6.25.2015

An Open Letter to the Tiny House Movement

Dear Proponents of Tiny Houses,

First off, I respect what you're trying to do here.  Today's average American single-family houses are gigantic compared to houses only 40 years ago (and getting bigger)!  Why are we wasting all this money, energy, time, and effort on giant homes?  Let's return to smaller footprints, cheaper mortgages, fewer rooms to clean, less stuff to worry about, lower bills to pay, more time to spend with our families.

However.

I would like to point out that even the tiniest, cutest, most DIY-est tiny homes might not be the amazing panacea that you seem to think they are.  (Not to mention that there are some hurdles to face even to build them in the first place.)  Let me explain.

I consider myself an urbanist, someone who's interested in cities and thinks that density is an important tool we have to make better places to live and work.  Based on my studies in graduate school of housing density, the environmental impact of buildings, and energy use in cities versus suburbs, I've been persuaded that dense, urban living is the most environmentally-friendly way to live in the developed world.  Greater density means more pooling of resources, more efficient land use (by building up instead of out), more energy efficiency (through sharing of infrastructure, for example), and better access to work, school, goods & services, etc; not to mention, it's easier to get around in a more dense place, since you can walk wherever you need to go.  I would strongly support creating more small apartment units, and smaller apartments can be a part of your "tiny house" movement.  These micro unit apartments can be in the 300 SF range (quick summary of micro units if that first link was too intense).  Personally I have lived in 450 SF and 650 SF apartments, and thought that the 450 SF was a great size.  I don't really know what to do with the extra space in my current 650 SF apartment, so we have a lot of empty floor space.

My understanding of "tiny homes" is that the movement is promoting smaller single-family houses, which I certainly support.  There are lots of good reasons to build smaller single-family homes.  But what concerns me about this movement is that you seem to be getting only half-way to the goal, because while smaller houses are great, they aren't nearly as great at all the things I mentioned above as apartment buildings.  Multi-family housing by its very nature is more dense; it's really hard to build as many tiny homes on the same piece of land as you could build units in a six-story apartment building.  Additionally, some tiny homes folks seem to be excited about taking their tiny homes into virgin forests, rural land, and other places that I think should be kept free from houses.  If what we're really interested in promoting is environmental sensitivity, then I think apartment buildings are by far better than the tiniest single-family homes.  Building new power lines and sewage tunnels out into the wilderness so you can move there with your tiny house seems like a tragic mistake.  Obviously none of you would do that - you would go off the grid, and avoid all that mess - but when you show your house on the back of your truck, driving off into the sunset, it's good to note that some people will try to follow you there without your rugged independence, and it could end badly for everyone.

Now, if you think that getting to live in the most-sustainable-possible single-family home is the goal, rather than the truly most sustainable option, tiny homes seem like a good direction, and might be the best option.  But if you just want to minimize your carbon footprint, an apartment in a city is the best option we have now.  Cities consistently use less energy and carbon per capita than other types of places (suburbs or rural areas).  Reducing car use is another big way to reduce carbon use, and that's usually only possible in cities.

Like I said, you might already know all of this, and you're interested in tiny homes for other reasons - affordability, portability, being able to build it yourself.  Maybe you want to start a tiny house commune and actually increase density in your single-family neighborhood (here's another example)!  I just don't want people to think that tiny homes are the very best solution in terms of carbon footprint.  As we say in architecture, the "greenest" building is the one that's already been built - the energy has already been spent on it (more on historic preservation & energy use here).  My best guess is that renovating an existing home or living in an apartment are both "greener" than building a new tiny home.

So, my tiny house friends, please continue promoting smaller houses, for all the good reasons you already have.  But when someone asks you, "Is this the best way for me to reduce my environmental impact?", please remember to tell them that there are better options than single-family houses.  I think that our planet will thank you if you do.

Best wishes,
Caroline

PS:  Thanks to Vishaan Chakrabarti's A Country of Cities for influencing my views on these topics.  I'll finally get around to posting a book review here soon.