The Psychology and Architectural Inspiration Behind the Tiny Home Movement

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What seems beyond fathomable to Americans has actually been in European practice for centuries. The concept of owning a large home is one that is relegated to the affluent in all parts of the world, but in American culture, even the middle class and lower income level families aspire to have the largest home possible. Or at least they did, until recent economic changes have altered the financial reality for Americans.

Ask someone in New York if a 500 square foot space is adequate room to live. Given the premium rental and real estate costs of major cities, smaller living quarters are standard. People learn to own less, and do more without the burden of having cluttered possessions, or large rooms that are an additional expense to heat or cool. Could you see yourself in a home that is less than 400 square feet – the definition of a “tiny home” by trend and cultural standards?

We will explore the motivation and pop culture phenomenon of the tiny house movement, particularly in the U.S. The practicalities and motivational factors that are encouraging more Americans to “dwell small” and “live large,” and why the tiny home movement is actually a positive, economic influence for young, middle-aged, and senior Americans entering into retirement.

The End of “Bigger is Better” in America

The numbers do not add up, but they make for an interesting cultural discussion. In the United States, the average new single family home design grew from an average of 1,700 square feet in 1978 to over 2,600 square feet in 2013. An increase in affluence and income drove the size and the opulence of homes upward, even as the size of American families shrunk.

First came the small house movement, which by definition is a home below 1,000 square feet. Author Sarah Susanka penned “The Not So Big House” in 1997, and is thought of as one of the leaders and trendsetters that started the “thinking smaller” movement. In 2005, the FEMA trailers sparked both empathy and intrigue, as the world saw how families could function with minimal expenses, while meeting all basic needs of shelter, sleep, and food preparation. After Hurricane Katrina, an architect named Marianne Cusato created 300 square foot “Katrina Cottages” which were an alternative to the small FEMA trailers, and were arguably the first example of “tiny house” living and culture.

Small houses of less than 1,000 square feet represent less than two percent of financial real estate transactions today, as space and prestige are still driving factors for larger homes (and mortgages).  However, the expense and environmental impact of owning a large home (with rooms of empty space) became impractical after the financial crisis of 2008, when families – particularly Baby Boomers – lost tremendous wealth in the investment markets, followed by unemployment and the “credit crunch.” 

In 1963, the median cost of an average family home was only $19,300. In 2010, the average cost of a single family dwelling was reported as $272,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The average household income in 1963 was $6,200, while the average American household income in 2015 was reported as $65,910 (combined dual income households), while single incomes averaged at just over $42, 000 per annum. When factoring inflation, escalating fuel and resource prices, unemployment, and rising cost of living, the priority of owning a large house and the ensuing large debt and mortgage that comes with it seems to have adjusted with the blows dealt to the global economy. People around the world (not just America) are looking at their expenses and finances in an entirely different way now, and realizing that for many, a large house and expenses simply do not work. Bigger is not always better, and that has been a slow but eminent realization for Americans who are culturally adjusting their expectations to align with their incomes, while prioritizing solvency and financial freedom.

The Tiny Home Nation: Frugality Trends

From an economical idea and preference, to a subculture of individuals who are inspired to live in tiny homes for unique reasons, for some, a tiny home is a cultural change that moves them toward sustainable living. This leads to a smaller carbon footprint and off-grid technologies, including solar power or wind turbine electricity generation. For ecologically minded tiny home owners, going off of the grid also involves saving money on things like utilities.

For other people, the rising cost of rent versus home ownership is the economical factor that drives them toward tiny home life. While major tourist cities can see tiny home prices start at $250,000 or more (the cost of a larger house in less-demand areas), for many people, a tiny home (particularly a mobile option) can be sourced for under $100,000 including property. As the homes tend to be self-sufficient in design, they do not require municipal plumbing and other expenses typical of new home builds. In terms of construction costs, tiny homes are less arduous to build and design, according to a workers' compensation lawyer in Middlesex county.

Tiny Architectural Wonders: Innovation and Design

One of the most fascinating things about tiny home design is the amount of creativity and innovation that goes into the architecture. With a small footprint, every square inch of a tiny home is typically utilized for a practical purpose.

  • Loft spaces are designed for on-the-floor bedrooms and storage.
  • Stairs are dual purpose and often feature hidden storage.
  • Ladders are frequently used to conserve floor space typically allocated for stairs.
  • Appliances are small, including trailer sized refrigerators and convection ovens to optimize cook times and reduce energy usage.
  • HVAC ventilation systems are replaced with wall mounted and dual-function heating and cooling boxes.

How much living space can be put into a tiny home, without compromising on functionality or basic needs? Check out this 30-foot custom home designed for a family in Texas. The phenomenon is trending around the world, including in New Zealand.

Architecture is changing rapidly and aligning to the needs of consumers who wish to simplify both their lifestyle and their finances by living in a small space. The big rewards come when tiny home owners can allocate more money toward life passions and pursuits like travel, or to saving money for retirement. It is practical, creative, and driven by a passionate community inspired to live large by living small – and is unlikely to go away anytime soon.

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