Nowhere is the quest for simplicity and freedom more pronounced than in the tiny-house movement, which has grown from hipster alternative to mainstream phenomenon faster than an Amish barn raising. Mark Sundeen joins the believers to ask: Has the dream gotten too big?
Remember not too long ago, maybe 2012, the slew of blogs and Tumblrs and films that heralded not just a new type of house but a movement, a post-collapse quest for simplicity and freedom, a rejection of waste and “stuff” and, just like Thoreau in his cabin of yore, a crusade to chomp life’s essence and suck its marrow? Museum-quality photo books showed how to stick it to the man in 400 square feet or less—with the clean lines and blond oak that made us drool onto the pages of Dwell magazine. Of all the earthy trends to emerge since the crash—local food, urban farms, permaculture—none have captured adoration like tiny houses, spawning no fewer than seven reality shows. You won’t find a series about cloth diapers.
It appealed to me, someone who has lived in some of the tiniest homes out there—a Subaru wagon, a Toyota pickup, an SUV with the backseats removed. When it comes to car camping, I wrote the book. Seriously. It’s called Car Camping. What’s more, I own a 1965 single-wide that measures just 570 square feet, with pine cabinets like you’d find in a sailboat, on an acre outside Moab, Utah. I’ve always thought that if I owned less, worked less, and spent less, I would be more free.
But my vagabond days are behind me, and as I sped toward the second annual National Tiny House Jamboree in Colorado Springs last August, I was undergoing my own tiny crisis. My wife and I had bought a tiny car that got nearly 40 miles per gallon. We’d even upcycled a Mexican roof mutt into our own tiny dog, who consumed at mealtime less than one cup of kibble and canned pumpkin and whose tiny poops hardly registered at the landfill. Meanwhile we’d upsized to a two-bedroom bungalow—our biggest yet. Even as I understood that appetites like mine were plundering the planet, I could not stop wanting a third bedroom. As for the car: it was the first I’d ever owned that was too small to sleep in, so if the weather turned bad I might have to get a hotel, and wouldn’t that indulgence offset the efficiency?
Was small actually beautiful? I was ti-curious.
In my imagination, the Jamboree promised a quaint circle of funky sheds inhabited by anarchists who’d pass the porch-bound evenings picking banjos, sipping moonshine, and comparing insulation R-values. But because last year’s hordes had packed the grounds of the Western Museum of Mining and Industry, backing up traffic, this year the Jamboree supersized to a field at the Air Force Academy. My subversive fantasies were deflated by the armed guard at the academy gates, who demanded my license, weapons, explosives, and drugs.
I followed a stream of Tiny Jammers driving through the piny hills to the stadium, one minivan painted with TINY HOUSE OR BUST! FIND US ON FACEBOOK. We throngs—nearly 60,000 before the weekend was over—filed our vehicles into long rows, then stampeded toward the entrance on foot. Saturated with the carnival cloud of a pork smoker on wheels, ringed by Porta-Potties innumerable, a field of yellow grass and gravel was packed with dozens of trailers on blocks, lines of looky-loos at the steps. A string of booths showcased off-grid accoutrements from solar panels to composting toilets to twig-burning cookstoves.
I had a date at the Tiny Stage to get to the heart of this phenomenon. A roster of the movement’s Luminaries would clarify the Tiny House Philosophy, which, it turned out, had little to do with bookshelvesas-stairs or sinks-in-closets. One philosopher, Kent Griswold, founder of Tiny House Blog, a gray-headed avuncular type in cargo shorts and sneakers, confessed that he didn’t even live in one. No matter. All could benefit from its principles:
Reduce your belongings.
Get out of debt.
Do work that you love.
Sager advice has never been given; indeed, these very principles had guided my own adulthood. But if living tiny doesn’t require a dollhouse, then what were we all doing here?
