The Tiny House Movement: Living Large in Small Spaces

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Christopher Smith on the roof of his tiny home. Screenshot from Tiny: A Story About Living Small trailer.

Christopher Smith on the roof of his tiny home. Screenshot from Tiny: A Story About Living Small trailer.

Imagine living in 100 square feet. Now imagine building your own 100 square-foot house from scratch without any experience with construction -- and filming the process.

Christopher Smith and Merete Mueller did just that, and their film, "Tiny: A Story About Living Small," screened this Thursday at the bi-annual American Institute of Architects San Antonio's Committee on the Environment (AIA COTE) cinema night. Smith was one of countless people – truly countless, for reasons I explore below – drawn to the idea of small, portable homes.

Henry David Thoreau is, for many, the icon of small living. In "Walden," Thoreau writes how he “went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

Jay Shafer, who founded Tumbleweed Tiny Homes in the late 1990s, was the catalyst for this “Tiny House Movement.” Tiny dwellings offer the chance to escape from mortgage debt and utility bills. What’s more, they afford the freedom to move your home wherever you like, since tiny houses that meet regulations can cross state lines.

Viewers take their seats in the Cleary Zimmermann warehouse. A food truck was on hand for refreshments. Photo by Gretchen Greer.

Viewers take their seats in the Cleary Zimmermann warehouse. A food truck was on hand for refreshments. Photo by Gretchen Greer.

Although some like to define tiny houses more strictly as portable structures less than 200 square-feet, Shafer prefers to think of a small house as one “in which all space is used well.”

For Smith, the child of a peripatetic military family, building his own tiny house was a way of defining what home meant for him. With a limited budget and three months in the summer, he set out to build a home for himself with the help of his then-girlfriend, Mueller. It ended up taking them over a year to build their 133 square feet with the help of YouTube videos of everything from wiring electricity to sewing curtains.

Christopher Smith and Merete Mueller spent more than a year building their 133-square-foot home with the help of YouTube videos of everything from wiring electricity to sewing curtains. Screenshot from Tiny: A Story of Living Small.

Christopher Smith and Merete Mueller build their 133-square-foot home. Screenshot from "Tiny: A Story About Living Small" trailer.

Greg Parham, Texas native, UT School of Architecture graduate and founder of Rocky Mountain Tiny Houses, takes inspiration for his Tiny House designs from tepees, wigwams and adobe structures. As with the tepees of the Great Plains, open spaces become an extension of your home.

Dee Williams, proud owner of a self-constructed 84-square-foot home, decided to build small after being diagnosed with congestive heart failure. As she accepted a more flexible idea of how long she would live, she began to consider a more flexible way of living.

“I want my life to be orchestrated in a way that allowed me to access who I am,” she tells us. For Williams, and many other tiny house owners, time is the most valuable resource that living small has made available to them.

Tempted? The average cost for building a tiny trailer-top house yourself is about $25,000. Pre-fabricated models, such as those from Tumbleweed, cost closer to $60,000. The International Residential Code mandates that every dwelling must have at least one habitable room of no less than 120 square-feet, not less than seven feet wide in any horizontal dimension. This means that tiny houses do not comply with the law if they are determined to be dwelling units.

The floor-plan of Smith and Mueller’s tiny house accompanied a scale plan laid out in duct tape on the warehouse floor. Photo by Gretchen Greer.

The floor plan of Smith and Mueller’s tiny house accompanied a scale plan laid out in duct tape on the warehouse floor. Photo by Gretchen Greer.

Building on a trailer offers a loophole, as your structure is then technically considered a “temporary” residence. But many people simply don’t register their houses, and live on rented or borrowed land, so it’s almost impossible to gauge just how many tiny householders there are in the United States today. It is safe to say, however, that the number is on the rise.

The popularity of the Tiny House Movement has interesting implications for the future of building. In a culture steeped in acquisition and "more is better," this movement demands a radical re-work of our relationship to possessions. Nowhere is its message more relevant than in rapidly growing cities such as San Antonio, in a state that defines itself by being “bigger.” The movement invites us to rethink not only our notions of home – as Merete writes, "if home isn’t space or stuff, what is it?" – but also how we value space. As Jay Shafer said, “Home is a self-portrait."

While most people seldom think of it as a finite resource, space is one of our most precious commodities in a city.

Occupants of small houses are forced to prioritize: More light means less storage, more porch means less interior space. Such limitations often foster remarkable creativity, including multi-purpose furniture and hidden cupboards. In "Tiny," the owners’ joy in their ingenuity and its results is manifest.

Occupants of small houses are forced to prioritize: More light means less storage, more porch means less interior space, but homeowners can enjoy the ingenuity that manifests. Screenshot from Tiny: A Story of Living Small.

