A project of Just Fine Design/Build

A project of Just Fine Design/Build. If interested in a tiny house commission: matt@justfinedesignbuild.com

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Politics of the Tiny House

I've been living in the tiny house for about two months now, and I'm starting to observe changes its made in both my outlook towards the world as well as how I'm perceived by others. One thing I realized: I'm now an eccentric. Even though nothing changed about me, I have been at a few parties recently where people REALLY want to talk about the tiny house unsolicited, and try to understand how I live in 120 sq ft (i mean, i don't fully yet.) It's fun, and always in good faith, but nonetheless leaves me feeling like I just stepped into this other category in people's eyes: someone who makes extreme life choices. And I'm totally okay with it, proud of it even, though I realize that I might be now introduced only as "This is Matt, and he lives in a tiny house." I shouldn't be complaining, It's actually really exciting to now have an(other) eccentricity, instant conversation starter, girlfriend filter, added joke opportunity (tiny house jokes NEVER stop!,) and of course, place to be on my own.

In addition to this realization, I've also been try to reflect on the experience as a whole, because it is an education in itself. I've been reading the book "House" by Tracy Kiddier, which is a (sort of cheesy) chronicle of a couples experience having a home built, both documenting their relationship dynamics as well as the relationship among the architect and builder, and all of the complexities that go into making a house, both technically and socially. That's the most immediate takeaway: there is so much labor that goes into even the tiniest of houses. Every building I see now, even the crappiest Home Depot renovation reminds me of the amount of work and energy that went into putting it up. Taken further though, the tiny house makes me think about every object that fills it. I have had my hands on making the whole structure and furniture in the house, but the appliances, dishes, spoons, mattresses, linens, that I am buying all now have an added weight: who made them and where did this come from? Building a tiny house and then living in it makes you particularly sensitive to the culture of convenience.

I've also been trying to ask myself: Is the tiny house radical? The tiny house is about autonomy, both from the pressures of living in our current economic system via the sacrifices made for rent or a mortgage, and also about having the ability to have solitude while being in your own handbuilt space. The tiny house is also about having less stuff: only what is necessary and less space to heat and cool it, but also a different relationship to stuff, one that recognizes that things are just that, the acquisition of such should not determine the program of a building, rather people should.

But In many ways, the tiny house is ordinary. In most of the world, people live in such small amounts of space - it's really only in the global north and elites in the global south that such a need for extra space exists, if it should be called a 'need.' Our thresholds for square footage are certainly culturally conditioned. In another sense, tiny house living is just a smaller version of exactly what we do now: the materials are more or less similar, the creature comforts reliant on industrial processes (although having an off the grid tiny house is totally doable.)

Aside from wrestling with that question though, i've been trying to think of socially responsible applications of the tiny house. I think the tiny house form could lend itself particularly well to issues of agricultural worker housing. I started preliminary research on issues related to migrant farmworkers in California, and substandard housing is one of the biggest. What if workers were able to take their own housing with them or provide it, that was not full of toxic pressboard? Similarly, relief housing has much to be improved upon. When I was in Mississippi after Katrina i went into several FEMA trailers and could tell right away they were toxic, but more than that, they were sterile, and had no relationship to the outdoors. They were literally like an air conditioned chamber. I can see groovy organic farmers in Sonoma getting tiny houses made (actually we have already been contacted by one) which I think would be cool, but I'm more interested in expanding the tiny house, maybe not by size but by reach. Or maybe that's just a stupid idea?

Wow, I'm not usually so earnest in blog postings, but I suppose that's where I've been at recently. The kitchen is working! I'll have pictures soon. . .


  1. Building a little house & then living in it makes you sensitive to the culture of convenience.

    Condo Manager

  2. I don't quite remember how I found this blog...but! I have to say, from the pictures I've seen this is such a beautiful home! I actually live in about the same sq footage, except I don't have a loft bed (definitely would free up some space! Haha.) It is actually an add-on to another, larger home, although both are distinct entities...I feel like a parasite. :) I instantly fell in love with this rental, even though it was probably the size of my old room in my other house. However, my family and friends thought I was losing some sort of grip on reality. I've lived here for 7 months, and my mother and brother are only now warming up to my cozy abode. I have to agree, I thought I lived minimalistic before (college will do that to you), but as I moved into this place I realized how much extra, unnecessary stuff I had. It felt so cleansing going through all of my boxes and donating things I simply didn't use/need, and keeping only the truly necessary. I feel so much lighter, freer and there has been such a shift in my perspective which can only be thanks to this tiny house. Looking forward to more posts/pictures!

  3. What an honest post. Thanks for that. I want to live in a tiny house. We are working toward that goal. I know it would be so much easier if I were single... alas, we are a family of four and will be downsizing from over 2000 square feet to something at least 400, but less that 800. I think that 100 sq ft a person is still tiny. I haven't really thought of what that will do to how others perceive me. But, of the few people I've told about this venture, only one (who would follow in my footsteps as soon as I pave the way) can even understand what I am doing much less try to figure out why! Thanks for your perspective.

    Jenni of http://tinyfamilyadventure.blogspot.com/

  4. I lived in a tiny, autonomous add-on for a couple years. I want to say it was 200 SqFt, but I never really checked. It was very small for a family of 3. But we made it work (we luckily had outside storage for bikes and such) with a fold-out couch. I've since moved out of the add-on and my brother moved in. He added a foldable table, which really helps make the kitchen seem larger.

    I really enjoyed your thoughts on this. Made me reflect on my tinyhouse time. We now have much more room (nearly 800 SqFt), but people call it small. I feel downright luxurious now. So it really is about perception.

  5. Matt!
    Thanks for sharing your adventure! I've seen your project on a few different sites now and am envious of your chance to live in a tiny house. Being a minimalist myself I completely resonate with your lifestyle, your eccentricity, and the way people can stare at you blankly as tell you tell them about needing less, and having less (aka, girlfriend filter, lol). I've enjoyed reading your posts and ideas, and looked forward to more.
    Be a catalyst, spread the love.
    Bryan Mc

  6. What would it take to start a Tiny House Foundation for migrant workers? We'd have to be able to educate them about building Tiny Houses, and, at least initially, offer subsidies or assistance in building. For many of these families, at least the ones we have in Michigan, $8K or so to build a house would be impossibly difficult. I'm going to give some serious thought to your idea.

  7. Living in a tiny house looks cool and how I wish to experience also how was it feels to leave there. Thank you for sharing this. I appreciated.