Design your life to include more money, health and happiness with less stuff, space and energy.

Design your life to include more money, health and happiness with less stuff, space and energy.

The Problem(s) with Tiny Houses

At LifeEdited, we love tiny houses! They are like architectural and existential reduction sauce. Every space and object that isn’t utterly essential, that isn’t something you absolutely need, is boiled away. They are great examples of how humans can live simpler, lower impact lives. Yet tiny houses have some big problems, ones that are often overlooked amidst the hype, and it’s not just their lack of legality.

The biggest problem with tiny houses stems from density, or lack thereof. At their core, tiny houses are small single family homes. As Kriston Capps wrote in CityLab a couple years ago, tiny house enthusiasts “are confirming the status quo, if shrinking it a little.” All single family homes, huge or tiny, require their own lot and almost invariably take up more space than multistory, multifamily housing. Individual lots lead to reduced density which leads to greater land use and increased transportation needs (aka sprawl). To build density, the best strategy is often to build up rather than out.

Here’s an absurd example to demonstrate this point. One57 is a building in Manhattan often called “The Billionaires Building.” It is the epitome of excess. One of its penthouses fetched over $100M and the average per square foot purchase cost is about $6K. But the building’s 94 units and 75 stories (some of those units are as big as 11K sq ft) sit on a 23,808 sq ft lot. This means that each unit takes up 253 sq ft of ground space…oh, and there’s a 210 room hotel on its lower floors.

Now compare that to a normal tiny house on wheels. An average tiny house is about 200 square feet. Add a very modest 10 ft of setback on each side and you’ll need a 1K sq ft lot. Just to be generous, we’ll say that a car can fit within that lot, but realistically you’ll need additional room for parking. 1K ft is still considerably smaller than the average single family house lot which is 15,456 sq ft, but quite a bit more than the humble One57.

Speaking of cars, whenever you see a tiny house out in the country, you have to wonder: how do residents get to and from their houses? How do they get their food? In most instances, they drive there. And as we know, transportation is one of the (if not the) biggest factor in increasing a home’s carbon footprint. Meanwhile, the residents of One57 can walk to get everything they need and are spitting distance from several major subway lines (One57 residents are more likely to spit on the subway riders than ride the subway, but that’s a separate point).

Then there are access issues. We ran across an article singing the praises of tiny houses as retirement homes. While a nice idea, most tiny house designs are a poor fit for seniors. Sleeping lofts are difficult and hazardous to access. And try fitting a walker into a tiny house bathroom. And single family housing tends to be more isolated, which is not ideal for seniors. Meanwhile, One57 has commodious bed and bathrooms and lounges and spas where you can discuss with the hassles related to the Panama Papers with your peers.   

Of course there are many asterisks to the above arguments.

  • One57 is only dense because it bought the air rights of surrounding buildings, thereby reducing the housing density of nearby buildings. And to suggest that someone living in One57 has a smaller carbon footprint than someone living in a tiny house (no matter the location) is patently absurd. A better comparison would be someone living in a normal-sized 5-10 story multifamily building in a walkable location.
  • If you live fully or partially off grid and grow much of your own food and don’t drive much or at all–a not too uncommon scenario for tiny house dwellers–you can significantly reduce your environmental impact. The non-consumer-fueled lifestyles of most tiny house dwellers should also be factored in (though you could live this way in an apartment as well). 
  • There are many tiny houses that are being clustered as communities or being used as ADUs in low density areas, making those areas more efficient.
  • And while tiny houses might not be great for most seniors, they’re fine and dandy for millions of other people.

The main point is that a home’s impact cannot be assessed without considering its context, and in general the context that’s going to make a home lower impact is locating it in a central location. And the way to build more units centrally is building modest (they need not be tiny) multistory, multifamily housing. Condos and apartments might not be as photogenic as tiny houses, but they get the job done. 

The last point, lest you think we’re hating too much on tiny houses, is that it’s not an either/or situation. As Shaunacy Ferro eloquently put it in FastCo.Design:

Just because micro-units are badly needed in urban areas doesn’t mean small-scale dwellings should be restricted to tiny apartments in big cities. New zoning laws in Portland, Oregon, encouraging the construction of granny flats is still adding density and creating more affordable housing options, albeit not to the same extent as San Francisco’s 300-square-foot units. Nor are micro-houses on large plots of land without benefit. Precious though a beautifully designed tiny house in the midst of the wilderness may look, it’s a better environmental choice than building a McMansion. Shrinking the status quo isn’t that bad of an idea.

