By now most of us are aware that bigger homes are not better homes. But does this mean that the opposite is true - that tiny houses are best? For a very niche group of people they might be, but for the majority of people the best solution is in a small home. So what are the lessons we can learn from shortcomings of the tiny house movement that can benefit how we design small homes?

Three things in particular stand out:

  • We need to account for people’s sense of privacy when we design homes. No matter how well the inhabitants might get along, everyone needs their own space occasionally.
  • We need to allow enough space for people to move freely without restraint in their homes – something I talk about in depth in the Small Home Essential Guide.
  • The houses we design need to be able to easily accommodate changes in our lives – from lifestyle developments to changing family circumstances. Otherwise they simply won’t last long enough.
A campervan stopped on the side of the road for a quick lunch break with amazing scenery
The campervan came with an in-built dining table, but nothing beats eating outdoors with views like this.

My tiny experience

When I picture myself after living in a tiny home for several months…

I imagine a bearded man peering with weary eyes through a sea of dreadlocks interlaced with breadcrumbs, standing half-naked in an open field with raised fists, angrily shouting gibberish at seagulls.

Fortunately, these images are just pure imagination, but they come to mind specifically because of a holiday I had several years ago after graduating from university. During this time, I explored the southern island of New Zealand with three close friends in the back of a tiny campervan.

Because we didn’t have a concrete plan in mind about where we should be going, we let the roads guide us. Through exploration and by pure chance, we stumbled upon some of the most magnificent sites, such as huge riverbeds, giant waterfalls, and miles of empty coastlines.

Sharing such a tiny space over the course of a few weeks (even with close friends) had its fair share of challenges, but luckily this was offset by once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

Tiny house dwellers get to experience a similar sense of freedom. By being able to cart their house along with them on the back of a trailer, as well as having increased financial freedom; people that live in tiny houses tend to travel a lot more.

But this freedom comes at a cost, and the transition to tiny house living is often extremely difficult. Since the tiny house movement is no longer brand new, we are beginning to hear more stories emerge about these teeny house inhabitants deciding to upscale.

So, what is there to learn from their experiences, and should people even consider tiny house living in the first place? The answer to this isn’t quite so clear-cut.

What exactly is a tiny house, anyway?

“What is this? A center for ants?”

So says Derek Zoolander, as he misinterprets a building model for the real thing, angrily throwing the model onto the floor.

While small and tiny houses aren’t misunderstood quite as badly as this, their benefits, advantages and challenges still aren’t widely known to the general public.

Which is strange, because the tiny house movement can be found everywhere.

From blogs and podcasts to primetime news channels and documentaries, everyone seems to be talking about this trend. Tiny houses, as described by their cosy inhabitants, offer an array of advantages over traditional housing types. They are enticing students, retirees, and everyone in between.

These micro-homes are unofficially around 40m² (400ft²) or less. Their small size also equates to a smaller cost, starting from around $25,000 and up; some people can often put a single downpayment on one without the need for any mortgage.

Their popularity is predominantly derived from these five things:

  1. The incredibly low cost of construction or upfront purchase price of a pre-built tiny house.
  2. Their ‘DIY appeal.’ Many people love the idea of constructing their own home, and tiny houses offer a low-risk approach for people wanting to try out the owner/builder approach.
  3. Tiny houses provide the option of being completely mobile, allowing users to cart their home around with them.
  4. Their low-impact lifestyle requirements and sustainable ethos.
  5. Their ‘cultural branding.’ Tiny houses are often photogenic, and their ‘less is more’ lifestyle is more appealing than saying you live in a trailer or mobile home.

Despite all of these advantages, they still aren’t perfect, and are perhaps only ideal for a very select group of people.

Are small homes different to tiny homes?

Interestingly, the Wikipedia page on Tiny Houses treats small houses and tiny houses as a single concept. In reality, however, they are two very different things.

Tiny homes are representative of a popular fringe movement typically consisting of singles and first-home owners, and are usually seen as a temporary housing solution and knee-jerk reaction against excessive consumerism.

Small homes on the other hand, are houses that are typically around twice the size of a tiny home. They are usually smaller than most people typically think they need, but through good design, they are sized to perfectly suit the way you live.

Unlike tiny homes, small homes are not a counter-movement against the increasingly unaffordable housing market. Rather, they offer a solution to the growing cultural trend of our ever-increasing house sizes. We can see this by looking at both the United States and Australia, where the average size of newly built houses is at an all time high.

Small homes and tiny homes are two physically different things

If you were to compare the internal plan of a small and tiny home, the biggest difference you would find is that tiny homes are tiny everywhere.

Whether you’re in the bedroom or the kitchen or the living area – it’s all a squeeze, relatively speaking. Small homes on the other hand provide room where it counts the most, such as in the kitchen and living areas. At the same time, they take room away from areas that are hardly used (or do away with them altogether), such as laundries.

