Nearly 40,000 people turned up for the first ever Tiny House Jamboree earlier this month in Colorado Springs, Colorado, for a taste of what it would be like to live in a house with a footprint no bigger than 400 square feet.
9News, a Colorado NBC affiliate, reported that visitors represented all 50 states and 10 countries. The three-day weekend festival also drew 22 professional builders who specialize in these diminutive designs.
Long lines queued up at houses as small as 100 square feet as people waited their turns to get into buildings big enough for only two or three at a time.
Interest seems to be growing in the tiny house movement, either because buyers want something less expensive than a conventionally sized home or because tiny houses are more attractive environmentally. Appearances by tiny house advocates on Oprah, CNN, and HGTV shows have helped spread the word.
“In the last couple of years there has been a big uptick in the idea of just being free,” said Lane Van Horn, a tiny house builder with Stoke Collective. “There’s been a really big shift to just smaller, more simple living.”
Shedding unnecessary possessions is another draw, but Van Horn admitted the lifestyle isn’t for everyone.
“It’s not as easy as just shifting places,” he told the television station. “It’s a whole lifestyle shift. It’s the whole idea of choosing what you do need and what you don’t need to survive.”
Lots of people are just plain curious
Writing in The New Yorker, Vauhini Vara said that she expected to find thousands of “rabid” evangelists for the tiny-house movement when she attended the jamboree.
“Instead, I found that many of the tens of thousands of people at the jamboree were like me: curiosity-seekers who live in normal-sized houses or apartments and were there, it seemed, mostly to reinforce their own sense that living in tiny houses was sort of weird,” she wrote.
Vara toured a 173-square-foot home designed to house a family of four. In the main room, there was a Murphy bed that retracted into a wall when not in use and another bed in a loft reached by a ladder. Salespeople and builders were enthusiastic, but Vara also touched on two challenges for tiny houses.
One is that many local jurisdictions don’t allow them as permanent living quarters because they are on wheels, and are thus considered to be RVs, or because they don’t meet certain provisions of local building codes.
Just as challenging is a cultural bias in favor of bigger dwellings. In another New Yorker article in 2011, Alec Wilkinson said the rise of the tiny-house movement was based in part on the rhetoric that big houses were wasteful “debtors’ prisons” while little houses were “luxurious” because their owners could live there debt-free and spend more time enjoying themselves.
But, Vara points out, once the U.S. economy began to recover, the size of newly built houses started to go up again. Nearly half of all single-family homes built last year had four or more bedrooms, while the median size was 2,453 square feet.
Saving money is key, but life can be hard
Maine’s National Public Radio affiliate recently aired a report on Mainers living in tiny houses, including one couple who found it was cheaper to build a tiny house than it was to buy and renovate an old home. Their $75,000 mortgage covered the land, building, and all site work.
Ben and Sarina Speed of Franklin, Maine, lived with their two home-schooled children in a house measuring just 640 square feet, but then expanded it to about 1,000 square feet when it proved too cramped.
“We’re home for huge chunks of the day and we need to play and do our projects and not be right in each others’ faces all the time,” Sarina Speed told MPBN. “I think if I had designed the house slightly differently back when we first built it I wouldn’t necessarily have to add on. But hindsight is 20/20.”
Jake Ryan, a Portland, Maine, architect, gave up living in a tiny house for another reason — missing a sense of community.
“I moved out of my tiny house because it was lonely,” he said. “And I missed people. You know, ‘hermit poet’ only lasts so long.”