In 2003, Alchemy Architects built the Arado weeHouse, a 336 sq ft minimalist cabin with rustic panels and floor-to-ceiling windows. Instead of being built on-site, the small architecture was pre-fabricated by Geoffrey C. Warner in-factory before it was transported via truck and assembled on a small slope. It stood prominently on two legs, overlooking the serene Minnesota prairie and the banks of Lake Pepin.
This dream holiday home is made complete with two beds, a kitchen, IKEA furniture, and Douglas fir interiors, costs only $60,000. Later on, it was outfitted with a deck and an outhouse. The house was initially meant for a musician who requested a Lilliputian dwelling for an off-grid vacation with her son. But after serving its purpose, Arado, the first weeHouse ever made, was moved to the Twin Cities in 2015 where it became a popular landmark.
The weeHouse is not alone in its bite-sized built; it belongs to a special group of dwellings called the Tiny House, a movement credited to Jay Shaffer that began in the early 2000s. It’s not a novel concept; history makes it known that even before humans lived in forts and mansions, they settled in small confines. Author Henry David Thoreau penned Walden while living inside a 150 sq ft cabin in Concord, Massachusetts for more than 2 years. The Arabs of the old have lived in Bedouin tents as they migrated across the desert.
The prudence of tents
Camping in the Middle Eastern dunes is the theme of Simón de Agüero’s Brittlebush, an open-air tent made up of fabric and strategically-placed masts, spanning into a 150 sq ft of outdoor dwelling made for the winter residents of Taliesin. Underneath the stretchy membrane, a steel structure frames the three-inch earth-rammed walls that cover the area, namely a patio, a fireplace and a bed. The inner floors were cast with concrete, giving the outdoor dwelling a rustic appeal. Three chairs and a fireplace allows one to revel in this winter solace. For the sleepers, a raised bed platform is strategically placed above a fireplace for heating. 90% of the steel was salvaged from the school scrap yard, and all of the wood was leftovers of a local renovation site. The actual project’s cost: $2,300.
Living small, it turns out, has always been possible.
Big leaps for tiny houses
Before Jay Shaffer published the article that would later ignite the concept of tiny houses, there’s Lester Walker, who published a book in 1987 called Tiny Houses: Or How to Get Away From It All. The visual volume collected photographs and scribbles of 43 prefab houses, most of them spanning less than 200 square feet, encouraged readers to ditch the largeness and luxury of sprawling homes and experience a strange, unknown comfort of practical living.
The Tiny House movement also points to a woman: an English-born American architect Sarah Susanka who wrote the book Not So Big House, which later on became a building philosophy that implied houses should be built “better, not bigger.” While Susanka was not pushing for smaller cabins, she believes that every space in the home should be maximized for everyday needs. Open, convertible rooms, for example, can be both a home office and an emergency guest room. Cutbacks should be made when practical. Kitchen islands or a grand porch could be added at a later date as an upgrade. The goal of Not So Big was to keep homes from being too busy without direction; a place where spaces are completely present and utilized, and this means having the homeowners involved in the design and decision-making.
After the year of Not So Big House‘s debut, Jay Shafer founded the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company in Sonoma, California. This would be the first company in the U.S. to sell mobile homes. Their business got better traction after Oprah opened her doors for Shaffer in 2006, where Shaffer proudly showcased his 96 sq ft home. This became a practical choice a couple of years later when a mortgage crisis hit America with an 81% foreclosure. In the coming years, the Tiny House would be more than just a final choice for homeowners ditching expensive real estate; it became a future-forward decision for adventure and DIY-lovers to celebrate the freedom of minimalism.
Tiny Houses are no small work
According to a 2015 survey, a Tiny House can cost around $23,000 on average. The real estate company Redfin.com says that it “can range from $8,000 to $150,000, depending on the quality of materials and custom finishes.” But the recent median proved to move within the $60,000 mark, with the options to buy in-factory built prefab modules, do-it-yourself ready-to-assemble kits, or create the home from scratch.
For a good glimpse at the overall expense, here are some of the highest items on the building budget:
- Trailer, $4,000 to $9,000
- Lumber, $3,000 up
- Electrical wiring by a certified professional, $1,500 up
- Doors and windows, $1,000 up
- Furniture, $500 to $2,000
- Roofing, from $500 up
- Insulation, from $500 up
Of course, the use, make, and size of a tiny house differ by one’s unique preferences; this inherently affects the overall budget. Are the homeowners considering living in their tiny house full time? If so, constructing a proper sewage system is necessary. Or do they want to travel around and explore with their tiny homes? Then, a permit is required. Permits vary by state; so, it’s important to do research beforehand; in many cases.
California, the place where tiny houses were born, passes zoning laws that allowed these small dwellings as backyard cottages, as opposed to their former rule that considered tiny houses as temporary lodging. The ICC wrote a law that grants a Certificate of Occupancy to tiny houses that meet the provisions. Idaho is one of the states that adopted ICC’s rules. Aside from this, one must remember that zoning laws differ for every municipality. In some cases, homeowners are required to file documents in order to park their house at a particular place.
The upside of downsizing
Shelling out for a building project can be overwhelming, but surprisingly, the rewards go a long way. The National Debt Relief reports that more than 50% of the people who live in tiny houses save an average of $10,000 in the bank. One of the reasons, the report says, is since there is little room to store things, people have less inclination to overbuy. Mortgages become a thing of the past; 68% of tiny house owners have no mortgage. Smaller homes are also more energy-efficient since there’s less space to cool down or heat up. Additionally, these houses can be equipped with alternative energy, such as solar panels and the use of propane for heating.
Living small is living creatively. It’s not uncommon to see two-story tiny houses which adopt an open common room below, and a bedroom upstairs. Beds are usually topside bunkers. Furniture is smaller and expandable. Bathrooms are downsized. There’s enough space for entertainment and dining, and floors can also be alternatively used as extra storages.
This requires a lifestyle change for the homeowner; they’ll be living on essentials, day-to-day necessities, and a lot of ingenuity. But despite these crucial cuts, tiny houses greatly reward homeowners in the long run. There’s a lot of savings on utility bills and maintenance. Plus, the added value of the freedom to move out and about, not having to worry about an expensive mortgage or tax.
Buy it or build it
There are two ways to own a tiny house: buy one, or build one. Some prefab models are readily available to be towed behind a trailer or installed on a lot. But more often, homeowners choose to roll up their sleeves and work on their own tiny houses. Workshops can cost up to $700. There are contractors across the country who can customize these homes, but the cheaper way is having a dedicated group of knowledgeable friends to help in the building.
In most cases, the tiny house building processes are the same. Redfin.com produces a helpful checklist:
- Select a suitable site and finalize the purchase of your land.
- Draw up a rough floor plan with must-have features.
- Decide if you need sewer and septic hookups, or if you’ll bring water in and out on your own.
- Decide if you need electricity, or if solar power is an option.
- Purchase or draft your final plan.
- Consult with builders and establish your budget.
- Acquire proper permissions (right-of-ways, etc.) and the appropriate permits.
- If you use salvaged materials and build the home yourself, you could spend as little as $8,000. But it takes a lot of time and know-how, especially if your home has electricity and plumbing.
In a world where big is the standard, the small becomes smart. As long as people find ways to maximize every corner, every space, even a tiny house will never feel crowded.
Caris is a feature writer for print and online magazines, constantly charmed by quiet aesthetics and the human brilliance of purposeful making-do.