The Tiny House Movement: A Countercultural but Sustainable Solution

The Tiny House Movement: Challenging Our Consumer Culture book cover

I recently read The Tiny House Movement: Challenging Our Consumer Culture by Tracey Harris, a sociology professor at Cape Breton University in Nova Scotia. Overall, the author argues that the tiny house movement is a countercultural social movement because it challenges many aspects of the American lifestyle and social norms. Some of these include owning a big house with furnishings and “nice” things; taking out loans and “financing” everything. Living in the right neighborhood with the right school, which often equates to a more expensive house. Staying very busy with work to make more money to pay for the house, the maintenance, repairs, and shopping to buy stuff for the house. “Keeping up with the Joneses” sounds stressful. Countercultural is starting to sound pretty good. This book was extremely well researched and well written, and I think all who are interested in tiny house living, minimalism, and sustainability should read it.

Tiny home on water
Image by Leslie Troisi from Pixabay

Tiny Houses

Generally, when I talk to people about my interest in tiny house living, many assume that I mean a 130 square foot tiny house on wheels (also known as a THOW). In fact, tiny houses can range in size from under 100 square feet up to 700 square feet, and small living is sometimes defined as up to 1000 square feet. Some are on wheels, some on concrete slabs or full foundations, and some are floating homes on water (also called houseboats). Tiny houses are versatile, customizable, and much more affordable than the average house. Some are off the grid but many are wired and plumbed for regular utilities. People are interested in tiny homes for a variety of reasons. Some want to work less in order to pursue their true interests; others seek to become and remain debt-free; some want to reduce their environmental impact; and most often, it is a combination of these.

“This transition relates not only to downsizing material goods but also requires a new understanding of what is meaningful and valuable in our lives. Leading lives based on experiences rather than acquisition is countercultural.” -Tracey Harris
Two story tiny house exterior
“Two Story Tiny House,” Park City, UT. Photo by PunkToad on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

Home Ownership in the United States

We now have the biggest houses in the entire world. The average size of a new house in the US has tripled since 1950 and is now above 2,500 square feet and the average price is about $286,000. An upscale tiny house can run over $100,000 but are often less than that. There are also many other differences in cost! It costs much less to heat and cool under 500 square feet than it does for 2,500 square feet. The costs of repairs are lower because there is physically less to repair – fewer windows; a roof that is the fraction of the size of the average home; less electrical to repair, and likely only one bathroom instead of 3! “Big houses require more energy and materials to construct. Big houses hold more furniture and stuff—they are integral parts of high-consumption lifestyles. Big houses contribute to lower population densities and, thus, more sprawl and driving.”1 Overall, larger homes are not good for the environment and are not sustainable.

“It is completely out of control right now, in terms of the size of our housing. We really need to settle down and not only because of affordability but because of sustainability. We cannot sustain the level of growth that we have right now.” -Andrew Morrison, tiny house advocate 

Small house figure on a calculator
Image by Alexander Stein from Pixabay

We have too much stuff

In the United States, we have too much stuff. Our consumer habits are keeping us in debt, polluting the environment, and creating discontent. In addition to our large homes, we pay for additional storage – for stuff we probably don’t need! The self-storage industry grows annually; currently, 9.4% of households in the US, about 1 in 10, rent a storage facility. As a country, we spend $39.5 billion annually on self-storage. What else could we do with that money? There are a few situations in which self-storage is necessary, but self-storage should always be a short term solution.

 

“There are more self-storage facilities in America than there are McDonald’s restaurants.”2

Garage full of boxes and junk
Image by Maret Hosemann from Pixabay

Many people wonder how tiny house residents can fit all of their possessions in their homes. The transition to tiny house living does require significant downsizing in possessions. But as with minimalism, the focus would be on keeping the items that add value to your life and letting go of the belongings that do not. But this transition should enhance your life.

People living in tiny homes “acknowledge that a small house provides the vehicle for them to live larger lives, in part because they are no longer tied to the physicality of a conventional house and all of the baggage that comes with those ties.” -Tracey Harris

Debt

Between housing costs and the costs to heat/cool/furnish the home, general overconsumption, cars, education, and self-storage, Americans are more than $13 trillion in debt! We deserve to live better. In fact, some communities are embracing the tiny house movement as a potential way to address housing insecurity and poverty. In Detroit, Michigan, for example, programs assist people with lower incomes to become homeowners over time, which provides them with stability that snowballs into opportunities that they previously did not have.3

“The tiny house movement can help us all gain a better understanding of how we can challenge societal inequalities and environmental degradation by advocating for more choice, not less, in the ways we are able to house ourselves.” -Tracey Harris

Even if you aren’t interested in living in a tiny house, I encourage you to think about the sustainability of your spending habits and how much of your income is going to housing and caring for items you don’t use. Because the less you own, the more money you’ll have for what really matters to you. The less debt you have, the more freedom you will have to spend on travel, experiences, and giving. The benefits of buying less, downsizing, living deliberately, being debt-free are easy to see.

