How much space do you REALLY need to live in?
This blog series is about how you can get ready for the future. It’s going to be very prescriptive and grounded in personal experience. I’m kicking it off with an explosion of ‘tiny homes. Tiny homes (TH) is about the shelter you will need in the coming years. In the interest of transparency, you should know that Ellen and I are starting the process of designing and building ‘his and her’ tiny homes in the Tucson area.
So why downsize and decrease our shelter footprint by 50%? We moved out of a 4000-square-foot McMansion five years ago on the hill. Now we have 2500 square feet of living and creative space. Next, we go for 1560. Why? Because we believe that all of us need to work on:
- providing more housing equality,
- be ready for a larger aging population,
- and reduce our energy footprint to help save Planet A – there is no Planet B.
The advent and spreading availability of tiny homes are what we futurist types call a weak trend. It’s just flying under the radar and hasn’t blossomed into a full-blown trend. We’re betting it will. Currently, the most common use in urban areas is for low-cost housing for homeless and addiction recovery shelters. But that is about ready to change.
What’s a ‘tiny home?’
Think of Henry Thoreau living on Walden Pond. But it’s actually older than that. In the United States, they can be traced back to the ancient Sioux tribes. You can see a complete history here. Casitas in the Southwest, Granny Flats in the Mid-West, or a Cottage up in Maine. All the same.
Now technically, they are being called “Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs)” by the planning and zoning folks. Although there is no uniform definition, practically, an ADU is around 400 square feet or 20 feet by 20 feet. So, we are pushing that limit a bit because we are designing from the ground up, anticipating space needs into the future. For example, maybe a 90-year-old, mobility-impaired person needs slightly wider doorways and wheelchair accessibility.
Aside from size, they come in all shapes and layouts. Some are even mobile built on a wheeled chassis and ready for this? In a box.
We think they will be the next step in the evolution of this housing solution. These won’t be stand-alone units – they will be intentionally designed communities. Say, 15 -25 units neighborhoods. See where this is going? Que the pictures. A couple of examples.
One way to look at this coming trend is to compare these ‘tiny communities’ to what we now have as ‘co-housing’ communities. They are an “intentional community of private homes clustered around shared space such as laundry, common areas, and recreational spaces.”
We believe the central shared spaces will morph into community service areas with on-site health care, learning spaces, and municipal social services. Community-centered well-being is our design goal.
What about costs? Costs vary widely from area to area, availability of materials, and contractor fees. Industry averages now are about $160 per square foot. Compare that to $200 per square foot averages for single-lot suburban homes. This excludes land costs which are offset by the increased density of the development.
Roughly, a tiny home’s energy costs (per square foot basis) are about 50% of a typical residence. Savings come from smaller appliances, heat pumps instead of ducted forced air, and increased insulation. Even more, savings can accrue with blended solar power with battery backups.
How do you get there from where you are? A space reduction of 50% doesn’t happen magically. Estimate it will take a year to be ready to make a move in. There are two significant actions you need to take:
Get rid of all that stuff you have accumulated over a lifetime. We suggest a three-step process:
Purge – A good rule of thumb is if you haven’t used something in over a year, get rid of it. Garage sale, donation, or in extreme cases, an estate sale manager.
Prune – With what’s left, think about what I really need in my new home? Do you really need three sets of services for eight? Four saucepans? Four sets of extra bed sheets?
Prioritize – The remainder goes into ‘use it every week,’ ‘every month, or ‘once a year’ piles. One trick we’ve heard is to take everything and put it into a storage unit, except the day-to-day stuff. Then, as you need something over time, go to the storage area and retrieve things until you have maxed out storage in your ‘tiny home’. You know what to do with the leftovers, right?
- Design Help
We can’t stress this enough. Unless you personally have a strong design background, reach out and find a pro you can work with. If you are building from the ground up, you will have to do this to obtain permitted construction plans. If you are doing a semi-custom pre-fab, there will be many detailed design tradeoffs. It will be a much better residence.
If this is such a great idea, how come it hasn’t taken off yet? Great question and we’ve found three significant restraints to ‘tiny home’ development scalability.
The first is zoning. Many municipalities don’t’ have zoning ordinances to accommodate ‘tiny homes. They don’t know if they are ‘mobile homes,’ modular units, or ‘accessory dwelling units (ADUs).’ How do you get a permit if they don’t have a category? This is beginning to change, but you first need to check with your local planning and zoning office BEFORE you commit dollars to this project.
Financing. ‘Tiny Homes’ are (in most cases) not eligible for traditional mortgage financing. There are two problems here. First, the loan amounts are minimal compared to a typical single-family home. Banks don’t make as much money on these loans as larger ones. Secondly, most mortgage financing underwriting requires the structure to be on a permanent foundation.
NIMBY. “Not in my backyard, you don’t.” Unfortunately, this attitude is more common than you would think. Part of this is because ‘tiny homes’ are still seen as a living option for the homeless, recovering from substance abuse, and people on the lower rungs of the social ladder. This attitude gets fed back into the zoning process.
However, the good news is that this seems to be changing as ‘tiny home’ developments begin to aim at affluent remote workers and the elderly. My final advice is to stay with your vision and be patient.
This whole transition out of mass consumerism, disregard for the environment, and lack of genuine community will take time. But, it has STARTED.
Take us home, Phil