Editor’s note: The references below take you to some great images of tiny house interiors, not just useful information, so check them out!
Tiny houses have been around for as long as humans have sought shelter, but lately they are becoming a more popular choice in housing internationally, offering alternatives for people who want their own house but, for a variety of reasons, don’t want a traditional, single-family home.
Tiny homes are defined by the International Residential Code as being between 60 and 400 feet square feet, whereas houses between 400 and 1000 square feet are usually considered to be “small” rather than “tiny.” Tiny houses can look like regular houses, just smaller, or they may take other shapes. A-frames; for example, have steeply sloped roofs that are excellent for shedding snow. The A-frame design is centuries old and has a long history in China and the South Pacific, and it became popular again during the 1950s in the western hemisphere.
An even older design that is getting new attention is the yurt,, a circular home that is traditionally portable: take it down, pack it up, move it to the next best spot. Speaking of portable, in many states within the U.S., tiny houses are built on wheels, because that’s the best way of getting around zoning regulations that would otherwise require them to be larger.
A Google search for “tiny house” will result in a seemingly limitless number of articles, ranging from an introduction to the idea of a tiny house to alternative approaches for tiny house building materials, including design options. Many of these articles are on websites entirely devoted to the tiny house phenomenon: some showcase the designs of builders and developers; others focus on aspects of tiny house living, such as the pros vs cons or the legality of building a tiny house in some communities; and still others are just examples of tiny house enthusiasts sharing their love for their little homes.
But why is there so much interest in tiny houses? There are a few reasons, but a huge driver is their lower cost: increased interest in smaller houses tracks with downturns in the economy. For example, many people turned to tiny houses as an affordable choice during the global recession that struck in 2008, and, more recently, interest in tiny houses surged again as Covid-19 negatively impacted most people’s budgets. Current prices range from $30,000 to $60,000 (compared to an average price of $270,000 for a US single family home in 2021), with the cost depending on size, building materials, location, and extras (like adding your own energy source — more on that below). Of course, they can be both more and less expensive than the price range given above.
Another trend driving interest in tiny houses is an increased interest in living simply with minimal possessions, often by choice rather than necessity and for reasons that can be spiritual or secular. Jesus, Buddha and many other religious figures are said to have lived simply and preached the value of simplicity, and some people want to emulate that behavior. On the other hand, some people just want less clutter; consider the recent popularity of Marie Kondo’s guide to organizing one’s home with its emphasis on discarding any possessions that don’t “spark joy.” Another trend values experiences over acquisition, with an emphasis on activities outside the home instead of constantly purchasing new objects to be enjoyed inside. Many tiny homes increase the house’s outdoor space by adding an outside deck or porch. And because many tiny houses are built on wheels instead of a permanent foundation, they’re ideal for traveling in order to enjoy the great outdoors.
You might be wondering just how many of your belongings you’d have to give up in order to move into a tiny house. While it’s true that the small inner spaces promote thrift, it is also true that people have come up with some really interesting, cool-looking, space-saving ideas, and one can spend hours pouring over wonderful examples. Shelves and hooks store belongings out of your way if you don’t have room for cabinets, and don’t forget to use both sides of your shelves: above and below. Dishwashers can be skinny or one drawer. Beds can roll under office space; a Murphy bed that tilts up into wall space can have a collapsing couch on the other side, and there are even drop-down Murphy bunk beds. A bunk bed can also convert into a desk. Tables can drop down or hide away. Convertible tables can be at coffee table height one minute, then desk or dining height the next. Tables and chairs can hide in your shelving. Stairs can be just wide enough for one person or normal-sized, and you can use the space under them for storage. Put a small, stackable washer and dryer in your bathroom, and make space for them with a sink-and-toilet combination that reuses water from the sink to flush. This creativity makes the house interesting, quirky, and idiosyncratic; it is one of the ways you can put your individual stamp on your home.
For those who are concerned about global warming and want to reduce their carbon footprint, tiny homes offer a “big” solution. They require less material to construct, meaning less resource extraction, processing, and transportation, all of which require energy that usually results in CO2 emissions. The same is true for the possessions that many people fill their larger homes with: the materials used to create those items had to be extracted (think mining and lumber), then processed and/or manufactured, and then the finished product was transported from the factory to the store to their homes. Since tiny houses have less room, it makes sense to buy fewer things, resulting in lower carbon emissions. And of course, it also takes less energy to heat or cool smaller spaces.
Another aspect of tiny houses that reduces their carbon footprint is the kinds of materials used for building. While many tiny houses are made of the same types of materials as bigger, more standard houses, some creative folks make them from materials you may not have heard of, like hempcrete, aircrete, straw bale, rammed earth, adobe, raw earth, and cob. Some are less water-resistant or are better insulators than others, so the local weather and latitude are factors in deciding which material is the best choice. However, all of these alternative materials are fireproof, soundproof, and they don’t necessarily require a steel or wood frame; and, most importantly, they’re all more eco-friendly than steel and concrete. Also, they don’t off-gas toxic fumes the way standard building materials are likely to, an important consideration due to the small inner space of tiny homes: less space means less air for toxins to disperse in, and less air to disperse toxins in means more to inhale.
Unfortunately, not all the materials are suitable or made for wheels, i.e., portability: of these alternative materials, only hempcrete and aircrete homes can be built onto trailers. So often, most tiny homes built for a trailer use conventional building materials (Yurts are in their own category, having been made to be taken down and put back up). Tiny homes may also be repurposed school buses, which are obviously moveable, and very interesting in design.
