Tiny Houses, Smaller Footprints

The design blogs I follow trumpet the “tiny house” trend — that is, the growing popularity of very small houses, filled with the essentials but which otherwise remain quite cozy. Yet do they offer a material improvement in one’s quality of life?

Some of these micro-abodes do admit to a certain charm. One three-bedroom, two-story setup comes in at less than 850 square feet, but the floor plan looks sane and the conceptual art is really quite beautiful. Then there’s The Cypress, a house on wheels (not to be confused with a mobile home or a travel trailer!) between 130 and 175 square feet. Gorgeous! And don’t forget about the Ecocapsule, a miniscule egg-shaped habitat complete with solar panels, a rainwater catchment system and a wind turbine, so it’s billed as a completely off-grid home survivable for a full year. (But your mileage may vary.)

My first reaction to tiny houses was: Fricken’ hippies. But the more I think about it, the more intrigued I am. Buy a little lot on a small river somewhere, put in a tiny house, add a turbine or two and perhaps a small solar array, and … ? After the fairly modest initial capital investment, one’s cost of living declines precipitously. Sink a shallow well, or run cheap PVC piping to a drain field, and you could be good to go. If not for home, at least for a writer’s retreat overlooking some picturesque setting somewhere.

Then again: Some of the tiny-house designs I’ve seen are smaller than the square footage of my home office. Not kidding. So there’s that.

Then it occurred to me that tiny houses solve the “tiny” problem but struggle with the “house” part. Because with Ecocapsules and houses on trailer frames, the stuff you don’t see — wiring for electricity, water and sewer — is the deal-breaker. Even if you install composting toilets, you still have greywater discharge. And if you happen to park your tiny house in the middle of the California desert, water will not magically appear to refill your (tiny) reserve tanks and sinking a real, deep well runs well into five figures. Anyone who’s ever spent a week in a travel trailer at a state park in the summer knows well the challenges of managing septic, grey and fresh tanks as well as the propane cylinder and sometimes the battery bank. Now imagine that balancing act as a lifestyle choice.

So maybe the “tiny house” problem, when the details get resolved, transmogrifies into what we already call a cottage.

What surprises me, though, is that the tiny-house fanatics haven’t jumped on the ultimate in tiny-house living: Sailboats. A Valiant 42, for example, is a bluewater-capable sailboat that comfortably sleeps four in standard berths plus one in a quarterberth. A vessel on that boat’s class typically includes a watermaker and supports wind and water turbines and solar arrays. Waste discharge is permitted a reasonable distance offshore. Live-aboard sailboats really have solved all aspects of the tiny-house problem, with the added bonus that when you get bored with your current location, you can just weigh anchor and sail to more accommodating climes.

Plus, even really cheap fixer-upper 30-to-45 foot sailboats on eBay cost between $1,000 and $10,000 and, with a much smaller investment than with a tiny house, can be brought into pristine running condition again.

Most marinas in the West Michigan market offer monthly slip fees (including shore power and often, cable TV runs and potable water lines) of less than $250 per month, lower than property taxes on a bigger suburban lot. Some folks down south don’t even bother with slips, choosing instead the free option of protected anchorages.

Tiny House Culture

But pay attention to the culture surrounding tiny houses. The ethos, I think, marks a partial repudiation of the McMansion phenomenon. You find the usual suspects — aging ’60s radicals, environmental activists, communitarians — in the mix, although the usual suspects seem even more interested in things like straw-bale houses and mud-earth adobes. Which is fine. Perhaps it’s selection bias, but the upscale design blogs most enamored with tiny houses see them not as “living on the cheap” but rather as a more responsible mode of living whereby a person’s assets can channel toward projects other than perpetual home improvement of a palatial suburban manor. The blogs promote college grads and New Urbanists who would rather focus on lifestyle augmentation than infrastructure maintenance, so exquisitely tailored tiny houses with bespoke accessories present as a more attractive option than a 50-year-old starter house in the inner-ring suburbs of a gentrifying metropolis.

That part, I get. I presently pay $850 per month for roughly 1,200 square feet of living space in a 120-year-old house in the South Hill neighborhood of Grand Rapids. I rent, so I don’t directly pay property taxes, but I do pay electricity, gas, phone and TV/Internet charges each month. Put differently, my total cost of living just for the roof over my head runs probably $1,200 per month. That’s roughly $14,400 per year — an amount that could purchase right now, on eBay, a Herreshoff H28 sailboat (30-foot design) in excellent condition, plus a year of dock fees along many of the smaller marinas on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. With some quick back-of-the-napkin math, if I were to spend $10k on a sailboat on Jan. 1, 2016, and park it at a marina for $250 in monthly slip fees, my five-year cost savings would be roughly $35,000, assuming an extra $200 per month on average for insurance, upgrades, boat maintenance, etc.

So the question is: What would you do with an extra $7,000 in tax-free extra spending money each year? Invest it? Use it to buy a new car? Go back to school or pay down student loans? Take annual “big” vacations like tours of Europe, Africa or Asia? Invest in a pricey hobby like scuba diving or skydiving? Build an emergency fund?

The value proposition of a “tiny home” isn’t the tinyness. It’s the freeing up of capital that otherwise goes into the rabbit hole of big houses and big property. And the constraint of not having a billion places to put stuff means that acquisitions must be thoughtful: You could splurge on a foosball table you find at the local Goodwill, but if you have a tiny home, you have literally nowhere to put it, thus blocking the impulse buy. Indeed, the acquisition of crap has an effective upper limit. When I moved into my current domicile four and a half years ago, I walked in the door with almost nothing. I had my bed, some clothes, and a few boxes of books and kitchen supplies. Nothing for the dining room. Nothing for the living room save a TV and a wicker rocker. But now? I’m drowning in stuff and most of it wasn’t exactly cheap.

Tiny homes, whether they’re on wheels or on the water, make us rethink our consumption strategy such that we can focus our resources on the things — the experiential things — that matter.

A big reminder in such a small package.

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