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April 1, 2016

Architecturally Adventurous

An Blog Post by Holly Butler, AIA NCARB

Tiny Homes have been getting some bad press lately.  What started out as the darling of forward-thinking homeowners has become somewhat of an eye-roll inducing byword for starry-eyed naivety.  Last July Tech Insider published an article by Megan Willett titled "Living in Tiny Homes was Much Harder than these People Realized" which detailed three cases of failed Tiny Home Dwelling attempts.  The article got a lot of attention.  Everyone seemed to have an opinion, most of it negative against the Tiny Home movement.  But was this criticism fair?  Were the problems that caused the abandonment the fault of the home size or the homeowner?  

The first tiny home featured in Willet's article is a 130-square-foot edifice hand built by Joanna and Collin Gibson in Stratford, Ontario.  The Gibsons were newlyweds who loved the romance and adventure of the idea.  However, when Joanna became pregnant six months after completion, health problems and the presence of an infant caused the couple to move in with family and abandon their new home.  

In my view, the Gibson's experience is the most valid of all the reasons detailed in Willet's article for why a tiny home isn't for everyone.  This couple didn't do anything wrong;  it is extremely hard to understand what having a baby will do to your body and your way of life until it happens.  My husband and I live in a 900-square-foot loft-style berm home.  Our bedroom is snugged up under the rafters and accessed by a narrow, winding concrete staircase with no handrails.  It is our dream home, and we lived here in bliss for seven years before deciding to have kids.  

When I was six months pregnant, I found I could no longer safely navigate our stairs, and we were forced to move our bed into my ground-floor home office.  When the baby was born, we realized that he was an extremely poor sleeper and that the open plan of our house meant that we had to turn the lights and tv off at 6:30 so as not to wake him.   It was a long couple of years, and we are now in the process of adding on two more bedrooms and a new detached garage.  Even though our home doesn't qualify as a "Tiny Home", it was still too tiny for our family.

I can't even imagine how much harder life with a new baby would have been in a 130-square-foot home.  I realize that the pioneers and working poor of the past frequently lived in equally small spaces, but I don't want to return to those times.  Imagine maneuvering up and down a ladder to a bed platform while pregnant or carrying an infant.   And what do you do when your baby becomes a teenager?  Eventually, everyone is going to want some privacy.   

Unfortunately, the article's remaining examples of people who abandoned their tiny homes aren't as straightforward or free of blame as the Gibson's, which is probably why Willett addressed them first.    Take Jonathan Bellows, who went ahead and built his home without getting a permit.  Four months after moving in, Bellows came home to find a sticker on his window informing him that his structure was illegal.  It turns out his town has a minimum building size of 960-square-feet.  Bellows half-heartedly tried to appeal, but soon gave up and moved to Oregon, leaving his tiny home to rot.  Now, this example is just stupid and has no bearing on the home itself or the tiny home movement in general.  Bellows should have gotten a permit and followed the law.  If he didn't like the law, he could have tried to change it, or he could have applied for a variance.   Simply ignoring zoning and code requirements and hoping for the best always ends badly, and he has no one to blame but himself.  

The third abandonment is also due to planning failures rather than home size.  Kristen Moeller and David Cottrell budgeted $160,000 to build a 760-square-foot cabin at a remote site in the Colorado mountains.  While this may sound like a more than reasonable amount,  Moeller and Cottrel ignored the realities of living off the grid and failed to incorporate many items they needed.  The house and the site required extensive fireproofing due to the likelihood of wildfires, and the windows had to be able to resist high winds.  And while off-the-grid living sounds great, in reality, it is extremely expensive and hard to do.  The couple ended up going $100,000 over budget and the home still had problems with roof leaks and plumbing problems, but they were happy with it and would have stayed.  What was the straw that broke the camels back and led to them abandoning?  They couldn't get internet access.

And there you have it.  What I find interesting about Willett's article is that she could only find one example of people moving out due to the size of the house itself.  The other two reasons were because of planning failures which could happen to a project of any size.  Many municipalities have laws requiring minimum square footage, setback distances, and height limitations; you must find out these requirements before starting any project.  You also must take your building site into consideration.  Can you connect to power and sewer?  If not, why on earth would you not put that into your budget?  The failure of Moeller and Cottrell to consider this is just mind boggling.  How do you overlook something so fundamental?  In addition, they had already lost one house on the site to a wildfire;  why were they surprised that they would have to protect their new home from the same fate?

I have titled this post "Qualified Defense of Tiny Homes" because while I believe the original article to be mostly unfair, Tiny Homes do still have issues that must be considered.  First of all, they are expensive to construct;  the General Conditions portion of a construction contract includes all of the incidental items necessary for the build including labor, overhead and profit, temporary utilities, dumpster, cleanup, and much more.  On an average home General Conditions can be 25 to 30 percent of the final cost, but it adds up to a much higher cost per square foot for Tiny Homes.  Tiny Homes also require expensive custom built-ins and detail work.   Lots of people try to save money by placing their Tiny Home on a trailer chassis rather than a concrete foundation, but this makes it almost impossible to get home owner's insurance.  That's a big risk to take.

Once you factor in the basics of building code, zoning, and budget requirements, the most significant consideration, which the Gibson's and I found out first hand, is the inherent size limitation.  Tiny homes are small.  Really small.  You won't have a walk in closet.  You won't have two bathrooms.  You will experience every noise and smell your family members make, and vice versa.  There is no privacy.    In my opinion, it would be a disaster to try to raise a family in 130-square-feet of living space.  

Tiny Homes tend to work best for childless couples and singles.  If you honestly can live with these limitations, there is no reason a Tiny Home can't work for you.


1.  "Living in tiny homes was much harder than these people realized."

Techinsider.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Jul. 2015 <http://www.techinsider.io/five-people-who-abandoned-their-tiny-homes-2015-7>.

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