Perhaps as a response to the economy, or as a response to the bigger-is-better mindset, small houses have been receiving a lot of favorable attention nationally in the past few years. There are quite a few books available on this subject as well as web sites. Jay Shafer of Tumbleweed Houses (http://www.tumbleweedhouses.com/jay/) was recently written up both in the New York Times and the New Yorker. The essay in the latter pointed out that in New York City, the idea of “small is better” is a tough sell because of the cramped nature of many New York apartments. It’s true that few people would willingly choose to inhabit a space that’s a hundred square feet (or less), as Shafer himself does.
I’m torn as to the ultimate wisdom of this movement. I am favorable in theory to small houses and I’ve written about some in the course of my job, which I found to be charming and completely liveable; but the houses I wrote about ranged between 600 – 800 square feet. What percentage of the population can really tolerate living for long in a 100-square-foot dwelling? How many of Shafer’s charming little dwellings will be soon left behind by inhabitants who ended up moving in with their girlfriends or boyfriends, because it is impossible for two to easily fit into a Tumbleweed Home?
Living within 600 square feet is a challenge for most people because we tend to accumulate too many belongings that we really don’t need. But living inside less than 100 square feet is so seriously demanding that only a very small number of people can do it. Because these little houses have no bathrooms or kitchens, they offer you the same stripped-down existence as camping in a tent—the only real difference is that the structure around you is more substantial. To actually make one’s permanent abode inside one of these tiny dwellings would be very difficult for anyone who isn’t in their 20s and dedicated to the cause of living small.
Here’s my critique. Jay Schafer says on his web site that his decision to inhabit 89 square feet arose from a concern for the environment. But is it really better for the environment to build and distribute this series of minuscule dwellings? A lot of construction material is tied up inside every Tumbleweed House, each one of which can shelter only one person. The environment would actually be better off if all of those individual little pods were actually joined together into apartments that could house multiple inhabitants at a lower per capita cost to each. New York has an extremely low carbon footprint per capita because all those separate small apartments share common walls and infrastructure, as opposed to suburbia, where each of the houses has a high carbon footprint due to everyone living in separate structures.
I accept the fact that some people want to live by themselves, apart from others. That’s fine by me, and it’s a free country. But it really doesn’t benefit the environment because each of these little structures has to be built and then hauled in by truck. If a person is motivated to live small AND to go lightly on the environment, a tent really makes more sense than a small Tumbleweed House. I believe strongly that Bloated is Bad, and Small is definitely Good; but Tiny is something else entirely that by its nature can have only a limited appeal.
But that said, Tumbleweed Houses are beautifully designed and show a lot of creativity. Any of the smallest models would make wonderful back-yard studios, garden sheds, guest houses, or—yes—temporary starter-homes for the dedicated few. Shafer’s four largest plans are the size of ordinary small bungalows and would make perfect homes for couples or small families. His designs are really lovely and I salute him for inspiring others to consider the virtues of smallness.