Living Simply So That Others May Simply Live
by Delo Freitas
It is an interesting time to be looking for a home in America. Though known for capitalism and consumerism, McDonalds and McMansions, emerging counter movements seek to promote sustainable living through the most personal of methods, and the one most tied up with the American dream — the home. Especially in the face of 2008’s economic crisis, more and more Americans are embracing the “Tiny House Movement,” in which each square foot is utilized to its full potential. Living small is, in its own way, a form of subversion: It decommodifies the idea of “home,” promotes a DIY (Do It Yourself) ethic in one the largest sectors of the U.S. economy, and places control back into the hands of homeowners instead of finance capitalists, speculators and the global market.
McMansions and Market Optimism
McMansions are a product of free market upper class optimism — optimism of market stability, of available space, and of the earth’s available resources. The prosperity and fiscal flexibility of the nineteen eighties and nineties, paired with an ever-increasing push for space and goods, created the perfect atmosphere for the construction of these mega homes to flourish and expand, eating up huge tracts of land.
The American Dream has become so fully enmeshed in neoliberal ideologies: It was impossible to extricate a supersized mentality from our distorted view of wealth — for if freedom was its goal, unregulated wealth was its means. In an atmosphere where a person was deemed to be equivalent to what they could afford, the McMansion — which would have seemed ridiculous a generation ago — became not only feasible but also extremely desirable. In 1950, the American home averaged at 983 square feet; by 2004, that number had gone up to 2,349 square feet, a 140 percent increase in size. In addition, by 2004, 43 percent of new homes were also constructed with expansive nine-foot ceilings, compared to the 1980 figure of just 15 percent (Solomon 2009).
The inevitable consequence of “supersized” homes, however, is waste. The cost of a McMansion cannot simply be translated into dollars and cents, but space, energy, air quality, and resource depletion — not to mention the availability of affordable housing units for lower income and minority populations. In light of this fact, even if the homeowner can afford the higher cost, the planet and the people whose cultures and environments are destroyed for the raw materials to build these supersized houses cannot. The materials required to build homes lead to massive deforestation and the ensuing environmental degradation. It is estimated that roughly two hundred twenty-inch diameter trees are used for every 4,000 square foot house.
For every twenty such houses constructed, seven acres of forested land must be razed (Gromicko and London n.d.). In addition, larger houses consume much more energy in heating and cooling costs — with nine foot ceilings and multiple heating, cooling, and ventilation systems becoming commonplace McMansions constantly require a huge amount of resources. The construction and maintenance of such a home has had enormous implications for both the environment and the economy, created in and feeding a system that was anything but sustainable. In response, environmentalists called for reductions in the resulting sprawl, car usage, and oil dependence — but they lacked the power to override the force of the market alone.
The 2007-08 housing market crash and subsequent economic downturn, however, provided an opportunity to rethink the American housing market and more deeply the values of the American people. A survey conducted in 2008 showed more than sixty percent of potential homebuyers preferred to own a smaller home with more amenities than a larger McMansion style home, which is often built following a generic architectural form on tiny lots (Gromicko, London n.d.).
Further research undertaken by the National Association of Homebuilders shows fifty-nine percent of builders nationwide were either planning to or were already downscaling from the “McMansion” model before the recession even hit. Though this sentiment may be true, the news of it fell on deaf ears and came too late — in February of 2012 the San Diego Union Tribune reported that experts reported that forty million oversized homes constructed in the U.S. are without buyers. Consumer preferences, though driven partially by necessity, have shifted to smaller and more affordable dwellings, with only 43 percent of Americans preferring “traditional big, suburban homes” (Showley 2012).
The Tiny House Alternative
As people began to consider the benefits of doing more with less and living more “sustainably” the Tiny House Movement began to gain popularity. Homes ranging from one thousand to as little as one hundred feet began to emerge all over the country, although the west and east coasts have seen the most growth. Many young men and women wishing to own a home now find a market too conservative for buying, instead of too lax; lacking the required funds and credit history, but wanting the privacy and autonomy of home ownership, the younger generation has begun to embrace the movement like never before.
Another surprising demographic group that has embraced the idea of sizing down is comprised of recent retirees, i.e., senior citizens looking to downsize and possibly travel (Marshall). As baby boomers begin to look for a more affordable retirement option, more and more households may decide to try a tiny home.
Tiny homes as urban infill, sharing lots with preexisting homes, has allowed for many more individuals who would otherwise be excluded from the housing market to live within the city limits. It has given more people the choice to live where they work and play, increasing equity for marginalized groups. Furthermore, this type of infill not only creates affordable housing for the backyard cottage dweller in a market that desperately needs more units, but also provides a supplemental income for the existing property owner, creating a more resilient and localized market that allows for more community investment.
