Nowhere is the quest for simplicity and freedom more pronounced than in the tiny-house movement, which has grown from hipster alternative to mainstream phenomenon faster than an Amish barn raising. Mark Sundeen joins the believers to ask: Has the dream gotten too big?
Remember not too long ago, maybe 2012, the slew of blogs and Tumblrs and films that heralded not just a new type of house but a movement, a post-collapse quest for simplicity and freedom, a rejection of waste and “stuff” and, just like Thoreau in his cabin of yore, a crusade to chomp life’s essence and suck its marrow? Museum-quality photo books showed how to stick it to the man in 400 square feet or less—with the clean lines and blond oak that made us drool onto the pages of Dwell magazine. Of all the earthy trends to emerge since the crash—local food, urban farms, permaculture—none have captured adoration like tiny houses, spawning no fewer than seven reality shows. You won’t find a series about cloth diapers.
It appealed to me, someone who has lived in some of the tiniest homes out there—a Subaru wagon, a Toyota pickup, an SUV with the backseats removed. When it comes to car camping, I wrote the book. Seriously. It’s called Car Camping. What’s more, I own a 1965 single-wide that measures just 570 square feet, with pine cabinets like you’d find in a sailboat, on an acre outside Moab, Utah. I’ve always thought that if I owned less, worked less, and spent less, I would be more free.
But my vagabond days are behind me, and as I sped toward the second annual National Tiny House Jamboree in Colorado Springs last August, I was undergoing my own tiny crisis. My wife and I had bought a tiny car that got nearly 40 miles per gallon. We’d even upcycled a Mexican roof mutt into our own tiny dog, who consumed at mealtime less than one cup of kibble and canned pumpkin and whose tiny poops hardly registered at the landfill. Meanwhile we’d upsized to a two-bedroom bungalow—our biggest yet. Even as I understood that appetites like mine were plundering the planet, I could not stop wanting a third bedroom. As for the car: it was the first I’d ever owned that was too small to sleep in, so if the weather turned bad I might have to get a hotel, and wouldn’t that indulgence offset the efficiency?
Was small actually beautiful? I was ti-curious.
In my imagination, the Jamboree promised a quaint circle of funky sheds inhabited by anarchists who’d pass the porch-bound evenings picking banjos, sipping moonshine, and comparing insulation R-values. But because last year’s hordes had packed the grounds of the Western Museum of Mining and Industry, backing up traffic, this year the Jamboree supersized to a field at the Air Force Academy. My subversive fantasies were deflated by the armed guard at the academy gates, who demanded my license, weapons, explosives, and drugs.
I followed a stream of Tiny Jammers driving through the piny hills to the stadium, one minivan painted with TINY HOUSE OR BUST! FIND US ON FACEBOOK. We throngs—nearly 60,000 before the weekend was over—filed our vehicles into long rows, then stampeded toward the entrance on foot. Saturated with the carnival cloud of a pork smoker on wheels, ringed by Porta-Potties innumerable, a field of yellow grass and gravel was packed with dozens of trailers on blocks, lines of looky-loos at the steps. A string of booths showcased off-grid accoutrements from solar panels to composting toilets to twig-burning cookstoves.
I had a date at the Tiny Stage to get to the heart of this phenomenon. A roster of the movement’s Luminaries would clarify the Tiny House Philosophy, which, it turned out, had little to do with bookshelvesas-stairs or sinks-in-closets. One philosopher, Kent Griswold, founder of Tiny House Blog, a gray-headed avuncular type in cargo shorts and sneakers, confessed that he didn’t even live in one. No matter. All could benefit from its principles:
– Reduce your belongings.
– Get out of debt.
– Do work that you love.
Sager advice has never been given; indeed, these very principles had guided my own adulthood. But if living tiny doesn’t require a dollhouse, then what were we all doing here?
The first Luminary I met was Nina Zamudio, whose tale was pure bravura. A native Californian, Zamudio had worked her way through college, was earning a good income, and had even bought her mother a home. She had achieved the American dream. Then she divorced and moved out of her 2,800-square-foot house in Orland to take care of Mom in Chico. Now 49, with lustrous black hair and an irrepressible smile, Zamudio told me that after her mother’s death, she’d spent months getting rid of everything. Her mother’s place was only 1,200 square feet, but the empty house felt hollow and lonely, her solitary voice echoing off the walls. She attended a workshop with Jay Shafer, a 52-year-old designer and builder hailed by Oprah Winfrey as the Tiny House Man, author and publisher of the 2009 movement bible The Small House Book. Transformed, Zamudio sold the house and rented her first tiny home. She moved to Texas, where—helped by a crew of friends and strangers—she built an eight-by-twenty-foot house on wheels. A church allowed her to park on its grounds. She found a new set of friends at the Dallas Tiny House Meetup group, not to mention a boyfriend.
Zamudio inspired me. Who doesn’t want to rebound from adversity with panache, to be reawakened at middle age, to forge meaning amid drudgery and isolation? Tiny Housers’ zeal approaches the religious. “It’s not really about the tiny house,” one told me. “It’s about values, a way of life.” Another said, “Your whole life changes when you live in a tiny house.” As with any sect—or recovery group—its core is the narrative of personal transformation, whether being saved or getting sober. Here the stories pivoted around Turning Tiny. Before Tiny, there was an unhappy marriage, unpaid bills, stifling office work, a home of 2,500 square feet or more; after Tiny came freedom, new love, debt relief, self-employment, and, of course, a handmade nest.
When Tiny Jammers asked one another “Are you building?” it was no minor inquiry but rather the existential question, and when someone responded “Three months now,” a giddy thrill bubbled into the air, because we knew she had been reborn.
Duly evangelized, I set out to view the homes. But instead of the art brut of mad visionaries, I found professionally built sales models. An attractive rig from Northern California’s Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, the nation’s first and biggest manufacturer, cofounded by Jay Shafer himself, was outfitted with a flat-screen TV, faux-log stove, air conditioner, and washing machine, charged by a rumbling generator and encircled by a bevy of attractive salespersons in shirts that read DREAM BIG GO TINY. Cost of this model: $91,000. Inside I heard one Jammer say, “Did we bring the snacks or leave them in the car?” One of the “workshops” was a pitch by Ikea reps.
Better to call this the Tiny House Trade Show? As for the gadgets, as much as I admire a diminutive toilet, serious homesteaders make humanure by pooping into a bucket of sawdust. And a twig-burning stove can be fashioned from a No. 10 peach can. If we are trapped in a cycle of earning and spending, I wasn’t sure that any purchase would free us.
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