My Tiny House Life

What does it take to live in a tiny home? An early adopter of the tiny house life shares her wisdom for living well while living small.

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by Adobe Stock/Colin

The tiny house movement is currently being driven by demographics. In 1960, the American dream house was a three-bedroom, two-bath, two-car garage to accommodate a married couple with children. More than half a century later, the number of single-person households in the United States is about 35 million, and expected to increase to 41 million by 2030. The takeaway? The great American dream house is rapidly becoming outdated.

With baby boomers entering retirement and more professional single folks in the marketplace, the demand for quality, small, custom housing is rising. People are asking themselves, “How much is enough?”

I once asked myself a similar question, and since then have been enjoying life in a tiny home. I learned that “small” in housing can be beautiful, functional, economical, and ecological.

How Tiny Is a Tiny Home?

Typical American house

About 1,200 to 2,000 square feet

Tiny to small house

500 to 1,000 square feet

Tiny, tiny house

224 to 500 square feet

A Long, Long Time Ago

My awareness of tiny houses began in the late 1970s as one of the first graduate students enrolled in Indiana University’s Graduate School of Public and Environmental Affairs. One of our reading assignments was The Limits to Growth, a book that deeply affected my personal understanding of the consequences of exponential population growth and limited resources. I more fully understood the environmental consequences of overstocking and the detrimental consequences of populations overshooting their environments’ carrying capacities.

I also had the opportunity to attend a lecture by Buckminster Fuller and began following his work. One of Fuller’s books, Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, has a quote that still resonates with me: “We are not going to be able to operate our Spaceship Earth successfully, nor for much longer, unless we see it as a whole spaceship and our fate as common. It has to be everybody or nobody.”

a small brown house with shingle siding and a small porch on the side

Interior design of a dining room and kitchen in a tiny rustic lofted house

The next two decades, I traveled as a consultant and project evaluator, mostly in developing countries. I witnessed the effect housing has on human culture, as well as on human’s physical and mental health. Decent and safe housing is the foundation and enabler of thriving societies and functional cultures. How can we, as a species, maintain high-quality lifestyles with an exponentially rising population?

I came to believe that small and tiny homes are one of the solutions, and I made the decision to scale down my lifestyle to fit my new philosophy.

a tiny yellow house on a trailer with a couple sitting out front under a yellow umbrella
a yellow, black, and white diagram of the layout of a miniature house
a tiny bathroom with a small round white sink and a white toilet
interior of a small house with a kitchen counter, a couch, and a small table

interior of a small house with a kitchen and an open door to a bathroom

Deliberate Downsizing

Nowadays, I live with two cats and a 45-pound dog in a tiny to small space of about 750 square feet. But making the transition to smaller-space living wasn’t easy. My biggest task — and still the hardest ongoing lesson in small-space living — is dealing with my “stuff,” which I perceive as an extension of myself. This includes not only objects, but also beliefs, thought templates, habits, eating patterns, groups, individuals, and my personal history.

While studying the stuff I’d accumulated through my various life phases, interests, and businesses, I realized just how much of it I didn’t use or even want anymore. I realized that my preferences, likes, and dislikes had changed with the decades. If only my tastes hadn’t changed so widely throughout the years, I realized with a shock, I could’ve saved hundreds of thousands of dollars over my life.

Once I recognized the extraordinary extent of my personal “stuffology,” I began to systematically eliminate things from my life and living spaces.

I began by finding new homes for items that had grown obsolete for my current needs and aesthetics, yet still had value for someone else. Moving twice and dealing with two closed businesses and my mother’s estate forced me to cull through redundant items, such as two lawn mowers, three vacuum cleaners, and suitcases full of photos. At first, some things were hard to let go of, such as my early-student-era sofa that was so comfortable and had so many dear memories, but was worn beyond rehabilitation. Even Goodwill and Habitat for Humanity wouldn’t take it. With a deep breath and a sigh, I consigned it to the dumpster.

As I decluttered, it became obvious that I had far more liveable space simply because I owned less stuff. Feeling encouraged, I kept sorting, organizing, and clearing out anything that no longer served me. This included beliefs, mental patterns, and even body fat. Yes, I even viewed my excess weight as clutter that had to go.

I made it a game to find useful and appropriate homes for all my stuff. For example, filing cabinets, sagging bookshelves, and older office materials went to Goodwill, so that they might be used by an entrepreneur starting up a new business. Clothes, linens, and shoes I first offered to those I knew who could benefit from them. Craigslist, eBay, and local bulletin boards became a wonderful way to profitably release stuff. Instead of letting mail stack up, I created an organization system and made a habit of handling each paper only once before immediately sorting it into an action-required wall holder, a reading inbox, or archive files.

