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Tiny houses are catching on in US following property crash

Tiny houses are going mainstream.

Just look at the Katrina Cottage, originally designed by architects Andres Duany and Marianne Cusato as a dignified alternative to the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) trailer for flood-ravaged New Orleans. The tiny charmers with pitched roofs, nostalgic front porches and 300 to 1,800 square feet (28 to 167 square meters) are becoming popular elsewhere; Lowe's home stores sell the blueprints and materials.

The cottages are being used as affordable housing, guesthouses and vacation cottages.

It is part of a larger trend toward living small.

The average size of the American home expanded from 983 square feet in 1950 to 2,340 square feet (217 square meters) in 2004, up 140 percent. This boom was largely driven by a belief that living big meant living well, and that real estate was a great investment so the bigger the house the better the investment.

The recession is one thing killing that notion. Millions of foreclosures have meant "people have lost a ton of equity," said Boyce Thompson, editorial director of Builder magazine. Add in high unemployment and energy costs, and no wonder small might seem better.

According to the American Institute of Architects in 2010, 57 percent of architecture firms reported a decrease in the square footage of homes they designed.

Another factor is people's desire to live more ecologically, less wastefully.

There also are demographic changes. Thompson points out that one-third of American home buyers are now single; people are marrying later, and many don't want to wait until marriage to invest in a house. Moreover, as Americans live longer, many widows and widowers are downsizing to small homes.

And with elderly parents and grown children returning home, there are more multigenerational families, increasing the demand "for small auxiliary buildings," Cusato says. Tiny dwellings allow generations of a family to live side-by-side with privacy.

Some people do not just want small; they want minuscule.

Mimi Zeiger, author of "Tiny Houses" (Rizzoli International, 2009) and the new "Micro-Green" (Rizzoli International, March 2011), defines tiny houses as around 1,000 square feet (93 square meters), although "some enthusiasts cap them at the 300-square-foot (28-square-meter) to 400-square-foot (37-square-meter) range," she says.

In "Tiny Houses," Zeiger presents three-dozen international examples, including some in the United States. She believes that America's abundance of land and materials has traditionally made Americans less conscious of conservation than people are elsewhere, but that is changing.

Cusato credits Sarah Susanka's book "The Not So Big House" (Taunton), first published in 1998 and expanded in 2009, with starting a movement to change the way builders work. "People started saying they wanted their houses to be smaller, but better," Cusato says.

Susanka, who considers a tiny house to be one measuring no more than 500 square feet (46 square meters), once lived in an 8-by-12-foot (3/4-square-meter) flatbed trailer truck.

"There has always been a fascination with tiny houses and an underground interest in them that surfaces when the economy goes down," Susanka says.

The best solution for housing in America, she believes, will be in the middle ground: 1,500 to 2,500 square feet (139 to 232 square meters).

"The gift of the recession will be that Americans will believe that bigger is not better," she says.

"You have to be very disciplined to live in a tiny space," Susanka says.

Zeiger, who lives in a small studio apartment in Brooklyn, New York, says, "The most important thing that makes a tiny house livable is efficient space planning and clever storage. Like on a ship, things need to have dual purposes. You also need good light and air, so that the space isn't claustrophobic or hut-like, but is a space you want to spend time in."

1 Comment
May 14, 2012    dezcrawford@
I don't see how 1,000 sf is a TINY home. I grew up in a 954 sf two-bedroom home in New Orleans. Aside from tiny closets due to the age of the home (we supplemented with armoires), this was a perfect sized home for a set of parents and a pair of kids. The small, enclosed porch which housed the washer/dryer and allowed for storage space could also be used as a guest room, spare bedroom or office if need be. I see families with two children living in 3,500 sf houses (and larger) with five bedrooms -- for Pete's sake, what do they put in there? Give me a cozy bungalow (with good closets to keep it neat) any day.
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