Reclaiming the American Dream 500 Square Feet at a Time

For over a decade the tiny home movement has been picking up steam around the world, but here in America things have shifted into high gear in the past year. Tiny homes have become the answer to a good many problems in our lives, chief among them being debt. For a growing number of people, tiny homes serves as the means for freedom without compromise. In fact, while it may seem like compromise is a natural byproduct of the movement, the opposite might actually be true.

Debt, n. An ingenious substitute for the chain and whip of the slavedriver.
—Ambrose Bierce

As folks transition away from 30-year mortgages and escape the cubicle life they’re finding happiness and fulfillment through a stoic sense of non-attachment. And while it’s nice to live completely debt-free, the attraction of simple, self-sufficient living go far beyond simple finances. There’s a deeper, spiritual connection connecting many folks to their tiny home that stretches beyond their humble abode.

Owning a home has always been a quintessential part of the American Dream. Today however, owning a large home seems to be the aim and over the past 50 years the average square footage has grown from 983 square feet in 1950 to 2,349 square feet in 2004. We envision a large yard with a white picket fence, and a Victorian style house occupying a sizable footprint on the property. But for a growing subset of the population, the reality of owning a large home becomes a source of compounding stress. For some, the choice to abandon the large home in favor of a sustainable, off the grid tiny house is the answer to all their problems.

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photo credit: RowdyKittens

The American economy hasn’t made this change very difficult either, often forcing people out of their larger homes and into a more modest accommodation. As the fiscal crisis of 2008 came into focus, so did the reality of mortgage lenders and the banks who spurred them on. For a growing base of people that included everyone from the homesteading treehugger to the “don’t tread on me” gun-toter took matters into their own hands. If we need further proof of the popularity just consider the media darling of the moment, the new television series “Tiny House Nation”. The tiny house movement has officially stepped into adolescence.

Discovering the virtues of tiny house living

What is the purpose of the American Dream, but to live a free life? Yet we chain ourselves to debt and crumble under its stress. We strive to rid ourselves from excessive worry without stopping to consider the basic places it stems from. In an age where conspicuous consumption drives habits, we are motivated by a mentality that pushes us to gather more and more things, often without thinking why we need them. Perhaps the simplicity of the tiny house movement and its tenets of economical freedom, sustainable living, and ecological consciousness offer a reprieve from the stress and challenges.

Less Reliance on an Established System

Those among us who make the decision to live small find strength in a renewed sense of self-empowerment that emerges. They’re fed up with oppressive property taxes and inflated interest rates coupled with the uncertainty of lending practices. No longer content to buckle under the stress of a job where they donate upwards of 50% of their paycheck to the banks for a mortgage, they set out to a new frontier. They trade property taxes for a DMV bill, a 1/4 acre lot for millions of square miles. While the idea may seem extreme to some, it’s not necessarily about turning away from the norms altogether, and in fact the new financial freedoms that tiny houses provide often translates into a renewed ability to do more for yourself, your family, and peers.

Give Some Get A Lot

Despite their modest dwellings, most tiny home owners find an inverse correlation between square footage and happiness. Indeed as the size of their home grew smaller, their happiness levels increased. The connection with nature that many of these folks value and you could say they’re giving back to nature, who in turn reciprocates her own offerings. Without as much pressure to work a 9-5, they have more chances to give back to the community, their own family, and to themselves.

Create Less Waste

Consider this little tidbit — a ban on disposable drink containers of all sizes in Munich reduced the waste generated by Oktoberfest, which attracts tens of thousands of people, from 11,000 metric tons in 1990 to 550 tons in 1999. In our consumer culture the value of a similar enactment would be immense. The sheer amount of plastic and packaging we dispose as a nation represents a staggering figure. Each year $43 billion worth of edible food is thrown away.

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Tiny homes are usually designed to function off the grid and contain a host of sustainable design features. They use of solar panels for electricity, tankless water heaters, structural insulated panels (SIPs) and composting toilets. Owners may farm their vegetables and raise chickens instead of keeping a pantry filled with junk food and other goods.

