Living Small

Are unconventionally small homes the answer to sprawl, spiraling fuel prices and the soaring cost of real estate? Don’t you just wish they were?

By David Holzel

Courtesy of Steffen Jänicke

You just have to poke your head inside Greg Johnson’s house. With its honey-hued cedar siding and set-a-spell front porch, carved wooden posts supporting the overhanging second-floor loft, the house could be on the set of a fairy tale.

Inside, sunlight comes through windows from every direction, and the view of the surrounding woods is a balm after one of Johnson’s stressful 16-hour days in the computer industry. Johnson boasts that everything in his house is within arm’s reach, and the airflow is so perfect that he sleeps in cool comfort under the pitched sheet-metal roof, even on hot summer nights.

The house is practically maintenance free. His utility bills add up to zero.
If it sounds like Johnson has died and gone to heaven, he hasn’t. For one thing, he lives in Iowa. For another, his house is seven feet wide and ten feet long.

“It’s actually quite a bit larger than the apartment I was renting,” says Johnson, who grew up in Bethesda. “So it was a step up for me.”

Courtesy of Steffen Jänicke

Still, it’s a tiny house. But so is a 1,000-square-foot house next to the McMonstrosities going up in Northern Virginia. But once upon a time—the 1950s, say—the median single-family house was 1,000 square feet. That means there were as many houses smaller as were larger. In Fairfax County today, the median size of a new single-family home is 3,700 square feet.

And while the politicians and developers continue to dicker over the problem of providing housing that most people can afford, the price of real estate in the region—the average sale price in June for a single-family dwelling in Northern Virginia was $578,689, according to the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors—is expected to rise even higher. The irony is that we’ve lived with this situation for so long that no one’s quite sure if anyone—despite the howls over the high cost of a home today—wants a small house.

Or a tiny house. One hundred square feet, let’s say. Or 500. Or 1,000. For people like Johnson, who heads the Small House Society, the smaller the house, the more environmentally friendly it is. A smaller space, carefully designed and well-constructed, leads to less waste of resources, and less stuff cluttering up our lives. And, they say, what you surrender in square footage, you gain in time.

Interior / Courtesy of Steffen Jänicke

Could such an unconventional house, constructed largely in a factory and trucked or assembled on site, be the solution to what ails today’s homeowner—sprawl, rising utility costs and the soaring cost of real estate? It’s telling that the zoning codes of Northern Virginia counties prescribe the maximum size a house can be, but not the minimum. There’s no need to. So far no one has tried to put up a house so small that neighbors fear it will underwhelm the other houses on their street.

“People make a tradeoff in their minds, but they don’t do it rigorously enough,” says John McClain, deputy director of the Center for Regional Analysis, at George Mason University. “They look at the cost of a house in Fauquier County, versus a house in Fairfax County. But they don’t look at the costs of transportation and quality of life.”

Quality of life is what tiny house enthusiasts say is the big benefit that comes from dwelling small. Johnson’s house was designed by the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, originally based in Iowa City but now headquartered in Sebastopol, California. When Tumbleweed’s owner, Jay Shafer, tired of the 100-square-foot house he had built for himself, he downsized to one 70-foot-square. He says customers have one of three ideas in mind when they come to buy his tiny houses, which range from a hutch-sized 50 square feet to a palatial 750 square feet.

“One-third are putting them in their yards as freestanding additions to their original home. Another third want them as vacation cottages. And one-third are people who want to live in them full-time.”

Shafer grants that the market for tiny houses is tiny, even in Northern California, where acceptance for the unconventional is easier to come by. “In the past year I sold about five houses,” he says. But he doesn’t need to sell them by the fistful. Living in his own tiny house, he’s able to trade the expense that comes from owning space for time—“something that seems to be a deficit in many people’s lives.”

Courtesy of Tumbleweed Tiny House Company

Andy Lee and Patricia Foreman share that philosophy. The two run the Tiny Homes Company in the Blue Ridge Mountains town of Buena Vista, Virginia. Their clients include a couple who built a 192-square-foot-house to live in while their 4,000-square-foot house was under construction–and ended up preferring to spend most of their time in the tiny house. There’s also the working dad who put a 160-square-foot tiny-cottage-on-wheels in his yard to use as an office, and the single man who lives in a 120-square-foot tiny house in his sister’s back yard.

Foreman and Lee see tiny houses functioning as starter homes, student housing, vacation cabins on wheels, as a “pout house” where a body can get some alone time, and as a “man’s cave” where a guy can putter, or beat drums, or catch up on his poetry.

