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:

  1. Article, “Home grown: 67 years of US and Canadian house size data,” by Darrin Qualman, May 8, 2018.
  2. Article, “America Has More Self-Storage Facilities Than McDonald’s, because apparently we’re all hoarders,” HuffPost, April 21, 2015.
  3. Article, “In Detroit, Tiny Homes Are More Than a Lifestyle Trend,” by T.R. Goldman, Politico Magazine, July 11, 2019.

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