The first Luminary I met was Nina Zamudio, whose tale was pure bravura. A native Californian, Zamudio had worked her way through college, was earning a good income, and had even bought her mother a home. She had achieved the American dream. Then she divorced and moved out of her 2,800-square-foot house in Orland to take care of Mom in Chico. Now 49, with lustrous black hair and an irrepressible smile, Zamudio told me that after her mother’s death, she’d spent months getting rid of everything. Her mother’s place was only 1,200 square feet, but the empty house felt hollow and lonely, her solitary voice echoing off the walls. She attended a workshop with Jay Shafer, a 52-year-old designer and builder hailed by Oprah Winfrey as the Tiny House Man, author and publisher of the 2009 movement bible The Small House Book. Transformed, Zamudio sold the house and rented her first tiny home. She moved to Texas, where—helped by a crew of friends and strangers—she built an eight-by-twenty-foot house on wheels. A church allowed her to park on its grounds. She found a new set of friends at the Dallas Tiny House Meetup group, not to mention a boyfriend.
Zamudio inspired me. Who doesn’t want to rebound from adversity with panache, to be reawakened at middle age, to forge meaning amid drudgery and isolation? Tiny Housers’ zeal approaches the religious. “It’s not really about the tiny house,” one told me. “It’s about values, a way of life.” Another said, “Your whole life changes when you live in a tiny house.” As with any sect—or recovery group—its core is the narrative of personal transformation, whether being saved or getting sober. Here the stories pivoted around Turning Tiny. Before Tiny, there was an unhappy marriage, unpaid bills, stifling office work, a home of 2,500 square feet or more; after Tiny came freedom, new love, debt relief, self-employment, and, of course, a handmade nest. When Tiny Jammers asked one another “Are you building?” it was no minor inquiry but rather the existential question, and when someone responded “Three months now,” a giddy thrill bubbled into the air, because we knew she had been reborn.
Duly evangelized, I set out to view the homes. But instead of the art brut of mad visionaries, I found professionally built sales models. An attractive rig from Northern California’s Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, the nation’s first and biggest manufacturer, cofounded by Jay Shafer himself, was outfitted with a flat-screen TV, faux-log stove, air conditioner, and washing machine, charged by a rumbling generator and encircled by a bevy of attractive salespersons in shirts that read DREAM BIG GO TINY. Cost of this model: $91,000. Inside I heard one Jammer say, “Did we bring the snacks or leave them in the car?” One of the “workshops” was a pitch by Ikea reps.
Better to call this the Tiny House Trade Show? As for the gadgets, as much as I admire a diminutive toilet, serious homesteaders make humanure by pooping into a bucket of sawdust. And a twig-burning stove can be fashioned from a No. 10 peach can. If we are trapped in a cycle of earning and spending, I wasn’t sure that any purchase would free us.
A schism in the House of Tiny! While the Luminaries espoused buying less stuff, what was happening across the field was the peddling of merch, all of it cool, none of it cheap. While a panel of real estate developers discussed the potential profitability of tiny-home villages, a petite woman from Portland, Oregon, who lives in a 100-square-foot wagon leaped to her feet and hollered, “What’s the square footage of the homes you live in?”
My unscientific polling suggested that most tiny-come-latelies were drawn in by television shows—and indeed, casting agents infiltrated the Jam, passing out cards for Tiny House Arrest, He Shed She Shed, Tiny WhoreHouse, Tiny House Mogadishu, Tiny House Swept Out to Sea (maybe I made some of those up), and even Tiny House Hunters, which documents not building a wee home but shopping for one. I surmised, perhaps unfairly, that people on these shows are less interested in dismantling the consumerist paradigm than in getting on teevee.
I rushed to the stage for the first real celebrity, a 36-year-old freeskier and carpenter named Zack Giffin who chanced into hosting Tiny House Nation, FYI network’s surprise hit that documents designing and building by reg’lar folks. Tan and blond and unshaven, Giffin took the stage in skate shoes. If Jamboree-goers were expecting bromides about rugged individualism, Giffin’s sermon felt more like Big Government liberalism, complete with “economic segregation” and “the stigma of low-income housing.” He declared, “Zoning is a good thing,” an apparent blasphemy to a flock that detests regulation—a topic so tangled that I’ll have to return to it later. Which is not to say that he dismissed craftsmanship. He praised Shafer’s elegant designs: “Without him, we wouldn’t be here.”
