It seems like you can’t swing a dead cat these days without banging into a tiny home, or someone talking and writing about them. There’s no precise definition for how small a tiny house is, from less than 100 sq. ft. up to three times that. As a general rule of thumb, a single person can accommodate all of their physical needs in a comfortable environment of 100 sq. ft. or less, and that’s inclusive of a kitchen, sitting room, bathroom and sleeping quarters, along with storage.
They have become popular throughout the developed and developing world for a number of complex socio-economic reasons relating to a scarcity of resources, population pressures and various financial crises. That’s to say nothing of the larger spiritual and aesthetic considerations of thoughtful people wishing to withdraw from material excess and spend more time enjoying quality of life rather than quantity of things.
And yet, we do still need some things in our lives, so when a person decides to live minimally they must now choose to refine their existence to the essentials. And no matter where you may live or what style of tiny home you may choose (and there is a surprisingly large number of types to choose from), there are some universal considerations which are common throughout. All of the objects that you want to keep in a tiny home must serve an essential function. They must be small, discrete, well-made and, ideally, serve more than one function at a time. And it’s the careful industrial design of such objects that concerns us here.
It’s almost a truism that tiny homes in the western world are off-the-grid. This reflects the philosophical mindset of people who wish to have a minimal impact on the natural environment, but it’s also a function of certain legal restrictions. Many places in America have strict zoning laws that forbid the construction of permanent dwellings that are too small. Thus, tiny houses circumvent this restriction by being mounted on a trailer with wheels, thereby attaining the legal status of a “mobile home”. And such homes, being portable, are best served by having portable and self-contained utilities.
Solar cells are most often deployed on the roof for generating electricity, with a power inverter and deep-cycle batteries mounted somewhere discrete, perhaps even below the house. Tiny houses like to be out in the countryside, surrounded by open land. That’s kind of the point for a lot of folks. But when you’re exposed in a small wooden box, out there alone on the prairie or tucked up high in the mountains, it can get chilly sometimes, so you need a heater.
Most tiny houses use small, efficient wood burning stoves. Some are specially-made, while others are repurposed from marine stoves used on sailboats. They are tight-walled, they burn cleanly and usually have a flat-top surface that doubles as a hot plate. The stove above is an EcoZoom Jet, which won an IDEA® gold medal for industrial design. It is distributed in Africa for low-income families to burn charcoal in a clean, small and safe package that just also happens to give some dignity and independence to those in need.
Food preparation is done in a very small space indeed. There might be one sink, and the kitchen table has to do double-duty as a countertop, office desk and diaper-changing station. Water isn’t heated and it doesn’t come gushing out in a fountain, but comes out in a trickle from a faucet pressurized by a foot pump. The refrigerator – if there is one- is about the size one would find in a college dorm room. If there’s a sofa in the house it might double as a fold out futon for sleeping.
Most tiny houses – and we assume this is for romantic as well as practical reasons – use a sleeping loft for bedtime. A loft makes admirable use of headspace which is otherwise wasted, and can effectively increase usable floor space without increasing a house’s footprint. They’re also cozy as hell, because they can be mounted above the fireplace on a cold night, receiving all that rising hot air.
A tiny house dweller must make do with only a few pairs of shoes and a very humble wardrobe, all of which gets stored in a single closet loaded with hooks and shelves. No washer and dryer here – those chores must be outsourced. If there’s a bathroom it might use a cassette or composting toilet – again, no access to any outside plumbing. If there is a shower then it too will use cold water, and is sometimes mounted outside like that of some RVs.
Everything in the typical tiny home is built to be functional and robust, of high-quality materials to last a long time. The owner is not interested in impressing the neighbors or in wasting time in maintenance. They want to be self-reliant and to spend their precious life energy out there, in the world, doing things and not being obsessed with things. Or at least that’s the mantra of the tiny house movement. One thing they have done is created a cottage industry of small companies helping to design and perfect the hardware to sustain such a life.
Composting toilets. High-efficiency solar and wind power arrays. LED lighting and 12 volt DC appliances. Insulated building panels. Clean and efficient wood burning stoves. There are now designers out there whose work is focused solely on meeting needs such as these, and it’s a very different design aesthetic than that of the Neiman Marcus catalog. Imagine if you had to own one drinking cup. Honestly, how many cups can you drink out of at one time? Only one. No matter how rich you may be in life, you only need one cup at a time. This being an axiomatic truth, some daring souls have chosen to literally own only one. Well, what would it look like? What is the Platonic ideal of the perfect beverage container? What are the proportions, the curves and lines of a vessel that must hold water, beer, wine, coffee and tea with equal grace and aplomb? The necessity of simplicity is inspiring some wonderful answers to this question.
And the same question is being asked of the humble chair, the table, the spoon, the pillow. If I have only one such thing, after I have discarded all others in my life, which is the perfect thing to serve this purpose?
There are many financial pressures that may be responsible for this movement, and time will tell if it represents merely a fad or a lasting evolution in how we view our living spaces, and our lives. We may indeed discover that some of the best designs are deeply similar to what we’ve uncovered in ancient, prehistoric dwellings. Refined, elegant and artistic without artifice. Maybe the future needs to be more like the past?