During the months of my long-term stuffology efforts, I found that housecleaning became a lot easier. A surprising feeling of freedom and relief settled over me. I also gained a deep sense of satisfaction in having just enough stuff. Organization and control emerged from what had been clutter and dust-covered chaos. I was a phoenix rising out of my own debris.

One day, I read this fortune while savoring a cup of tea: “True wealth is the ability to let go of your possessions.” It’s true that I now own less, but I take more joy from my possessions. I have more shelf space, closet room, file space, and free time.

partially constructed small house in the middle of the woods with a gray roof
woman standing amidst framework for a small house on slanted ground with support beams underneath

Customizing a Tiny Space

Anyone who lives in small housing knows it’s necessary to assign multiple uses to each space. My bedroom is also my office, and I use my large computer screen to watch movies from the bed. My dining area includes an antique, round oak dining table inherited from my grandparent. I use it as a dining table, work area, laundry sorter, workbench, and small fulfillment space. This cherished table is on wheels so I can roll it aside and use the area for yoga, my rebounder, and other exercises.

My libraries are scattered throughout the house on various bookshelves. There’s an entire wall of shelves in the second bedroom (which is more like a pantry). Bookshelves above doors hold works by my favorite authors and provide an elegant touch to the entry and exit. Three freestanding bookshelves (on wheels) hold cookbooks; works on permaculture, gardening, microbiology, and farmsteading; and several rows are devoted to agriculture, especially heritage poultry.

I put rollers on most of my furniture to make it easy to clean and transform multipurpose spaces. Wheeled furniture includes a small drop-leaf table in the kitchen, oak dining table, chest of drawers, bookcases, and entertainment center.

Most of my windows have 10-inch shelves wide enough to hold plants, and long enough for my cats to lounge on.

a small yellow house being held up by a crane and two men pushing it in to place

Changes on the Inside

Living smaller has given me a larger life. I don’t spend as much time on maintenance, cleaning, and searching for stuff. I’m still working on stuffology projects. But, for the most part, I’ve kept only the things that give me feelings of usefulness, joy, and beauty. I’m also able to garden again with my chicken helpers, who are enabling me to create compost and topsoil and lead a greener life with healthier foods.

But the best part about tiny home living is that I have freedom from wanting more; I’m content. My authentic wealth comes from staying in my integrity and purposeful work that contributes to possibly making this world better. I endow myself with continuous reading, learning, and being the best I can be, given whatever condition I’m in or facing.

I’m living my handcrafted life, and I’m living in my handcrafted home.

Uses for a Tiny Home

Considering a tiny home for yourself? You can benefit from one if you’re looking for these types of spaces:

Starter homes
Home office
Student housing
Guest room
Semi-assisted living
Rental income
Bed-and-breakfast extension
Home gym or hobby space
Extended home care
Man cave
She shed
Artist or hobby space
Recreational getaway
Retreat center

My Tiny House Construction Experience

For about five years, I co-owned and operated the Tiny House Construction Company LLC. We incorporated universal design into our construction techniques. Universal design, also called “aging-in-place,” is defined by the National Association of Home Builders as “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.”

We incorporated universal design features in all the tiny houses we built. It cost about the same as regular construction. Here are some of the common universal design features:

  • Entryways without steps (we preferred to use ramps).
  • Thresholds flush to the floor for easy wheelchair access.
  • One-story living; lofts can be added to houses with vaulted ceilings to provide extra space for sleeping or storage.
  • 36-inch-wide doorways.
  • Bathtubs and toilets with grab bars.
  • Lever handles on doors, sink faucets, and shower faucets (knobs require more dexterity).
  • Rocker light switches, which are easier to turn on and off than flip light switches.

Our tiny house company used certain products and design choices to create functional, beautiful spaces. If you want to design a tiny house, here are a few factors to consider:

  • Cathedral ceilings can make small spaces seem larger, and you can add lofts to create extra space.
  • Knotty pine paneling on walls gives a room a cozy feeling, and, unlike drywall, won’t crack when the house is moved.
  • Large decks with benches encourage folks to get outside, and give a natural, spacious feel that helps bring the outdoors in.
  • Ceiling fans with lights provide air movement and light from above for an entire room.
  • Nontoxic and hypoallergenic finishes are important for folks with allergies and chemical sensitivities.
  • Embrace bamboo products. Bamboo floors are harder than maple and more dimensionally stable than red oak. The bamboo harvest cycle is only six years compared to 30 to 60 years for hardwoods.
  • Consider using expandable polyurethane foam insulation, because it seals cracks completely and is cost-efficient compared with other insulation materials.

Patricia Foreman is a sustainable agriculture author, pharmacist, local foods activist, and speaker. She was a co-owner of the Tiny House Construction Company LLC, which unfortunately had a short lifespan because zoning and bank financing for customers was so difficult to obtain. This is excerpted from her book A Tiny Home to Call Your Own (New Society Publishers).