Small Homes Are Just the Right Size

These homeowners downsized their lives to inhabit hand-built spaces that are easier and cheaper to maintain.

December 2017/January 2018
By Lloyd Kahn

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Photo by Lloyd Kahn

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average size of a new single-family house in the United States in 2016 was 2,640 square feet — almost 1,000 square feet larger than in 1973. Despite that trend, in recent years, some people have opted out of a mortgage or high rent and are living — for at least a time — in small spaces, simplifying and rearranging their lives to do so.

My newest book, Small Homes, is about homes that are larger than “tiny” but smaller than the national average. These are less expensive, use less resources, are more efficient to heat and cool, and are cheaper to maintain and repair. Most of the featured homes have between 400 and 1,200 square feet of floor area — less than half the size of the typical new U.S. home. They vary from unique and artistic to simple and low-cost. Some are plain, ordinary buildings that provide owners shelter at a reasonable cost — and some are inspiring examples of design, carpentry, craftsmanship, imagination, creativity, and homemaking.



The underlying theme is that you can create your own home using mostly natural materials. With most of the homes featured in the book, the owners have done their own work. With others, they hired builders to carry out their plans. There’s an old-school concept working here that’s still relevant in this digital era: A computer can’t build your home for you. You still need the same tools — and human hands.

We invite readers and builders to send us stories about other homes in this size category, along with photos if possible; contact us at SmallHomes@ShelterPub.com. And if you don’t have a small home of your own, we hope these examples will inspire you to follow your downsizing dreams.

See The Shelter Blog for ongoing information on building, gardening, and homesteading.


The Leafspring

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Photos by Rebecca Lamont



Travis Skinner, who works with wood and metal, built his small home, The Leafspring, in Olympia, Washington, where he lives with his dog, Py. Everything in the 400-square-foot structure, from fixtures to switch plates, is handmade.


Digger Mountain Cabin

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Photos by Scott McClure

The LED lighting in this 1,100-square-foot mountain cabin is an efficient means of highlighting the beautiful timber frame. The small home was framed with timber from the building site, as well as a couple of posts scrounged from a meadow. A soapstone woodstove generates warmth indoors; carefully placed skylights provide extra headroom; and a covered porch offers a comfortable outdoor space.


Homestead of Recycled Materials

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Photos by Sophie Belisle and Marc Boutin

The windows of this 1,200-square-foot Quebec homestead face south, which minimizes the need for electric light and heat. Three-quarters of the materials used to build the small home were recycled, and the construction of the building and surrounding landscape was guided by permaculture principles.




Wooden Yurt in the Woods

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Photos by Jesus Sierra

The designers of this 345-square-foot wooden yurt built it, and the furniture inside, on-site with handheld tools. They used wood from trees felled on the land around the small home.



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