Arts + Design

Could tiny homes be the adorable, affordable and sustainable housing that our planet needs?

Sep 10, 2021 /

Since 1950, the average size of a new single-family home in the US has more than doubled from around 950 square feet to over 2,000 square feet–and new constructions in Canada, New Zealand and Australia are similarly supersized. But as house prices rise, wages remain stagnant and rampant consumerism threatens our planet, more people are starting to question if bigger is better. 

In recent decades, tiny homes have emerged globally as innovative, affordable–and quite frankly, adorable–housing options for aspiring homeowners. No longer just a trend for minimalists and millennials, tiny homes–which are typically under 400 square feet–stand out as a promising solution to the affordable housing crisis, the negative environmental impacts of development and emissions generated by powering large homes. 

While it’s unclear exactly how many tiny homes are currently in the US, it is clear that demand is rising, especially amid the remote working boom brought on by the pandemic. According to one analysis, the tiny home market is projected to grow by 3.33 billion dollars globally over the next four years, with more than half of that growth in North America. 

“We have plenty of homes; we’re just using them extremely inefficiently,” says Washington-based Zack Giffin, co-host of Tiny Home Nation on Netflix, co-host of the Operation Tiny Home podcast and Vice President of the Tiny House Industry Association. “We can solve our housing problems by just cutting more trees down. [Or we can] build small spaces that don’t require anywhere close to the same amount of materials and don’t require nearly as many resources to heat and cool them.”

Tiny home, tiny footprint 

Globally, buildings are responsible for about 40 percent of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions. And not surprisingly, research shows that house size is one of the biggest predictors of home energy use.

One of the main environmental benefits of tiny homes is that they require fewer materials to build, and less energy to power, heat and cool compared to traditional single-family houses.  

One study of tiny homes in Australia–which has the second-largest houses in the world after the US–found that tiny homes can reduce per-person carbon emissions by 70 percent over its lifespan compared to a traditional home. For a traditional home to achieve lower per-person emissions than a tiny house, at least 10 people would need to live there. The authors note that energy savings may vary depending on local climate, occupant lifestyle and energy source. For example, some tiny homes are designed to function off-grid by using renewable energy like solar. 

On top of energy savings, downsizing might even inspire you to adopt more environmentally-conscious lifestyle changes. Another study even found that tiny home dwellers were more likely to purchase fewer items, recycle more and eat local after making the switch to a smaller space.  

Katra Bryam, a literary theorist and associate professor at The Ohio State University, believes that sustainable lifestyles are contagious. “One of the biggest predictors for whether someone has solar panels is whether somebody in their neighborhood has solar panels,” she saysBryam suggests that tiny homes could exert a similar effect and encourage others to rethink their habits and consume less, regardless of whether they live in a tiny home. 

Traditional homeowners could also benefit from the market by renting out their backyards to tiny homes for extra income. Plus, it can provide unique opportunities to build community and social connection, Giffin says. “Tiny homes on wheels in backyards can give [older homeowners] who might not be ready for full-assisted living a way to have a reasonably cost-effective caregiver in their backyard,” he explains. On the flip side, “it could also allow them to downsize without having to leave their communities because they could eventually move into a tiny home in their backyard and free up the larger home for families who need the space.”

A potential form of affordable housing 

The median price of a single family home can vary widely by state, but the US average was $298,000 as of July 2021. According to Harvard University’s State of the Nation’s Housing 2020 report, 30 percent of US households (37.1 million) were “cost-burdened” in 2019, meaning they spent over 30 percent of their income on housing–and this disproportionately affects low-income households. 

Apart from the environmental benefits, tiny homes–which cost an average of $52,000 in the US–could create affordable housing inventory and shelter unhoused people, including the estimated 568,000 unhoused individuals in the US.

In Detroit, Michigan, for example, Cass Community Social Services is building 25 tiny homes on individual lots that will serve as low-income housing. Residents will rent these homes, and after seven years, are eligible to own the property. Other tiny home communities are providing shelter to unhoused people, including Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Denver, Colorado, and Olympia, Washington. 

And globally, the United Nations estimates that 1.6 billion people live in inadequate housing conditions, including informal settlements and slums. Organizations like UN-Habitat are exploring how tiny homes could be affordable and sustainable housing solutions in emerging economies, from Ecuador to Kenya. 

Small space, big challenges

Thinking about downsizing? If you live in the US, here are some things to consider. 

First, most US states–except Maine and some parts of California–don’t recognize mobile tiny homes on wheels as permanent residences, but rather as recreational vehicles. That means there are often fewer options for financing. Traditional home mortgage lenders are less likely to finance a tiny house, and RV and personal loans usually come attached to higher interest rates. Even if you decide to build on a foundation instead of wheels, lenders might require you to build on land you already own. 

Then there are complicated zoning laws and building codes that vary by state. Some states require tiny homes to apply for occupancy permits in order to park somewhere other than a designated RV park. If you’re building on a permanent foundation, most states also have strict building codes requiring new constructions to meet minimum size requirements–this significantly limits where tiny homeowners are allowed to live. 

And if you eventually decide to sell your tiny home altogether, you may encounter some hurdles. Some experts say that tiny homes can depreciate in value over time and may be harder to sell compared to a traditional home. 

To address these challenges, Giffin and other tiny home advocates are working with state and municipal governments around the US to convince policymakers to change housing codes that prevent tiny homes from parking or building in certain areas. By reducing these restrictions, aspiring homeowners could remain within their communities and budgets, he adds. 

While tiny living certainly isn’t for everyone, Giffin believes they are part of a larger cultural shift towards more affordable, planet-friendly housing. “[When] you hear economists talk about the housing crisis, they point to the fact that we have not been building enough homes to keep up with the demand,” he says. “But nobody ever [asks], are we building the types of homes that we actually need?” 

All photos: Courtesy of Zack Giffin

Watch Zack Giffin’s TEDxCoconutGrove Talk: 

Watch Katra Bryam’s TEDxOhioStateUniversity Talk: