Aug 24, 2014

Sizing up the Tiny House Movement

A growing number of people are choosing to shun the conventional option of a foundation, mortgage and spare room in favour of a house the size of the average suburban garage. So what exactly is a tiny house, why is it so appealing, and what is it like to actually live in one?
By Steph Wetherell /
Sizing up the Tiny House Movement

A tiny home is exactly what the name suggests – a small house, frequently built on a trailer base to be mobile. There’s no fixed size, but they usually hover around the 100 – 200 ft2 mark, and having no foundations, they’re often not subject to the same building regulations.

The first tiny home enthusiasts I met were Devan and Charlie, who I met in Nova Scotia last May. At that point, they were only at the planning stage of their tiny home project, having been inspired by a couchsurfing guest. Charlie told me how quickly they were converted to the idea. “Devan and I bombarded her with questions until the early hours, and when she finally escaped to bed we stayed up most of the night talking about it further. A tiny house on wheels seemed the perfect culmination of all of our dreams and ideas about life. I'd say by the time we fell asleep, we'd decided we were doing it!” And 11 months later, they’re mere weeks away from moving into their almost finished home. They’ve opted for a 8.5 ft x 20 ft layout, keeping them within the legal limits for moving on roads without permits, while still giving them enough space for themselves and future couchsurfers.

When I asked what appealed so much about a tiny home, Charlie replied with a long list different reasons. Among them, she mentioned the independence of being without a mortgage and the freedom of being able to move. “We want to travel and to travel without worrying paying for things back home while we're away or being forced to return and get 'real' jobs. Building a cheap house, for us, equals freedom,” she said, and Devan continued the thought; “We also aren't tied down in any way. We are on wheels for a reason! We can up and leave any time we want, no land ownership, no commitment”.

They’re excited about their imminent move, having paid their last ever rent cheque. “Very occasionally I have sudden moments of panic about living tiny! Those moments are generally driven by the fear that there must be a reason everyone isn't doing this,” Charlie mentioned, “Then I remember all the wonderful advantages to a tiny house - being able to re-style the whole house whenever we want without spending a tonne of money, spending loads of time outside, connecting with nature and learning to farm.”

I asked them what they’d learnt from the experience. “Above all, we have learnt that we can literally do anything,” Devan replied. “A little over a year ago, this was just a pipe dream. We just assumed, like everyone else, that we would be caught in the renting/buying/working full time/stressed out/debt for the next 50 years. But it doesn't have to be that way. You can break the mould and sometimes, you can do something fantastic!”

Across the country, on Cortes Island, I stumbled across my first tiny home community, where 2 tiny homes (and a 3rd on the way) were parked on the farm land where I was wwoofing. The houses have water and electricity connections through the farm, but don’t have indoor toilets or showers, as the residents are planning on building a permanent composting toilet and outdoor shower to service all the tiny homes.

Max and Heidi have lived in their 200 ft2 home for just over 2 years, upsizing from Max’s previous 96 ft2 ultra tiny home. They did all the building work themselves (with a little help from friends), using over 95% recycled and salvaged materials, which helped keep the cost down to around $1200 (excluding the new wood stove they bought 6 months ago). Salvage and reuse of materials was an important aspect for them, as Max explained; “The more you can take someone’s trash and turn it into your basic living requirements, the lighter you’re living on the earth”.

I chatted to them while they were preparing their garden for the growing season, our conversation interspersed with the sounds of shovelling and raking. I asked what their favourite thing about their tiny home as. “That it reflects us and our personalities”, Heidi replied; something that is apparent as soon as you meet them and enter their home.

I asked what was hard about living in such a small house? Max paused for a moment before answering, “Having dance parties”, followed by Heidi piping in with, “So true. There’s really only enough room for a solo dancer”. But this was followed by a serious discussion about storage and space. They grow or forage most of their food, so the drying and storage of food can be a real issue; a problem they seem to get around with creative solutions, as their tales of hammocks of squash above the bed and tomato plants hanging in the living room indicate. And looking around inside their home, inventive locations are found for everything, such as the box of squash and bottles of homemade wine and cider nestled behind the ladder to their loft. As Max remarked, “I think that this fall was the first time either of us said ‘Gee, it might have been nice to make the house 4 ft longer.’”

But the lifestyle clearly suits them and their personalities. Max sums it up well when he said, “We’re quite remarkably happy in there. Everything works for us. We’re constantly talking about the house and what we need to do with it or what it needs to do for us. It’s still evolving.”

Their neighbour Mark is a natural builder who has been involved in building half a dozen different tiny homes, and built his own house for just $3500 (excluding the cooking and wood stoves). “I can probably tell you where every piece of wood actually came from,” he admitted, and proceeds to give me the run-down of the salvaged, traded and local materials he used to build his house. His house is a little bigger than some at 11ft x 22ft, but like Max and Heidi, he find it’s important to have that extra space when homesteading and storing food.

His motivations are pretty clear. “It was achievable. I didn’t need to borrow multiples of my annual earning potential from a financial institution owned by shareholders who were going to charge me a bunch of interest, and then I was going to have to work for a couple of decades or more to pay for it. I could address my housing needs in a couple of years if I spent a bunch of time salvaging lumber and built it myself. I’m not saying that tiny homes are the be all and end all, but they have some clear advantages when real estate prices are not a reflection of a place to live for people, but a commodity in a financial system.”

