Inside the main room of a tiny house in Washington, D.C.

Sarah L. Voisin, Washington Post

Top: Despite their small size, tiny houses have fully functioning kitchens and bathrooms. In this house, the kitchen and bathroom are right next to each other. Above: The sleeping loft with its built-in shelves sits above the kitchen in this tiny house.


From left, Jay Austin, Tony Gilchriest and Matt Grasmick unwrap new water tanks for a tiny house. Illustrates TINYHOUSES (category l), by Emily Wax (c) 2012, The Washington Post. Moved Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012. (MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Sarah L. Voisin.)


The bathroom sits next to the kitchen in this tiny house; despite their diminutive spaces, the houses have fully functioning kitchens and bathrooms. Illustrates TINYHOUSES (category l), by Emily Wax (c) 2012, The Washington Post. Moved Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012. (MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Sarah L. Voisin.)


The sleeping loft in this tiny house boasts a skylight. It’s located in a neighborhood of tiny homes in Washington, D.C.

Photos by Sarah L. Voisin • Washington Post ,

Tiny houses: Home, squeezed home

  • Article by: EMILY WAX
  • Washington Post
  • January 20, 2013 - 3:47 PM

Step into an alleyway in the Washington, D.C., 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,” said Rin Westcott, 28, who lives in Columbia, Md., and came out on a wintry Saturday afternoon 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 like well-constructed playhouses — are the dream, they represent a radically new 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.

“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,” said 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. Older homebuyers no longer need or want all that space, and younger buyers aren’t interested.

“The baby boomers were really competitive and wanted the signs and symbols of being successful,” Lynch said. “The house was only better if it was bigger.” Now that boomers have raised their children, they’re shedding “stuff” and moving to smaller houses.

“Gen-Xers never did buy into the large mansion syndrome to begin with,” she said. “Millennials don’t want big spaces. It’s not just a life stage but what they value. They’re urban creatures.”

Living, not impressing

The tiny houses 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 construction plans for his tiny house in Stronghold. 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,” said Austin. “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.”

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 rose by 230 percent, but home sizes have been declining since 2007, according to “The Small Spaces Trend,” a March 2011 report by the Atlanta marketing firm Kleber and Associates.

The 1980s were all about “me architecture and big-hair houses,” where space was valued over style and location, said 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 said.

It’s difficult to say how many tiny houses have been built nationally, but Jay Shafer, founder of Tumbleweed Tiny House Co., says he has sold more than 1,500 sets of plans. 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 A/C,” he said.


Staff writer Kim Palmer contributed to this report.


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