Home, squeezed home: Living in a 200 sq ft space

 

Washington

Step into an alleyway in the Northeast Washington neighborhood known as Stronghold, and you will see a vegetable patch, a campfire, a view of the Capitol and a cluster of what neighbors call "those tiny people, building their tiny houses."

The people aren't really tiny, but their homes are — 150 to 200 square feet of living space, some with gabled roofs, others with bright cedar walls, compact bathrooms and cozy sleeping lofts that add up to living spaces that are smaller than the walk-in closets in a suburban McMansion.

"This is the dream," says Rin Westcott, 28, who lives in Columbia, Md., and came out on a wintry Saturday afternoon bundled in a flower hat to help her friend Lee Pera with a tiny-house raising.

Pera, 35, wore safety goggles as she treated the cedar boards of her "little house in the alleyway," one of three under construction in what is thought to be one of the country's first tiny-house model communities.

If these affordable homes — which maximize every inch of interior space and look a little like well-constructed playhouses — are the dream, they represent a radically fresh version of what it takes to make Americans happy.

Tiny homes first drew national attention when the Tumbleweed Tiny House Co., now based in Santa Rosa, Calif., launched the concept in 2000. The idea gained visibility when it was featured in several national magazines and, in 2007, became the focus of the Tiny House Blog, established by self-proclaimed "lover of tiny spaces" Kent Griswold.

The small homes, some on wheels, don't warrant many trips to the Container Store. There are no kitchen islands, three-car garages or living rooms that are never lived in. In fact, their increasing popularity could be seen as a denunciation of conspicuous consumption and a rejection of the idea that more is, well, more.

The group behind Stronghold's tiny-house community calls itself Boneyard Studios. "As property values and rents rise across the city, we want to showcase this potential option for affordable housing," the group writes on its Web site. "We decided to live the questions: Can we build and showcase a few tiny homes on wheels in a DC urban alley lot? . . . Not in the woods, but in a true community, connected to a neighborhood? Yes, we think. Watch out left coast, the DC adventure begins."

There's one problem: The city's zoning laws don't allow residential dwellings on alley lots unless they are a minimum of 30 feet wide, or roughly the width of a city street. Washington is currently discussing lifting the 30-foot restriction. So, as Boneyard Studios continues to advocate more progressive zoning laws, it is using the property to showcase what could be.

"We want to inspire thinking about this as a possibility in the District," says Brian Levy, 37, one of Boneyard's founding members, who is building his tiny home in Stronghold but currently lives in a rowhouse.

Although the diminutive homes are made of high-quality materials, they are priced for a flagging economy. They sell for $20,000 to $50,000, less than the down payment on a two-bedroom condo in a trendy neighborhood.

"They're a statement that no one needs to be trapped in a mortgage they can't afford in a house that's too big for them anyway," says Amy Lynch, a consultant with BridgeWorks, a Minneapolis-based company that studies generational trends. Lynch says tiny houses signal the end of America's love affair with enormous homes. "The baby boomers raised their children. Now, they're looking at all this stuff they have and thinking, 'What has meaning for me now?' Plus, these tiny houses are small enough that you can clean — actually clean them!"

Here in Stronghold, the tiny houses also signal a culture clash between generations with different ideas about which American dream to aspire to.

Jay Austin sipped Darjeeling tea as he looked over his construction plans. Austin, 23, sees the tiny home he's building as perfect for Generation Y — underemployed, credit-crisis kids who know they will probably never achieve the "Mad Men"-era American ideal of a one-income family with a large house in the suburbs, two kids and two cars.

"I saved for four years for a down payment. Then, I realized I could buy a whole house for that money," says Austin, who works in planning for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. "These also give us the luxury of mobility; if I need to move for another job, I don't have to pack a single bag."

Still, some of the neighbors in Stronghold — where 1,800-square-foot renovated rowhouses sell for half a million dollars — are befuddled by the tiny-house movement, largely because they spent their lives trying to upsize.

"A midget could catch the devil in one of them teeny, tiny little houses. I just don't understand the point," says James Harris, 70, who worked for 40 years in the maintenance department for the Smithsonian Institution and, with his wife, Patricia Harris, 65, a longtime D.C. school administrator, saved to pay off the spacious rowhouse they bought 38 years ago.

"It's our little piece of Washington," Patricia Harris says.