Environmental benefits

Consumer culture is taking a huge toll on the environment. Consuming less not only reduces expenditure but buying less stuff and having a smaller home is also environmentally friendly. Smaller homes use less energy and need considerably fewer items because of limited physical space. Production, transport, and disposal of consumer items is not sustainable at the rate of our current consumption levels. The tiny house lifestyle works counter to this culture by reducing the focus on possessions and putting it back on living a full life.

“We are heading for the proverbial rocks. It’s not just us in peril; it is our very home, planet Earth, which is being threatened by our consumptive choices and overspending.” -Tracey Harris

Photo by Nachelle Nocom on Unsplash

Community and Sharing Economy

Rather than owning and storing every type of household item or tool, minimalists and tiny homeowners embrace the notion of sharing, borrowing, even renting items they need only once in a while. Some neighborhoods have tool libraries, and there are some public libraries that lend tools and equipment just like books. People can share chainsaws, weedeaters, nail guns, and other tools. There are even kitchen libraries popping up, where you can borrow or rent kitchen gadgets that you might not need but a couple of times per year. Tiny house communities, like condos or housing associations, share large amenities such as pools, fitness rooms, and tennis courts. In addition, many also offer clubhouses for large gatherings. Others share communal sports equipment such as kayaks and bicycles.

Live Your Best Life

Though that phrase may seem cliché, living your best life is important, whatever that means to you. If the idea of living with less to achieve your best life is countercultural, so be it. Let’s just embrace it for what it is. This is your life and not for others to judge. If you are living tiny or minimalist, I’d love to know how that’s going for you. Is it helping you get the most out of life? Leave me a comment below. As always, thanks for reading, and please subscribe!

Footnote:

Is Tiny House Living actually a viable solution? Part 2

Interior of a tiny house
Photo by Andrea Davis on Unsplash

In my last post, I told you about my family’s growing interest in tiny houses. I’ve been pursuing buying or building a tiny house in our area, but I’ve run into many roadblocks. I want to provide a few clarifications: first, tiny can be defined as anything under 700 square feet. What we really want is a house under 1000 square feet, which could also be classified as a small house. Second, we are not looking to be mobile as some tiny house owners are – we are not looking to tow the house and use it for traveling. We would want to build it on a foundation. Third, we are not looking to be off the grid – we want electricity and plumbing. Last, we want to do this 100% legally, and that’s where the biggest roadblocks have been.

House at River Ridge Escapes, photo by me
House at River Ridge Escapes, photo by me

Where can you put a tiny house?

Though I’m in Tennessee, I want to share my experience because I suspect it is typical of many regions of the United States. I found it very confusing to figure out what you can build and where you can build. If you watch popular TV shows about tiny house living, they make it seem like you can just park one anywhere. But I’m afraid that that’s just not true. There are many details, ordinances, and regulations. When I started the process, I didn’t even know how to find the information. Even now I’m certainly no expert, but I wanted to share my experience in hopes that it helps others navigate the same process.

I’ve spoken to several tiny home builders and real estate agents about buying or building a tiny house. None were able to give me enough information or direction. Real estate agents especially did not seem very motivated to work with me. From a financial perspective, we were only looking to buy a small piece of land under $30,000, rather than a huge house in the hundreds of thousands, thus less of a commission for them. A couple of agents were somewhat helpful, but only to a point. One even told me that I could “plop one down anywhere I wanted,” which is completely inaccurate and misleading.

Well, kind of. I can buy a tiny house and park it in my backyard tomorrow. But I cannot legally reside in it full time.

Dining room of a tiny house, photo by me
Dining room of a tiny house, photo by me

Zoning: County, or City?

Though I thought real estate agents would be most knowledgeable in zoning laws, they often referred me to the county and city zoning offices to find out for myself. I called both zoning offices multiple times over several months and left messages and I’ve never received a return call from either. I was going to have to take a day off from work to visit the offices in person, but I never even got that far.

