Mountain-dwelling sages aren’t known for replying, “Timing is everything” when they’re asked about the meaning of life, but it’s hard to find a situation where that maxim doesn’t apply in some way or another. Whether you’re picking fruit, stocks or a time to ask for a raise at work, getting the “when” right can make all the difference.
Editor and former carpenter Lloyd Kahn is either very shrewd or very lucky with the timing of his new book Tiny Homes: Simple Shelter. In it, he has compiled photographs, designs and the stories of more than 200 small residences and other buildings. A few are on water or wheels, or in trees; all are smaller than 500 square feet.
To enter this world of small homes at a time when big homes, big mortgages and the ruins of a big housing bubble have demonstrated the perils of excess is to get a lesson in the wisdom of moderation and monetary restraint, and that’s exactly what Kahn intends. The scale of these diminutive dwellings is, admittedly, at the distant other end of the spectrum, and many current homeowners will likely consider the downsizing too drastic for them. But most will also recognize their own urge to simplify, and deciding on 1,500 square feet vs. 3,000 is a big step toward going small.
What these structures might lack in square footage they more than make up for in economy, character and appeal. More important, they focus a lens on our genuine shelter needs and the rewards of meeting them in a simple and purposeful way. They are labors of love, mostly or entirely mortgage-free, and while remarkable in their variety, they seem to share a common “blueprint” of strategies:
• Use salvaged/reclaimed/repurposed materials. One of the featured builders sums it up: “No materials today will cost us less fuel or energy … than the materials we have already harvested.” These environmental benefits are substantial; manufacturing and processing industries tend to be very energy-intensive, so re-use of materials is a planet-friendly choice. Also, discarded building materials typically account for about half of the content of landfills, and diverting them from the waste stream is another big win.
Then there’s the character that comes with age. Salvage logs and lumber, sheet metal, windows and other building materials typically have life spans of a century or more if properly cared for, and re-purposed versions often have patina or pedigree that new materials just can’t match. Most also offer the added virtue of lower or even no cost.
• For new materials, choose local/regional and minimally processed options. Locally sourced materials mean less fuel usage for transport, and thereby less pollution. Also, natural stone and solid wood can typically be produced with lower chemical and energy inputs than composite, plastic or highly engineered products.
• Use simple tools and techniques: Keep in mind that many great and lasting buildings in many civilizations were created with only manual tools powered by livestock or by human hands. Keep the use of heavy, hydraulic or high-tech equipment to a minimum if you can; you’ll save money by having to contract out fewer tasks, and your DIY effort will give you a more direct connection to the craft of building and the home you produce.
• Keep borrowed funds to a minimum: Not every builder or project followed this path, but most did, and the enthusiasm for homeownership with no mortgage is contagious. The choices outlined earlier will each contribute toward this goal.
• Aim for energy efficiency and/or self-sufficiency: The small footprint of these homes is usually enough to reduce energy and resource usage, but most of the owners/builders went at least one step further. Many use solar panels or wind turbines to generate their own electricity; catch basins or other systems for rainwater storage are commonplace.
Is it realistic to expect that millions of Americans will jettison their conventional digs for homes that are this small and this simple? Perhaps not, but the author doesn’t seem concerned with predicting the conversion rate. Instead, he merely opens the door to the possibility of thinking smaller and smarter when it comes to homebuilding, then lets his readers meet those who have already made the leap.
After so many Americans binged on speculation, easy credit and effortless equity in the housing market, there is no easy cure for the economic hangover that’s giving us all a headache now. But in Kahn’s view, the distress has presented us with a moment of clarity. Instead of merely waiting for the financial pain to pass so we can resume the same bad habits again, we can re-think the pursuit of big houses. We can look for alternatives that are more sustainable economically and environmentally. Whatever real changes ensue will occur neither overnight nor universally, but these tiny homes may just be the next big thing in housing.