Along with school buses, shipping containers may also be repurposed; in these cases, the creation of the home may have been emission-intensive, but repurposing gives them new life without the need for new extraction and processing.
One of the best aspects of owning a tiny house from a climate perspective is that because they’re smaller, it’s easier to power homes with renewable options like solar, wind, water, and geothermal. Many areas allow people to hook up to energy from renewable sources that are available as part of the energy grid, but some tiny house owners go off-grid, building their own renewable energy sources or having them installed: solar panels, wind turbines, geothermal and hydropower may all be options. However, adding off-grid power options means more materials have to be extracted, manufactured, and transported, increasing the CO2 emissions associated with the home. Also, installing one or a combination of renewable forms of energy, as well as a battery to save reserve capacity (for when the sun’s not shining or the wind’s not blowing), can easily increase the base cost by a third or more. However, these resource and monetary costs can be balanced against the potential materials and costs needed to string power to a potentially remote place. Prospective buyers need to do their homework regarding how much energy they need and what configurations of various renewable options will reliably serve their needs. And then there’s the legality of using their preferred form of renewable energy in the area where they’re building. Here are some resources for looking into options.
Similarly, another advantage of tiny home ownership is using water more sustainably – and as the climate changes, water sustainability will become very important. Some tiny home owners design their plumbing to reuse “grey” water – water already used in the shower or the sink to water their gardens. Even for a house off the grid, it may still be possible to do this, but you need to know what you’re doing. And you may need to work to help change zoning regulations, which can change, albeit often slowly.
Finally, many tiny homes are part of communities of similarly sized tiny housing, and in some cases, the individual houses don’t include a pantry, a kitchen, or a laundry room, because those functions are built into larger, shared communal structures; as a result, individuals’ or couples’ homes may be very small. Tiny home communities are often designed to return inhabitants to an older style of village living in which people knew their neighbors, shared resources with them, and were more willing to work together to achieve common goals.
Some tiny home communities are designed by municipalities as a way of helping previously homeless families and singles, giving them security, community, access to showers, and even the internet. At the same time, by putting the homeless in buildings with physical addresses and by giving people access to showers and laundry machines, it’s easier for them to find and retain employment. Additionally, the homeless often suffer from mental disorders, and there are studies showing the benefit of tiny home communities for people who suffer in this way. Other tiny home communities have been created by and for seniors as an alternative to senior housing. Depending on their interests and needs, these can include assisted living, and residents can share spaces for growing food, preparing and consuming meals, and for sharing music, art and conversation.
Your energy needs in a tiny house community are likely to be less than they would be if you were in conventional housing, possibly even less than if you were in a stand-alone tiny house, and that means your carbon footprint is lower. By omitting kitchens, laundry rooms and living rooms from individuals’ and couples’ houses and creating community spaces instead, less construction material is needed, there’s less space to heat and cool, and there are fewer appliances that contribute to the CO2 emissions involved in the extraction, manufacture, and transportation of those materials and products. Further, because groups of people are likely to be in the community buildings together, their body heat can raise the temperature enough for the buildings to require less heating, which is a big source of CO2 emissions. So even if a tiny house community is still getting its energy from non-renewable sources, it’s using less of it.
As tiny homes and tiny home villages grow in popularity, some villages are designed by developers with options to rent, lease or buy a tiny home. Some communities may allow all the various forms of tiny house building materials and energy and water choices described at the beginning of this article, while others are more restrictive, requiring more standard construction approaches. Any changes to those circumstances depend on how the community is governed. Those living in a community designed by developers might not have any direct say in where their energy comes from. If the village was created by a municipality, however, tiny house owners may be able to influence their representatives to help switch to renewables if they’re available in their area. Co-op owners will probably negotiate with their group to decide on any changes to the source of community energy.
Even if you don’t want to live in a tiny home or a tiny home community, you may still want to support such communities in your town or city, especially for housing the homeless. A number of studies show that housing the homeless can cost a community less in taxes than other services typically used to deal with them.
All in all, tiny homes are an interesting trend in housing, one that decreases our CO2 emissions per home substantially while offering choices for living more simply, with more access to the outdoors, and in the case of tiny home communities, with a group of like-minded individuals.
Header Image: Jeffrey Czum, Pexels.com
Carousel #1, In order from red house:
- Mathilde Ro, Unsplash.com (red huose)
- next 3 pics, of trailer and wood-sided house built on top, courtesy of Anita Howard.
- Arwin Basdew, Unsplash.com (blue house in field)
- Hami Haki, Unsplash.com (northern houses)
- Annette Olson (side view of tiny house)
- Roberto Nickson, Pexels.com (two-story house)
- Ksenia Chernaya, Pexels.com (white house)
- Lena Derevianko, Unsplash.com (house in woods)
- Courtesy of Annette Olson (end view of tiny house)
- Elle Hughes, Pexels.com (deck with small house)
Carousel #2, in order from 1st picture of interior, with loft:
- Pics 1-6, Courtesy of Anita Howard
- Andrea Davis, Unsplash.com (white bedroom with loft and bookshelves)
- Devin Kleu, Unsplash.com (bed on main floor, wood paneling.)
- Annette Olson, (a tiny house kitchen)