I’ve always been fascinated by small, enclosed spaces. When I was little, I liked creating these miniature drawings of make-believe ladybug, fairy, leprechaun and elf worlds transpiring under ordinary mushrooms, flowers or blades of grass that towered over the tiny creatures they sheltered. I liked the idea of forts and igloos and other small, cavernous, secret places where I could exist in a slightly alternate universe. Even now, on regular walks in the woods I often find myself examining hollow logs or the still waters of shallow creeks looking for signs of life. I’m always amazed that in these seemingly small, insignificant places entire universes unfold often unnoticed. Simple yet complicated societies, universes that are both self-contained and utterly dependent on the other millions of interconnected universes around them.
All this to say that I’ve recently become very interested in the tiny house movement and I think I can trace this interest back to my childhood love of small spaces. Over the last year or so, I’ve read dozens of articles on tiny houses and spaces and have even seen a couple of documentaries on the movement. I’ve talked to everyone I can think of who’s ever lived in a smaller-than-average space because I want to know if anyone out there has really made it work. I’ve contemplated the implications of cutting back – really cutting back – and fitting my entire existence in a 200, 180 or even 140 square foot space and I’ve wondered if this can really be done in any permanent kind of way.
I find the idea of small spaces comforting and delightful in a childlike way (though I’m sure small spaces are some people’s idea of a nightmare); I think of the forts I made with my sister and how simultaneously adventurous and safe they made me feel; adventurous and brave because I was inhabiting a new kind of place that felt secret and magical, and safe because I knew my old familiar world was just a few steps away. Also, the idea that my existence – or anyone’s existence for that matter – can theoretically be so utterly simplified that it fits into 140 square feet is completely dumbfounding to me because it implies that we have all this extra space and stuff lying around that we don’t actually need. Making the choice to live in a small space means that whatever stuff we choose to outfit our personal space with needs to be selected in a deliberate fashion so that it’s just enough; never excessive or frivolous. When I think about all my stuff, I’d say most of it is excessive and frivolous. It all seemed desirable or even necessary at one point, but when I look around, there are only a handful of things I’d really miss.
I have some experience with small-quarter living. In Bogotá, I lived in a 330 square foot apartment for nearly a year. And although this might not qualify as a “tiny home,” it was far smaller than anything I’d ever lived in or have lived in since. In the U.S, 330 square feet might seem crazy small, but in Bogotá, a city of eight million, it didn’t seem so small, perhaps because I did so much of my living outside the apartment, walking to and from work, exploring the city and running errands on foot. But like a dorm room or some other transient arrangement, I never saw my tiny apartment as anything but a temporary situation. So I bought cheap things I used for a year before giving away the better items and throwing away the rest. I never felt like I had to downsize my life in any meaningful way because I kept my extra stuff at my grandmother’s apartment or in my mother’s basement, where it sat waiting for me to start my real, grown-up life, a life large enough to accommodate boxes of childhood drawings, knickknacks and souvenirs and clothes that didn’t quite fit me. By the way, it’s still sitting there, waiting for my real, grown-up life to start.
Because my situation was so temporary, I wanted to talk to people who really did have to make hard choices on what to buy, what to keep and what to get rid of; people who had to make purposeful decisions about what stuff they really needed in their day-to-day lives. Small spaces are usually confined to cities where space is scarce and expensive. I mean, the whole reason people move to the suburbs is for more space. And you don’t hear people living in rural places saying that they stay in the country for the cramped quarters. So I talked to my formerly city-dwelling sister who lived in a 440 square foot, bizarrely laid out converted apartment in Capitol Hill for about two years with her very tall boyfriend and large dog. Somehow, my sister made her apartment look bright and homey and yes, spacious despite its unorthodox layout, sloping floor and cement walls. When I asked her how she felt about living in small spaces she said, “I think they are fine if it’s one person and you don’t have lots of hobbies that take up lots of space, like camping or brewing beer “(her fiancé is really into camping and brewing beer). When I asked my sister if she thought she could live in a tiny space permanently, she said yes, if she was on her own, but not with her fiancé and 70-pound dog, who tends to knock things down with his tail. But my sister is now looking for a townhouse in the suburbs so maybe most of us have some kind of innate need to spread out as we get older and wealthier?
Probably the smallest apartments in the U.S are in New York, where rents are sky-high and space is limited. My friend Courtney lives in Hoboken with her husband in a studio apartment. And I can attest to the fact that it’s small; I’ve stayed there a few times and I’m always amazed by how mindful and organized Courtney has to be with her stuff. I asked Courtney what her thoughts were on living in such a tiny space, and she did not hold back. “My thoughts? It’s a pain in the ass. I love stuff, but there’s nowhere to put it! That means that things get left out much longer than they should while we try to think of creative places to keep it. You would think it would be easy to keep a small space in order, but that’s not the case. At the same time, Jefrey says he hesitates to find a larger place, because it already takes us several hours to clean the studio. We’ve tried to take advantage of as much space as possible. For instance, I’ve used bed lifts since college for extra under bed storage. It finally dawned on me that we could make extra space under the sofa the same way. Fortunately, the closet was equipped with some great organizational pieces, and our drying rack for dishes was already mounted above the kitchen sink. I feel like I’m still living in a dorm room, even though I am rapidly approaching 30. But for me, it’s better to live in a dorm room in a vibrant, exciting, convenient location at 29 than to have a spare bedroom but be confined to a dull, cookie-cutter suburb at 29.” So perhaps Courtney does not share my romanticized notion of small spaces. But then again, Courtney is living the reality of the thing while I’m comfortably sticking to the theoretical.