Screenshot from "Tiny: A Story About Living Small" trailer.

For UC Berkeley Professor Karen Chapple, just thinking about living smaller may help us learn to build more sustainable communities. “We don’t all have to give up all our possessions and live in 89 square feet,” she said in the film. “But let’s think about giving up our McMansions and building a little smarter.”

As Parham observes, a tiny house is more “green” than a larger one with water recycling, solar panels, and net zero energy. Buildings currently produce over half of our air pollution. Beyond the personal benefits, smaller living means a smaller strain on natural resources.

Many of these tiny houses are off-the-grid, powered by solar energy, with composting toilets and hook-ups for water. Parham emphasizes using materials “honestly,” both in terms of function and aesthetic. Smith and Mueller used reclaimed materials wherever possible.

Tiny living is not without practical limitations. An avid cook, for instance, may have difficulty with two burners and limited storage space for ingredients and utensils. An artist would have no room for an easel, nor would an architect have space to unroll a set of plans. As Mueller says in the film, tiny houses force you to reconsider your priorities, to think about what sort of place you want to wake up in every morning.

Carlos and Michelle Cruz, co-chairs of AIA COTE. Photo by Gretchen Greer.

Carlos and Michelle Cruz, co-chairs of AIA COTE. Photo by Gretchen Greer.

The AIA Committee on the Environment, co-chaired by Michelle and Carlos Cruz, aims to raise awareness of sustainable practices relevant to rapidly growing San Antonio. More purposeful thinking about space, resources and planning could be decisive in shaping what sort of city San Antonio is going to become.

So while "Tinywill no doubt inspire some to embark on their own tiny house journeys, for the rest of us it might start essential conversations about what space means to us, and what sort of space we want San Antonio to be.

*Set/featured image: Christopher Smith on the roof of his tiny home. Screenshot from "Tiny: A Story About Living Small" trailer.

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7 thoughts on “The Tiny House Movement: Living Large in Small Spaces

  1. I’m so excited about this post. Micro homes are the future. The kids at Warren get it. Look what they’ve been doing at their construction academy…

    http://tinyhousetalk.com/indian-blanket-tiny-house-for-sale/

    Too bad zoning is difficult. I’ve been dreaming of my own on wheels for 5 yrs, started saving, planing and researching for 2 yrs. I live in the Deco district and I love my quiet side of town, but I’ll have relocate for the build in another year or so.

    Just to throw it out there, my hs sweetheart is 6’1 and claustrophobic… and he only demands dormers in the loft. The point is to get out of the cave and out into the world.

    Luckily Texas is horribly hot year round and if you’re not always running towards anything with A/C, you’ll acclimate. We need to get more San Antonions out and active!

    In regards to the kitchen, I love cooking, and I’ve learned to work in a very small space, plus you can cook outdoors.

    My only problems with trying to downsize and take on this new life style, other than zoning, is finding a place for all the books and clothes I hoard. It’s just a matter of letting go or better yet, a more crafty design to work around these obsessions.

    Tiny living is not for everyone, but there are already people here in San Antonio who want it. The same people we really need to keep in our city, but they run away to places like Houston with more flexible codes or Austin.

    There’s even a group in between here and Houston trying to establish a tiny home community. Then there’s Spur the first town in Texas to take the leap and welcome tiny homes, maybe the first town anywhere, I forget.

    Come on San Antonio! Jump on it, take to the next level!

  2. And a small house movement needs a salvaged materials movement because it isn’t necessary to use brand new material for tiny house construction.

  3. No, thank you. My home is 1,273 sq. ft. and is what I would consider pushing the minimum of what my family needs to be comfortable.

    I don’t like McMansions, I like smaller homes, but these doll houses aren’t for everyone.

  4. I am one step away…from divorce to a drunk driver driving through my home…. my son and I have actually loved our one bedroom apartment.. we went into a two bedroom and just felt augh…. now we are looking at building our own..with our own micro farm.

  5. Tiny dwellings are a norm in San Antonio – at least, in many historic neighborhoods near downtown and inside the 410 loop, with rows of shotgun houses and some alleys serving as secondary streets to current or former smaller dwellings.

    City zoning, historic preservation guidelines and project work should support and encourage cost effective renovation and new construction of such secondary units along alleyways in residential areas near downtown. This could include new rules or leeway regarding subdividing existing parcels, setbacks and parking requirements (to allow more opportunities for tiny dwelling ownership in established neighborhoods).

    Austin’s Alley Flat initiative is one place to look to for ideas:
    http://www.thealleyflatinitiative.org/

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