Both small homes and tiny homes allocate more space to these commonly-used areas, but the hierarchical differences are greater in small homes. This is simply because there is more wiggle room to play with; more room for a hierarchy of space to exist in the first place.

This diminished hierarchy that exists in tiny houses has several consequences, some of these important principles are mentioned in the small home essentials guide:

  • If more than one person occupies a tiny house, there simply isn’t enough space to feel any sense of privacy (without going outside).
  • More caution is required to move around a tiny house without bumping into objects. This often results in low levels of frustration in day-to-day activities. Over time this can cause stress, especially if there is more than one person occupying a tiny home.
  • The tiny space also equates to highly diminished versatility. People that own tiny houses simply can’t entertain large groups of people, and they may begin to feel claustrophobic in their home if it’s raining or snowing for weeks on end.

It’s for this very reason that I would argue that many (though certainly not all) individuals that currently live in tiny houses view it as a stepping stone. Most would opt for a small home if given the opportunity and financial capacity.

Tiny house-dwellers are deciding to upsize

As with many things, the pendulum often swings too far in one direction before a happy medium is found.

Melanie Sorrentino was tempted by the tiny house dream and stubbornly persisted with it for a number of years with her husband Mark, prior to selling it off and upscaling.

“It was insane… At the end of the year, I was seriously worried I was going to have a heart attack from stress… My advice for anyone looking at a tiny house – or any lifestyle painted so perfectly – is to try to imagine whether you can grow as a human being in that space.”

– Melanie Sorrentino

Even the couple from the documentary Tiny, Christopher and Merete, never lived in their house together on a full time basis. Though they left this fact out of the movie “so as not to spoil the experience of seeing that story unfold on screen.” Christopher attempted the tiny house lifestyle full-time by himself for just under a year, but decided to relocate back to a city apartment to pursue new work opportunities. Instead of creating a dreamy permanent abode, they now use their tiny house as a weekend getaway instead.

Carrie and Shane Caverly from Clothesline Tiny Homes are another couple who built a tiny house and were featured in many TV shows and newspapers for using their small confines as a “bonding” experience. They courageously lasted 18 months before deciding it was “too small” and moved into an apartment.

“This is kind of the means to the end… and our ideals of what a house should be is definitely changing after this.”

– Carrie Caverly told the Huffington Post

There are many more examples of owners of tiny homes who have decided to uproot themselves and seek refuge in slightly larger houses. It also isn’t easy to find tiny home builders that actually live full time in the products that they sell.

Another critical issue that isn’t mentioned enough is the question of land – where do you park your tiny house? If the goal is to save money, tiny housers would need to relocate to areas where land prices are low. Often this means parking tiny houses vast distances from city centres, which can result in their inhabitants feeling isolated and with limited job opportunities.

What can be learnt from the tiny house movement?

Rather than simplifying one’s lifestyle, a tiny house has a tendency to raise a number of new, unexpected issues that owners struggle to adapt to.

Having said this, there are still many things that can be learnt from the movement that are of benefit to people seeking a not-so McMansion or a more permanent solution in a small home.

This is what we can take away from the tiny house movement:

  1. Small spaces can foster a closer relationship with the environment, often making us happier and healthier in the process.
  2. They force us to closely consider the things we decide to own or purchase, reducing our impact on the planet.
  3. People enjoy the low cost and accompanying financial freedom of smaller homes.
  4. People are becoming more interested in self-sufficiency and sustainable or off-grid homes.

Tiny houses also provide numerous practical ideas about how to design small homes more efficiently, such as:

  1. Making bespoke furniture that also doubles as storage elements.
  2. Providing additional sleeping nooks for hosting the occasional guest in the areas of a small home that might otherwise be unused.
  3. Using skylights in areas where a roof or ceiling might be low to increase a feeling of spaciousness.
  4. Utilising split levels/mezzanines to not only increase ceiling heights but provide additional rooms that overlook these spaces.
  5. Using energy-efficient appliances throughout the home.
  6. Using operable windows or doors at either end of the house to improve airflow and air quality.

Through clever planning, a well-designed small home can attain all of these characteristics. They will never be as cheap to build, but they are much more affordable and sustainable than much larger homes or McMansions.

Campervan parked in remote beach location

While my experience travelling around the southern island of New Zealand left me with some of my fondest memories, sharing a space that was less than 150ft² (14m²) with three other people was an eye-opening experience. With my family in the picture, it helped me to realise that I couldn’t do it on a full time basis in the form of a tiny home. Even still, on the odd occasion it would be enjoyable – just not as a permanent solution.

Have you stayed in a tiny home or something similar? What did you take away from the experience?