Just how big is the tiny house “movement”?

While I’ve seen plenty of articles about tiny houses, it is hard to know just how big the “movement” is. Here is a story about tiny houses that discusses one couple but also suggests the homes are now part of the curriculum of one college:

Their origin is often attributed to Sarah Susanska’s 1998 book The Not So Big House. In it, she argues that new houses typical of the McMansion era—upward of 2,300-­square-feet—were too big and a waste of resources…

The Tiny House movement is part of the sustainable technologies curriculum at Central Carolina Community College in Pittsboro, which offers two-year associate degrees in the discipline.

“We do believe that part of sustainability is having a smaller carbon footprint and that means for us using fewer materials, using locally sourced materials and being extremely energy efficient in what we build,” says Laura Lauffer, the coordinator of the sustainable technologies program. “The Tiny House movement fits all of that criteria.”

The curriculum includes two classes in which students collaborate to build a tiny house. This year they will enter their final product in the competition. The Abundance Foundation in Pittsboro and Habitat for Humanity are sponsoring a tiny house contest in which novice builders will compete for best design. Each house must be less than 500 square feet, energy efficient and aesthetically pleasing.

Limited evidence for claiming this is a movement. One couple does not a movement make and the stories about tiny houses tend to focus on small groups of people who are interested in these homes. Additionally, it is interesting that this would make its way into college classes but then again college classes address all sorts of social phenomena, some with longer staying power than others.  However, there are hints of broader interest such as several cities looking into micro-apartments and trying to help the homeless in several places with tiny houses. But, how many of these tiny houses have been built? Will we eventually get Census data that will be definitive? In the meantime, journalists and others should be wary of calling this a broad movement.

I would also be interested to hear more about the links to Sarah Susanka’s Not-So-Big-House. Susanka was not calling for super small houses; rather, ones that weren’t as big as McMansions. The homes she features in her books still tend to be around the national average and they are not necessarily cheaper with all of their customized features. The principle of having a smaller house may fit with Susanka’s ideas but she wasn’t strongly calling for houses less than 200 square feet.

We know a McMansion when we see the outside but what is inside?

A Quora forum member asks a broad yet intriguing question about McMansions: “What do McMansions look like on the inside?” Most of the attention McMansions receive is about the exterior. There are several common issues. It simply looks like a large house. Such homes do not have a consistent design as they can borrow from a variety of architectural styles. The house looks imposing from the street. The garage, at least two cars, can dominate the facade. The home does not fit with the style of the rest of the neighborhood. It may dwarf nearby homes. The front may be well-appointed but the sides and rear have vinyl siding, little brick, and little character. All of these critiques have something in common: houses should fit in with their surroundings and also present a coherent and less-than-ostentatious image. One group who have critiqued McMansions at times, New Urbanists, tend to make this argument that homes should be part of a larger neighborhood and have less to say about the interiors of large homes.

But, there is another aspect to McMansions that seems to receive less attention. I assume the reason for this is fairly obvious: most observers of McMansions, whether they are driving by homes on the way home from work or academics writing about the phenomenon, have less access to the interiors. In other words, homes are private spaces that generally aren’t open to private viewing. We might know some of the broad trends: people in recent years like granite countertops and stainless steel appliances, McMansions can have large foyers, there is a lot of interior space including rooms in addition to the standard ones, relatively more money is spent on the size of the home so less is devoted to long-lasting appointments, and McMansion owners may have little furniture or nice appointments because they spent so much on the house (this is a common stereotype).

There are architects and others who are more worried about the interiors of large homes. Architect Sarah Susanka, developer of the Not So Big House, argues that it is much better to have a home that fits a homeowner’s individual needs than to simply have a large house. She advocates for custom spaces within a home that both reflect the individual tastes of the homeowners as well as their activities. In contrast, McMansions are viewed as soulless homes that homeowners must fit into rather than the other way around. There are also others who argue there should more of a psychological fit between homeowners and their home.

This reminds me of the 1981 book The Meaning of Things: Domestic Symbols and the Self. The two researchers spent time observing people’s homes as well as talking to them about how they related to the objects they had in their home. I think there is a lot more research that could be done in this area. On one hand, we often buy into the idea that the products we buy and display say something about us (and we often also view our homes as expressions of our self) and yet, we don’t think too deeply about this most of the time.

The still somewhat large and pricey “Not So Big” house in the Chicago suburbs

Architect Sarah Susanka has become well-known for her idea of the “Not So Big House.” One of her homes has just been built in the Chicago suburb of Libertyville:

The showcase home, located at the 26-site SchoolStreet Homes development under construction a block east of downtown, is open for weekend tours until May 20. It and the rest of the homes, which are not open to the public, are Susanka’s and developer John McLinden’s take on new urbanism: smaller homes close together, with front porches, a sense of community and walking distance to shops, restaurants and services.

