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Tiny house on Sauvie Island

5 Lessons We Can Learn From Tiny Houses

by Ben Kirst

According to the most recent United States Census, the average size of a new American home is 2,392 square feet — over 600 square feet larger than new homes built 25 years earlier.

Is that progress? Maybe. A bigger house can be comfortable and convenient — lots of room  to grow your family, enjoy your downtime and store your stuff. The extra room gives you options, allowing you to house guests, set up a home office, dedicate a workout space or give your kids and pets more places to play.

A big house can also be problematic. Big houses mean bigger mortgages and bigger utility bills. Clutter tends to fill the available space, so a big house can quickly become a big mess. If big home owners aren’t careful, the big house lifestyle — working long and hard to pay big bills, for instance — becomes a big trap.

Tiny houses: a different approach

There is a small group of people who are pushing in the opposite direction. “Tiny housers,” people who choose to reside in living spaces that are sometimes dramatically small (at least by current standards), are garnering attention for their rejection of the big-house-equals-better-life paradigm.

The movement has struck a chord in a country unnerved by the prospect of crippling debt, the increasing unaffordability of once-middle class-givens like higher education and retirement and the pressure to lead unsustainable lifestyles. People want alternatives. As Kai Rostcheck wrote on Boston.com:

ABC News, CBS News, Oprah Winfrey and other mainstream media outlets have ramped up their coverage of the Tiny House movement – a shift from McMansion-sized expectations to very small, often portable dreams. Tiny houses range from 80-220 sq. ft., typically cost $25-45k and seem to have unquenchable appeal; related videos have been watched nearly 27 million times, over 750k people “like” Tiny House Facebook pages, and social keywords reach nearly 700k people daily.

Tiny house: The Kordik House

“We’ve only seen interest grow,” Ryan Mitchell of TheTinyLife.com told Salon.com. “I put on a conference every year, and that’s been growing in popularity. So just by all measures it’s been growing. And a lot of people do come to it because of the financial aspects of it: They can save so much money, not have debt, not be exposed, have reduced risk. But I think some people also come to it from an environmental standpoint, and a life simplification standpoint, and I think even if you do come at it from a money standpoint, eventually you start to appreciate the other benefits.”

Are all of us cut out to live in tiny homes? Mitchell himself lives in a 130-square-foot home, the thought of which probably gives most of us claustrophobia.

If we choose to live in a bigger space — even if it’s not the 2,392 square-foot new build — there are still several important lessons we can glean for everyday life from those who choose to live tiny.

5 Tips For Sustainable Lifestyles from Tiny Houses

1. Create clutter-free zones.

Photo fom IntentionallySmall.com

People who dwell in tiny houses have to make the best use of the limited space available. When a stack of magazines can effectively mess up your entire home, you need to be very careful about what’s coming in.

Whether we live alone or with roommates, in large spaces or small, we should be sure to have clutter-free zones — rooms where we allow ourselves the minimum needed to be functional. Perhaps the living room has a couch, a stand and a television — no coffee table to collect clutter, no shoes on the floor, no balled-up socks in the corner. Maybe the bedroom is a bed, a nightstand and a neat closet — no laptop, television, laundry pile, magazine mountain or empty drink containers.

“I think that its also very important to have at least one area that is clutter-free and always clean. In a small space, a small mess becomes a big mess quickly,” Bethany Clayton, resident of a 385-square foot apartment in Durham, N.C., told IntentionallySmall.com. “Especially since I use my kitchen and living area as work spaces for sanding, painting, sewing, crafting and many other hobbies, having an area that is always neat goes a long way to feeling comfortable and sane. For me, it is the bedroom (pictured above). No matter how chaotic the kitchen, living room and bathroom are, my bedroom has little more than my bed, some books, my records and record player and my clothes neatly hung on the wall. Escaping to this room is always a welcome relief from a busy week or messy house.”

2. Use multifunctional furniture.

One of the cool things about a tiny home is the importance of multifunctionality. Every item must be considered carefully before it enters the living space — and every item must serve as many purposes as possible.

Small apartment in Warsaw

Consider the home created by designers Aleksander Novak-Zemplinski and Becky Nix, who were interviewed by Dwell.com:

The couple designed and built every piece of furniture in the apartment except for the Mezzo sofa from BoConcept. The coffee table can be flipped on its side to serve as a barstool. How did they test it to make sure it would support a person’s weight? “Olek jumped and sat on it,” says Nix, before adding, “He graduated from an engineering program.”

