Many people dream of one day owning a giant mansion with dozens of rooms, big enough for a family and maybe some live-in employees like assistants and caretakers. However, there is a movement of people, especially recently, who dream of something exactly the opposite of that: a tiny, cute, portable home. The Tiny House Movement includes people living in very small houses for all sorts of reasons; some want to live more sustainably, some want a house they can travel the country in, and some just want to be part of the trend. This movement, while it did just recently gain lots of popularity, actually began more than a century ago by the one and only Henry David Thoreau.
In 1854, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden was published. The book reflected on Thoreau’s time living in a 150-square-foot cabin in Massachusetts and talked about the experience of living modestly and simply. The idea originated when he was experiencing writers’ block and a friend suggested he get away for a bit to focus and regroup. Thoreau went all the way and instead of simply finding a place to vacation for a few weeks, he built a tiny cabin just outside Concord, Mass. and lived there alone for over two years. It worked because from this ‘experiment,’ he produced a book he simply titled Walden.
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.
-Thoreau, “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For”, in Walden
The book recounts human development in comparison with the four seasons, and according to author John Updike, it’s become “such a totem of the back-to-nature, preservationist, anti-business, civil-disobedience mindset.”
Walden also included a blueprint for the cabin, which tiny house enthusiasts would refer to over a century later.
In the 70s, 80s and 90s, a few authors published books similar to but more literal than Walden: Lloyd Kahn and Bob Easton published Shelter in 1973, which explored indigenous construction methods and small-house designs found around the world. This book also connected tiny-house living with the idea of sustainable living for what seemed like the first time, encouraging readers to not only live well within their spacial means but also use every material available without waste or excess.
Lester Walker published the book Tiny Tiny Houses: Or How to Get Away From It All in 1987 featuring interesting tiny-house projects. It includes photographs and to-scale drawings of 43 small homes, from Thoreau’s own cabin to the most basic four-walled structure that you can build in an emergency. The book also has short histories of some of the more iconic tiny houses.
Finally, in 1998, Sarah Susanka released her book The Not So Big House, which is a kind of guide to living small without feeling like you’re living small. This title exploded and she soon produced an entire series about making the most of small spaces. To this day, Susanka is still publishing books and videos as well as keeping up her blog and providing advice to those who are interested.
The Tiny House Movement
Just before the turn of the century, author Jay Shafer published an article about the merits of simple living and, later that year, founded the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, completely blowing up the movement and truly bringing it into the mainstream because now, people didn’t have to build their own tiny homes; a company was selling them pre-built. California, which is where the company is headquartered, was the best place for this movement to start because Californians are very open to living sustainably and in interesting ways.
Just a few years after founding the company, Shafer joined forces with author Shay Salomon, photographer Nigel Valdez, and tech consultant and activist Gregory Paul Johnson to found the Small House Society. The Society supports research, development and use of smaller living spaces that are environmentally friendly and sustainable.
In 2007, the Tiny House Blog was founded by Kent Griswold. Originally just a simple blog about the ins and outs of building and maintaining tiny houses, it has since evolved into an entire brand with a YouTube channel, podcast and magazine.
When the stock market crashed in 2008, the desire for tiny homes skyrocketed. Downsizing was on everyone’s minds, both business-wise and at home, and people were jumping on the tiny house movement because they were cheaper and encouraged a cheaper and sustainable way of living.
Today’s tiny houses
In the 2010s, TV shows and magazines about tiny houses were cropping up everywhere; everyone from HGTV to Buzzfeed were interested in learning and telling the world about tiny houses. As of May 2019, there were over 10,000 tiny houses in the country and sales of the small homes increased by 67% in 2017. Younger people are much more likely to purchase or build tiny homes, especially if they’re recent college graduates; with their student debt looming, recent grads are looking for the cheapest living options possible, and owning a very small and cheap home is better in the long run than renting.
Tiny houses average around 150 square feet, much like Thoreau’s iconic Walden cabin, with the largest ‘tiny houses’ averaging closer to 400 square feet. As the graphic states, some of the homes people are considering ‘tiny’ can be up to 600 square feet, but depending on the laws in the area they’re at, houses that size are not legally tiny houses.
THOW (tiny houses on wheels)
No, they’re not trailer homes, although they do exist on trailers. One subcategory of tiny houses is the THOW or the tiny house on wheels. These homes have very strict dimension limits: The maximum dimensions allowed are 8 feet 6 inches wide, 13 feet 6 inches tall, and 40 feet long. That’s certainly bigger than the average tiny home on the ground, but other things factor into whether or not you can even make a THOW work for you, like whether or not you have the means to actually pull it behind a vehicle or if you know where you’re able to park it.
THOWs have their pros, too, though, like being able to have a bigger tiny home as well as being able to have your own home wherever you may travel. That point is especially important for those who have a little bit of wanderlust; no more paying for hotel rooms or AirBNBs everywhere you go. You might spend more on gas pulling it, but the extra fees of getting a hotel room or something similar add up, too.
Another super common type of tiny home is the classic (and viral) bus conversion. Whether it’s an abandoned school bus, a vintage VW or an old charter bus, many people all over the country are converting buses and making them into campers and even full-fledged homes. The most impressive part of these conversions are the kitchens; almost all of them, if not every single one, come complete with a sink, stove and sometimes even a dishwasher. They have literally everything you need to make real meals and not just microwaveable TV dinners.
Bathrooms can also be found in these homes, although the mobile bathroom can be found on any charter bus as well as typical RVs. You may think these bus conversions are just that, fancy RVs, but there is a difference between the two. First of all, RVs aren’t meant to be permanent residences, they’re simply meant for vacations and road trips. Bus conversions, as well as any other conversion of a large vehicle, are absolutely intended for more permanent residency, hence the developed kitchens and bedrooms. Second, RVs are built for more regular movement and travel, whereas tiny homes are made for less frequent motion.
Non-mobile tiny houses
While many people want tiny homes because of their mobility, others desire them purely for the size and don’t intend on moving them anywhere. Some states do allow tiny homes to be built, like California, Arizona, Vermont, Pennsylvania and Nebraska, to name a few of the most tiny-house-friendly ones. The non-mobile homes have less strict building limitations than those on wheels, but there are still rules and regulations to be followed, like a minimum size and areas they’re not allowed.
Some parts of Pennsylvania may only allow bigger tiny homes, like those closer to 400 or 600 square feet, but there are some communities that declare themselves incredibly tiny-house-friendly, like Elizabethtown in Lancaster County which claims to be home to the largest tiny home community in the country. In Philadelphia, there’s no minimum house size, as long as you adhere to the city’s building codes, which is pretty cool, too. Experts say the more rural parts of the state will be easier places to plop your tiny home down successfully and with the least difficulty.
Some of the least friendly states include Alaska, Maryland, Wyoming and North Dakota; in North Dakota, the minimum square footage for a home is 965 square feet, which is way bigger than any typical tiny home. You can have a relatively small house in North Dakota, but true tiny homes are a no-no.
While the laws can be confusing and maybe even a little daunting, the positive aspects of opting for a non-mobile tiny house instead of one on wheels include being able to have a proper working toilet (as opposed to a camper toilet), regular plumbing in general, and, depending on the land you build on, a MASSIVE yard.
While it’s trendy, owning a tiny home really has its perks, whether it’s mobile or not. It’s good for the environment, it’s fun, and it’s cheap! It’s honestly no wonder millennials are choosing to join the tiny house movement.