Eventually, I figured out that zoning is different in the county versus the city; that sections of each have their own zoning regulations; and that individual subdivisions within the city and county often have their own restrictions. Each of these has requirements about minimum square footage, lot size, foundation type, home shape (to prevent mobile homes), etc. Many of these are rules are created as safety regulations, but some were created simply to keep poor people out of certain neighborhoods.

We looked at many pieces of land in person and online. Some were in the city and some were in the county, but this isn’t always easy to determine. When I’ve asked real estate agents directly, I often did not get a clear answer. Here are some of the small, quick tricks you can use to determine which zoning to even start with:

      • Look at the garbage cans – if those are city-issued, then it is city zoning.
      • You can tell by school zone if schools are separated by city and county (where we live, it all falls under the county).
      • Check the public library system to find out if it serves the city or county.
      • Find out which utilities (water, gas, electric) service county and city separately, you can determine the zone that way.
Tiny house at River Ridge Escape, photo by me
Tiny house at River Ridge Escape, photo by me

Zoning Classifications

We found several pieces of land into which we made serious inquiries with real estate agents. Regarding one particular property, the agent responded: “This particular property is zoned R1 so you could build on it but I’m not sure if there is a minimum size or not and also, since it’s in a subdivision, there are probably restrictions on what can be built…If there are no subdivision restrictions, you would probably have to get a special permit for a tiny home…It is my understanding that zone R5 is the only one not required to get a special permit. If I were you, I would make a trip to the zoning office and try to get them to break down the process for what you are wanting to do.” That was a lot of information for me to understand in just one paragraph, especially since I am not versed in zoning laws.

Many areas do not have a separate classification for tiny homes. Zoning classifications are not standardized and can vary greatly. Even if a municipality follows the International Residential Code (IRC), there are usually amendments and exceptions. Generally, most indicate the type of use with a letter or combination of letters, for example, R for residential or C for commercial. There is usually a number to indicate the type of development. For example, in our area* R1 refers to lots for single-family dwellings.

R1: Residential buildings

The definition of R1: “Single-family dwellings, excluding factory manufactured homes constructed as a single self-contained unit and mounted on a single chassis.” I have been unable to find the minimum square footage for new R-1 construction in our city and county, except that they follow the standards of the 2012 International Residential Code (IRC) with many amendments and exceptions. The 2012 IRC requires a minimum of 120 habitable square feet in at least one room. Other rooms must be at least 70 square feet with 7-foot ceilings. But in some county municipalities adjacent to Chattanooga, the minimum is 1400-1500 square feet for newly constructed residential buildings.

R5: Manufactured residential homes

R5 is intended for single wide manufactured homes in specifically designated places. In other words, here R5 means trailer or mobile home park. In many places throughout the United States, tiny houses are relegated to mobile home communities. Tiny houses that are 400 square feet or above are often classified as manufactured homes. Many of the tiny house models we liked were either right at 400 square feet or just over. In the city, a manufactured home is defined as a structure, transportable in one or more sections, which is at least 8 feet wide and 32 feet long (256 square feet) “and which is built on a permanent chassis, and designed to be used as a dwelling with or without permanent foundation,” according to the Chattanooga Code of Ordinances.***

A1: Agriculture use

In our county, A1 zoning is “intended for agricultural uses and single-family dwellings at 2 units per acre maximum.” One real estate agent and one tiny house company informed me that I could “probably get away with a tiny house” on a lot with that zoning. But we don’t want to “get away with it” and hope we don’t get caught, experiencing consequences of hefty fines and a relocation later. We want to do this legally.

Travel trailer or camper

If a tiny house on wheels (THOW) is classified as a travel trailer, they are only allowed to be used for “short-term occupancy for a period not to exceed thirty (30) days, for frequent and/or extensive travel, and for recreational and vacation use.”** So you can technically own one and park it wherever an RV is allowed, but you cannot reside in them full time or permanently.
Kitchen of a tiny house at River Ridge Escape, photo by me
Kitchen of a tiny house at River Ridge Escape, photo by me

Covenants, Conditions & Restrictions

On top of figuring out the county zoning for areas outside of the city, many subdivisions have what is called Covenants, Conditions & Restrictions (CC&Rs). These rules govern the use of lots in the subdivision or neighborhood and are usually enforced by a homeowners’ association. Again, many of these rules are created as safety regulations. But some were put in place to prevent the poor from moving into those neighborhoods.

