In 1973, we published Shelter, an oversized offspring of the Whole Earth Catalog, with 1,000 photos of buildings around the world. At the heart of the book were designs for five different tiny homes, with drawings by Bob Easton.
In those days, many people were looking for ways to escape the conventional suit/job, bank/mortgage, or rent/landlord approach to housing. In Shelter, we encouraged people to use their hands in creating living space, to be creative, to scale back, to start small.
Like a lot of other ideas from the ’60s, this concept is popular once again. Tiny homes have been discovered not just by the public, but also by the media.
For one thing, the mortgage crisis has devastated housing in North America. Huge homes along with huge mortgages were, in the end result, unsustainable. Millions of people have had the rug pulled out from under them.
In addition, wages are down, jobs increasingly scarce, and rents ever higher. We’ve gone through a long period of over-consumption, of people living beyond their means, of houses too big and incomes too small.
As we witness the end of a pie-in-the-sky housing boom, and enter an era of increasing costs for that most basic of human needs, shelter, there’s a grassroots movement to scale things back.
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I started gathering material for this book about two years ago and have been amazed at the activity in the field. It’s a thrill to see such enthusiasm, variety, and creativity in tiny buildings these days. Moreover there’s a new audience out there now; young people picking up on Shelter ideas 40 years later.
This, then, is our survey of scaled-down housing, circa 2012. It’s been written mostly by the builders. It’s not consistent in anything other than size of the buildings. Styles of writing are diverse, as are photos. The little homes run from elegant to funky, from home-built to bought, from super-cheap to surprisingly expensive, from thoughtfully designed to seat-of-the-pants, just-go-ahead-and-do-it dreaming.
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The maximum size building here is 500 sq. ft. pretty small. But if you’re young, and/or single, or lost your job (or lost your home), and want to get out of rent or mortgage payments, and can cut back on stuff (or if, for any one of a myriad of reasons, want to start over again in life), here’s an alternative. It needn’t be permanent, but it may work right now. It needn’t be this small, but the ideas here are certainly antidotes to the overblown single-family houses of recent decades. It’s moving in the direction of small.
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If you’re going to get something built, you can hire a builder, or buy a prefab kit, or if you can find the time and can work with your hands, you can do the building yourself. This will save about 50% (labor and materials are about 50/50). Another economic fact: with a mortgage, you pay back about twice what you borrow, over the years.
Interestingly, here we are in the midst of this electronic revolution and you still need your hands to build a home. Your computer isn’t going to do it for you. It’s comforting that not all the skills of the past have been superseded.
If you embark on such an adventure, my advice now is the same as 40 years ago: start small. Kitchen/bathroom back-to-back for efficient plumbing. Hot water from solar panels in summer, water heater coil in wood stove for winter. This is your core. You can live in it while you add on.
Use this book for ideas. If you’ve got a real interest, a real need, some of these buildings (and/or builders) should resonate with you.
Note: not all the small buildings here are homes. There are also tiny studios, saunas, garden sheds, vacation cabins, rentals, road vehicles, houseboats, and cruising sailboats. The focus is on small, for whatever purpose. And not everyone has to build something, or have it built. You can get ideas here for simplifying your life, wherever you live, city or country.
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In Shelter, we wrote that self-sufficiency was a direction, not an attainable goal. The idea was to do as much for yourself as possible. Not plowing fields with horses, or growing your own wheat, or making your own shoes, but doing something within the context of your life: remodeling a house, creating a studio, building a table or bed, fitting in things like a productive garden or chickens or homemade bread, or lettuce and chives in pots on the windowsill.
It’s a tightrope act, finding the right balance these days, between work for others and work for yourself, between creating things with your own hands, and buying these things from others. Just like finding the balance between sitting at a computer and physical activity. These are complex times.
Do I live in a tiny home? Well, no. But it started out tiny. When I began building, we slept in a bedroom that was barely big enough for the bed. We cooked on a Coleman camping stove in an outdoor kitchen (on a deck). It got bigger, but it started small.
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Tiny Homes is the fifth in our series of major building books. It’s been preceded by:
As you’ll see, a number of the structures in this book were inspired by one or another of these books there’s continuity. Lately people have been emailing, blogging, networking, coming up to us at green and solar festivals, or telling us in person, about the Shelter books inspiring them to take a hand in providing their own homes. I hope it’s a trend that continues, and that you’ll find something in these pages that will help you to simplify and enrich your life.
Note: There will be a Tiny Homes #2 book. Please send leads, photos and stories to: firstname.lastname@example.org .