Tiny Houses Offer Sustainable Living Alternative
Gregory Johnson doesn’t have a bathroom in his house. In his 7’ by 10’ home, his office, kitchen, and bedroom are all just a footstep away. One side of his house is his office. On the opposing wall is the kitchen. The bedroom is the loft, accessible only through a hole in the ceiling. As I looked inside his tiny home, I couldn’t help but wonder, “How does he live here?”
I find it difficult to imagine living in a home this size; perhaps you do, too. But what if everything you needed in a dwelling could be condensed into a 140-square-foot house? Could you live in a house without a toilet, a shower, or a refrigerator? How would your life change?
I recently had the opportunity to speak with the co-founders of the Small House Society, Gregory Johnson and Jay Shafer. The Small House Society promotes smaller living options to meet both economic and domestic needs, as well as conserve natural resources. During our meeting I explored their alternative to traditional homes: tiny houses.
Shafer, who is also the founder of Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, designs and builds miniature, eco-friendly homes. These nontraditional mobile homes rely on battery power for energy and are built to withstand typical weather conditions. Ranging in size from 65 to 837 square feet, each model of the tiny home is customized for the owner’s needs. All Tumbleweed houses, however, are equally energy efficient and economical to build and maintain.
INSIDE THE TINY HOUSE
The first home I visit is the tiny house Gregory Johnson helped build and has lived in for five years. Johnson, author of Put Your Life on a Diet: Lessons Learned from Living in 140 Square Feet, uses his Mobile Hermitage as his home and headquarters for his website, ResourcesforLife.com.
The appearance of Johnson’s Mobile Hermitage is deceptively small. At only 140 square feet, it is a miniature version of a traditional home. The exterior of the tiny house looked similar to many homes we commonly see in the Midwest: a front porch with a light, cedar siding, and windows peeking out every side. Every element of the home is designed for maximum efficiency.
Johnson’s Mobile Hermitage rests on four jacks to remain elevated and keep bugs away. He places a two-step stair in front of his porch for his guests to enter his home. When I walk onto the porch, I immediately notice how narrow it is. Enclosed by a carved wood railing, the porch is long enough for two people to stand, but not wide enough to fit a chair. The extra details on Johnson’s porch, such as the wind chimes, miniature statues and two porch lights installed on both sides of the door, create a welcoming, homey atmosphere.
When I glance inside the home from the porch, I am, at first, skeptical about how functional the tiny home could be. Both the left and right walls are completely occupied with built-in wood units. In the center of the house, the desk and kitchen sink sit directly opposite each other about three feet apart. From what I see, I assume there is plenty of storage space, but nowhere to sit — aside from a cramped desk — and no practical way to make food.
But Johnson proves me wrong as he reveals the hidden logistics of his tiny home. The desk has ample work space, equipped with outlets for a laptop and built-in shelves on the sides. The shelves act as a perfect storage space for his collection of tiny books and photographs. In addition, a window above the desk opens up the house to the outdoors.
The windows, Johnson tells me, provide air conditioning for the tiny home. He keeps them open at night to let the cool air in, and closes them during the day. This method easily keeps the air cool in the summer, while a miniature LP heater warms the home in the winter. Because of the home’s small size, air circulates quickly through the space and stays at a constant temperature.
By simply turning around from the desk, we smoothly transition into a surprisingly functional kitchen area. Mirroring the desk space, the kitchen has a window for sunlight and extra storage space built into the side panels next to the sink. Here Johnson keeps dishes, spices, utensils, and a portable burner for cooking. When cooking, Johnson pulls down a hinged wooden shelf for extra counter space. After returning the shelf to its stowed position, Johnson pulls out a folding wooden table from under his desk, and suddenly the hallway transforms into an eating area.
Standing in the office/kitchen, Johnson pauses with our tour to note our society’s tendency to build houses with rooms designed for a single purpose. “We eat in the kitchen or dining room, and socialize in the living room. Many of us never pause to realize we are using excess space for actions that could easily be performed in a single room,” Johnson says.
A home like Johnson’s offers a more sustainable option, although it appears odd to our culture, because it doesn’t designate rooms for individual activities. Instead, Johnson uses a single room for cooking, eating, and working. Only the sleeping space remains separate from the rest.
To view the sleeping area, I climb the stairs – a retractable ladder – to the loft. As I face the front of the house, I see a long futon just large enough for one or two adults. Above the head of the futon, a window keeps the air moving and provides light. Shelves provide storage space on either side of the opening. A small window at the head of the bed in the loft sleep area provides fresh air for the home. The space is sufficient for sleeping, but it feels tight. I imagine that getting dressed, or even moving around would be a challenge.
A bigger issue, in my opinion, is the lack of bathroom facilities in the home. Because the Mobile Hermitage is parked in his parent’s yard, Johnson has access to a toilet, when he needs it, and he showers at the gym every day. Johnson lives comfortably, yet I don’t know if this is a sacrifice most people would be willing to make.
A LARGER MODEL
Later that day, I also speak with author of The Small House Book, Jay Shafer. He is traveling across the country, towing one of his Tumbleweed Tiny Houses, which he hopes to sell when he reaches New York.
Compared to Johnson’s Mobile Hermitage, Shafer’s tiny home feels huge. After I enter through the small porch, I step into a large living room that would easily fit five people. The light wood floors and cabinetry, combined with the natural light from windows on three walls, make this room feel open and spacious. The room also has extra cabinets for storage, a heater, and a small passageway connecting the kitchen and loft.
The passageway serves two purposes: access to the loft, and an entryway to the kitchen and bathroom. First we take a look into the kitchen. Equipped with a sink, wide counter tops, cabinets, outlets, and a mini-fridge, this kitchen looks similar to one in a small apartment. With excess space to cook and outlets to plug in counter-top appliances, the kitchen is flexible and efficient.
The bathroom is adjacent to the kitchen and is equipped with a composting toilet, shower, and a few wood shelves for storage. An owner could easily add in a few more amenities, such as a shower curtain, a mirror, or a door — I found it odd that the bathroom didn’t have one.
Back in the passageway between the living room and kitchen, we climb built-in ladders to reach the loft. As in Johnson’s tiny home, there is a futon mattress, just big enough for two people, and a small window for airflow and extra light. Although the sleeping area is no bigger than the loft in Johnson’s Hermitage, it doesn’t feel as cramped. This is probably because from the sleeping area there is a view of the large living room. The windows on every wall of the house and high, cathedral ceilings make the sleeping area feel more spacious than it is.
These two tiny houses are designed to stand alone or be part of a community. On his website, ResourcesForLife.com, Johnson suggests, “By sharing common resources such as laundry, lavatory facilities, bath house, large kitchen, and activity center, a greater sense of community is established, and significant savings can be achieved.”
But a community is not the only option for homes like these. Having an extra, sustainable, living space may appeal to people for a variety of reasons. The home can be towed and parked easily for a couple looking for a mobile vacation home, or it can simply sit in a yard taking up very little space for extra guest housing. Whatever the use, tiny homes cost very little to maintain, are self sufficient, and completely mobile. These features make a tiny home practical and beneficial to both the environment and the individual.
Speaking about the Tiny House movement, Johnson says, “It’s not a movement about people claiming to be ‘tinier than thou’ but rather people making their own choices towards simpler and smaller living, however they feel best fits their life.”