My cousin lived in a Mount Pleasant studio apartment in D.C for about a year and I was interested in hearing her thoughts, since she is one of the most adaptable and flexible individuals I know, and if anyone were to embrace the tiny home movement, it would probably be her. My cousin said, “I think living in a small place has its benefits. Mainly, you have to keep the amount of junk to a minimum. You have to really decide what is necessary and what is not. It is not that easy but I think it helps me to spend less money which is a good thing. The other part is keeping it clean. I am currently living in a tiny space with my husband and two cats. Two cats in a small space leads to lots and lots of fur if you are not constantly cleaning. The litter must also be constantly cleaned. This would be unbearable on my own, but since Carlo is good at cleaning we make it. Overall I think that if you don’t have many things, you don’t have pets or children, you stay clean, and are a little creative with use of space, living in a tiny studio apartment in the city is very enjoyable. I like living in a busy area where I can walk to several grocery stores, cafes, restaurants, bars, friend’s houses, Meridian or Rock Creek Park at any time. I don’t mind trading some space for location, at least not with my current lifestyle.”
And I think this is what it comes down to: For most of us, living in a small space is a sacrifice — or perhaps a compromise — we’re willing to make at a particular point in our lives when our outdoor spaces and activities are more important than our indoor spaces and activities. When our sense of excitement, vibrancy, satisfaction, energy, well-being, belonging and inspiration comes from our neighborhood, our community or our city, I think small spaces are doable and even welcome. But beyond a certain age and income bracket, I think most of us come to see our homes as an extension of our personality, a sort of physical representation of what we value and who we are. After years of happiness, sadness, unions, breakups, compromises, sacrifices, achievements and disappointments it can be hard to house all of our experiences and memories in 140 square feet, especially when we don’t have to. Of course, much of the world lives in tiny, cramped quarters; entire families in one bedroom ramshackle houses or huts or shacks or otherwise subpar housing situations, and space – having space to call your own, whether owned or rented – is in a way an indicator of wealth and status. The more you and your family can spread out, the more you likely have in the way of resources and disposable income, because space is something that is acquired through wealth. Most people in the world who live in cramped quarters do so by necessity rather than choice. Those of us with access to resources and opportunities have the luxury of downsizing to a tiny dwelling to make a statement or publicly showcase our values and preferences, thus turning our small spaces into lifestyle choices rather than a symbol of poverty and despair.
Personally, I see the whole tiny house movement as more theoretical than realistic…perhaps a lesson in living more simply or as a metaphor for a more deliberate and mindful existence… a more conscientious, purposeful and self-aware way of life in a time when many of us have the luxury to be unmindful in the way we choose to live. It’s an extreme few of us are likely to commit to, but if we see the tiny house movement as a spectrum of simplicity and mindfulness with oversized homes and oversized collections of stuff on one end and tiny houses on another, then I think it may be worth considering, perhaps more as a life philosophy than an actual lifestyle.
In truth, I don’t know how realistic the tiny house movement is. For one thing, tiny houses are expensive. Most of my research puts a tiny house between $30,000 and $100,000. In some parts of the country, you could buy a regular house for that price. Plus, the movement seems to be centered at least partially on sustainability, but it wasn’t lost on me that most of the tiny home pioneers I read about lived in 140 square foot homes….on five acres. Not exactly sustainable in most of the world. Also, having a tiny home seems completely doable if you’re a single guy or girl with a penchant for simplicity and organization, but what if you have a couple of kids and a dog? I’m all about innovative uses of space, but just thinking about having two kids running around an area the size of a McMansion walk-in closet fills me with anxiety. When I first started thinking about moving out on my own I looked at a couple of 380 square foot studios and ultimately decided I felt more at ease with separate living and sleeping quarters. I settled on a 650 square foot basement apartment (nicknamed the hobbit hole by my brother) I have to admit there is something familiar and comforting about my relatively spacious place.
But in my year of tiny house interest, I have thought a lot about my relationship with stuff. I’ve thought about all the money I’ve spent on flimsy, low-quality clothes, impulse online purchases, generic, disposable home furnishings and non-memorable meals out. I’ve thought about all the stupid, regrettable and unnecessary things and experiences I’ve bought out of boredom, impulse, temporary desire or because I thought it was the thing to do even though it wasn’t particularly a thing I wanted to do. And in some ways, I feel like life becomes a little blander and less rich when we are so indiscriminate in the way we spend our time and money, decorate our homes or dress and feed ourselves. So while a tiny home and extreme downsizing might not be in the cards for me, I do think there’s something to be said about being more conscious and mindful about the choices we make and the people, places, experiences and yes, things, we fill our lives with.
If you are interested in reading more about the tiny house movement, I’ve included a link to articles I’ve read over the last year below. Also, HGTV now has a show about tiny houses!