I asked about the best things. “Well I cleaned it this morning and it only took about 25 minutes,” he joked before adding, “Maintenance costs are super low. Cheap to live in, cheap to run.” And the hardest? “You can’t go into the other room. There’s a whole sense of space that North Americans are accustomed to. I wouldn’t call it a disadvantage, maybe a cultural norm.”  

The newest additions to the affectionately named ‘Swaletown’ neighbourhood, are Dan and Jess, who are currently full time wwoofers on the farm, and building their 10 x 24 ft tiny home in their spare time. They’re using a small amount of salvaged material, but mainly lumber milled on the farm (mostly milled by Dan), as he explained, “We like to reuse and do what we can, but it boils down to what’s within our ability to do, and what’s within the time frame we have”.

They’d been thinking about building a tiny home for the last few years, but Dan’s move to Cortes just over a year ago gave them the opportunity to make it happen. They tracked down a trailer, managing to get it for free in exchange for building a chicken box. They started construction in late January and are hoping to be moved in by the fall. Jess is looking forward to the limited space; “I don’t want more space than I need. And I want to make the most out of the space that I have”, and Dan thinks of it as being a political act; “What do people really actually need, and what can people be content with? That looks a lot different from what a lot of us have been raised with.”

I asked them why they think that the tiny home movement is growing so rapidly. As others have pointed out, Dan thinks that it’s due in part to economic pressure. “It’s what it takes to get into a conventional house/mortgage setup, that takes full time jobs and working most of your life away to pay the bills for your house, and gets into a cycle of work, work, work and mortgage, mortgage, mortgage. A big part for us is wanting to stay out of debt and having more time to spend on things that we want.”

When I asked what they thought was going to be the best thing, the answer was clear. “Just having a place of our own, that we’ve built, that we own,” Dan answered, with Jess following up, “And I think once we’re done, it’s going to feel like such an accomplishment, coming from the beginning just thinking about it, it felt so daunting, because neither of us had building experience.”

The community aspect of this particular tiny house situation is also appealing. Unlike conventional community living scenarios that can have high upfront costs and a long term commitment, a tiny home community can be quickly put together on rented (or owned) land, and if the setup no longer suits your lifestyle, you can move your home with you instead of being forced to leave or sell your share. And as Dan sums up, “To be in that community with those people is an epic aspect of being able to wheel your house around, and other people being able to wheel theirs around. So we’re really excited because when we are living in it, we’ll be living with a really great group of people who are doing the same thing.”

Another Cortes islander who’s chosen the tiny home way of living is Tess. A single mother with two young children, a tiny home offered her a different option. Getting year-round rentals on Cortes can be challenging, and she struggled to find a stable home. “No one would rent to me because I had kids”, she told me, sparking her to visit over a dozen tiny homes on Vancouver Island and the surrounding area, before designing the floorplan of the house herself.

However, by her own admission, Tess is not a builder, and with a 2 year old and 3 ½ year old to look after, building the house herself was not an option. As she puts it, “I’m not a builder. I’m an artist, I’m a mother. Can you imagine my toddlers holding the hammer for me?” She’d spoken to a builder in Vancouver, but ended up contracting Mark and his business partner to build her tiny home for her. She had some savings, and took out a small loan to bridge the gap to the cost of her home. “That equals 2 ½ years rent,” she pointed out adding that, “And I’ll actually have something in the end! And something that’s moveable because I don’t own land, and I don’t intend to.”

Within two months of work starting, her 200 ft2 home was built, and they moved in a fortnight ago. When I asked her how she’s been finding it, she was really positive. “It’s been really good. I’ve been organising and making things multipurpose. So if you have a chair, it should also function as a towel drying area. And if you have shelving or counters, it could be a desk as well. Having zones and being super highly organised and knowing where everything is.” She also had an interesting perspective on the growing interest in tiny house living, “I think it’s ancient. People have always been moving in their little houses.”

And how is sharing such a small space with two young children? “One day when they’re big enough, they’ll each have a loft, but right now we’re all just sharing this bottom floor and it’s kind of crowded. So for the time being we just have to utilise our outside space. But it’s hard sometimes on rainy days.”

So would she recommend it to other people? “I’m happy with the choice I made.  I always have something to fall back on. I’ll never be homeless. There’s always somewhere to put a little house. It’s very practical and I think it’s good for single mums.”

When I asked everyone their advice for people thinking about the tiny home life, the answer was a resounding “Go for it”. But this was backed up by some helpful and specific thoughts. Dan recommended getting assistance and support early on in the process, “See if you can get some help in the early stages, to get things plum and square and where you need them to be. We had a lot of really invaluable help at the beginning, and without that we would have been really hard pressed to come up with a product that’s going to last and that’s going to be watertight.”

A good wood stove came up repeatedly as a worthy investment, with Mark explaining that, “If you put a stove that’s too big, it’s not a good system because you can’t ever fire it up and burn it in its optimal efficiency range.” He also advised people not to underestimate the work; “Don’t get thinking it’s not going to be a lot of work and super fast. It’s still building a house.”

Tess shared her thoughts about owning a trailer cooperatively between several tiny home dwellers. “If there’s a coop for the trailer, build your house up on blocks, and just use the trailer when you’re ready to move it.” And Charlie sums up what can be a really positive side of needing help during the building process, when she said, “I'm really excited to live in a house built by my friends and family.“

Tiny home life may not be for everyone, but whether it’s economic pressure or a desire to live simply, there are a lot of reasons to think small. Because when it comes to making a home, size isn’t everything.

-Steph Wetherell

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