The tiny house movement still comes with a sizeable pricetag.
Thursday, February 10, 2011
In the same way that America’s fast food purveyors pack their menus with cheap, empty calories, America’s home builders pack their houses with cheap, empty space. On a cost per square foot basis, the typical McMansion may seem like a good deal, but like a Big Mac, what sort of nourishment does it truly deliver? Gorge yourself on cathedral ceilings, three-car garages, and all the tasteless architectural condiments you can stomach (gables, turrets, etc.) and you’ll only end up as queasy and unsatisfied as the Joneses next door.
Like tiny medallions of herb-encrusted, farm-to-table lamb loin at your local fancy restaurant, smaller homes, sustainably grown, artfully assembled, a little bit pricey, represent an obvious alternative to such fare. But how to convince America’s real estate gluttons that this approach can apply equally to dining rooms as well as dinner?
Ever since Henry Thoreau built a 150-square-foot shack for himself at Walden Pond to escape the distractions of 19th century America, small homes have been equated with simplicity and escape. In our own era, the clutter and distractions of contemporary culture are greater than ever, and thus the tiny house has shrunk even further in size while greatly expanding in metaphorical significance. The XS-House, available from the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, has a smaller footprint than a California king mattress.
At just 65 square feet, the XS-House would probably inspire PETA protests if farmers started raising chickens in them. And like many small homes advocates, Tumbleweed founder Jay Shafer tends to emphasize the frugality, sustainability, and transcendence from material obligations and concerns.
But are evangelists like Shafer selling tiny houses short when they position them as antidotes to consumerism?
Build an XS-House yourself and it will cost you around $16,000 for the plans and necessary materials. Buy one ready-made, and the cost escalates to $38,997. That puts it a luxury-priced $599 per square foot, or more than four times the cost of your average Vegas McMansion! Better yet, it’s an instant house, a house to go, and what’s more American than that? Like a 100-calorie snack pack, a tiny house encourages you to splurge. Take two or three, they’re small, fun, fashionable way to affirm your commitment to live gently on this earth wherever you happen to have rural acreage.
A smaller home can help you attain a new level of consumer obsession. In 1998, architect Sarah Susanka wrote The Not So Big House, a manifesto that champions smaller domiciles. In the 12 years since, she’s published eight additional books on the subject.
In a McMansion, you can easily lose sight of the stuff that gives your life meaning because it gets packed away in closets, spare bedrooms, three-car garages. In a tiny house, everything you own is on display. If you’re looking at your kitchen appliances all day, you have a legitimate need for the most gorgeous kitchen appliances known to man. If space is at a premium, you can be forgiven for upgrading to the flattest flat-screen TVs, the most compact washer/dryer combos.
A McMansion can almost seduce you into a spartan lifestyle. A big garage means space for a big car, so you don’t have to travel to the grocery store as often. A restaurant-grade kitchen means you’ll eat at home. Your media room will reduce entertainment expenditures.
Is it any wonder that as houses grew bigger over the course of the past decade, our economy took a nosedive?
Never mistake the small house for a totem of sacrifice. Like Chez Panisse over Olive Garden and Whole Foods over Safeway, the small house proposes less for more as the path to consumer satisfaction.
GREG BEATO is a contributing editor at Reason magazine.