To Begin With:
It seems that tiny homes and tiny home villages are all the rage these days. From individuals to communities, people all over North America are talking about smaller, simpler, more ecological and community-oriented modes of living. They’re not just talking, they are building, attracted to affordable ways to lower their cost of living, while also refusing to work thirty years just to pay for a place to sleep and store stuff. They have numerous motivations, including to simplify their lives while off loading accumulated mountains of stuff, have less debt, and to increase their quality of life by having more free time. Not so much a rejection of the classic “American Dream” as an updated vision for living, this broad movement is gaining ground because it is relevant to the pressures, demands, and realities of modern life. Perhaps more than anything else, though, the overall movement appears to driven by an aesthetic search for meaning, beauty, and liberty.
Wait though, because the movement to reduce and simplify is even broader than just tiny home enthusiasts. It actually includes a much wider spectrum of scales of experimentation, design, innovation, and real building projects. All of the scales are driven by similar motivations. For the purposes of this brief article, I will describe some of the options that have emerged, including Shared living, modest homes, humble homes, tiny homes, then getting down to teeny, and then finally eeantsy-beeantsy. Then there are the villages, clusters of these scaled-down palaces where people create entire landscapes of mutual benefits and shared cultures. Here we go!
It’s powerful and important to point out that, since before the 1960’s economic pressures and obvious benefits have moved people to combine their incomes and share their living environments. Whether in the popular form of individuals sharing space and costs in previously single family homes, or in the emergence of rural and urban ecovillages, decades ago many people found that they could simplify and reduce costs while improving their quality of life by living with people with whom they found common ground. Such arrangements could occur at almost any scale, from an ordinary home to a mansion. These kinds of local models have certainly emerged organically in a universal way, from city to city, in response to similar pressures that characterize modern life. These pressures include devaluation of the dollar, which erodes individual buying power, which in turn drives up the cost of living even as more and more people increase the overall demand on limited resources. So, sharing has emerged as a natural strategy in reaction to modern economic dynamics. However, there have clearly been enormous benefits in the rediscovery of the benefits of community living. I can personally attest to this story, because I have lived in shared “community houses” since 1976. In fact, as a child living among dozens of young artists, my life was immeasurably enriched and my formative creative life was given quite the leg up because I was surrounded by inspiration.
Then there are “Modest Homes”. How to define these, when in the last few decades the average sized new American home has grown from around 900 to somewhere over 2000 square feet? For today, let’s say Modest can range from between 800 square feet (The upper limits of an Accessory Dwelling Unit or ADU) to 1,200 square feet. This scale of home has become an intentional choice by many families and individuals, partly motivated by cost factors, partly by a strong disdain for the grossness of scale that has become common, and mostly by a desire for modesty, personal balance, aesthetics, and a desire to not consume too much. In our architecture studio, the homes that we design in this scale range are happening mostly as part of urban-infill cohousing projects. People who want to inhabit this scale, usually young families and midlife couples, also want the benefits of shared living with neighbors that they can collaborate with in terms of shared community and land stewardship. Usually working with Orange Splot LLC, these very popular and influential cohousing projects include Sabin Green, Peninsula Park, Woolsey Corner, and also Cully Grove where we consulted. The individual homes within these varied projects range from 500 to 1500 square feet.
Until the advent of the Tiny Home, the most frequently invoked alternative, simple-living idea in the common urban vocabulary was the Accessory Dwelling Unit, or ADU. Also known as a Secondary Dwelling Unit (SDU) or “Granny Flat”, in Portland where we do most of our design work, the ADU is usually designed and built from about 400 square feet up to the legal limit of 800 square feet. However, they can also be as small as you might like. The key distinction that qualifies an additional structure on your site as an ADU is that it is considered a distinct, new address and has its’ own separate kitchen. It can have as many bedrooms, bathrooms, and other features as you like, as long as it fits within the size limit and is the second home on a lot. The scale of these projects used to be based upon a scale ratio so that no new ADU could be larger than 1/3 the square foot area of the existing primary home, which would be required to already exist on a given site. No more though, as that limitation has been removed, and any new ADU can be as large as 800 square feet outright. One last bit- ADU’s can be built as separate structures, or they can be located within an existing house, carved out of a basement or a converted second floor. They can also simply be attached to an existing house. There’s a great deal of flex in the way you can approach the design.
Among all of the possible tools in the urban infill and voluntary simplification toolbox, accessory buildings offer some of the most flexibility. Though this kind of building cannot officially house “habitable” sleeping areas, it should be mentioned here because the activities that can be included are certainly complimentary to sleeping and living. Uses that can be accommodated include home offices, creative or production spaces, play rooms, certified kitchens, workshops, and other functions. These small buildings can be taller (20 feet high) than an ADU, and also up to 800 square feet in size.