  • A. Hermit

    You seem to be assuming that everyone likes, or at least tolerates, living in dense areas. I tried it for years and hated it. Now I’m happy out in the middle of nowhere! Where does happiness fall on the green scale?

    • David Friedlander

      happiness is totally green. comfort, i’m afraid, is not. we all have to live interdependently and, as a rule, the impact of isolating ourselves is huge. this is not to say you cannot live green in isolation–the potential to do so is actually greater than living in the city. it’s simply that, statistically speaking, living further out is extremely resource intensive for reasons mentioned above. in light of our profoundly urgent environmental needs (this cannot be understated), this resource expenditure is not something the earth can absorb on a large scale.

      • MetusBatmanV3

        You have it backwards, moron. Living further out is not extremely resource intensive, moron. How do you think food gets into New York City, moron? Do you see any farms? How many resources are spent bringing supplies into densely packed cities, moron? Living further away from the city and being more self-reliant is less resource intense, moron. You have no idea what the Earth can absorb, moron. Next time try writing an article that isn’t asinine, moron.

        • Izzy Mori

          Wait…are you saying this guy is a moron? Because I’m confused about that part.

        • mike4ty4

          Interesting, but:

          1. you are too abrasive and arrogant to be constructive here,
          2. we know we are starting to exceed the bounds of what the Earth can take, based on real science.

          • MetusBatmanV3

            You’re a moron. Learn to speak for yourself, moron. No such thing as “real science”, moron.

      • I think a lot of emerging technologies (particularly home-grown solar + electric car) are about to make the surburban lifestyle a lot more competitive, from the perspective of C02 footprint.

  • MetusBatmanV3

    You’re a moron. So basically this article was written for no reason at all, right moron? Comparing a skyscraper in Manhattan to a tiny house…complete moron. It took 15 years alone to get the property and air rights put together and that is outside actual construction time, moron. Which was five years, moron. Not to mention the billions of dollars spent over the course of 20 years, moron. So yeah, you’re a moron.

    • Izzy Mori

      Wait…are you saying this guy is a moron? Because I’m still confused about that part

      • PeriMedic

        Best non-confrontaional comment ever!

  • Hakuna Matata

    My husband and I are currently building a ‘micro house’ so we can be near his aging mother . We are falling in love with the home and do not care what people think or have to say . Someone will always find something negative to say , but this article made absolutely no sense to me. And if this guy has ever been to a nursing home for long term living , he may think a Lil different. .lol. AND people do adjust to their living environment. The elderly will fall in 30 Sq feet to 1500 Sq feet homes etc .

  • Klay Pavlicek

    Density in itself is not enough to quantify an impact of a building as efficient.. A true “impact” analysis would include decent metrics, such as comparison model of embodied energy from construction & materials, divided by the number of tenants. Compare this to transportation savings due to this density, and we might have something to discuss. Then do the same for a tiny house.

    Why would you need to mention seniors and access….most tiny houses are custom designed directly to the occupants desires…if not designed by themselves.

    Sounds like you work for One57.. in that case…your are definitely after the wrong market if you’re trying to convince us to buy your expensive apartments.

    Density is probably the only leg up apartments have on tiny homes. But, most people get a tiny home to avoid density and live peacefully. I don’t miss my upstairs neighbors.

    Besides most people go the tiny house route to minimize their expenditures. Unlike throwing your rent in the trash or having to pay condo fees per sf the rest of your life.
    No thanks Dave

  • I love the concept of tiny houses but they are not practical. I wrote a post over at Hip Diggs about tiny houses: http://www.hipdiggs.com/tiny-house-movement/

  • Marc

    The general presumption by urbanites is that food & material good just magically fly to their energy efficient shoebox. Cities require trillions of miles of wire to bring that electricity to their homes. Food comes from hundreds if not thousands of miles away in trucks on roads or in ships to ports or even on trains on rails. Water comes & goes (polluted) in billions of miles of pipes, which are made & installed & then repaired or replaced. What about the tons of garbage & recycled waste which will not be recycled because no one really wants everything made from something recycled. Cities have always been a cancer on the earth. They eat everything from the surrounds & spew waste.