Lee and Foreman’s signature product is the Copper Top Cabin, a sweet, snug dwelling with copper roof, bay window and white cedar shingles. At 10 feet by 22 feet, it can be rolled right up to your property on a trailer. It’s fully plumbed and wired. There’s a shower in the bathroom and a hot-water heater. The kitchen includes built-in cabinets and a microwave.

Smartly designed and built from quality materials, people like the Copper Top, says Foreman who, with Lee, wrote “A Tiny Home To Call Your Own,” a how-to book on the less-is-more lifestyle. “People say, ‘it’s perfect for an office.’ Or, ‘my mom could use it.’”

They start to back off when they learn what it will take to get local zoning and building authorities to like it too. “The code doesn’t always allow it and each locality has a different code,” she says.
It’s easiest to make a tiny house a secondary—or accessory—dwelling on a property with an already standing conventional house. But even these so-called granny flats are getting supersized.
Fauquier County has just increased the allowable size from 1,200 to 1,400 square feet, says Harry Atherton, vice chairman of the Fauquier board of supervisors. “And there’s a movement afoot to make it bigger,” he says.

“I would be enthusiastic if everyone wanted to build a house 2,000 square feet or less,” says Atherton, who lives in an old 2,100-square-foot farmhouse. “It isn’t going to happen. It isn’t where the market is.”
Fauquier’s codes seem scandalously permissive compared to Fairfax County’s schoolmarmish regulations. An accessory dwelling can be detached from the main dwelling only if the lot is two acres or larger, according to Michael Simms, assistant to Fairfax’s zoning administrator.

Otherwise, it has to be attached. It cannot exceed 35 percent of the size of the principle dwelling.  It cannot contain more than two bedrooms. One of the dwellings must be owner occupied. One of the dwellings must be occupied by an elderly person—that is, someone 55 or older (take that, Baby Boomers)—or someone with disabilities.

And if you don’t put your tiny house on a permanent foundation, it’s off to the mobile home park with your elderly 55-year-old relative.

A subdivision with strict covenants would likely look askance at your using a tiny house as an accessory dwelling and certainly not as the primary residence. So let’s say you decide to set out on your own. Stake your claim and set up your own tiny house on your own piece of land.

“The biggest single reason buyers drop out is because they can’t find land they can afford, that has all the improvements required by zoning and building inspectors,” says Andy Lee of the Tiny Homes Company. Adds Melody Friberg, senior zoning technician for Stafford County, “Land is hard to come by here in Stafford if you’re not a developer or a builder.” In Arlington County, you’d have to pay $500,000–$600,000 just for the lot, according to Terry Russell, zoning coordinator.

And even if a buyer has the land and isn’t put off by “wading through the permitting process,” Lee says, they then “have to find a contractor to put in the septic, another contractor for the well and electric and plumbing connections. They also have to find a contractor to put in the foundation. Then they worry about whether the trucking company can actually deliver the tiny house to the exact spot they want it. In some cases it is necessary to hire a crane to lift the tiny house off the trailer and onto a foundation…”

Details, details. Let’s just recall how at peace Greg Johnson is at the end of the day. How there’s no place to lose the remote. How there’s no perpetual shouting match between people on opposite sides of the house.
Actually, Johnson has a larger vision: a herd of tiny houses. Roll ‘em in, circle the wagons, and you have a community where each house needs less because common facilities are shared. And if your neighbor irks you, you can always head off and look for something better over the next hill. That’s how it’s always been in America.

In Northern Virginia, the idea of a clustered community, but with tiny houses on permanent foundations, called “cottage zoning,” has met a lack of interest by officials.

But change is on the way, McClain says. Whether led by the shifting needs of Baby Boomers or by the price of gasoline hitting $5 or  $6 a gallon, the demand for housing is going to look different 15 years from now.
“People will think again about buying that slightly cheaper house in Prince William County instead of that slightly more expensive house in Fairfax,” he says.

Cue the tiny house. Foreman, who can vacuum her entire tiny house without having unplug her machine and plug it in somewhere else, believes it will take that kind of major shift before tiny houses become more than a novelty. A house, no matter the size, has lasting value if it’s smartly constructed, she says.

“There has to be a change in perception—that just because it’s small, it doesn’t mean it’s tacky.”

(April 2007)


2 Responses

Gela Vasali Says:

The tiny house concepts are great, if you live IN a city, are single. The rest of us living real lives with families and kids won’t be buying many of those…… Just sayin’.

Candy Says:

Those of us with out kids and a family are still living a “real life” …just saying.

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