Don’t be fooled, though. When Susanka says not so big, she doesn’t mean small or cheap. The Libertyville home, at 2,450 square feet, won’t be priced until next year when it is put on the market, but other non-Susanka single-family homes on the block start at more than $500,000.

“A lot of builders are building smaller but cheaper,” Susanka said, standing in the furnished home just before it was opened to the public this month. “I believe people are ready for something that is smaller but better.”…

McLinden read Susanka’s books when they were first published and originally invited her to work on one of the houses as a marketing strategy to draw attention to the project. Now they are planning additional collaborations and have been contacted by three other communities about doing similar projects.

In an era where the McMansion is said to be dead and “tiny houses” are growing in popularity, Susanka’s houses stand out for two reasons I’ve noticed before and are also cited in this article. First, these houses are not small. On the spectrum between mansions and tiny houses, Susanka’s houses are very near the national average for the square footage of a new home. As she has said before, the article cites Susanka as saying the homes aren’t small but the space is used well and not wasted. Second, such homes may not be cheap. Perhaps the prices in this story are primarily being driven by being in Libertyville (with a median household income just over $100,000) but then again, Not So Big houses are likely to be built in communities like these.

The emphasis in Susanka’s homes are on two things beyond size and price: quality and fit with the homeowners. Neither of these things are cheap as the homes are not meant to be mass-produced (then they might fall perilously close to tract home or McMansion territory) and the features are customized to the activities and tastes of those who live there. Apparently, there is a market for this.

This could lead to an interesting question: are these primarily homes for educated, wealthy people who appreciate the design features and can afford the prices? Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising as architects do need to make money and wealthier clients (and higher-end builders) could certainly help. Could Susanka help market her homes even further if she could create and market a smaller version that could be affordable (or in terms more palatable for many suburban communities, “workforce”) housing? Would she want to produce a lot of these homes or would these reduce the appeal of status of these architect-designed homes?

The Not So Big House in the Chicago suburbs

Architect Sarah Susanka has made a name for herself by writing about the Not-So-Big House. In this, Susanka advocates for smaller homes with custom features that fit the personality of the inhabitants. Instead of buying a cookie-cutter McMansion or tract home, Susanka would have you design a slightly smaller home that better fits your needs.

A new development in Libertyville, a northern suburb of Chicago (about 40 miles north of the Loop), will feature four of Susanka’s homes. Here is a description of the price and size of these homes:

SchoolStreet will have 26 homes in a “new urban” design, plus condominiums in the historic Central School. The single-family homes range from $500,000 to $700,000 and 17 homes have already been sold.

Susanka is designing one floor plan of about 2,200 to 2,400 square feet with four fronts, so four could be built in the community. McLinden says the bungalow-style model or showcase home will be completed and open to the public next fall. It will stay open for six months because the architect thinks the only way for most people to really understand her principles is to walk through the spaces. McLinden hopes to build homes like it in future communities, too.

“This is just the beginning,” said Susanka. “We both are doing this as a test drive to see if there really is a market here.”

It is interesting to note that these homes are not cheap (though they may be slightly smaller). The money in these homes will go to certain features that mark Susanka’s designs:

Vary the ceiling heights. This provides the intimacy and feeling of personal space that some say is missing in big-box McMansions with all tall ceilings. Builders might try this with tray ceilings — at an extra charge, said Susanka.

Create sheltered spaces. Frank Lloyd Wright had his inglenooks or seating areas around fireplaces. Susanka puts a library alcove off the living room.

Make spaces do double duty. The library alcove works as a formal dining area.

Light to walk toward. This means put a lighted something, such as a window or lighted painting at the end of a hallway or other vista. “It provides a sense of extension. It feels like it’s longer than it actually is, and people experience more space.”

Don’t forget the “away” room. This can be an office or first-floor bedroom, of course, or a room for adults to read, do crafts or entertain friends. Or maybe the messy little children can use the away room, leaving the main living areas in better shape.

Speaking of messy youngsters, the home will have a laundry room that’s about 11-by-12 feet. “It can be a craft room for the kids — let the paint fly,” said the architect.

The author-architect is willing to explain and describe her homes, but she believes nothing compares with seeing them in real life.

“I’m trying to make as simple as possible a set of ideas that in a way are complex,” she said. “We are used to thinking about design in two dimensions. The quality of the space has to do with the third dimension, the heights and shapes of the space.”

Multiple times in this article, Susanka and the developer suggest these homes must be experienced in order to understand how all of these pieces come together. I would be curious to tour one of these houses myself to see if it really does feel different to a typical home, even in a quick walk-through. I have looked through a number of her books and have most enjoyed seeing pictures of cozy reading spaces.
I would also be interested to know who is attracted to these homes rather than typical new homes. People with greater appreciation for aesthetics and design? People with higher levels of education (Bourdieu’s theory of distinction)? People looking for the “hot” yet suburban neighborhood?