses need to be a viable option again. People  want the choice to be able to live small, or tiny, as evidenced by what’s now a vigorous, if unsustainable, Tiny House Movement. A one-size-fits-all style of building code continues to encourage the practice of bloated mediocrity in residential construction, while at the same time stifling stylistic creativity and diversity. To some degree, the proliferation of tiny houses is revealing a serious oversight in the building codes; and it's putting some wind into the sails of a more sensible, sustainable and broadly appealing enthusiasm for small houses.

Beyond the building codes, tiny houses are making tangible the romance of downsizing. For many people, owning a tiny house means fulfilling the dream of home ownership. Yet, it also does so at a cost. With the little forethought for location, we lose the potential to build fidelity in terms of land and community.

But I like tiny houses. I think they have their place. M wife and I live in one we designed and built ourselves. Our own tiny house provides several benefits while extending us a great deal of comfort. It's been the perfect solution in that we we've been able to avoid zoning and code issues that outlawed a builder's cottage when we sorely needed one. We own land and were contemplating building a small house. 

 Around town, like tiny houses in general I suspect, our own tiny house is very popular. People routinely park at the street and come up to our house (this is not always a welcome event, especially at, say, suppertime) hoping to get a peek inside. But it’s telling…

Tiny houses have become perhaps too popular, too fast. It’s almost unfathomable that something as simple as people living in tiny houses could become a movement. As is often the case with a many good idea, even one as simple as people living in tiny houses, the Tiny House Movement has begun to lose much of its original good intention. In saying that I mean that the  essence itself might still be there but it’s buried under an obvious consumerism, the modern desire to acquire more stuff, even at great cost, which is what tiny houses are: expensive and/or poorly built. 

Tiny houses are trendy, tiny houses are a fad. The current surge in the popularity of the Tiny House Movement is a result of plain old-fashioned consumerism of the immediate gratification variety. This is strongly suggested by all the name-branding occurring among the ‘original’ tiny house manufacturers who are making sure to set themselves apart (and often rightly so) from the fast-growing, often sloppy, competition.

I've probably met hundreds of people who want to buy a tiny house - the product as  a turn-key tiny house or a building experience (also a product). Most of these people are wealthy too and simply don’t need  a house. What they want is the tiny house experience. The idea of a tiny house has fully become another trendy thing to buy or do.

Does it matter?

The Tiny House Movement will only ever be a VERY tiny part of the solutions (plural) to the collective epidemics of McMansions, subpar building products, lousy craftsmanship and tract style house designs. Why? Because, frankly, few people are going to actually live in a space less than 160 square feet, no matter how finely it’s made, for very long. Even for us land lubbers who are willing to live small on a piece of dirt, tiny is just  too impractical for, say, someone who uses a house for more than sleeping and entertainment. If you listen to the words of the original tiny house founders, you'll hear about how they bathe in a friend's house and eat most of their meals out. It’s telling that even Tumbleweed founder Jay Shafer no longer lives in a tiny house; he has a family and lives in a small house. And that’s precisely my point. Tiny houses, at times, have their uses. But as a solution for affordable housing? I'll leave it to the reader to decide if trailers of any kind have panned out as affordable housing.

Once the media coverage begins to dwindle, many of these tiny houses, often mediocre in terms of quality, won’t be used for much. Unfortunately, in this way, I think the Tiny House Movement is contributing to the problems it earnestly wants to transform. A drive through the countryside (or suburbs for that matter) reminds me we have enough empty houses, condos and neglected trailers around.

However, I find it interesting that even in urban places such as San Francisco, simple old ‘relief houses’ are still being used today. The survival of these small houses is based on an attachment to place  - as opposed to a portability (though many were brought in on wagons) along with a structural integrity resulting from good craftsmanship. In these cases, care in building has allowed for a longevity of material life and usefulness. To me then, building well and with some forethought of place – not just building tiny or small – is an important step in our hope for sustainable development. Along with longevity our houses should be places people want to preserve, which means designing well too.

This last thought brings me to what will surely be seen as a subjective point, and that is of craftsmanship itself. I don’t see too many greater threats to forests and ecology than inferior products and shoddy craftsmanship. Good craftsmanship entails the employment of a high level of skill in doing something, anything really, usually work I suppose. To be a craftsman simply means to produce something of quality using that skill. It doesn’t mean being certified (necessarily) or having an advanced degree; it simply means doing creative, quality work. Anyone can do it. The Tiny House Movement has shown that a tiny house, just like a small house, can be well-built without much training provided there’s an enthusiasm and creativity for good work present in the builder. I’ve seen it done, and I’ve done it myself (with my wife) to great success.  But like the building industry at large, what’s cropping up in the Tiny House Movement are low quality products resulting from cheap materials and poor craftsmanship. Too often we devolve into wanting to buy/make things ‘on the cheap’ and we become unwilling to invest the time to apply a skill properly.

So what’s the answer to housing? Tiny or small? Does it matter? That’s for each person to decide. Having lived in both a tiny and small house, my preference is for a small house on land, and will always be preferable because it fuses life to a place and inspires a fidelity to land in way that a portable house has not. Our preference is for houses planted in the ground and surrounded by plants, lots of them. I’m glad we have the ability, at least for now, to choose whether we want to live in a tiny or small house.