In fairness, most of us have not graduated from engineering programs. We can, however, make use of multifunctionality. Can we incorporate a storage ottoman into our living room? Should we invest in a transformer chair that can double as a love seat or even a bed? How about a dining set that turns into space-saving (and pretty neat-looking) cube?

These products, admittedly, aren’t always cheap. Depending on your perspective and living situation, the investment in multifunctional quality may offset the otherwise wasted space.

The use of “secret” spaces — a shelf attached to the underside of a dining room table, slidable storage beneath chair or couches, attachements to the inner sides of doors — are also clever ways to expand the available footage in your home.

3. Your windows and walls can create the illusion of more space…

Your living space may be small. Know what’s much bigger? The entire world. Allowing natural light and a clear view into the world outside your home both extends a room and serves as a natural attraction for the eye.

Hanging mirrors on the walls opposite a window can increase this effect, and grouping several small mirrors can sometimes create interesting — even stunning — visuals that add depth to an otherwise cramped space.

Apartment photo from A Cup of Jo

Brooklynite / blogger Erin Boyle nailed this thought when she was interviewed for New York writer Joanna Goddard’s blog:

Maximize your windows. Drape your windows in a way that allows for maximum light—I’d go for the bright white curtains—and try hanging a mirror nearby to reflect light into the room. Remembering to clean the windows helps, too!

4. …and offer unqiue opportunities for storage.

Wall storage example

We’ve sung the praises of wall storage in this blog in the past. Strike up the band again! Don’t waste your walls,gang. Here are two things to consider:

  1. Every room does not need to be heavily decorated. In fact, a single, large piece of art often looks much better than several smaller works, a cacophony of family and friend photos or even that sweet fluoroscent beer sign you found at a yard sale.
  2. The storage can be the centerpiece. Check out the photo above from Houzz.com — notice how the storage shelves are actually part of the decor. Looks a lot classier than that photo collage of you and your sorority sisters, right? If you don’t trust yourself with a hammer and a level, a bookcase can have a similar effect — and offer a great way to show off your many interests, reduce clutter and centralize your storage without overwhelming the room.

 5. Be constantly vigilent about reusing, repurposing and rethinking what you already have.

Simon Dale needed a home for his wife and two children while they conducted ecological research in Wales. Instead of investing in a living space that he feared he could not afford or would conflict with his personal beliefs, Dale built what the British media dubbed “The Hobbit House” in the Welsh countryside.

Simon Dale's Hobbit House

 

Granted, most of us are never going to build our own house. I have a hard enough time assembling an Ikea coffee table. Dale’s tiny home — and other tiny houses — offer examples of reuse, recycling and downsizing that we can all use:

  • Keep your home and home improvements within your budget. Dale built the Hobbit House for roughly £3000 (approximately $5,000 dollars). Despite his own lack of an architectural background, he did most of the work himself (with the help of friends and family), made use of very basic tools and built with scrap wood and plaster to keep the project affordable.
  • Ingenuity and creativity are your friends. Think about some of the best home organization and decor projects you see on Pinterest — pallet projects, unconventional use of frames, vintage upcycling, cool crafts — this stuff often makes use of items you already have in your home or can access for very little money. The most important factors are often time and creativity.
  • Do your possessions own you? “When were were first married and still kidless, we rented a home with several extra bedrooms and an extra family room,”  Jill Winger wrote on ThePrairieHomestead.com. “And you know what? We filled it up with a whole lotta extra stuff that we didn’t use or even really want. Our small home keeps me constantly evaluating whether I really need or use each item in.”

Some people choose to live without appliances we take for granted, like televisions or microwaves. Some people embrace the minimalist lifestyle. It can be surprising how much clutter we can remove from our lives when we start to consider different ways to be.

This is not to say that tiny houses or minimalism or rocking the most vintage outfits on your block are the solutions to all of life’s problems. As tiny houser Lloyd Alter points out on Treehugger.com, tiny houses require land (expensive), loans (hard to get) and legailty (the same adherence to existing municipal zoning laws as larger homes). The minimalist lifestyle can be challenging, to say the least. Vintage doesn’t work for guys like me, who are twice as big as the average American male from 1965 (not quite, but almost).

The trick is to keep an open mind and be aware of how you can improve your life, organize your home and adjust your priorities gleaning some of the information that tiny housers and their brethren can teach us. We may not want to live in a tiny house, but we may have a small apartment — the lessons can often transfer. We may not want to be minimalists, but we are interested in living with less stuff. We may not want to dress like the bass player from a surf-punk band, but we like the idea of sturdy, timeless clothes with style.

Do your homework, read what’s out there and make your own decisions. And who knows? Maybe someday we’ll visit you in your tiny house.

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