Two hundred people lined up to get an autograph, take a selfie, or ask some tech question like “How do I install a P-trap under a tub so that it won’t break off if I hit a speed bump?” Giffin spent five minutes with each, giving hints on hot roofs and DC inverters. His fans crossed the spectrum: bearded hipsters, married lesbians, a woman who literally rose from a wheelchair to embrace him, an active-duty soldier in a cowboy hat with bald eagles painted under the brim who, after waiting more than an hour, pressed a card into Giffin’s palm and said, “I hit you up on Facebook but you didn’t respond.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
“Check out my YouTube site on bug-out survival.”
Also in line was Zamudio, with a skinny fellow in cutoff tan jeans and a navy T-shirt and wide-brimmed felt hat. I speculated out loud that Giffin was the Jam’s biggest draw. Zamudio motioned to her companion. “This is Jay Shafer.”
The godfather himself! Shafer blushed at the praise and then shook my hand, his blue eyes twinkling, an impish grin above a chin of gray stubble. His gangly arms flapped at his sides, like a marionette in the wind.
Shafer had been living tiny since long before the recession. In 1999, he built the first Tumbleweed, perfectly symmetrical with wood-plank siding, a nub of a porch, and a lancet window under a gable, a motif he described as “American Gothic meets the Winnebago Vectra.” A movement was born.
But before I had a chance to speak with him, he disappeared into the woods.
Recently I found myself looking at an ad for the most modern innovation in housing. “Beautiful design—top quality materials—decorator-styled interiors—nationally famous appliances.” The sell spoke of low cost, minimal upkeep, and high resale value. The woman on the retro sofa between a pair of art deco lamps was super hip.
Would you be surprised that the ad comes from a 1960 issue of Trailer Topics magazine? I recognized the boxy windows and wood veneer of the Detroiter Mobile Home because I once rented one of the same vintage. No more than 400 square feet, it was perfect for this dirtbag bachelor and his fleabag heeler. Yet I dispute its promise of high resale. When the land beneath the trailer I rented was sold, my castle was literally scraped from the lot at great expense to its owner, who thought he had made a wise investment. According to federal housing regulations, mobile homes built before 1976 cannot be legally occupied unless grandfathered in.
Tiny houses have struggled against zoning codes, which set minimums of 1,000 square feet or more. Proponents bypass this by placing their homes on wheels, thus qualifying as RVs—which can’t be full-time permanent dwellings. A community of four tiny houses in Portland has developed in the backyard of a conventional house, which dwellers pay rent for and use its shower and kitchen. Therefore, they contend, they are not living “full time” in their tiny homes. Current options for a spiffy home on wheels are to fly below the radar and hope to avoid getting booted, move to some unregulated hinterland and contend with long commutes and isolation, or grapple with the law.
Some days, my wife and I fantasize about going to live on our paid-for acre by the creek in Moab: no rent, no mortgage. But the trailer just seems too small. As for upgrades: in bankerspeak, the trailer is not an asset but a liability. I can’t get a loan to enlarge it, and if I try to sell it, no bank will issue a mortgage. Unlike with a real house, the only incentives to repair my trailer are sentimental love and desperation. Due to a perfect storm of zoning, flood maps, and building codes, the only legal thing I can do to my trailer is scrap it and build a full-fledged house, which I can’t afford. Hence my attraction to the quasi-legal tiny.
That night I pitched my tent at the designated campground, a mowed field 30 minutes from the Jam on the flanks of Cheyenne Mountain, whose granite bowels house some of North America’s top-secret nuclear missile defenses. None of the Luminaries stayed here. I saw a grand total of two tiny houses: a professionally built Mobile Relief Office, marketed to insurers to process claims after disasters, and a minuscule trailer molded of lacquered fiberglass that belonged to a family from Denver. Its maiden voyage had warped its door. In the morning, a child gave me a tour, pointing at the drain on the floor that allowed showering.
“Can you sleep in here?” I said.
“You have to fold down some hatches and put in a mattress.”