Her family is descended from freed slaves; they moved here from the South with a dream to own land and a house big enough to raise children and entertain guests. "These tiny houses feels like we are going backwards," she says.

Market researchers say first-generation immigrant groups and middle-aged adults in the working and lower-middle classes are still traditionalists, often aspiring to larger homes in the suburbs where there are good schools, which are seen as the most direct path into the middle and upper classes. Their children, however, want to move back to the cities.

From 1950 to 2000, the size of the average American house increased by 230 percent, but home sizes have been declining since 2007, according to "The Small Spaces Trend," a March 2011 report by the Atlanta-based marketing firm Kleber and Associates.

The 1980s were all about "me architecture and big-hair houses," where space was valued over style and location, says Monty Hoffman, chief executive and founder of PN Hoffman, one of Washington's largest condo builders. But today, Hoffman says, micro apartments are seen by many developers as the future of urban centers.

"It's no longer about impressing your friends with your huge 1980s castle, it's more about your lifestyle: What restaurants and fitness centers and community life can you walk to? It's not about driving everywhere and staying inside and spending hours watching TV," Hoffman says.

It's hard to say how many tiny houses have been built nationally, but Jay Shafer, founder of the Tumbleweed Tiny House Co., says he sold more than 1,500 sets of plans. Shafer's self-published "Small House Book" has sold steadily since it came out four years ago. (Shafer sold Tumbleweed in September and started the Four Lights Tiny House Co., headquartered in Graton, Calif.)

During his first five years, Shafer says, he sold 10 sets of plans per year. But tiny houses' popularity took off after the housing bust and economic downturn in 2008. "Americans still like our stuff big and cheap, so a 100-square-foot house is not for everyone or big families. But people in tiny homes save a ton of money on heating and AC," Shafer says.

Shafer recently moved from his 90-square-foot house to a "by comparison palatial 500-square-foot home" after his wife had their second child.

Despite the fact that tiny houses are, well, tiny, affordable-housing advocates are researching the possibility that attractive micro homes could one day complement or replace stigmatized trailer parks and low-income housing, especially in places such as Washington, where they could be built in unused vacant spaces such as alleys.

"I like the concept, and I'm intrigued. But it's so small that it's only good for a single person or a very-much-in-love couple," says George Rothman, president of Manna, a nonprofit affordable-housing builder and developer. "There's also the issue of land and zoning, and those are huge issues."

There are no micro loans for micro houses, because most tiny homes don't qualify for mortgages. Some banks do commonly offer personal, unsecured lines of credit, and some tiny-home owners get significant lines of credit from places such as Home Depot. But there's also the issue of buying land.

Boneyard Studios' Levy purchased his 5,200-square-foot lot in Stronghold for $31,000. There are dozens of vacant lots around the city that are on the market for less than $50,000, which means the tiny abodes could be a good option for people building affordable housing down the line, Levy says.

 

So far, he says, the tiny-house trend has drawn a cross section of fans to the Stronghold community — especially young couples who are living with their parents.

Eating a brunch of black-bean burritos on the construction site in Stronghold on a recent Saturday, a couple who hope to build a tiny house in Virginia came by for some tips.

Brandon Pilarski, 36, a waiter, and his partner, Leigh Anne Rochelle, 28, a waitress, are living with her parents in Loudoun, Va.

"Just knowing that I don't have to wait 20 years to have a house paid off is really wonderful," says Rochelle, who is working on whittling down her large amount of clothing so it will fit in their new tiny house. But just in case, "we might keep a little storage at my parents' place."

Their dream house may be tiny, but they still live in America, after all.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special
tv
News
Claudia Winkleman and co-host Tess Daly at the Strictly Come Dancing final
people
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
voices
News
Elton John and David Furnish will marry on 21 December 2014
people
Sport
SPORT
News
people
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Sport
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
News
Stacey Dooley was the only woman to be nominated in last month’s Grierson awards
mediaClare Balding and Davina McCall among those overlooked for Grierson awards
News
Twitchers see things differently, depending on their gender
scienceNew study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Biggins as Mrs Smee in Peter Pan
theatreHow do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Senior Private Client Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: SURREY - An outstanding high level opportunity...

Austen Lloyd: Construction Solicitor - London

Very Competitive Salary : Austen Lloyd: NICHE CITY FIRM - We are making a disc...

Austen Lloyd: Construction Solicitor - London

Very Competitive Salary : Austen Lloyd: NICHE CITY FIRM - We are making a disc...

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick