Trials and Triumphs of Tiny Living

Tiny homes have a lot to offer — but big challenges hide within their walls

April 2020

story: lauren timmins  design: nithika badam  

The term “tiny house” today is commonly associated with “As-Seen-On-HGTV” properties boasting modern design and appliances nestled somewhere in the arms of Mother Nature. These 100 to 1,000 square foot homes offer owners the ability to lead their lives unburdened by an excess of possessions, “tenant” status and the financial strains that come with traditional homeownership. Interest in tiny living is growing — a 2018 survey by the National Association of Home Builders found that 63 percent of millennials would consider purchasing a home with less than 600 square feet of living space. Unfortunately, the reality of building and purchasing these homes isn’t so picture-perfect. A multitude of legal and financial issues stand between prospective tiny house owners and their dream in most of the country, and big changes will have to be made before tiny homes can become a possibility for everyone.

The history of Tiny Houses in the United States


While tiny homes seem like a modern concept, “smaller” ways of living have existed in the United States since westward expansion. Log cabins on the American frontier embraced the expenditure of minimal resources — an axe, an abundance of logs and a few days of work — in exchange for long-term shelter. During World War I, a housing shortage led Americans to turn to purchasing prefabricated small home kits from Sears catalogues that they could assemble themselves. Historically, the beginnings of tiny living were rooted in practicality and affordability, both of which still hold true today. It wasn’t until the rise of counterculture living in the 1960s and 70s (which saw homes made from converted buses and hay bales) that tiny living was united with environmental stewardship — something an Ohio tiny home was built exclusively for.

The Kamama Prairie Dwelling is a tiny house constructed from a shipping container that is home to Adrienne Cassel, a land steward for the Kamama Prairie nature preserve in Adam’s County, Ohio. The building of the dwelling was spearheaded by University of Cincinnati’s graduate architecture students and instructors Michael McInturf and Whitney Hamaker. The goal of the project was to provide Adrienne with a living space conducive to indoor and outdoor living that coexisted with its setting, the prairie.

" In the end, you are trying to minimize more typical ideas of ‘rooms’ for specific activities and think about the space transforming to accommodate multiple different functions.  


Optimizing limited space

The design behind Kamama revealed how tiny houses optimize limited space. 


“Flexibility of use is paramount in any tiny living project to make the spaces feel as generous as possible,” Hamaker said. “In our project we prioritized a central living, kitchen [and] dining space that could open up to a much larger exterior deck that effectively tripled the square footage of the project at a fractional cost per square foot. In the end you are trying to minimize more typical ideas of ‘rooms’ for specific activities and think about the space transforming to accommodate multiple different functions […] The other big design challenge in spatial efficiency was the integration of storage; our tactic was to incorporate storage into ‘thick’ walls and built-in furniture.”


Sustainability and Tiny Houses


Another integral aspect of the prairie dwelling’s construction was sustainability. Recycled and donated materials were used to meet this goal but created challenges of their own. 


“The house had to be prefabricated off-site near [the University of Cincinnati's College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning,] DAAP, and able to be transported by truck to the prairie, which was massively influential on the design of the building,” Hamaker said. “The next big challenge was [the] budget (which is true of almost any project). To make the build happen, we had to stretch the funding using in-kind donations that included the 20 [foot] shipping container.”

The cost of Tiny Houses


The shipping container, Hamaker noted, was both a blessing and a curse. It provided a stable and transport-friendly base off which the house could be built, but it demanded extensive modification. Shipping containers require heavy insulation to keep their interior at a reasonable temperature — otherwise, they act as giant, freestanding ovens. Hamaker also explained that in general, designing tiny homes is challenging as they require all the systems necessary to run the average house with a fraction of the space needed to accommodate them. 

One challenge of tiny homes is present in both tiny house construction and ownership: cost. 

“It is important to note that the square foot cost of tiny homes is much higher than a typical home because you lose your efficiency of scale in both material and labor costs,” Hamaker said. “The savings should be in long term operating costs of the project.” 

Long-term savings is the name of the game for buyers as well. According to U.S. News, tiny houses built on one’s own cost up to $30,000 and tiny houses from a builder can surpass $100,000. The purchase of property can drive those costs even higher. Furthermore, many traditional lenders won’t provide mortgages for tiny homes due to their currently small market occupation and low resale value. Owners of mobile tiny houses may be able to use an RV or trailer loan to obtain financing, while current homeowners looking to downsize can take out an equity loan to overcome the financial hurdle. The initial costs of tiny home ownership are high. However, reports that 68 percent of tiny homeowners don’t have a mortgage. Statistics from Tiny Living add to the possibility of a better fiscal future, reporting that 55 percent of tiny homeowners have more savings than the typical American, and 89 percent have less credit card debt.


Placement of Tiny Houses


Another problem that arises with tiny homes is where to put them. Dr. Bernadette Hanlon, an associate professor in City and Regional Planning at the Knowlton School of Architecture, described the issues zoning (regulations and codes around the location, style, and composition of land use) creates for building tiny homes or even entire tiny residential areas. Hanlon explained that most cities follow Euclidean zoning, which delegates certain zones for specific functions such as industrial, residential or commercial use. Furthermore, each zone has its own set of codes that dictate the size, placement and use of the buildings within them. Zoning codes are generally not friendly towards traditional tiny homes — in Columbus, a house must be a minimum of 720 square feet.

Accessory Dwelling Units, or ADUs, are a potential solution to some zoning code issues as well as a means of fighting gentrification according to Hanlon. ADUs are a smaller residence built on the property of a preexisting residence that can be rented out to tenants, Theoretically, a homeowner could build a tiny home on their property that would be classified as an ADU and circumvent the need to purchase property and meet a square footage minimum. 

“Imagine I live in Worthington or Upper Arlington [and have an ADU on my property],” Hanlon said. “Now we have a person who may not have been able to live there, but now they can potentially rent there under some level of accessibility of that neighborhood. Single mothers, they could potentially have access to better schools or something like that if there were ADUs available. I think that’s a kind of interesting piece of that too, allowing people to live in communities that [they] otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford to.”

Hanlon qualified her claim by listing the remaining challenges of ADUs — the partition of utilities, parking spaces, separate addresses and if it must look similar to the original home.

Tiny homes still have a long way to go before they can statistically compete with traditional homeownership; however, the simple, tranquil, lifestyle they offer their owners will continue to win hearts long into the future.