McMansions Make Way for Mini Houses

Small house movement means big savings for individuals and the environment.

June 1, 2010— -- 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."

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.

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.

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.

As communities around the country struggle to make more affordable housing options available for residents, Johnson said some cities are changing zoning laws to allow families to build another small house, or cottage, in their backyard.

Tiny House Homeowners Save on Heating

For example, Seattle encourages families to construct backyard residences that can provide alternatives to apartment complexes. Denver is considering a similar plan, he said.

Not only are small houses cheaper to build, they are cheaper to maintain, Johnson said.

A full-year mini residence could be built for $30,000 to $60,000, compared to the $300,000 it might cost to build the average 2,500-square-foot single family house, he said.

When he lived in the 140-square-foot house (he moved into a 360 square-foot home when he married last fall), he said he paid no more than $30 a month for heating during the coldest winter months.

And it isn't just individuals who are taking downsizing to the extreme.

Shafer moved into an 8 foot by 12 foot residence of his own in 1999, but he said that when he married and had a child, they built a "palatial" 500-square-foot home next to it, for a grand total of 600 square feet between the three of them.

Small Living Isn't for Everyone

And he said his company designs 800-square-foot three-bedroom homes, with "a little personal space for each person."

Shafter said there's nothing he misses in his tiny homes, which come equipped with toilets and showers. But he acknowledged that de-cluttering a life to fit into a very small space doesn't necessarily happen overnight.

"It was a major life change. It took a long time to figure out what I needed to be happy and what stuff I could do without," he said. "It's all about tailoring functions to scale of occupants."

And even the champions of the small house movement concede that micro living isn't for everyone.

Sacrificing space means giving up storage, the ability to host dinner parties and large gatherings and, if you don't live alone, a good deal of solitude.

"One size doesn't fit all," Johnson said. "While a lot of people enjoy the simplicity and quaintness of small homes, some people want their privacy. There's always going to be that."

And, he added, living in a small house means abandoning the long-held notion that a big home indicates big success.

"In society, it's just peer pressure, you want to show that you're successful… Nobody is going to move into them if there's a stigma attached," he said, "Unwittingly, there are some changes that have to go on in the inside."

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