Are we losing the Soul of the Tiny House Movement?

In a recent post entitled Tiny House Living: the Ultimate Un-Making Project? I outlined my deeper motivation for going tiny. I started to make the case for why tiny house living is more about the intention to live simply and with less reliance on external things for happiness than it is about the house itself. But that got me thinking: with all the newer (and bigger, more elaborate, feature-rich) tiny houses being built these day, as we losing the soul of the movement?

Our Founding Mother and Father

Dee Williams

Dee Williams – image source: Portland Alternative Dwellings

A LOT has changed in just the short 2.5 years since I started building my house. I look back at those who I feel are the mother and father of the modern tiny house concept, Dee Williams and Jay Shafer, and begin to wonder where we’re headed as a movement. These two pioneers were faced with life circumstances that encouraged them to seek a simplified life where they could spend more time with the people they love or doing the meaningful work they are here to do. They recognized early on that the never ending time/money rat race required for home ownership in modern American society would not lead to the quality of life they wanted. They also knew that it was not at all sustainable and that many or most houses being built in America today did not ultimately serve the needs of population they were supposedly being built for.

Jay Shafer - image source: Tiny House Blog

Jay Shafer – image source: Tiny House Blog

But with all that, I believe there was something deeper. Why did Dee and Jay start their tiny house journeys building 12′ homes (Dee still lives full-time in hers, now diminutive compared to nearly every other tiny house being built)? Couldn’t they just have easily built 16′, 20′, 24′ or 28′? Didn’t they also want the comforts they were used to? Who wouldn’t want a washing machine, full kitchen (or running water for that matter), a claw-foot tub, flat screen TV, etc, etc.?

Though the founding intentions that spurred this movement, their answers just years later may seem odd; They didn’t want those things. They consciously chose to do without. That was the whole point. Sure, there were financial pressures and all that, but the choice was significant: Live with less, own less, maintain less, break free of the learned idea that happiness is depended on at least some level of material wealth. Funny — it sounds like a lot like un-making to me!

Dee describes a similar concept as being self-contained but interdependent. Have what you need to to care for your basic needs, but leave as much space as possible (or even create the need, intentionally) for the healthy dependence on other people and for other people on you. The more we have in our house the less often we’ll find ourselves out in the world, seeking connection and friendship. That’s another long conversation in itself, but something to think about when you choose what to include and what to do without.

Does Size Matter?

A recent blog post from another tiny house pioneer, Derek “Deek” Diedreksen sparked a lively conversation on the Tiny House People Facebook Group. The discussion revolved around how the  “tiny house” concept, becoming co-opted by mainstream media (shaped by the need for drama and wow-factor), might be stretching and skewing into a something the Jay and Dee would have never seen coming.

“With tiny house tv shows spreading like wildfire, the media covering the subject more and more, and what with the newer 5067.8 tiny house blogs out there (forget the 430 twelve-page e-books), I’ve been noticing a trend in tiny housing in that the homes are getting bigger, fancier, more gadget-laden, and WAY more expensive. Television, a whole world of “you gotta wow-’em at every turn” is part of this newish direction in that networks spread, or create, a skewed vision of what is “the norm”. But I feel its also due to the fact that when an idea starts going mainstream, you’re going to find newly introduced folks who love tiny houses for their “cute factor”, but who still yearn to squeeze the pool table and triple stack washer onto a quintuple-axle travel trailer. I call that approach “Ten gallons of shit, in a five gallon hat”. It usually doesn’t work so well, especially once you try it on.”

I think Deek makes a great point. A REALLY important point. And I would even take it farther. The desire to pack everything we are accustomed to into a tiny house tends not only to create bigger, longer, heavier houses, but it leads me to question why one would then want a tiny house at all? With the mainstream media attention of late, more and more people are being introduced to the idea of a tiny house as an immediate answer to their housing woes. The “cute” factor, combined with relative affordability and the empowering DIY possibility appeals to a huge number of people, but I’d argue that a tiny house may not be the right fit for a majority of those people.