“Where did you sleep last night?”
“In the tent.”
I met a young couple from the Midwest who were living in a van and who aspired to drive it to Portland, where they’d heard you could park on the streets without getting hassled by cops. They asked me to like them on Facebook.
There seemed to be a fundamental flaw in the Tiny Dream: it promised financial freedom and affordable housing, yet in most cases it involved buying what amounted to an RV and still not owning land. Some adopters retreated to conventional homes, renting their backyard pirate dens on Airbnb: “We are letting people into our home, in hopes to inspire others wanting to make the change to tiny a little easier,” advertised one couple from Everett, Washington. Did they mention the $83 per night?
By 2015, tiny houses had devolved into grist for a Portlandia spoof in which a hipster writes a novel while sitting on the john and his wife cuts toast on his back, plus unintentional parody like the actual Portland couple trying to crowdfund $30,000 to build a home, rewarding donors with homemade Christmas ornaments. “With the struggle of finding affordable housing,” they reasoned, “we feel that we need more time in this amazing city. The answer for us... tiny living.”
Maybe tiny houses don’t make good homes so much as they make good stories. Christopher Smith and Merete Mueller, the thirtysomething auteurs behind the 2013 documentary Tiny, filmed their build in the high Rockies, made the festival circuit, and landed a string of speaking engagements. But without running water in the subzero winter, they hauled the thing to a backyard in Boulder before Smith lit out to Los Angeles and Mueller to New York. “I would have been impressed to learn about a significant lifestyle change that lasted,” wrote one disgruntled viewer on the film’s website. “I am forced to believe that the film was simply about Chris making a film.” To be fair, Thoreau hardly lived in his Walden cabin, either.
Building a tiny house is to living simply as getting pregnant is to raising a child. The hard part is not the designing, building, blogging, and networking: it’s committing to a place and living within your means.
Back at the Jam, I asked around for Jay Shafer. I heard only the stuff of legend. Boarding a plane in California to come to the event, he had posted on Facebook for an airport pickup, and by the time he touched down, five strangers had volunteered. He offered one of them the extra bed in his hotel room, which was four times the size of his house. He tried to walk the three miles from the Drury Inn and Suites to the Jamboree, crossing six lanes of I-25 before turning back at the high fences of the Air Force Academy. I bumped into Zamudio and asked if Shafer was manning a booth.
“Jay Shafer doesn’t need a booth,” she said. “Jay Shafer is a booth.”
My initial assessment of zero DIY homes turned out to be false. There was one. It was an 84-square-footer built by Dee Williams, a 53-year-old from Olympia, Washington, who in flip-flops and rolled jeans, with gray bangs and a quick smile, is perhaps the godmother of tiny houses. After being diagnosed with a life-threatening disease at age 40, she sold her regular house and built her dream, even penned a memoir. Hers was a singular attraction: the only house actually constructed and inhabited by its owner.
The line to view it was long.
“I hear you started all of this,” I said.
“Nah,” she said with a throaty laugh. “I heard about it from Jay Shafer.”
I’m generally skeptical about the wonders of design. Thumbing through Dwell recently, its pages fragrant like money, I came across some fund manager’s off-grid compound intended to “celebrate nature,” and I thought: If you really want to celebrate nature, you could start by not building your goddamn house in it.
But being inside Williams’s house gave me a feeling of peace. Nothing fancy, nothing extra. The cedar walls hinted of contemplation. I stood with her for half an hour, talking about the freedom of owning few things, of her years in her van as an itinerant rock climber. A thundershower broke open and we stood together under an umbrella. Williams posed for pictures and answered questions. She rolled her eyes toward the sales models and said, “Can they squeeze a clothes dryer above the dishwasher?” She watched the muddy unwiped shoes enter and exit. “Look at those people taking umbrellas into my house,” she said. “I’m going to close it up.” And she did.
Shafer arrived, all sparkly eyes and elfin grin, clad in the same cutoffs, T-shirt, and flat-brimmed hat as the day before. He greeted Williams, then darted behind her house. I wandered back there. He was gone. I suspected that I was not dealing with a mere mortal but a magical being. I chased him into the woods.
