Thursday, October 29, 2015

Tiny house trend

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Tiny houses are houses that have between 100 and 400 square feet. Tiny homes are currently experiencing a surge of popularity in the US.

By way of contrast, from 1973 to 2013, the average size of a new home in the US increased by 1,000 square feet while the space per person doubled as the number of people per family shrunk. (Mark J. Perry, "Carpe Diem," American Enterprise Institute, February 26, 2014)

Tiny houses appeal to people for several reasons:
  1. Many tiny homes are mobile, allowing people to keep the same house if they relocate.
  2. Tiny houses have relatively tiny prices, generally under $100,000 and often less than $50,000. Growing numbers of people find 30-year mortgages burdensome, limiting their options fiscally and in other ways.
  3. Tiny houses represent a smaller environmental footprint and thus contribute less to climate change, global warming, pollution, and other ecological harms.
  4. Tiny houses force occupants to focus on developing a less material lifestyle, allowing more time for relationships, self, etc.

I like the tiny house trend. All four reasons commonly cited as explanations for why tiny houses appeal to people are ethically commendable. However, two other factors are also important.

First, the tiny house trend encourages people to consider how much space one really needs in a domicile. I have repeatedly observing people spending money on large houses. Had many of these people made alternative choices about the size of their dwelling, then they would have had the resources (money and time – big houses not only cost more to buy but also require time and money to maintain) to achieve some of their other goals in life. Perhaps I'm sensitive to this issue having spent most of my childhood in a large New England colonial that emotionally owner my father.

Two extremes can aid in bracketing the average amount of square footage per person that is ethically justifiable. On the one hand, the Soviets estimated that each person should have 100 square feet of living space. That feels too small for me, and probably does for most people. On the other hand, the National Association of Home Builders has calculated that the average US house grew from 1400 square feet in 1970 to 2700 square feet in 2009. The Census Bureau reported that the average US household had 2.58 persons in 2010. This means that, on average, a person in the US has approximately 1046 square feet of living space.

The tiny house articles/reports I have seen generally indicate one or two persons living in the tiny house. A family of three or four will undoubtedly find 100 square feet too small. Conversely, two persons living in 3500 plus square feet – as my partner and I did in Raleigh – is excessive and morally wrong.

Regrettably, people who want less house sometimes have few good options because US house builders traditionally prioritize size over quality. I bought the smallest house in Raleigh that offered the quality I sought. Thankfully, housing in Hawaii reflects a strong Asian influence. My Honolulu condo is mid-size for here, with less than 1200 square feet. I know we will have enough space; I wonder if we will have too much space. Extra space inevitably entails excess time, financial, and environmental costs.

Second, the tiny house movement has the potential to combat excessive economic inequality. Wealthy people by choosing a modest dwelling instead of a gargantuan mansion take steps to reduce the geographic and cultural barriers that create unethical class distinctions. Disavowing the pursuit of opulence in favor of a more modest lifestyle encourages self and others to develop an abundant life consonant with Ethical Musings' themes and values. Finally, the tiny house movement, if adopted by organizations and persons concerned about social justice, has the potential to reduce poverty, homelessness, and several other social evils.


The tiny house movement is no panacea nor do I advocate that everyone join it. However, the tiny house movement can be a catalyst for ethical reflection and making choices that lead to more truly abundant living.

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