Tiny goes big: micro-housing goes mainstream

Apr 20th, 2015 | By FCT

When Steve Jobs gave his famous Stanford commencement address, he mentioned The Last Whole Earth Catalog, which, amongst other innovations that soon came true, predicted (at a time when North American suburbs were growing like wildfire) the rise of small, environmentally appropriate homes.

Nobody (except a few homesteading hippies) took that prediction seriously.

Well, we took the long way ’round, via the ‘McMansions’ of the 1990s, but the tiny house revolution, four decades in the making, is here to stay. The tiny house story has been a media darling (with pieces on Oprah, Good Morning America, Canada AM and CBC Radio) for sure; the question is: how did such a tiny idea get so big?

The answer is one guy: Jay Shafer, a designer headquartered in a vintage Airstream trailer, who built a tiny home for a friend in Washington State back in 2006; her YouTube tour of her tiny house has slowly won over a million hits. Word spread, not through trade shows or industry ads but through blog posts and podcasts and Shafer kept building, eventually starting a company which sold floor plans designed to be built on commercial trailers. Not everyone’s cup of tea, to be sure, but his business—thanks to some great PR and terrific word-of-mouth online—just kept growing. He didn’t sell homes: he sold curriculum—how to build a house from 100 to 400 square feet, in most cases for less than $50K all in.

The intro to his best-selling 2009 book on the movement (that’s what it is now: a movement) says it all:

I live in a house smaller than some people’s closets. My decision to live in just 90 square feet arose from concerns I had about the impact of a larger house would have on our environment and because I just don’t want to maintain a lot of unused or unusable space. My house meets all my domestic needs without demanding much in return. The simple, slower lifestyle it affords is a luxury for which I am continually grateful.

Shafer kept designing small spaces that worked and people kept buying them, often what historically would have been first-time homebuyers who simply couldn’t get into the market—or retirees who cashed out their family homes and wanted something dead-simple as a headquarters for a much more mobile lifestyle: a sold-off primary residence is a lot of airfares to Bali or river tours in Vietnam for travel-crazed retired boomers.

Built on trailers, Shafer’s homes were also property-tax-free in most jurisdictions; gypsy athletes and artists loved them, because you can just pick up and go. The idea caught on with software developers, musicians, chefs and ski bums, so much so that the wood-framed Shafer originals—’Tumbleweed Tiny Houses’—soon inspired remarkably inventive designs in corrugated sheet metal and even burnt Japanese wood clapboard.

Designs grew in sophistication and artist live/work space ‘tiny communities’ sprang up in Philadelphia, Detroit, Phoenix and Los Angeles, modelled on planned communities dating from the 1930s in Davis, California: beautiful tiny cottages gathered around a ‘village green,’ each house less than 500 square feet. The sheer liveability—and, importantly, the change in sense of personal time with little overhead to be funded—grew the movement even more. Grandiose was out for GenXers and GenYers; millennials loved the idea. The tiny house movement grew so big that Shafer, now a young father and husband, sold his company and built himself a non-mobile small home. There are now dozens of spin-off companies building and designing stand alone tiny houses.

By 2010, the tiny house influence had spread beyond early adopters, to shape the thinking of designers already inspired by Japanese minimalism and personal space design in real estate markets perfect for ‘claustrophile’ living spaces: Vancouver, Hong Kong, Taipei and Tokyo. Design magazines like Dwell and Architecture Today ran ‘tiny’ stories and the booming real estate markets in Brooklyn and San Francisco (where $4,000 a month rents are commonplace) made yet more converts. Here’s a four-minute PBS documentary of a typical tiny home owner’s quest to live more and pay less.

The orthodox housing market in Canada hasn’t missed the trend; downsizing condo square footage to keep turnkey costs first-time-buyer affordable is one thing, but there’s also the lifestyle choice as well: families are having children later and many more people are opting not to own cars during their downtown core years. A small space means saving for a family home down the road isn’t so impossible; paradoxically, a smaller square footage means better amenities and fit/finish—you can spend relatively more on great plumbing fittings or kitchen design than the overhead costs of a much bigger space (much of it unused) would allow. Plus (and this is key) you can live in a trendy, distraction-rich neighbourhood where much of your time isn’t spent at home but rather out and about.

Toronto’s SmartHome, an award-winning micro-condo design, takes the best of the tiny house movement’s design thinking and makes it über-urban. See slideshow here: Andthe SmartHome’s $229,000 turnkey price tag means the game is on for developers and financiers alike: design-intensive but space-restrictive, the tiny condos pack great value into very little volume. Here’s a couple of resources on micro-condos and their intriguing prospects for living smart downtown, as well as resale issues and market valuation forecasts.

So I guess the old saying is true: size really does matter.

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