Rounding the first stand of trees, where I guessed I’d discover him frolicking with a pot of gold at the base of a rainbow, I nearly bumped into him, and he recoiled in surprise. His fingers curled around a small green carton. I felt like a jerk for following him. I looked at the object in his hand.
I said, “Are those menthols?”
“No. They’re organic.”
“Can I have one?”
Yoda was hiding from his Jedi knights to get a fix. As I smoked his tobacco, he told me that his new company and plans for a tiny village had stalled.
“Life got in the way,” he said. Although from a distance he could pass for 30, Shafer is past 50. I saw the lines around his gleaming eyes, the gray in his stubble. “I’ve had a lot of AFGOs.”
“Another fucking growth opportunity.”
Shafer was raised in a large suburban house in Orange County, California. “I never had a true sense of home,” he said. After attending the University of Iowa, he got a master’s in fine art in New York City. But urban life didn’t suit him. He returned to Iowa City, where he taught art, living in a pickup and later an Airstream. Although he considers himself secular, as an artist he was drawn to sacred symbols and icons. “I got tired of building shrines I couldn’t live in,” he said.
I asked him if he’d been on any of the tiny-house shows.
“I was on Oprah.”
“What was that like?”
“Like watching Oprah on television, but in 3-D.”
During a commercial, she told him that he had inspired her to get rid of one of her mansions. “I wish she would have said it on camera.”
Shafer went on to describe design in a language I had not heard at the Jamboree—or anywhere. “Integrity is my word for God,” he said. It was wrong to conceal structural elements or disguise materials, and purely ornamental features were like a comb-over. Both attempted to convince us that the homeowner (or the hair owner) felt secure but of course revealed insecurity. “My best designs come only when my ego gets out of the way, when the higher power flows through me.” He had a sense of humor about it all, too. “I spent weeks trying to design a dining table that would convert into a coffee table. Finally, I figured out that all I had to do was turn the thing on its side.”
He described himself as a “meaning addict,” always looking for higher significance in material objects. “A gate in a picket fence that opens onto a narrow path that leads through a yard to an open porch that covers a door,” he said, “is a set of symbols we recognize as signposts guiding us through increasingly private territory toward the threshold of someone’s clandestine world.”
I finally got it. I had not understood why Williams’s house felt so authentic while so many of the blocks on wheels felt awkward or false. This subculture, although it seemed to be about nifty gadgets and Murphy beds, was at its heart the expression of our longing to find our place in the universe, to become as beautiful and functional as nature itself.
I heard a lot of talk at the Jamboree about “home.” A young waitress from Jackson, Wyoming, faced with leaping rent, had bought—financed, actually—a Tumbleweed house for around $90,000 and hauled it to some friends’ property where it couldn’t be seen from the road. I looked at the pictures. It was awesome. And it had solved her problem of affordable housing.
But a mobile structure, no matter how lovely, is like a car: it loses value. Land, however, is permanent and, for the most part, gains value. I wondered how much of the tiny-house craze was simply a reaction to the historical forces that have made land impossibly expensive. Indeed, Shafer,
Williams, and Zamudio were each parked on someone else’s property, a situation offering fine lessons in building community, in our interdependence on fellow man. But that doesn’t achieve my own dream: to piss off the porch onto my own damn land and owe the bank nothing.
Which leads us to the movement’s holy grail: legality. The hot Jam topic is changing code. Shafer has proposed using the zoning of an RV park to create a village of bungalows. Builders in Colorado have run with the concept, developing permanent, legal tiny villages in the towns of Salida, Walsenburg, and Fairplay. “This is not just a movement,” said Darin Zaruba, owner of EcoCabins, organizer of the Jamboree, and developer of the Whispering Aspen Village in Fairplay, which is already taking $1,000 deposits for lots. “It’s becoming an industry.”