Tiny Home owner and builder Jay Shafer serves as a model for maximum, amazing efficiency: his tiny home is a mere eighty nine square feet, too small to even legally constitute a dwelling by legal standards, where one hundred and twenty square feet is the standard. He and his wife managed to fit a seating area, a full kitchen with a two burner stove and fridge, a bathroom and shower, a loft sleeping area, and plenty of storage space into this area! Although this is the most extreme of cases and definitely not for everyone, his “home tour” video on YouTube has been viewed over two million times since 2007. His reasons for constructing a tiny home include environmental and social concerns, but also a desire to return to the basics and be able to be more mindful and appreciative of space and possessions. As he told The Huffington Post, “When you live in a tiny house you only have room for the things that truly matter. You have to choose what’s essential.”
In a time of financial instability, the tiny house movement is thriving — but it is important to keep in mind that it is not an entirely new concept created in response to overconsumption and a struggling economy. The last hundred, even fifty years have seen enormous changes in lifestyle — the homes issued to GIs returning from World War Two, for example, were roughly one thousand square feet each, and moderation and thrift were prized in a household. It has only been the past few decades that American standards of living and what constituted necessity versus luxury have changed so drastically.
Stephen Marshall, owner of Little House on the Trailer, a building company for tiny homes, the true fad will prove to not be the Tiny House movement, but rather McMansions and the lifestyle that goes along with them. “It’s not a mainstream thing, but as time goes on it’s going to enter the mainstream as people find it serves a need for affordable, sustainable housing for the future,” he says. “The Tiny House movement is not a fad, McMansions was the fad. That’s the thing that came, and is now leaving. And I don’t think we’re going to see any more of that, except in the super rich who haven’t got it figured out that there’s better things to do with your money than build a big house.”
A Re-evaluation of the American Dream
In an interview with Kirsten Dirksen of Fair Companies, Jay Shafer said, “Some cultures it’s believed that the true self, or the key to happiness, is actually within and that the more you pare away the closer you’re going to get to that. My primary reason for living small is just to be happy. And I think that a lot of extra stuff gets in the way of that.”
As people begin to recognize the utility and beauty of Tiny Homes, a cultural shift has begun. Though Tiny Homes may be seen as a “cultural event” rather than a reality for most people at this stage, the movement makes people think about their values, and what is truly important to them. More people may come to see that living well is not something that can be bought, and that the earth can’t be commoditized or replaced. As Americans pursue happiness, Shafer’s ideals of simplicity and thrift begin to seem less strange and radical and more desirable.
In the end the heart of the question is what the American Dream actually entails and what it means to have realized that dream. More and more, people are recognizing that the purported ideals of autonomy and self-reliance can be separated from consumerism and competition. In the future, success may not be proportional to square footage; if America can embrace a quality over quantity model, restraint and conservation could even be more potentially desirable than consumption.
The backyard cottage movement is an interesting example of the backlash against mainstream American ideals, and showcases the resulting new iteration of them, for the movement does not throw out mainstays of autonomy and ownership but instead tweaks them, changing both scale and method. In so doing, backyard cottages create housing in a way that is not only more realistic but also healthier, more sustainable, and mutually beneficial for society and the economy as a whole.
The Tiny House Movement is not the answer, but one of many; however, it holds valuable lessons and hope for the future. Though backyard cottages are not, in themselves, enough to change the course of U.S. society, they are an integral part of a larger struggle to find long-term solutions to neoliberal problems, and to include everyone in the American Dream.
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Gromicko, Nick and Rob London. “McMansions and Energy Inefficiency.” InterNACHI. International Association of Certified Home Inspectors, Inc., n.d. Web. 15 Feb. 2013.
Gromicko, Nick and Rob London. “The Small House Movement.” InterNACHI. International Association of Certified Home Inspectors, Inc., n.d. Web. 15 Feb. 2013.
Marshall, Stephen. “The Human Scale of Tiny Homes and McMansions as a Fad.” Online Video Clip. YouTube. Youtube, 21 July 2010. Web. 18 February 2013.
Shafer, Jay. “Jay’s Tiny House Tour.” Online Video Clip. YouTube. YouTube, 12 December 2007. Web. 12 February 2013.
Showley, Roger. “U-T San Diego.” U-T San Diego. San Diego Union Tribune, 2 Feb. 2012. Web. 19 Feb. 2013.
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Delo Frietas is a student in the Community and Environmental Planning (CEP) program at the University of Washington. This essay originally appeared on the Environmental and Food Justice blog (moderated by Devon Peña), and is reprinted here by permission.