Small advocates: 'A large green house is an oxymoron'

In our age of rising energy and housing costs– not to mention growing worries about the environment– people across the globe are not only going green, they're getting small. Real small.

Like Henry David Thoreau over 160 years ago, who lived for two years in the 1840s in a 150-square-foot cabin on Walden Pond, designer Jay Shafer sought to simplify his life by moving into a 100-square-foot house on wheels he built for himself in Iowa City in 1997.

Unlike Thoreau, Shafer lived for more than two years in his little house, which he named Tumbleweed. He has since founded The Tumbleweed Tiny House Company and helped to co-found, with other advocates of smaller living, the Small House Society. And he still lives in the house.

Shafer's California-based company offers ready-built houses and plans for dwellings ranging from 40 square feet to 500 square feet. Beautifully designed, functional, the houses are a testament to how little is really needed to make a home. For example, his 240-square-foot Rockport model sounds like a veritable mansion, complete with a cathedral ceiling, a cast iron stove, four-burner range, refrigerator, shower, toilet, six-gallon water heater, 125 cubic feet of storage, and a loft that sleeps two comfortably. Of course, Shafer's houses are on the extreme end of the so-called "small house movement," and they are certainly not for everyone. But they do raise an important question: How much space is really enough?

Recently, we wrote about a local housing fund trying to "plug the affordability gap" in the real estate market. Essentially, it involves creating a private fund to help people who couldn't otherwise afford it to buy houses– a sad state of affairs, when you think about it. The truth is, for a growing number of middle- and working-class Americans, traditional homeownership is soaring out of reach. In addition, many people who do own homes have found they've overreached, taking on interest-only or adjustable-rate mortgages they can't really afford and living in mansions they don't really need.

Indeed, as the Small House Society points out on its website, there were 3.8 million large houses (for these folks, anything over 1,000-square-feet qualifies as "large") for sale last August, the highest number since 1993. The way small house advocates see it, people are waking up to the fact that houses are simply too big and too expensive.

Indeed, recent articles in Time, the Wall Street Journal, and on NPR have focused on the trend toward building small. While it's a relatively small trend (understandably so!), and the development of McMansions shows no immediate signs of slowing, a growing number of architects and builders believe that it's time to re-think– and re-size– the American Dream.

"Our housing culture is eating up our county's farmland," says Lexington builder Patricia Foreman, "and big houses are using up so much energy. We're going on a trend that's obsolete."

About 15 years ago, Foreman and her business partner, Andy Lee, founded the Tiny House Company, which makes homes as small as 350 square feet, some with wheels that make them portable from place to place, and others that can be set on foundations and enlarged– for as little as $36,000. The two were featured in Virginia Living magazine, in which Lee laid out one of the core philosophies of the small house movement.

"Living well and graciously in small places demands that you have things to support you and your lifestyle," he said, "not you supporting and storing stuff that doesn't serve you."

As Foreman mentions, an entire chapter in their book, A Tiny House to Call Your Own: Living Well in Just Right Houses, is devoted to a science she calls Stuffology.

"This is a hot topic: thinking about what truly serves you, as opposed to what you have," she says. "As a consumer society, we're conditioned to buy, buy, buy– bigger is better. But the more space you have, the more stuff you tend to have. I think people are really starting to question this way of thinking."

In her 2006 book, Little House on a Small Planet, Shay Salomon– designer, author, and co-founder with Shafer of the Small House Society– tells the story of traveling around the country interviewing people who have decided to downsize their lives. At the time, the book amounted to a radical argument against supporting the development of over-sized houses and an increasingly predatory mortgage industry.

"Many of us know someone who has suffered the consequences of an inflated mortgage, an overwhelming construction project, or a house simply too large to keep clean," writes Shay. "Will our dream homes always be a celebration of excess, and a drain on our lives?"

Shay and other small house advocates also believe the trend toward building more and more McMansions– even with supposedly sustainable designs and features– is a drain on the environment.

"The main determinant to how green your house is, is how small it is," says Shay. "A large green house is an oxymoron."

However, the central question– as Shay asks in her book and small house advocates everywhere seem to be asking– is one that people need to answer for themselves:

How much space does it take to be happy? And how much of life are we willing to sacrifice to have it?

Here's what Walden Pond's small-house advocate had to say: "The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run."

The Tiny House Company's Tiny Grey Cabin, a 10 x 14 foot dwelling with all the comforts of home, including a kitchen, shower, toilet, and a loft that sleeps two.

The Tiny House Company's more ambitious "Copper Top Cabin," a 10 x 22 foot dwelling with a bath, shower, sleeping loft, 12 gallon water heater, and bay windows.

Jay Shafer's 100 square foot home, which he has been living in since 1997.


This story is a part of the Green Home Fall 2009 special.