Perhaps the most famous version of the tiny home idea is the one on wheels. Much has been written about them, and they are extremely popular. Tiny homes on wheels are not quite like mobile homes. They are usually not aerodynamic, designed to drive around from place to place. Much more sturdy and well-built, tiny homes on wheels are more homey, energy efficient, and meant to stay somewhere for a long while. On the other hand, the built-in mobility allows someone to easily move if they want to. There are lots of upsides to mobility, but there are also limits that include planning and building codes. For instance, most cities will not permit a mobile structure to be slept in as a ‘habitable structure” unless they are located in a zone that allows a trailer park. If they are to be legally habitable they will also need to meet structural and energy codes. These are easy enough to meet, but they usually require a permanent location that costs money. The up-to-code design will cost more money too, as will the land, and then we begin to move away from what motivated the desire for a tiny home to begin with. However, this situation will not last, because as demand increases it becomes more likely that the planning and building code challenges will be resolved.
While this very attractive mobile version can face difficulties, the permanent version is well underway. Many people don’t realize that cities can already have codes that will allow versions of a tiny home to be built. For instance, in Portland, Oregon we have a provision that allows for “detached bedrooms”. These are classified as additions to your existing home, as if you’ve simply added a new bedroom. But they can be separate, as small as can be, have one or more bedrooms, and feature a bathroom. If you’re a little creative you can also shift the sink outside of the bathroom to create a quasi-kitchenette. You can potentially have several of these on your site, as long as all your structures and hardscape fits within your total lot coverage limitation. It’s also true that , using the detached bedroom code, you are able to build a habitable ADU-scale building without triggering “tax reevaluation” based on current value assessments. The main functional difference is that this ADU-like version can’t include a complete kitchen with a range, but it can include a functional kitchenette with a sink, hotplate, refrigerator, dishwasher, and other common appliances.
These popular structures do not require permits, and have historically been limited to 120 square feet, as is still true in most other cities. However, in Portland the size limit has been raised to 200 square feet, and a typical residential site is able to have as many as three such structures as long as they don’t help to exceed the overall square foot limit for structures and impermeable hardscape. Though not technically “habitable”, these little buildings usually take the form of small studios, saunas, sheds, or storage units. However, this scale has also proven to be an ideal size for ecological experimentation, often used for natural and recycled building demonstration projects. They are also sometimes used for guests when absolutely necessary. That these don’t require permits has made this “type” a more accessible way to build functional, multi-use places.
Very simply, “Teeny Homes” are smaller than tiny homes. Teeny seems to begin when you go below 85 square feet. C’mon, now that’s just teeny. There’s pretty much just enough room for one space inside, a do-everything room for sleeping, studying, eating lunch, meditating, or having a guest over. There are a few of them around though, and they are sometimes confused with doll houses or kids playhouses. They are real though, and if they are built to the energy and structural code then people can live in them (legally!), and they are more cozy than anything that is larger in scale. Such projects can also be built without permits, but then they are not technically “habitable”. However they are built, they are the most intimate spatial experience that you can have, the kind of place that gives you sweetest memories like nothing else before in your life.
Yes, these exist. You may ask yourself “but, but, but how is this even possible?” You may say “no, only in Hong Kong could this be happening, with those sleeping tubes I saw in National Geographic!”, but you’d be wrong. They are around in every town. These are for people who are really clear minded, don’t buy into consumerism, and love to be in nature and get plenty of exercise. They tend to rely on bikes and public transport, and may share a distant relation in Henry David Thoreau. These small structures are big enough to house a bed, cabinets and shelves, some lighting and a guest. They are also small enough to be self-heated by one’s own body, or by simply aiming the windows towards the sun. COZY !!!
Yet…ultimately, HOW SMALL CAN WE GO? When I was asked recently whether tiny homes, and villages of tiny homes may be THE answer to affordable housing or even to homelessness, my answer was “yes for sure, for this moment!” Personally, I am absolutely enamored by the idea of simplifying and reducing as an expression of better priorities and personal liberation. But I also answered “no, not in the long term”, because I see these initiatives as only a partial solution in the present time. As building smaller does indeed do all that we want it to do, at the same time we can already see that the powerful pressures driving gentrification and the overall cost of living are systemic and relentless. Unless we can successfully address and resolve the unbearable contradiction of our society’s voracious appetite for “growth” within our Earth’s finite biosphere, nothing we can invent will ultimately prove sustainable. In response to ongoing economic pressure as the cost of land and living only increases, the pressure to reduce in scale will clearly never end. So I’m asking you, the reader to consider the question of “how small can we go?” Can we get shorter, or thinner, or halve our personal scale every few years in response to the cost of living, as we keep making our places smaller, teenier, or even microscopic? How small can we go, and how much are we willing to give up as we try?
For now, let’s take the steps that are in front of us, learn as we go, and then see what our next steps will be. This is a powerful movement, one that brings more to everyone through sharing, simplifying, and reducing our individual and combined impact. I’m betting that as building and planning codes adjust in response, so will bureaus and leaders, developers and bankers, and very likely everyone else.
Want to learn more about building small? You may be interested in the upcoming 2015 Build Small Live Large Summit on Friday November 6, 2015. It will be held at the PSU Smith Center. The summit will cover topics like ADUs, cluster cottages and small house communities, space-efficient design strategies, and much more. You can register here.