The cities of Fresno and Ojai, California, have permitted backyard tiny houses, often as rentals to help homeowners pay their mortgages. If the movement is to have widespread impact, its adherents will have to master not just carpentry and wiring but the tedious jargon of planned unit developments and accessory dwelling units. They must step out of the shadows and into city hall. In November a crew of Luminaries, including Zach Giffin, descended on Kansas City for the International Code Council hearings, where the nonprofit ICC writes building codes adopted across the country. They won preliminary approval for the first set of tiny-house building codes, covering everything from emergency egresses to lowoverhead staircases. The changes don’t apply to homes on wheels or affect local zoning rules—but proponents said they’d cleared a first major hurdle.
Nonetheless, the thrill of freedom reigns. Those who do first and ask forgiveness later seem to win as often as those who seek permission. “I didn’t stress about zoning and code,” Zamudio told me. “I wanted a tiny house and I didn’t give a shit.”
That night a series of thunderstorms soaked the Jam. I drove to the Drury, which jutted out of a shopping center with all the proportions and geometry of a ten-pound brick of government cheese. No vacancy. The closest room was in Denver, 60 miles away. I returned to the field at the base of Mount Apocalypse and stuffed my muddy feet into my damp sleeping bag.
My midwestern van friends were gone. I checked their Facebook page. They’d posted a 40-second video, without commentary, shot from the window of a moving vehicle, of the landscape of the West, where so many have chased a dream of a better life: yellow flats framed by brown mountains, a dust devil swirling in the distance.
As for those AGFOs: After feuding with his partner, Shafer lost ownership of Tumbleweed Tiny Houses in 2012, before the company tapped its current bonanza of 80-plus employees building 15 homes a month in its Colorado Springs factory. Jay left with a $30,000 debt that he has still not paid. Tumbleweed’s lawyers accused him of willful trademark infringement and advertising “knockoffs” of Tumbleweed products that Shafer himself had designed. Then, in 2016, after seven years of marriage and two sons, Shafer and his wife split up. Despite what you might guess, the reason for divorce was not that all four were crammed into 98 square feet. The family had bought a very small fixer-upper and planted Shafer’s tiny house in the yard, which he used as an office. Until just a few months ago, when he hauled his home to an orchard, he’d been sleeping in a tent, crashing on friends’ couches, pulling food from dumpsters. He told me he hadn’t earned any income in the past year. “Some people set up socialmedia accounts for me, but I stopped looking at them,” he said. “I stopped responding to e-mail.”
Shafer’s tale is the inverse of his acolytes’: the tiny house came first, followed by debt, despair, unhappy marriage. In keeping with his belief in the integrity of raw material, he was candid about his hardships. He would no more disguise heartbreak than he would structural columns.
I kept thinking of the story—perhaps a myth—of the Rolling Stones’ 1964 visit to Chicago’s Chess Records, the label that recorded Howlin’ Wolf and Bo Diddley. By then, white boys had turned the blues into the booming industry of rock and roll. Keith Richards told a biographer that at the studio, perched on a ladder with a brush, was his hero, Muddy Waters. “He was painting the goddamn ceiling, dressed all in white, with white paint like tears on his face, ’cause he wasn’t selling records at the time.” I told this story to Jay Shafer, and he nodded and said, “I can understand that.”
On the final morning, Williams spoke on stage. She said nothing about woodworking or circuit breakers. She talked about her limitations, all the things she didn’t know how to do, how her friends had stepped up. She spoke of mortality, the passing of loved ones, the decay of her body, the acceptance of her ultimate death. She wanted to face it without artifice or delusion. She wept freely, and Shafer and the Luminaries camped in the front row wept with her.
Maybe the big isolated homes, long lonely commutes, stacks of bills, endless hours bound to a screen—they aren’t the disease but the symptoms of something more pervasive. A sense that we don’t belong; that our place in the world is without meaning; that we can’t dissolve the boundaries of individuality and connect to the divine, to nature, to each other.
When the people’s choice prize was announced, I inspected the winning house. The siding appeared to be wood, but when I ran my fingers across it, it was cool metal, stamped with fake grain.
The people had spoken. They preferred the comb-over.
Contributing editor Mark Sundeen (@SundeenMark) is the author of The Man Who Quit Money and The Unsettlers.