Those of us who grew up in the 1970s may remember economist E.F. Schumacher's seminal treatise Small Is Beautiful, which warned that taking up a lot of space and resources might not lead to happiness, but only frustration and discontent. Schumacher tried to persuade Americans instead to buy into the notion of "enoughness," and strive to obtain the maximum amount of well-being while consuming only what they needed.
Now, a former college professor turned home-builder and designer named Jay Shafer (above) is trying to bring us back to thinking small. Shafer, founder of the California-based Tumbleweed Tiny House Co., is an evangelist for the Tiny House movement, in which architects and builders are moving away from the McMansions of the 1990s and early 2000s. Instead, they're creating more compact and manageable homes, designed for a simpler, less stressful lifestyle. (Here's a recent Wall Street Journal article on the Tiny House movement.)
Shafer designs and builds entire houses that are smaller than some McMansions' kitchens, with a super-efficient living space crammed into as little as 150 square feet.
"I see myself as freeing people," Shafer says. "McMansions are like debtors' prisons for the 21st century. Why pay for all that space that you're not using, for the heating and maintenance, if it doesn't make your life better?"
Indeed, researchers have discovered that many people bought big houses without any idea of what they'll actually do with the room, and ended up living in just a small portion of their costly domiciles. In the quest to fill up the spaces with big-screen TVs and sectional sofas and bric-a-brac, many ended up succumbing to what one market researcher has termed a "claustrophobia of abundance."
Shafer has a better idea. Sell the Xanadu, get rid of a lot of your stuff, and invest $50,000 or so from the proceeds in an elfin dwelling mounted on wheels, so that it technically qualifies as a vehicle and thus gets around the minimum-size constraints of zoning laws. Put it on a tiny parcel, ideally in some picturesque location on the outskirts of suburban sprawl, perhaps in a location where you can appreciate a little bit of nature.
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"The first step is the hardest," Shafer says. "You basically have to do a self-inventory and identify what you really need to be happy. And then you get rid of everything else past that. Then, when you move into a smaller space, it's not confining. It's liberating. You're not tied down by a big mortgage. It's easier to take care of your house and your things. And maybe you don't have to work as long and hard to pay the bills, so you have more time to enjoy life."
As a boy, Shafer grew up in his parents' 4,000-square-foot home, where he was in charge of the vacuuming and helped with other housekeeping chores that ate up a fair share of his time. When he got to college, he found himself temporarily crammed into a suite with a dozen other students who all slept in bunkbeds. He discovered that he was just as happy in that comparatively cramped environment, and that life actually was simpler and less stressful. He went on to a succession of other, even tinier living spaces. "I've even lived in the cab of a pickup truck," he admits.
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In the decade he spent as a professor at the University of Iowa's School of Art and Art History, Shafer graduated to a 350-square-foot efficiency apartment but found that he didn't need that much room. He then switched for a couple of years to an Airstream trailer, but after shivering through a couple of winters with no insulation and reading architect Lester Walker's 1980s book Tiny Houses, he had an epiphany. What he really needed to do was design and build a small house that was properly equipped for minimalist living. It also occurred to him that other people might like to own one, too. In 1997, Tumbleweed Tiny Houses was born.
The idea of living small actually goes back centuries, as anyone who's seen the tiny 18th century colonial houses in older American cities will recall. Mid-19th century American transcendentalist philosopher Henry David Thoreau famously lived in a 150-square-foot cottage. Between 1915 and 1920, the Sears catalog sold tiny house such as this one for just $191 (or $268 if the company pre-assembled it and shipped it to you on a trailer).
Today's tiny house designers have the advantage of lighter, more resilient materials that provide more insulation. Also, they can design with the notion of inhabitants taking advantage of miniaturized electronics and appliances. "If I could put a roof on my iPhone, I'd probably live under it," Shafer says, perhaps only half-joking.
If you're interested in exploring the idea of downsizing your domicile, check out Shafer's The Small House Book, or Lloyd Kahn's Tiny Homes, Simple Shelter: Scaling Back in the 21st Century. Also, you may want to check out this photo essay from the Rowdy Kittens blog on the experience of moving into a tiny house.
SecondAct contributor Patrick J. Kiger has written for publications ranging from GQ
to the Los Angeles Times Magazine
and is the co-author of two books, Poplorica: A Popular History of the Fads, Mavericks, Inventions and Lore that Shaped Modern America