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The Romance and Reality of Tiny Houses

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  • Eric Miller
    New Colonist From the Editors
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 1, 2005
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      A Word from Eric Miller for September, 2005

      The Romance and Reality of Tiny Houses

      Eric Miller My column last month on our homes being to large prompted quite a bit of response. It also opened up a world to me I hardly knew existed. While this big world is clamoring for bigger homes, it turns out there's an entire other subset out there trying to get us to live smaller and smarter.

      Let's start with something called the "Small House Society." Based in Iowa City, Iowa, the Small House Society charges $5 for membership. Its web site says that people who live in small houses (and tiny houses) generally own fewer possessions, consume less, and have lower utility bills.

      I'd guess that much is true. I noticed this when I moved to San Francisco. In Pittsburgh when you tire of something, you move it to the basement or attic to be rediscovered or removed at some later date. In San Francisco you move it to the sidewalk and hope somebody takes it.

      The society also says smaller homes require less building material for construction and smaller land use--therefore costing much less to purchase, maintain, and live in. Plus, it says, construction of smaller homes can utilize more efficient, natural, healthy, high-quality materials that might not be affordable in a larger dwelling.

      That may be true, but all of the designs for small houses I could locate appear to be pretty suburban, or perhaps suited to a Unabomber type who would prefer to live in the wilderness.

      NPR recently did a story on the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company. This company, based in Sabastapol, California, offers a variety of small house designs. There?s the "Vardo" and the "XS House" (which can be moved around with you). Then there are the "Cross Gable" and "Bungalow" versions that appear more substantial.

      If your small house seems too small, you can purchase the "Dogtrot Connector" that will allow you to put several together.

      Each home appears to be of very high quality and offer one or two rooms plus kitchen, bath, closets, and a desk area. The Bungalow is the largest of the designs at about 500sf. Smaller small houses come in at 40-160sf. They seem cute at first, but considering the room I am sitting in as I type probably approaches 160sf and perhaps 1,600 cubic feet, I can't imagine the adjustment.

      I don't doubt the materials, workmanship, and efficiency of these homes is attractive. Yet they all seem to be designed to sit on large lots or in wooded areas. One would feel quite at odds with the surroundings in Brooklyn or even Nashville. I started to think that perhaps a city comprised of these tiny homes could be established, and perhaps it has been. Priced in the $15,000-$40,000 range (plus land and utility connections), they'd also be attractive options for college students with financially able parents.

      I suppose there are historical examples of this even in Pittsburgh. Two-room worker houses dot some of the hillsides. These are still used today and still serve their purpose well, although the inferior construction, and simply age, don't lend themselves well to saving energy. Still I suspect it is possible to arrange these modern day "small houses" in an urban setting. They could be attractive to single work-at-home types who want the ease of maintenance and access to city amenities. They also may be an attractive option for seniors who find their bigger house too much to handle, but want to live independently.

      The tiny house idea seemed romantic, even practical, but I couldn't help but think there was a more efficient "small house" design already in existence. Then it dawned on me--it's called the "studio condo." Condos have become so popular now they?re average price is more than a single-family house. In many downtown areas the "highest and best use" ( a real estate term meaning most profitable) has switched from translating into commercial to translating into "condo building."

      The Aug. 29-Sept. 5 issue of New Yorkmagazine shows a floorplan from the 1960s found in the Lincoln Towers apartments in Manhattan. The unit is slightly larger than the largest "tiny house" at 550 sf. I would imagine the efficiency improves a bit when "tiny houses" are stacked on one another. Certainly more can be fit into one place.

      Like many condos, the one at Lincoln towers includes one large room with an adjoining kitchen and bath. This one has a big plus, however, in the form of a "sleeping alcove." This prevents having to pull your bed out of the wall or sofa each evening.

      At just under $400,000 the Lincoln Towers studio is considerably more expensive than the biggest tiny house. Of course placing the tiny house anywhere in Manhattan would cost considerably more. In other cities tiny houses in the sky are a more affordable easy living option.

      In Pittsburgh, Gateway Center and Chatham Towers downtown offer such spaces for less than $100,000 (and as little as $35,000). I recently looked at studio units in Lakewood, a pedestrian-friendly suburb on the West side of Cleveland, for around $25,000. These even offered a lake view and coffee shops in walking distance.

      Whether a tiny house in a village of tiny houses or a stackable version in a city, smaller living spaces are an idea to explore. Many of the occupants of such spaces speak of a "simplicity" they find in living with less. Looking at the tasks that surround me, it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to think that one day I may reach the same conclusion.

      Eric Miller is editor of The New Colonist.

      Go to A Word from Richard Risemberg

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