Unfortunately with every single lot that we inquired about, we hit a roadblock, usually in the form of said CC&Rs. Some had a minimum square footage requirement of 1500 square feet, and two required a minimum of 2500 square feet! I honestly don’t even know what I’d do with a house that size. Another real estate agent recommended a vacant double lot zoned as R2, on which we could’ve built a small duplex and rented out half. But it also had a steep grade and would have required a double foundation or a poured wall foundation. This combination seemed too much for us to take on financially and physically.

Elevation of a tiny house on the beach
Elevation of a tiny house on the beach, image from architecturaldesigns.com

Commit with no guarantee

If we decided to build a small house on a foundation and got past any relevant CC&Rs, then we could apply for a special permit through the applicable zoning office. But we would have to buy the land first, and then to apply for the permits we would have to bring the zoning office architectural or building plans. If this order is correct, we would have to purchase the land, then work with a general contract or architect and pay them to draw up the plans. So we’d have to commit financially to the land and the plans before we’d even know if we could build the small house we desire.

Retrofitting an Older House

There are some single-family homes in our area under 1000 square feet, but most of them are older homes. When you purchase an older home, as we did, you must be prepared for the problems of an old home. Homes built before the 1980s can have asbestos, as our house did, and asbestos remediation is expensive. Homes built before 1978 often have lead paint and contractors will not perform work on your house until it has been tested. Some argue that you can “get around” testing for things like asbestos and lead by doing the work yourself. But the risk is exposing yourself and your family to known highly carcinogenic toxic materials. Older homes sometimes have mold or mildew issues. Old construction materials may have been made or treated with dangerous chemicals, such as old insulation, lead pipes, and varnishes.

I’m not against owning an older home, but I wish I had known these things before buying one so I could have been prepared financially. For our family, we want newer construction, and many tiny houses tend to either have newer building materials or be newly constructed. Additionally, the cost is often higher to retrofit or “gut” an old house and rebuild the interior with updated plumbing, electrical, HVAC, etc. than it is to buy or build a new tiny or small house.

Interior of a small A-frame house
Photo by Andrea Davis on Unsplash

Tiny House zoning issues

Tiny houses are not allowed in many places, and this is most often due to the property tax structure. Property taxes are a major income source for local governments and they often pay for a variety of services including schools, fire and police, infrastructure, libraries, garbage and recycling, and too many others to list. Property taxes are usually based on the value of your land and home. The more square footage of the home, the higher the taxes, and the more income the municipality takes in. So there is not much motivation there to allow tiny or even small houses. The system discourages small and sustainable living.

Movement on the rise

There are cities in Florida, Oregon, California, Arizona, and several other states that laws that allow full-time residency in small or tiny houses. Tiny house communities are popping up in different areas, like the ones I mentioned at River Ridge Escape in Georgia. Some argue that the tiny house movement is a trend and will be short-lived. Others claim that the movement is here to stay so that people can live the life they want by not being tied down by a huge mortgage.

Thank you for reading, I hope this information is helpful. I am not trying to discourage anyone from trying to go tiny. As for me and my family, the effort to build in our specific area has been tabled, but it is not off the table! If there are any errors or misinterpretations in this post, it is only because my understanding of building codes and ordinances is rudimentary and I’ve largely had to figure this out on my own. If you have updated information or your own experience to share, leave me a comment below!
Blue tiny house with rounded door
Image by Kool Cats Photography on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Footnotes:

*Information obtained from the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency.

**Information obtained from Chattanooga Code of Ordinances, Chapter 38, Zoning.

***Chattanooga Code of Ordinances, Section 10-8.

 

Additional Resources:

Article, “Are Tiny Houses Illegal in Your State?” by Maria Fredgaard

Article, “Tiny-house owners are facing evictions or living under the radar because their homes are considered illegal in most parts of the US,” Insider.com, December 14, 2020.

Article, “Where Can I Build a Tiny House?” by Maria Fredgaard

Article, “A woman who parked her tiny house on her parents’ property in New Hampshire was forced to move out after the local government said it was illegal,” Insider.com, December 30, 2020.

Is Tiny House Living actually a viable solution? Part 1

Tiny house on a beautiful landscape
Image courtesy of Pixabay

“Our life is frittered away by detail… simplify, simplify.” -Henry David Thoreau

For about 2 years now, I’ve been on a quest to figure out if tiny house living is a viable option for my family. After being introduced to the concept through the popular reality television shows about tiny houses, I first wondered why anyone would want to live in such a small space.

Through a series of circumstances, finances, and soul searching, my interest in tiny living developed gradually and organically. Let’s start at the beginning.

