Bigger is better. At least, that’s what most North Americans of a certain age were raised to believe.
If a 40-inch television screen is good, then a 60-inch version has got to be better. No need to settle for a tiny cheeseburger – a double cheeseburger is more desirable.
During the economic expansion of the 1980s and 90s, the ‘bigger is better’ credo seemed to define every aspect of modern life, manifesting itself most obviously in the size of homes. In 1975, the average Canadian house was 1,050 square feet. By 2010, the average size of a new home practically doubled – to 1,950 square feet – and American homes are even bigger than Canadian ones. This is even more striking considering that, in Canada at least, there was an accompanying decrease in the average number of people living in a household during the same period. Bigger houses for fewer people.
But a backlash against these McMansions, as they’ve come to be known, began during the economic recession of the late-2000s and is now gathering steam. Zack Giffin is something of an ambassador for the new movement toward minimalism.
A building contractor and professional skier who grew up in Colorado, Giffin is the co-host of ‘Tiny House Nation’, a new cable television show that premiered in the United States in early July (the show will hit Canadian airwaves when FYI Network launches this fall).
“The show is about downsizing,” says the 34-year-old Giffin, who has been a carpenter since he was in high school. “Its about people who are authentically trying to downsize and are intrigued by the idea of tiny homes.”
He says tiny houses are the antithesis of the waste and excess that have become the norm in the building industry.
Giffin doesn’t just bring a builder’s perspective to the show – he is the real deal. A few years ago he built his own 112-square-foot tiny home, to be able to move close to the slopes each winter during ski season.
“I ended up just feeling really at home there,” he says. “It didn’t make sense to rent a room in a house just for my stuff.”
Giffin says people turn to tiny homes for many reasons. For him, it was about freedom and mobility. Others are charmed and fascinated by tiny buildings, according to Dawn Higgins of Full Moon Tiny Shelters in Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia.
“The tiny house revolution sprang from failing economic systems, but its evolution and expansion are being fueled by a growing realization that freedom and time and happiness have as much value as money,” says Higgins, who founded Full Moon last year with partner and master woodworker James Constable. The company is now working on building its second tiny structure in Nova Scotia.
“We build tiny shelters that can be used in a myriad of ways, so it’s not always about ‘housing’ for our clients.” She says tiny spaces are often used as offices, retreat rooms, guest spaces or summer cabins. “They are for people who want to surround themselves with something beautiful and well-made – a space that brings them pleasure rather than just being functional.”
This, Giffin says, is the key to tiny houses. His house, for example, is entirely trimmed by hand with cherry wood. “Because it’s a smaller space, it gives an opportunity to make things beautiful. The whole space has the personal touch of an artist,” he says.
That high level of quality and attention to detail is what changes many skeptical people’s opinions about living in a tiny home. “Making the space feel like the place you want to be more than anywhere else – that’s what makes it feel like home.”
Living in a tiny home does require homeowners to reassess their lifestyle, as demonstrated by Jeff Kibert and his wife Chelsea, a Tennessee couple profiled in the first episode of ‘Tiny House Nation.’
The Kiberts are raising their toddler in 172 square feet, and had to purge most of their belongings to make the move. At first they found getting rid of things very stressful, but once they moved into the space, they found the opposite was true. “All of a sudden having the stuff was more stressful,” Kibert says.
This is a natural byproduct of living tiny, according to Higgins of Full Moon. “Generally, [it] requires bringing a kind of deliberateness to your every day. It makes you think about what you really need… and that less really can be more.”
Giffin says his own adjustment to tiny living was quick, and now he can hardly imagine living any other way.
“If I do build something else, I don’t see myself building a giant place,” he admits. “I want my life connected to the outdoors, I don’t want that to change. Sometimes when we have a large space to live in, we get sucked into it – cleaning our house, occupying the space – and we end up spending more time in it than we want to.”
The Kiberts say they are learning a different way of living now that they have been in their home for a few months. That includes better planning and forethought, better communication and a need to clean up after oneself. But they say the small sacrifices have been worth it for the sake of the employment flexibility and financial freedom that tiny living has given them.
“The giving up process is a short term issue,” Kibert says. “But once you go through it you have much more long-term satisfaction.”
Nine ways to edit your life
Get rid of stuff. As the old saying goes, nature abhors a vacuum, and given that suburban homes tend to be on the larger side, resisting the urge to fill your rooms with stuff can be difficult. But living with too much stuff is also difficult. There’s more stuff to buy, maintain, dust, organize, clean and toss. And while ultra-austere environments might not be everyone’s cup of tea, most of us appreciate a clear space more than we suspect. We suggest getting rid of stuff you don’t need, use or want, whether it’s housewares, furniture, clothes or paperwork. Edit ruthlessly. Just because you have the space doesn’t mean you have to fill it.
Organize. With a bigger house, the tendency for out-of-sight-out-of-mind increases. Work on going through all of your home’s spaces, getting rid of stuff wherever possible, then organizing. Sort through storage areas, digitize paperwork and photos, make sure everything has a proper place. On the other side is the mental liberation that comes when we know what we have and where it’s at.
Consider going natural. One of the larger time-sinks of having a single-family home is routine lawn care and landscaping. There are many types of beautiful grasses, shrubs and other plant life that need no or minimal upkeep. Look into what those things are for your particular climate and consider them as an alternative to the standard suburban mowed lawn and trimmed hedge aesthetic.
Think before you drive. It’s sort of an inescapable truth that most suburbs truly depend on the car. Distances between destinations are generally too long for a walk and even a bike in many cases. That said, more and more municipalities are adding bike lanes and paths as well as public transport. While these forms of transit might lack the lightning speed of hopping in your car, there are many ancillary benefits like getting exercise, saving money and cutting your carbon footprint. Consider upgrading your commuter bike and riding that ten mile trip to work. Use the time waiting and riding the bus to catch up on reading.
Telecommute whenever possible. The average American spends 50 minutes a day on his or her commute. And many people report that their commutes are the low-points of their days. If you have a flexible work situation, regain that time and sanity and consider making a request to work from home, even if only for one day a week.
Close off a room. I know, this might sound weird, but the fact is many of us have spaces in our homes we simply don’t use enough to justify their upkeep – cleaning, heating and cooling. Consider making the room off limits – shutting the vents, covering the windows, etc. – until you have a use for it.
Get a lodger. This falls a bit outside the suburban norm, but fitting more people into a space cuts down on sprawl, can spread expenses and, assuming you have reasonably good interpersonal skills, might even make your home a more interesting place to live. Don’t want a stranger? Consider having a family member move in. Don’t want a family member? Consider a stranger.
Look into an Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU). This one is a bit of a radical proposition, but depending on zoning where you live, you might be able to add an additional home to your existing home’s lot. Throw a tiny house in your backyard and rent out your main house – or vice versa.
Use and love your space. Probably the biggest shame of the big American house is that it doesn’t get used enough. There is no “right size” for a home. If a space is frequently used and enjoyed, then it’s probably the right size. Host parties, BBQs, movie nights and other community activities. Size is an asset when it’s used.