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Let me start with disclaimers. I’m pretty much writing from ignorance but I’ve been looking online and reading about Tiny Houses. I have no interest in building or selling Tiny Houses. I actually have never seen one up close nor have I been inside one. I’m not in the market for one. No one I know has one.

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Katrina Cottage

What is a “Tiny House”? For the most part it is a free-standing house of about 500 square feet. There are exceptions to that “rule”. Some tiny houses are on wheels and can be relocated fairly easily (if you have or can get a big enough vehicle) while others are permanent structures on some type of foundation. The average single-family house built in the United States has grown to over 2,600 square feet in size over the last few decades. There has been a counter-movement among some people, and some popular design writers, to decrease the size of our single-family living space. This probably has been fueled, in part, by the Baby-Boomer generation downsizing to smaller houses once they have an “empty nest”. The Tiny House Movement takes this concept even farther…to houses of under 1,000 square feet and even down to 400 square feet or smaller. Some of these small house designs gained attention after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Ninth Ward in New Orleans. The “Katrina Cottages”, small and inexpensive dwellings, began to pop up in places and seemed to meet a need for essential and efficient housing. Eventually a few communities sprung up consisting entirely of Katrina Cottages.

 

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I am a little fascinated by this “movement” and the enthusiasm that some people have for living in a space of 500 square feet or less. My father-in-law lived in a retirement hotel…sort of like a studio apartment that consisted of a fairly spacious bedroom and a three-piece bathroom. The bedroom was maybe 160 square feet and the bathroom and short hallway together was maybe 80 square feet. He had a sofa-bed, a dresser, a TV, a small bookcase, a tiny refrigerator, and a cart with a microwave and toaster oven. He lived in that space for over ten years and was quite content. There are a lot of people living in similar small studio apartments. That type of living isn’t what I see when I look at Tiny Houses. The Tiny House seems to be a different concept – or several different concepts.

As a stand-alone or a mobile/wheeled structure they have outdoor living space. The occupants can expand onto a porch or a formal patio or just the adjacent yard. These houses have to have utilities of some sort. In some cases that might be solar power or a direct line to the power company. Water and sewer might be a little trickier. There are various technologies for handling sewage and water can be brought in or there can be some sort of connection to a supplier or a well.

972ccaba0566ca17b27eebcd69601e0cWith the emphasis on outdoor living space, it would seem that New Mexico’s climate might be conducive to Tiny House living. On the other hand, zoning and building codes might prohibit planting your tiny lifestyle in the middle of town on your own lot. Chances are that your Tiny House would be more welcome in a rural setting on your own land. That type of location will leave some of those utility questions unanswered and open to innovation….but that’s what these houses are about.   Okay…so is this really different than living in a single-wide mobile home? We see plenty of those all over New Mexico. Is this really something new?

Here is a Tiny House that I saw as being up for sale up in Taos, New Mexico. From the photo it looks like it has standard electrical service. The interior shots show how tight it is inside – but it looks livable and seems to be efficiently designed. I can’t imagine having more than one person occupying the space but for one person it might work. I don’t know how old this house is or what the cost was initially.

I suspect that some are owner built but there is an industry that developed around pre-fab construction of Tiny Houses, which are then trucked or towed to the buyer’s location. I’ve seen estimates of the average purchase or building cost of Tiny Houses at under $30,000 but I’ve seen references to some in the $90,000 range. The model shown below is a recent design by a Tiny House construction company.

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So how tiny is too tiny? Basic life support systems require some space. Maybe some appliances can serve double duty like cooking and providing heat in cold weather. Hopefully there will be some sort of bathroom or bathing capability. What about sleeping and storage space. When I looked at pictures of Tiny House interiors I saw a lot of designs with sleeping lofts accessed by a ladder. I saw only one Tiny House with a flat screen television. Most had maybe one or two chairs that could be used anywhere, indoors or out. I saw a lot of books on bookshelves.

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I downsized a few years back and moved into a home that was 1,000 square feet smaller than my former home. I didn’t miss the lost space…but I got rid of a bunch of stuff in the process. From what I’ve seen, people in Tiny Houses don’t have “stuff” like most Americans. Almost everything is built in and they are unencumbered with grandma’s cedar chest.

For the sake of comparison, an Airstream travel trailer will run about 700 square feet. A single-wide mobile home will run somewhere around 1,000 square feet. I worked in a prison system for over 20 years and helped design a new prison – a reception and diagnostic center that was considered high security. The American Correctional Association standards for prison space call for a minimum of 70 square feet in single cell housing with 35 square feet of open space. That is pretty generous in most prisons dealing with overcrowding. Death row or maximum security cells are about 54 square feet – 6’ by 9’.  Modern prison cells will usually have a toilet and a small sink but no shower and no kitchen or dining space. Maybe there will be a single bed or, more likely, bunk beds attached to the wall. Maybe there will be a table or writing desk and a chair. So Tiny Houses fit somewhere between a prison cell and an Airstream and are maybe half the size of a single-wide mobile home.

There are a lot of reasons why people want to live in Tiny Houses and a lot of it has to do with cost. If the house is on wheels the home probably is not taxed as real estate. If it is on a foundation the tax is likely to be small. Initial costs are less than conventional houses and it seems that most occupants own the house free and clear. With such a small space and possibly only one or two occupants, any utility cost should be quite small. There is the freedom to haul your Tiny House around the country if you have the means to do so. You can plunk your house down where you want it in most cases. The idea of not having so much “stuff” appeals to some people.

On the other hand, these spaces are extremely small…almost like living in a tent. Don’t expect ADA compliance as you might be climbing a ladder to your bed. You might be stuck with stock designs and layouts with very little customization unless you build it yourself. Is it a death trap in case of fire or tornado as some mobile homes seem to be? I’ve seen reports and complaints of poor workmanship and a shortened life span for occupancy. Having more than two people in a Tiny House at any one time would be a challenge and some people might feel confined or claustrophobic.

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So, what do you think?

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