My Experience with Homeownership

I’ve personally become disenchanted with homeownership, at least in our current situation. When we bought our house 5 years ago, we had so many ideas about updates that we wanted to do, like new windows, new kitchen countertops, and ventilation installed in the bathroom. Maybe a pretty backsplash in the kitchen?

We bought a 1940s house that was not always well maintained and I believe we did not have a good inspection when we purchased it. We knew it would need some updates but didn’t know how much of a fixer-upper it was going to be. During the last five years, we’ve had multiple significant repairs, and when I say significant I don’t mean a few hundred or a few thousand dollars. I’m talking about several repairs between $5,000 and $10,000 each. On top of that, old houses have older, unsafe building materials such as lead and asbestos that require remediation. It often feels like we are working only to repair the house, and we struggle to keep up. There are many more repairs we will have to make in the next few years.

Needless to say, none of those desired repairs or cosmetic updates have happened and they are not even on the horizon at this point.

The Pro’s

There are things we love about the house. My son has his own big room and he loves the layout. It’s the house he’s grown up in. We have a large covered patio/carport and a big yard for us to play and spend time in as well as grow a garden. The mortgage is affordable, we’ve never had to struggle to make our payment regardless of job loss. But most of these qualities also align with tiny house living.

My son playing in the yard of our new home
My son playing in the yard of our new home several years ago. Photo by me

Evolving Philosophies

The expenses of home repair combined with our evolving life philosophies have led us to a place where we want to do things differently. First, we now live an environmentally conscious lifestyle and shape our behaviors around living sustainably. Second, we are inspired by minimalism and several years ago we started downsizing and paring down our belongings. Somewhere in the middle of this, we started watching Tiny House Hunters and Tiny House Nation out of curiosity and for fun. I think we thought we could never live that way. Eventually, my interest was peaked and I wondered: could we do this?

We want to spend less time cleaning and taking care of our possessions; we want to spend less money repairing and maintaining our home. Smaller houses take less time to clean and maintain. They have less plumbing, electrical, roofing, and other physical materials and hence cost less to repair in most cases. A smaller home requires less electricity for heating and cooling, which results in a lower electric bill and is more environmentally friendly.

It would be great to spend more time pursuing interests, relaxing, and experiencing life and less time taking care of the house we live in. We would most like to focus on raising our little boy and spending time with him!

“Our homes are not containers for stuff but rather a place for love and connection, By removing clutter from our homes, we make more physical space and create less distraction, allowing us to really live the way we want to live.” -Courtney Carver, Project 333

Visit to a Tiny House Community

Finally, I felt it was time we tour tiny houses, to see what they’re really like and to get a feel for their size. Last year, we toured a tiny house community called River Ridge Escape in Menlo, Georgia. We thought we’d find the sizes shockingly small like the people on the tv shows. But we didn’t, they were about what we expected. Even the smallest one at the time, around 170 square feet, did not shock us. Tiny homes are often designed with efficient use of space, so most offer everything people need. The 400 square feet homes were lovely and featured porches, upscale finishes, full kitchens, washer/dryer, and storage. Some even have bathtubs. The largest on their site was 700 square feet and we found that one almost too large!

Tiny house exterior
We toured several tiny homes. This one, called the Sea Breeze, was one of my favorites.
Sea Breeze interior
Sea Breeze interior showing the living area, full kitchen, and stairs to the loft. Photo by River Ridge Escape
My son in the loft of the Sea Breeze
My son in the loft of the Sea Breeze

Time to try one out

The tiny house community rents a few of the homes on Airbnb, so we decided to go back one weekend to try one out! We rented out a 500 square foot model called the Hawthorn, a home with 2 bedrooms plus a loft, which my son quickly claimed as his room!

Exterior of the Hawthorn
Exterior of the Hawthorn
Kitchen
The kitchen
Livingroom
The living area
The loft

I love the homes River Ridge Escape offers and we really enjoyed our stay there. Each house has utilities, water, septic, and garbage pick-up. The community has a pool, pool house, a small fitness building, a dog park, walking trails, water access for canoeing and kayaking, a community fire pit, and many other amenities. I really love the idea of these communities.

Next Steps

As much as we love the communities of River Ridge Escape, relocating there is not an option for my family. So what about putting a tiny house on a piece of land where we live now? I’ve pursued this for about a year and it has turned out to be extremely complicated. I’ll tell you all about it in my next post. Thank you for reading, and please subscribe!

All photos by me except where otherwise noted.

 

Additional Resource:

Article, “I spent 3 days living in a 350-square-foot house in a community of tiny homes — see what it was like,” by Frank Olito, Insider.com, October 1, 2019.