In another recent Facebook group discussion some prominent tiny house dwellers shared an interesting reflection: If they were to build a tiny house again, they’d build it smaller. What does this say about what we think we need vs. what we actually need? If stories like this from tiny house dwellers that have come before us are any indication, maybe it’s worth taking the time to answer that question before even start dreaming or designing, so we have no regrets about the size or complexity of the tiny homes we end up building.

The Return to Simplicity

This subject brings up wide-ranging opinion on what tiny houses are or should be. Does moving in the direction of smaller and more simple count as “tiny”, even if larger square footage? What’s so different about a 30+’ long tiny house compared to a 20′ house? Shouldn’t everyone be completely free to do what they want and build their dream house without the judgement of others? I think they should be (that’s the appeal in part), but I believe these questions deserve a lot more thought. My goal is to hopefully help guide the tiny house movement in a direction that does not stray too far from what I believe to be very important founding intentions.

How can we reconcile the desire for complete freedom to include everything we deems necessary with a continued reflection on what we can do without (where happiness truly comes from)?

20′ with everything needed for 2 people and a dog

The answer lies, I think, in making very conscious choices. In my 20′ house I chose to include a combo washer/dryer. I did not assume I needed one. I made a calculation based on many factors: Cost, size, time spent doing laundry at home vs. a laundromat, etc. In the end I chose to include what some may view as a luxury because in my equation, the convenience and time savings won out over initial costs, space used, and the compromises I would have to make elsewhere to fit this choice in.

Did you notice that? Instead of just saying, “well I need that, so I guess I’ll just make 4 feet longer so I can have it all” I made a compromise. Why? Because behind all the choices is the intention to — if possible for me in that moment — see what it would be like to live with less. Even if that meant a little discomfort, or fear of the unknown, or change in routine.

I would frame this by asking not “how can it all fit in?,” but instead “what can I do without?” The absence of some items from the home might be just as important as the presence of others.

Right there you can see how my view differs from many others – maybe the majority. Some people don’t care about living with less, and why would they? They just want an affordable place to live, maybe with their family or as a way to live well through their retirement years. They have far different motivations than me, and that’s fine. Some what to live close to others in community, while others want to be off-grid, out in the woods, with open acres on all sides of them. There is certainly room for all of us, and yet, something must be consistent in our intention or in the forms our houses take.

Staying “Soulfully” Tiny

Building the coolest, most stunning, pinterest-friendly tiny house and having your photos spread far a and wide, giving you your 15 minutes of internet fame, can be fun for a short while. There’s a temptation to see what others are doing and to “keep up with the Joneses” so to speak. It’s funny that the tiny house movement grew, in part, out the desire for just the opposite, yet that same phenomenon now exists quite strongly within the movement itself.

Too small? The Salsa Box by Shelter Wise

Too small? The Salsa Box by Shelter Wise

I believe that for the tiny house movement to thrive the images people have in mind when they think “tiny house” need to remain at least somewhat true to Jay and Dee’s concept of simpler living. Why? Because whether or not all who live in tiny houses believe in this, creating “human sized” dwellings, with an emphasis on decreased consumption and increased environmental care, is really the only way we can house our population in a sustainable way. The next generation of home owners need an option that is “tiny” as a counter-balance to chasing the more-is-better picture of success that modern society feeds them. If the tiny house concept slowly merges with the mainstream “slightly smaller” house, complete with “ten gallons of shit,” as Deek says, then who’s going to hold the other end of the spectrum and provide the example of simple, conscious living?

That may not be your goal, but it IS mine. Every purchase you and I make is a vote for that product or way of living, and the way we live works in a similar way: we’re showing others and example of what’s possible (hopefully not that you need more and MORE — we have plenty of those examples). Can you forgo the bling and flash, the convenience or one-upmanship and make the choice to keep it simple? That’s my challenge. I hope you take it to heart.

Do you find this controversial?

What’s your opinion on what a tiny house (on wheels) should mean?

Author: Alek Lisefski