Sunday, December 18, 2016

Tiny Houses, Big Lessons


The tiny house movement has captured the imagination of many through shows like HGTV's Tiny House Hunters.  Newly-built houses have been getting bigger on average for decades (now about 2,600 square feet!), and therefore less affordable, at the same time that income inequality has been rising and renters and first-time home buyers are under extreme strain in many parts of the country.  While tiny homes have been defined in various ways, typically they have less than 400 square feet (37 square meters) of floor area.  Rising consciousness about the environmental impacts of development, including climate change, has caused some people to question our over-consumptive lifestyles.  Some also yearn for a simpler life, with less stuff, less debt, and less dependency on any given job.  Tiny House Hunters is an addictive show because it takes you into this novel world of housing choices from the perspective of regular people who are considering downsizing for various reasons.  The show makes clear that tiny living can be a pretty dramatic change.  Yet for some, it's just what the doctor ordered.

It would be easy to dismiss the tiny house movement as a fad pursued by a few eccentric people.  However, that would be a mistake.  While some tiny living situations are indeed extreme, the basic instincts of the movement are important.  Do we really need so much space?  Do we really need so much debt?  Wouldn't simplifying our lives help us to focus on what is really important?  These are profound questions.  Yes, tiny living can be kind of extreme, but the status quo of home building in America is also extreme.  The market is giving us McMansions that few can afford, while regular people struggle to eke out an existence.  We work too much to light, heat, and cool too much space which puts too much strain on the environment and our physical and emotional well being.

Tiny house philosophy reminds me of New Urbanism in many ways.  These two movements may have much to learn from each other.  Urbanists could point out to tiny housers that the size of a lot can have just as profound of an impact on the environment and your wallet as the size of a house (i.e. small lots save land from urbanization, reduce travel distances, reduce maintenance obligations, etc.).  Tiny housers could advance the agenda of urbanism by advocating policies that make it easier to build tiny homes, small homes and accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in existing cities.  Why not take that McMansion and divide it into two or three reasonably-sized homes?  Why not build an adorable granny cottage that is fully accessible to the disabled in a back yard to facilitate a semi-independent elder care arrangement?  Why not go back to building homes that are neither tiny, nor giant, in the 500 to 1,500 square-foot range?

Yes, tiny houses do contain big lessons, and raise profound questions.  The way we live is a reflection of what we value, and by offering this new model of living, tiny houses are advancing a significant critique of our value system.

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