McMansions Make Way for Mini Houses

Photo: Tiny Houses

Gregory Paul Johnson likes to think big -- that's why he chooses to live small. Really small.

In an ultimate attempt at downsizing, in 2003, he trimmed down his life and stuffed it into a tiny140-square-foot house in Iowa City. And he hasn't looked back since.

"There's really a lot of freedom to a simple house," he said. No mortgage, annual utility bills that don't exceed $200 and all of his worldly possessions within arms' reach.

When Johnson, who is the founder of the public interest organization Resources for Life and author of Put Your House On a Diet, first moved into a micro-sized home, he was something of an outlier. But now, he said, it appears that more and more people are choosing to shrink their carbon footprint -- and their financial burden -- by living in houses about the size of the average two-car garage.


"I think what we're seeing now is a convergence of factors," he said. "There's obviously a concern about what we're doing to the environment… and also, equally important, what the environment is doing to us."

Gregory Paul Johnson on the steps of his 140 square foot house in Iowa City. Photo credit: Makur Jain/

Miniaturization, Merging of Technology Paves Way for Smaller Living

And, he said, as natural and manmade disasters show us, "The material things in this life are so easily lost. That's causing people to become more transcendent in a sense."


The merging and miniaturization of technology has also paved the way for smaller living, he said. Not so long ago, a home office would have to squeeze in a separate fax machine, scanner and printer. Now, all of those gadgets are rolled into one that can easily fit in the corner of the desk.

Inside Johnson's small home. The desk/dining area configured as a study area. Photo credit: Gregory Paul Johnson/

Hard numbers on the small house movement are hard to come by, but Johnson said that since he and a few others launched the Small House Society in 2002, traffic to the website has increased from about 100 visitors a day to about 1,000 to 1,500 visitors a day.

Jay Shafer, founder of Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, which designs and constructs houses that range from 65 square feet to about 800 square feet, said that over the past 10 years, sales of small house plans have climbed from 5 sets per year to 10 sets per month.

Johnson's desk/dining area configured as dining table for two. Photo credit: Gregory Paul Johnson/

Communities Encourage Backyard Homes as Affordable Housing Options

When he launched his company in 2000, Shafer said he was aware of only one other small house builder and designer in the U.S. Now he said there are dozens across the country, with two companies alone within 40 miles of his own in Sebastopol, Calif.

While small houses have been gaining popularity steadily for the past few years, he said the recent housing crash is making mini homes even more appealing.

"I think it's a perfect storm of the housing crisis, which could also be a housing opportunity," Shafer said. "A good opportunity to change America's perspective on the bigger is better paradigm we've had for a while."

That crisis, combined with the general economic situation and awareness of sustainability issues, is "really going to create some changes and they're already visible in the housing sector," he said.

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