Having joined the ranks of the Small House Society, Oliver Burkeman explains the allure of modern day simplicity and the pairing down our connectedness.
The house that haunts my imagination is a small wooden cabin on a snow-covered hillside in Sogn go Fjordane, on the coast of Norway. It appears to be about 8ft x 12ft; its gabled roof is covered in vegetation; smoke drifts from a narrow chimney. And then there’s the view: it looks out over a vast, fir-covered valley and to the mountain beyond, so high it vanishes into clouds. The only problem with my plan to go and live in this cabin – which I found, among hundreds of others, on a photoblog entitled Cabin Porn – is that it already belongs to someone else. Actually, that’s not the only problem. Travelling there, or travelling to anywhere else from there, would be prohibitively expensive. The isolation from friends and family could be tough, and earning an income might be impossible; I bet you can’t get broadband, either. But at the end of a frazzled day at my desk, fielding emails and phone calls, and despairing at my lengthening to-do list, such obstacles don’t register, and I once again start plotting an escape to “my” tiny cabin. Part of the appeal, certainly, is that it’s in the mountains, far from the cacophony of the city. But the other major draw is that it’s tiny.
I know I’m not alone in finding tiny homes so weirdly compelling. People have lived in very small spaces since the dawn of civilisation, of course, whether out of necessity or monkish self-denial. But it is only very recently – in the last decade, according to Greg Johnson, co-founder of the US-based Small House Society, and a self-described “claustrophile” – that tiny-home appreciation has congealed into a movement. Its hardcore members buy homes from designers such as Jay Shafer, who runs the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, and who will sell you a wooden bungalow with 99 square feet of floor space, easily transportable on a trailer, for £8,900. (If you’d rather build it yourself, he’ll sell you the plans for about £60.) The movement’s hangers-on, like me, just slaver over a burgeoning number of tiny home blogs, including not just Cabin Porn but also the Tiny House Blog, the Tiny Life and This Tiny House. “I have never met a link promising a teeny tiny home that I was not compelled to click on,” a fellow addict, the writer Emily Badger, admitted on the Atlantic Monthly’s website the other day.
“People do seem to be really attracted to the idea of the lifestyle,” says Johnson, who lived in a 10ft x 7ft house – built by Shafer – for six years from 2003. “We hear a lot from people who you know won’t ever make the jump. But they love thinking about it.” A piece of fan mail received at Cabin Porn vividly conveys this: “Thank you for this, it is the only site on the internet that I have ever found therapeutic. I am an anxious office worker living in the suburbs. Scrolling through the cabins releases physical tensions in my upper back.”
There are several very down-to-earth reasons why a resurgence of interest in very small homes should be happening now. When last month New York’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, announced a competition for developers to design 300 square feet “micro-units”, it was a response to high rents and the rise in one-person households; newly-built British homes are the smallest in Europe, primarily because home-builders make the most cash that way. The rural wing of the tiny homes movement, meanwhile, is motivated primarily by environmental concerns. How much more lightly can you tread on the planet than by having only one room to heat, and no space to accumulate the detritus of the modern consumer economy?
But there’s something else, too, which may admittedly be a luxury limited to those who don’t have to live in extremely cramped spaces from economic necessity – a deeper, quasi-spiritual pull towards the small. The lure of a cabin in the mountains might seem, at first, like straightforward luddism: the urge to escape to somewhere slower and quieter. But you could do that in a big country house, too, and we tiny-home fantasisers don’t fantasise about those. Besides, some of the most alluring tiny homes are technological marvels. Their kitchen areas glide smoothly away to reveal beds or desks; a German prototype called the Roll It is a home in the shape of a tube that, as it rolls over, becomes a bedroom, study or kitchen. Interior designer Nicolette Toussaint thinks of a good tiny home like a swiss army knife – a marvel of compact design. “I get a thrill when a piece of furniture I have measured and chosen drops perfectly into its allotted spot, wasting no space and looking as though it was created to be there,” she writes.
Thanks to iPads, MP3 players and Kindles, even the most compact lounge can be equipped with massive libraries of films, music and books. “Technology has allowed us to downsize our lives without giving up so much,” Johnson says. And technology means solitude need no longer entail utter loneliness. My perfect cabin would be in the middle of nowhere, but it would also have excellent Wi-Fi, for regular Skypeing with friends.
Perhaps what really explains the lure is something subtler than luddism: a desire to live on a scale you can get your head around. “Life has become extremely complicated,” says Mimi Zeiger, author of a book entitled Tiny Houses, “and the idea that you might be able to compact an entire life into something so easily manageable has great appeal.” In a tiny home in the country, unencumbered by endless household management, you’re free to plunge into the landscape – and in a very small house, you really are in the landscape, not looking out at it. In the perfect tiny urban home, you’d have all you needed for city living at a fraction of the normal cost, leaving you freer to enjoy the life of the city itself.
“But you can’t do any of that if you have children!”: Johnson hears this from sceptics a lot and it’s true that, now he’s married with a child, his family has moved to a somewhat larger space. But it shouldn’t be a competition, where the smallest house wins, he insists. Shafer will sell you a three-bed tiny home, admittedly a bit less tiny at 843 square feet, for £35,600. Or, like the rest of us who long for the minuscule life without ever quite pursuing it, you can just keep dreaming your impossibly tiny dream.
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