“Big Perks for Tiny Houses?” MPR interview


Listen to the full story at prx.org

New homes in America keep getting bigger and bigger. The average new American home is about 2400 square feet. Moving up to a bigger house can seem like a sign of success… or it might feel necessary for a growing family. But in the face of pressure to buy big… some people are choosing to downsize their homes… way, way down. Rebecca Williams visits some of the tiniest houses on the block:

(Sound of door opening)

“C’mon in!”

Andru Bemis lives in a little house on a corner.

Andru Bemis' living room
Andru Bemis’ living room

“Here it is, you’ve just about seen it. You’re standing looking at the kitchen, you’re standing in the living room, there’s a study, and there’s a bathroom behind that wall and somewhere above the bathroom there’s a bed.”

It takes a hop, skip and a jump to cross from one end to the other. That’s because his house is 300 square feet. Total.

Andru Bemis says a little house is better:

“I’m not owned by it, that’s one of the biggest things. I’ve only got one sink I’ve gotta keep running, I’ve only got one of anything, don’t have an entire house to take care of. I also leave town a lot and don’t have to leave an entire house and worry about it.”

Andru Bemis' recordsBemis is a musician. His love of music explains the 5,000 records lining one wall of his house and taking up precious space.

Of course he also makes room for his banjo.

(Sound of strumming)

You just don’t see tiny houses that much any more. Some, like Andru Bemis’, are remnants from the early 20th century. His tiny house is in a sleepy neighborhood that used to be the factory district. He’s seen other little houses like his get torn down to build bigger new ones.

“Bigger is better, I guess. Bigger means you’ve achieved a lot more. But as far as I’m concerned bigger generally means you’re working a whole lot harder.”

That’s one reason people are choosing to live small. They’re after a simpler life with less stuff. A smaller house costs less to buy and maintain. And some people argue smaller homes make better use of resources because they just use less of everything.

Jay Shafer says building small is the greenest thing you can do with a new home. He owns the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company. He designs and builds super small houses. He started with his own home. It was really tiny – 70 square feet. That’s 7 feet by 10 feet.

“It’s a huge challenge ? it’s much harder than designing a large house. There’s just no room for error. And if you want to do it well and get the proportioning right you have to consider everything as part of everything else.”

Shafer says to live in a tiny house, you have to figure out how much elbow room you need. Turns out, 70 square feet was a tad too small for Jay Shafer. So he traded up to 100 square feet.

Shafer says tiny houses are a tough sell for most Americans. But some people just love small little spaces. Shafer calls himself a claustrophile. He’s built 10 tiny houses and sold dozens more plans.

Gregory Johnson is one of Shafer’s converts. He’s a computer consultant in Iowa City. He lives in one of Jay Shafer’s high tech tiny houses. It’s just 140 square feet. But with a little bit of magic, one room turns into three.

(Sound of sliding panels)

“You can take what was an office and in about 20 seconds it converts into a dining area with a sink off to our right because that’s the kitchen.”

Gregory Johnson says his tiny house has changed him. He says he had his doubts at first, like the time he visited Jay Shafer at the construction site:

“He showed this little hole I was supposed to crawl through, the passageway to the upstairs to the loft and I thought I might have to lose some weight to get up in there (laughs).”

Johnson says he started really scaling back. He realized if he had a refrigerator, he’d just fill it up with ice cream and pizza. Things he really didn’t need. So to save energy, he doesn’t have a fridge at all. He started eating nuts and grains and fruit. By shrinking his life down to match his house he lost 100 pounds.

Johnson says tiny spaces don’t work for everyone. But he says he has a fulfilling life with a whole lot less stuff and space to put it in.

Many tiny house owners such as Andru Bemis want their miniature homes to make a statement: size does matter.

(Andru Bemis song: “my house is a very small house it’s the littlest house there is/it’s bigger than yours”)

For the Environment Report, I’m Rebecca Williams.

© 2006 Environment Report