Tiny houses are hot these days. But practical? Can they help save the planet? Quite possibly.
A tiny house is usually 400 square feet (sf) or less, with the average being 186 sf. (By comparison the typical American house is over 2,700 sf.) The tiny house movement developed around the concept of mounting the dwelling on a trailer chassis, but many tiny houses are stationary. And yes, the environmental impact is large.
Heating and cooling an average home releases 12,000 lbs. per year of CO2. A tiny home? 844 lbs.
An average home embodies seven log trucks worth of wood; a tiny home, half a log truck’s worth.
An average home contains 45 light bulbs, versus six for a tiny home.
An average home uses 12,773 kwh of electricity a year versus 914 for a tiny home.
Tiny homes are affordable. The average tiny house costs $23,000 for an owner-build. The typical new American home costs over $272,000. Sixty-eight percent of tiny home owners have no mortgage.
There are obstacles to widespread adoption, however. Banks rarely give loans to build a tiny home. They depreciate in value over time, more like an automobile than a traditional house.
Local zoning laws can also be an obstacle. Many tiny home aficionados aspire to live off-grid or without conventional utilities, but municipalities may require a full sewer hookup or conventional septic system. Building on a trailer may not be a way around these laws. There are ordinances in many areas against living full-time in what may be considered a travel-trailer.
Other, more traditional ways of ‘living small’ have no legal challenges. It’s widely recognized that an urban apartment can be more environmentally friendly than a country house, due to the shared envelope of an apartment building, access to public transportation, walkability, and closeness to service infrastructure like laundromats.
Another approach is to shut off part of a larger house during the winter. The occupants can den up close to a wood-stove and stay cozy for six months, then expand into other areas of the house during the warmer months, perhaps developing a cool grotto in the basement for very hot days. This can reduce your carbon impact, though not your fixed costs.
Whether urban or rural, living tiny can free up your mind and time for other pursuits—gardening, activism, the arts. Space can limit some of those activities, however. In our 450sf home, it can be hard to find a place to store the harvest, ferment wines, overwinter geraniums, or spread out a knitting project to block. (On the other hand, finding a friend or family member’s space in which to do these activities builds community.)
Success in tiny home living depends on access to excellent city amenities, or a large outdoor area. For example, we have a freestanding screened porch, bathhouse, and storage shed, so, especially in the warmer months, there is a feeling of elbow room.
The other issue with tiny home life is stuff. Look closely at photos of tiny homes. You’ll see a minimum of clutter—no mail, no magazines, no library books, no children’s toys, no dogs, and, in fact, almost no people. That helps make the pictures pretty, but obscures the scale. Really, almost no one will always have a place for everything and always put everything in its place. Your stuff is going to be scattered about at least some of the time. That has disproportionate impact in a tiny house. You can’t not see it. You can live with this by becoming neat, by not caring, or by creating some even tinier oasis of serenity—but one way or another, you will deal with it.
But most people have ‘lived small’ on this planet. There are models. Two sailors have walked into our house and exclaimed, ‘It’s a boat!’ For weathering life’s storms, or helping the Earth do so, a tiny house can be an empowering choice.
Jessie Haas has written 40 books, mainly for children, and has lived in an off-grid cabin in Westminster West, VT since 1984, www.jessiehaas.com.