Saying Goodbye to Conspicuous Consumption

The pervasive need to acquire more things in order to display importance and dominance has risen to insane heights. Even though we’ve seen shows like “Tiny House Nation” and “Extreme Couponing” become popular, there’s also “Rich Kids of Beverly Hills” on the other spectrum. Teens fantasize about their next pair of limited Air Jordans, and business executives search for their next Audemars Piaget watch, all of it delivered in two days via Amazon.

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A true masterpiece in both interior and exterior design, the “innermost house” exudes a sense of soul Thoreau would be proud of.

This isn’t to say that tiny home owners live without wants, or that they are comparatively poorer than their 3-bedroom owning counterparts. Of course tiny home owners buy things too, but likely for different reasons. They may use extra funds for a canoe to paddle down river on a family adventure, or reach to savings in a time of emergency without worrying about taking on an expensive bill from the hospital. In fact, one of the most important principles from the famous book “The Millionaire Next Door” is that millionaires have a thrifty habit of not spending to excess.

Closer Family Relations

Look at any of the bloggers, from source to source and source and you’ll find inspiration for your own tiny house. There’s a genuine sense of sharing and support with in the community and in many build diaries we see their friends and family eagerly chipping in to pound some nails, raise a wall, or wire the solar panels to a tankless water heater.

Looking toward the family we see a basic equation emerge that goes something like this:

less space x fewer objects = more quality interaction

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This family of four lives in a tiny house they built in 2011. Their story can be found at http://tinyhousefamily.com

Andrew and Gabriella Morrison relinquished their three-bedroom home in the suburbs for a more modest arrangement. They call it the hOMe and you can learn more about their adventure in tiny house building on their website. In an interview about their transition, Andrew explains how the entire family flourished in the ease and simplicity of the tiny house.

I pay a lot of attention to how often I am able to say “Yes” versus “No” in my day to day life. There used to be a lot of “Nos” in our lives. “No” to the kids, to each other, to friends and family. “No” to being able to take spontaneous trips, to watching a movie in the middle of the day, to exercising regularly. What I notice mostly now though is that our lives are mostly filled with “Yeses.”

Everything becomes magnified in a tiny house, including interpersonal relations. The notion of respecting one’s space and privacy becomes an acute part of living together in small quarters. On the surface you may think living in closer confines might have the opposite sort of effect and yet most of the couples and families seem more closely aligned in their new digs.

Innovation

Innovation and tiny house building go hand in hand as we’ve seen. Owners and architects look for creative solutions for storage, energy, and materials without compromising comfort and aesthetic. As the movement gains steam, a host of companies serve the new demand for house plans, pre-fabricated units, and home accessories. Then there are people like Jay Shafer of Four Lights Tiny House company, who designs tiny houses and floor plans with a high end designer feel to them, and Dee Williams who lives in Charlotte North Carolina and serves as a source of inspiration for many of the movement’s fans. She’s been called a pioneer in the community and has been living in a tiny 84 square foot house outside Portland for ten years. She founded PAD, short for Portland Alternative Dwellings, a tiny house education, resource and consulting company that aims to elevate the tiny house movement in a big way. Dozens of blogs have sprouted up that showcase tiny house builds, design tips, and diaries documenting their adventures in living.

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This tiny house is known as the “Minim” house and it includes some of the most innovative examples of design and practicality, without sacrificing comfort. Visit their website for more.

As a new definition of “normal” develops, and fervor for the alternative grows, a full-fledged industry to support the movement has been rapidly growing. The growing trend of downsizing into a sustainable lifestyle is generating new demand for goods and services. Sites like this one provide a wealth of resources where people can buy or sell a tiny home and draw inspiration from others.

Tiny house living certainly isn’t for everyone — those with three kids and two dogs might find it unimaginable. But more often than not people who adopt the new lifestyle find new rewards they never imagined. Those of us who look in on their lives from the outside would do well to borrow some tips from the tiny house way of life regardless of the size of our own home. Perhaps the biggest incentive is the mortgage free life, which provides an opportunity to travel, save more and do things they never could have been able to when they were spending half their income on monthly bill payments.

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