The Big Idea Behind Smaller Homes

Tiny Spaces Fit into Larger Vision of Sustainable Communities

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Gregory Johnson of Iowa City, Iowa, is president of the Small House Society and author of “Put Your Life On a Diet: Lessons Learned from Living in 140 Square Feet.”

Marianne Cusato of Miami, Fla., is a designer and author of “The Just Right Home.”

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Posted: Wednesday, January 29, 2014 4:30 am

While the average American homeowner seems bent on living large, an increasing number are discovering the benefits of living in a smaller, more sustainable, home.

In 1973, the average new American house measured 1,660 sq. ft., and it’s been getting bigger ever since. Even the economic slowdown and the housing crisis didn’t slow the growth for long. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average new house built in 2012 was 2,505 sq. ft. – almost to the all-time high of 2,521 sq. ft. in 2007.

But a growing number of homeowners are deciding that less is more.

“What we’ve seen in the last 10 years is an increase in the number of designers and builders who specialize in small homes,” said Gregory Johnson of Iowa City, president of the Small House Society and author of “Put Your Life On a Diet: Lessons Learned from Living in 140 Square Feet.”

For homeowners, the advantages are clear.

* A smaller house requires less fuel to heat and cool, conserving energy and saving money. In the long run, when houses use less fuel, it takes longer for demand to exceed the power utility’s capacity, which means fewer new power plants need to be built.

* It takes less time to clean and maintain.

* Because it can be built on a smaller plot of land, more locations are available, so smaller houses may mean shorter commutes.

* It requires fewer building materials, which means less fuel expended in shipping heavy materials from one location to another.

* It may cost less to build. (But then again, it may not; many homeowners choose instead to upgrade their designs and their materials.)

* Lower costs mean less debt, and the mortgage crisis revealed the risks of having too much home-related debt.

* A house that’s more affordable is usually easier to sell.

* Finally, downsizing can create a sense of peace. “It allows a person to focus when you live simple and small,” Johnson said.

Living in a smaller house can have its challenges. Gregarious homeowners might miss having large spaces in which to entertain, and solitary ones might have trouble finding a place to be alone. Storage also can be an issue.

But small-house enthusiasts embrace these as advantages. Less living space means more family bonding. Less storage space means less temptation to buy things you don’t really need.

Good design can make a small house more livable, said Marianne Cusato of Miami, Fla., designer and author of “The Just Right Home.” “There is no throwaway space.”

For example, stairs and hallways take up a lot of space. In a smaller house, “you might put bookshelves under the stairs; you might make part of a long hallway wider for a desk niche – finding ways to engage space that would otherwise be lost.”

Likewise, a closet might be outfitted with hanging storage and shelves all the way to the ceiling, she said, rather than simply putting up one shelf and one hanging rod.

Other small-house design techniques are about leading the eye to see more space and fewer constrictions.

“When you’re designing a small space, you might think everything gets small,” Cusato said. “But I try to do the opposite. You put large, tall windows on multiple walls so you can visually borrow outside space. High ceilings – nine, even 10 ft. – make rooms live larger than they are.

“Connection to the outdoors helps, too. A front porch or a garden terrace help activate more of your property so the living space feels larger.”

What do we mean when we say “small?" There’s no industry standard for how to define a small house, but generally speaking, a house is small if the occupants use every room nearly every day. Cusato might be best known for her work on the Katrina Cottages, homes as small as 300 sq. ft. that were built to provide housing for those who lost their homes in Hurricane Katrina, but she designs many houses that are in the 1,000 ft. - 1,200 ft. range.

“Before you make any move, you have to look at the space you’re really living in,” she said. “Many people have 2,500 sq. ft., but they’re only really living in 1,200 ft. of it.”

Moving from a large house to a small house might be as simple as paring down the cookbook collection and buying a smaller couch. Living in a tiny house – as small as 100 sq. ft. – is a transformation.

With so little space to work with, everything has to do double duty. A bathtub by night gets a cover to become a table by day. A bed is raised into a half-loft or folded up into the wall. Storage is shoehorned into every possible place, even inside each individual stair in a staircase. And the homeowner might decide that two kitchen knives is one knife too many.

Tiny-house enthusiasts like to compare their interiors to those of ships, where everything is custom-designed to fit the small space available. The lifestyle isn’t for everyone, but it has major advantages: tiny houses can be very inexpensive (in summer 2012, the Minnesota Renewable Energy Society built a solar version with advanced materials for $40,000) and even those with no commitment to low-impact living have to admit that they’re charming.

The tiny-house trend is driven by two groups, Johnson said: younger people who don’t yet have children or large collections of possessions, and people who have seen their adult children off and begun to shed their belongings.

“Most of the time it’s not going to work for people in between those two ranges, where you’ve got the kids, the grandparents, the dog, the cat,” he said.

Johnson can speak from experience. He spent six years living in just 140 sq. ft., what he called his “Mobile Hermitage,” two 10 ft. x 7 ft. stories.

“I’d been living in an efficiency apartment, and I thought, ‘Why pay rent at all? Why don’t I build myself an efficiency apartment?’ If you tell people your apartment is 140 sq. ft., that seems like a normal size,” he said. “If you tell them your house is 140 sq. ft., they say, ‘That’s amazing.’ But it’s the same size living space.”

Whether tiny or merely small, the new-sized house is already contributing to sustainability goals. But it also fits into a larger vision of a sustainable community. “Tiny houses work well in college towns. Students live in a dorm room, and their living space has no theater, no gym – not even laundry,” Johnson said. “You get used to having coffee shops, libraries, bookstores, places to meet. If you don’t have that community to support it, it gets more complicated.”

“If you drive an hour to get home from work,” Cusato said, “and the only things you can get to require a car, then maybe you want that home theater in your house, because getting in the car to go out again after an hour of commuting is miserable. So the smaller home is looped up with people interested in connecting with the community, and that’s really exploding right now, as people try to have lives that are more integrated with the community. That big house at the end of the cul de sac is a reaction to the failure of the organism.”

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