Tiny House, Big Idea?

OK, so tiny houses are the darling of the publishing world about now; hotter than a sirache jalapeno sandwich with wasabi sauce.

Apparently people like reading about folks making do with the smaller homes; I certainly do. I get the Tiny House Swoon in my inbox every week and I have to take a look to see, mostly, how the floor plans can inform a day to day residential practice. You can learn some interesting things by seeing how folks deal with a (somewhat) forced austerity.

It seems like the best plans have the entry on the long side of the house. This slightly mitigates the damnable circulation through one end that essential eats up a precious third of the space. By entering on the long dimension the two ends can become destinations free of pass-through space.

A lot of the plans feature a sleeping loft which sounds a lot more appealing than the reality might support. Usually these spaces have way too little headroom and are going to induce migraines through middle of the night bolt upright manueavers. Imagine realizing you left your car running and jumped up to rectify the situation. Now you’ve got two problems; your car is still running and you have a knot on your forehead that’s throbbing like Donna Summers soundtrack – ouch!

These two architectural issue notwithstanding I’m all for smaller homes. Of all the tools in the sustainable builders toolbox size runs neck and neck race with location as the most potent variable. As I’ve mentioned before, where else in life can you get a “fourfer”? First cost, taxes, operations, and maintenance are all lower with a smaller than otherwise size building.

Sarah Susanka (who might bear some credit and/or responsibility for this movement) said it best when asked how big is the “Not So Big” house; “Twenty percent smaller than you thought you needed.”

All of this has me pondering the first cost issue. It has been my experience that a house of approximately 1,600 square feet is the economic sweet spot for first costs (ignoring, if you can, the other costs and their related environmental problems). So while a tiny house may cost less than a standard house (defined here as one that the national home building industry has evolved with and encouraged ever higher) the unit cost of said tiny house are going to be much much higher; I’d guess $350/square foot and up.

Think about it; you still need a plumber, an electrician, a carpenter or three, some way to heat and perhaps cool the building. You still need a roof, a bathroom, etc. There is an implied inefficiency in getting all these tradespeople to the house site (assuming it’s site built, of course) that a larger job can spread over more units of area.

This reminds me of the old business adage, “We lose a little money on each deal but we make it up in volume”. (Don’t do that).

So let’s see where this thing goes but I’m not betting the farm.

Now tiny multifamily? Yeah I get that.

Stephens Smith Farrell