Movin’ on Down

The myth of the tiny house movement.

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In the same way that America’s fast food purveyors pack their menus with cheap, empty calories, the country’s home builders pack their houses with cheap, empty space. On a cost-per-square-foot basis, the typical McMansion may seem like a good deal — but like a Big Mac, what sort of nourishment does it truly deliver? Gorge yourself on cathedral ceilings, three-car garages, and all the tasteless architectural condiments you can stomach (gables, turrets, etc.) and you’ll only end up as queasy and unsatisfied as the Joneses next door.

 

Like tiny medallions of herb-encrusted, farm-to-table lamb loin at your local fancy restaurant, smaller homes — sustainably grown, artfully assembled, a little bit pricey — represent an obvious alternative to such fare. But how to convince America’s real estate gluttons that this approach can apply equally to dining rooms as well as dinner?

Ever since Henry Thoreau built a 150-square-foot shack for himself at Walden Pond to escape the clutter and distractions of 19th-century America, small homes have been equated with economy and simplicity. They seem to provide an escape from the hamster wheel of consumerism. In our own era, the clutter and distractions of contemporary culture are greater than ever, and thus the tiny house has shrunk even further in size while greatly expanding in metaphorical significance. The XS-House, available from the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, has a smaller footprint than a California king mattress and less than half the square footage that Thoreau made do with.

At just 65 square feet, the XS-House would probably inspire PETA protests if farmers started raising chickens in them. And like many small homes advocates, Tumbleweed founder Jay Shafer tends to emphasize the frugality, environmental sustainability, and transcendence from material obligations and concerns. The tiny house life, he explained to the Associated Press in November, is “very un-American in the sense that living small means consuming less.”

But are evangelists like Shafer selling tiny houses short when they position them as antidotes to consumerism? After all, it’s just as easy, and perhaps both more accurate and more strategic, to position them as potent temples of consumerism, a way to revel in the materiality of day-to-day existence.

Build an XS-House yourself and it will cost you around $16,000 for the plans and necessary materials. Buy one ready-made, and the cost escalates to $38,997. That puts it at a luxury-priced $599 per square foot, or more than four times the cost of your average Vegas McMansion! Better yet, it’s an instant house, a house to go, and what’s more American than that? Like a 100-calorie snack pack, a tiny house encourages you to splurge. Take two or three, they’re small — a fun, fashionable way to affirm your commitment to living gently on this Earth wherever you happen to have rural acreage.

Even as your sole residence, a smaller home can help you attain a new level of consumerist obsession. After all, who pays more attention to food — a really fat person or an anorexic?

In 1998, architect Sarah Susanka wrote The Not So Big House, a manifesto that champions quality over quantity, smaller but more emotionally rewarding domiciles, houses designed for maximum livability rather than maximum curb appeal. In the 12 years since, she’s published eight additional books, including Not So Big Solutions for Your Home, The Not So Big Life: Making Room for What Really Matters, and More Not So Big Solutions for Your Home. Clearly, making your house smaller and your life simpler is no easy process. It involves thinking and re-thinking, a strong curatorial eye, and the capacity for iterative remodeling — which is to say, endurance shopping.

In a McMansion, you can easily lose sight of the stuff that gives your life meaning — it gets packed away in all those closets, spare bedrooms, and three-car garages. But in a tiny house, everything you own is on display and within reach. If you’re looking at your kitchen appliances all day, you have a legitimate need for the most gorgeous kitchen appliances known to man, and a legitimate rationale for purchasing new ones often. If space is at a premium, you can be forgiven for constantly upgrading to the flattest flat-screen TVs, the most compact washer/dryer combos.

A McMansion can almost surreptitiously seduce you into a spartan, almost miserly lifestyle. A big garage means you have space for a big car, so you don’t have to travel to the grocery store as often. A restaurant-grade kitchen means you’ll eat at home more often. Your media room and exercise room will similarly reduce entertainment expenditures, transportation costs, and your desire to leave the house. Is it any wonder that as our houses grew bigger and bigger over the course of the past decade, our economy eventually took a nosedive?

Smaller houses reacquaint us with our more profligate and productive selves. Spend a few hours in MEKA’s upscale shipping containers or the futuristic jewel-box known as the Micro Compact Home, and you’ll be itching to stretch out in your favorite restaurant or the metroplex, and maybe even spend longer hours at work in the relatively spacious accommodations of your cubicle.

But never mistake the small house for a totem of sacrifice or self-denial. A small house allows you to cultivate luxury and connoisseurship at an attainable price point and never settle for the second-rate. Like Apple over PC clones, like Chez Panisse over Olive Garden and Whole Foods over Safeway, the small house proposes less for more as the true path to consumer satisfaction.
20 January 2011

Greg Beato is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. Follow @GregBeato on Twitter.

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