Design for Life: When Small is Big

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Tumbleweed Tiny House Company sells several designs including Front Gable, with a cathedral ceiling.
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Tumbleweed Tiny House Company sells several designs including End Gable, with the long side facing forward.
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Tumbleweed Tiny House Company sells several designs including Front Gable, with a cathedral ceiling.
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Tumbleweed Tiny House Company sells several designs including Vardo, inspired by European gypsy wagons.

I thought I knew a thing or two about small-space living. Over the last 15 years, I’ve lived in a 550-square-foot cabin (with another person), a 450-square-foot studio (including my office) and a 650-square-foot two-bedroom house (with another person and my office).

Lately, however, I’ve been hanging out with people who make me feel like I am living in gargantuan dwellings. My teaching partner at New College of California, Steve Beck, has spent years living in homes with less than 120 square feet. Down the road is Jay Shafer, who has lived in a series of self-crafted tiny homes on wheels–the latest a whopping 70 square feet. And I’m in frequent contact with Shay Salomon, who’s chronicling the “small house movement” by documenting the lives of people worldwide who have chosen simple accommodations over daunting mortgages.

Are these folks ascetics or masochists? Stay tuned. In fact, they know as much about true pleasure and satisfaction as anyone I know.

Life as art

Jay Shafer refers to himself as a “claustrophile”–someone who loves being in small spaces. As a child, he enjoyed staying at his grandparents’ “summer cabin,” an Airstream trailer at the lakeshore. He thought it might be pretty neat to live that way all year–an eternal vacation.

Years later, Jay was teaching art at the University of Iowa and telling his students, “Any part of a composition that isn’t working for it is weakening the composition.” One day, he looked around his apartment and realized how much unused space he was paying for. He bought his own 98-square-foot Airstream and moved in full time. “Unnecessary things,” he observes, “demand otherwise unnecessary maintenance and consume the life spent laboring for their initial cost and continual upkeep.”

Meanwhile, Jay was creating gallery installations that explored archetypal and vernacular forms, sacred space and proportion. He also had developed a secret obsession for designing tiny living spaces, for “paring space down to its essence, its most usable form.” When the aluminum trailer proved uncomfortable in Iowa winters, Jay saw his chance to blend art with life. “I started incorporating principles I use in my art into my life and started living artfully.”

Jay’s interests converged in the design of a 130-square-foot dwelling that let him “meet his material needs without exceeding them,” but zoning code prohibited houses that small–unless they were on wheels. Thus was born a personal revolution. Jay built his first tiny house on wheels, dubbed it Tumbleweed and lived in it for several years. He then decided to pare away even more unnecessary space and created a 70-square-foot gem on wheels.

Jay’s work struck a chord, and people began to inquire about his designs. At first, he sold plans, then he began building and selling tiny homes on wheels ( Soon he quit his day job, moved to California and devoted himself to his tiny-house business. “There’s an almost universal appeal in this small house idea,” he muses. “People get very excited when they see a small house–and even more so when they think about living mortgage free.”

Dwelling liberation

One of Steve Beck’s defining moments came in his sophomore year of architecture school when he encountered Man’s Struggle for Shelter in an Urbanizing World (MIT Press, 1964), a book by United Nations housing consultant Charles Abrams that documents housing conditions of low-income people worldwide. Struck by how few people actually can afford decent housing–and how little they really need to meet their basic needs–Steve dedicated his life to making home ownership possible for all.

Over 15 years, Steve designed, built and lived in a series of small, portable houses, ranging in floor area from 64 to 100 square feet. The first was an 8-by-8-foot tent on a platform, and the others were made of insulated plywood panels. They all were designed to be prefabricated, folded into relatively small packages, moved to the site, built and moved again if necessary. Such portability makes these houses excellent candidates for disaster-relief housing that also can transition to permanent housing. If a homeowner decides on a permanent spot, the dwelling can be put on a foundation and finished with local materials.

For Steve, creating tiny houses isn’t a goal in itself; it’s a means to a deeper understanding of what our real needs are and how cleverly we can satisfy them. In fact, his vision extends to something much bigger. “For a long time, my conviction has been that the dwelling process ought to include not only housing but life support (food, water, energy, waste recycling), livelihood, economy and community,” he says. To that end, he’s designing a prototype “intentional community” to be built in Sonoma County, California, that consists of several small dwellings on just enough land to grow all the food a vegan needs (about 1,5000 square feet per person). The little community will be powered by sun and wind, collect rainwater for drinking and irrigation, compost its wastes and include cottage industry for economic sustenance.

Exploring how little it takes to meet our basic needs isn’t about self-denial, Steve points out; it’s about true, deep satisfaction. It’s also about having the time and money to enjoy life, free of the wage-enslavement brought on by today’s high cost of housing.

A story to be told

Several years ago, carpenter Shay Salomon noticed that her clients often craved larger houses than they could afford. “Yet I saw that excessive housing was not leading to excessive happiness,” she says. She began to give lectures about small houses as a solution to both personal and planetary needs. People loved them. Realizing that there was a story to be told, Shay set off with photographer Nigel Valdez to document the growing small-home movement.

“Pockets of people all over the continent are realizing the benefits of scaling down,” Shay says. “They build, remodel, redecorate or just rethink their needs, constructing a joyful, sane life. They think close, warm and simple, applying spiritual and social solutions to their material desires. They reunite extended families, make space for friends and emphasize home life over home maintenance.”

Shay has gathered these tales in a book, Little House on the Small Planet (Lyons Press, 2006). “The small-house movement is a strong social movement, and a beautiful one,” she says.

Carol Venolia is an eco-architect who is passionate about reuniting humans with the rest of nature. She is the coauthor, with Kelly Lerner, of Natural Remodeling for the Not-So-Green House (Lark Books, 2006).