Wow! Someone mailed me an actual letter, and it isn’t even Christmas. The someone (Steve Smolinsky, ace EOS consultant, and an excellent candidate to advise the US Postal Service on how to improve), sent me a real world clipping from the Wall Street Journal. Well, it wasn’t as much as a clipping with scissors as a ripping from the headlines; but hey, low tech works thanks to the USPS. Sending a piece of paper probably also gets around firewalls, copyright restrictions, cookies, and pop-up ads. The article is about tiny houses, something that I’m a fan of, have stayed in, and am paid to write about despite living in a relatively palatial 864 square foot seaside cottage. That’s not tiny enough for the new crowd that’s embracing and celebrating houses that have less than 300 square foot of living space. A crazy idea? Not much crazier than being able to send a bit of newspaper across the continent in a few days for less than 50 cents.
Tiny House people are easy to stereotype, but are much more diverse in their ideas of housing, lifestyles, communities, and philosophies. Whether by necessity or choice, they are finding that conventional answers are increasingly anachronistic. Some want to live more sustainably, either for the environment, their time, their finances, or some combination. That can mean building small to keep down impact, maintenance, and costs. That can mean conventional wood frames; but also can mean rammed earth, earth bags, Earthships, cobb, straw bale, yurts, tipis – anything that provides the basics of shelter from the elements. The smaller the build, the less it costs; and ironically, the easier it is to add small luxuries that have a big impact. Build a 3,000 square foot house and get careful with floor, window, and roof selections. Build a 300 square foot house and using bamboo, etched glass, and slate becomes affordable. As a group, they vary so much that they probably couldn’t agree on politics. But, they’ve all come to the same conclusion despite following diverse paths.
Part of the problem with American housing is that it was built upon an experiment that made sense for a few decades, and then didn’t. Suburbia was a great solution to the Baby Boom, a booming economy, flight from the cities and the farms, and a shift to working in factories and business parks. There was so much growth going on that people decided it had to be controlled and managed, and the easiest way to do that was to regulate housing through zoning and covenants. Houses had to be above a certain size. Everyone had no choice except to be part of the local infrastructure of electricity, water, telephone, and sewer. Especially during the Cold War, there was a desire for conformity; ironically as a way to prove our allegiance to liberty.
Things have changed.
When the housing bubble burst, many people decided they couldn’t or shouldn’t adhere to the logic of buying the biggest house they could afford. In the long term, as there are more people and less available land, the value of the land will rise. In the short term, however, investing that way can involve taking on mortgages based on guesses about income, expenses, and economies for the next few decades. The world’s economies are unstable enough that such assumptions would look unwise in most other fields. One great encouragement I saw within the recent rise in tiny houses is that people are asking the critical questions about their needs and wants. The great majority of Americans continue to live the lifestyle of 40 hour work weeks, sports and maybe church on the weekend, a vacation or two during the year, and steadily accumulating more luxuries. Those who by choice or necessity have questioned the underlying assumptions have been trending towards downsizing, minimalism, frugality, and simple living. They don’t assume 2046 will be like 2016; so why should their houses be like 1986? Maybe 1916 has some answers worth reconsidering.
Most movements in America are not totally new. One of America’s great advantages is the diversity of opinion coupled with the liberty of personally testing new ideas. Alternative housing and communities have existed throughout US history; but they’ve been called communes, utopias, and intentional communities. Some of those have been highly positive. Some have descended into dystopias, cults, and barricaded enclaves. Here on Whidbey, there’s a town called Freeland. It was a social community founded to provide an opportunity for a community to mutually grow. It didn’t succeed officially, yet it probably has something to do with Whidbey’s distinctive alternative culture. Closer to Langley, a tourist town known around the world, there’s Talking Circle, a collection of houses built decades ago by a group of frugal friends who all wanted their own kind of housing. Now, they have a new neighbor in Upper Langley, a neighborhood of tiny houses, the 2016 answer to alternative housing that is partly necessitated by overly strict regulations and covenants elsewhere.
My house is a 1965-ish 864 square foot cottage built within sight of Cultus Bay, Puget Sound, and the Olympic Mountains. According to a board member from the homeowners association, my house doesn’t meet the covenants’ 1,000 square foot minimum; but that’s probably because the house was built before the rules were written. Fifty years ago, Whidbey and other islands around Seattle were destinations for people hunting for alternative ways to live. It took more of a commitment back then to decide to live on an island. Go back far enough and there were far fewer ferries and bridges in the area. And yet, people moved here and similar places because they needed new solutions.
Now, so much of America has been urbanized, modernized, regularized, and popularized that finding places that accept outmoded norms is difficult. The article Steve sent was about a Texas town a little larger than Langley (that’s natural for a Texas town), that decided to declare itself the Tiny House capital of America. Evidently, they weren’t aware of what’s happening in Portland, OR. The idea is a good one; turn abandoned lots into housing sites which are then tax revenue generators. They’ve drawn a lot of attention, but a source of the contention is the adherence to old zoning and covenants based on old notions of infrastructure. For tiny houses, electricity can be decentralized through solar panels, wind turbines, and the use of ultra-efficient appliances and lighting. Water is always a tough issue, but capture, reuse, and xeriscaping make that less of an issue. Telephones don’t need wires; and neither do televisions or computers if there’s a clear signal. Sewer and septic systems are expensive; and now that we better understand chemistry and biology we have options like composting and incinerating toilets. People exploring and improving these solutions are how we will find more sustainable solutions for the increasing number of Americans who aren’t part of the mainstream.
There’s an irony to the land of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness being defined by the concepts of regulation and conformity. One thing that confuses many people watching the tiny house movement is that it is unorganized, chaotic, and driven by nothing more than a mass of engaged individuals trying to find solutions to greater problems. I celebrate that chaos that just happens to have found a similar direction.
In some ways, the tiny house movement is going back to old ideas. Cabins, cottages, and bungalows were the norm. Using very little, but not too little, resources made sense when people had less. And, being able and willing to explore concepts, innovations, and lifestyles was what brought people out of Africa, into Europe, across Asia, and by numerous paths into North America.
I like new ideas, even when they are old ideas refreshed by new circumstances. Who knows? Maybe some day, putting stamps on paper envelopes containing more paper as a means of communication may be just the solution we need to a problem we haven’t identified, yet.
In the meantime, I may just mix myself a drink, sit on my deck, enjoy the view – and then retreat to my somewhat tiny house to remotely work for yet another client utilizing yet another technological innovation. But, that’s another story.