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Tiny House, Happy Life?

Imagine stepping into a house 25 times smaller than your current abode. For the average American, that would amount to 100 square feet, a space so tiny it feels like it belongs in a tree.

That’s the way Jay Shafer has come home for the past decade. Shafer is considered something of a patriarch of the tiny house movement, a small but growing band of people who drastically shrink their living space in hopes of living a cheaper, less wasteful, and happier life.

Shafer started building tiny houses in the late 90s, attracted to the idea of living with fewer possessions. “When you live in a tiny house you only have room for the things that truly matter,” he told us when we visited his current 106-square-foot home in Sebastopol, California. “You have to choose what’s essential.”

Jay Shafer's 106-square-foot tiny home in Sebastopol, California.

The tour around his house took about three minutes, and with more than one person inside, we had to flatten ourselves against walls or in doorways–actually, doorway, there’s only one–as we moved around. Inside, Shafer has a kitchen sink and stove, a full bathroom with a toilet, shower and sink, plus a living room area that triples as his office and his dining room. And to sleep? There’s a loft with sky lights that a real estate agent might describe as “cozy” or “intimate.” One person in the bed, two max. But no sitting up suddenly.

The movement has picked up momentum over the past few years. A documentary title Tiny showed one man’s process of building a compact house and transitioning to less space. Many  tiny homes are off the grid, so no one quite knows how many exist. Several companies, including the one Shafer started, Four Lights Tiny House Company, have begun selling kits to build your own house. The average price tag with materials? About $15,000.

One hundred square feet is small. But with a growing population, and finite space in cities, there’s reason to think the future will be filled with smaller, more efficient homes.

In San Francsico, we caught up with Patrick Kennedy, a developer with Berkeley-based Panoramic Interests to find out what that would mean in a city. Kennedy’s company is developing several Bay Area buildings with “micro” apartment units (“We don’t use the word tiny, micro sounds cooler,” Kennedy says).

At 290 square feet, his units are surprisingly roomy. A Murphy bed doubles as a kitchen table. The breakfast nook turns into a window seat. Otherwise you get a full kitchen, ample storage space and a full sized bathroom. Plus, a rare city find: an in-unit washer and dryer. The price tag? About $950 a month, half the rent of traditional one-bedrooms in the area.

“We’re marketing toward hipsters and service workers,” Kennedy jokes. Qualifying as neither, I could see how the opportunity to cut your apartment and your rent in half could have much wider appeal. If similar developments came to Washington D.C., I’d definitely check them out. And if I happened upon a parcel of land, the prospect of building a small house with my own hands (for under $20,000, to boot) is mighty attractive.

Both Shafer and Kennedy admit it’s not for everyone. But most people come around when they see the space and envision their lives without as much clutter. They also start dreaming about having more money at the end of each month. Although not everyone. One woman admitted to Kennedy that, yes, she could live in a 275-square-foot unit. But she’d have to rent another one for her shoes.


  1. Holliday smith
    May 30, 2013, 8:36 am

    When is this going to air? I have been promoting this lifestyle fora while and would love to tell all my friends to watch this.

  2. Kate
    Montpelier, Vermont
    January 23, 2013, 2:53 pm

    Interested in learning more about designing, building and living in a tiny house? Check out the upcoming Tiny House Fair at the Yestermorrow Design/Build School in Waitsfield, VT: http://www.yestermorrow.org/about-us/stay-connected/events/june-14-16-tiny-house-fair-waitsfield-vt/

    Lots of workshops, presentations, tours and tiny house talk for a whole weekend!

  3. Woodmansee
    Northwest Wisconsin
    January 18, 2013, 7:55 pm

    I love the idea of a small carbon footprint to live in. Not all of us are rich, or care for large living spaces. It would be nice to have a place of one’s own. The outdoors is a wonderful living room with a garden.

  4. Jerry Oaks
    Telford. Tn. United States
    January 9, 2013, 10:25 am

    After reading the remark from the Dr on his nit picking on spelling, so I will set myself up. I have a smallbarn left on 2 acr’s that could be converted into a tri*level with onehalf basement. It is 25’x20′. I have considered making it into a small house for the last 10 years. It needs a lot of work but is framed . Needs floor in ground level & basement. The upper half has a loff and need to be converted into living space, wall covering and windows. This has made me want to do my dream this spring.

  5. Erisman Tondang
    indonesia, west sumatra, payakumbuh
    December 31, 2012, 8:24 pm

    considerable to reduce using farmland as houses location.

  6. Staceyranae
    December 26, 2012, 1:19 am

    Check out this one at bvtxweb.com_ magnolia_walkup … if we can, you can!

  7. Mario Grillo
    United States
    December 23, 2012, 6:43 pm

    The ones in SF run about $1500, not a value.

  8. saralibbysalazar
    Las Vegas N V
    December 23, 2012, 4:51 pm

    I have 2 of those in my yard— I’v been calling them ‘sheds’–

  9. saralibbysalazar
    L V --NV
    December 23, 2012, 4:49 pm

    I have 2 of these ‘house’s” out in the yard—- dannnng I’v been calling them ‘shed’s—

  10. Emily
    December 23, 2012, 2:12 pm

    OK, I appreciate this idea. But did you see how much stuff was outside in the yard where the first guy lived? I too could live in 100 square feet if I could throw all my stuff around outside and fill up a huge shed.

  11. anna wolfe
    rockaway park, nyc
    December 23, 2012, 2:42 am

    I live in Rockaway Park, NYC..
    Hurricane Sandy and her storm surge destroyed many homes here. I wish we could get some tiny houses here so people can stay in them while their houses are being gutted & mold remidiated & repaired

  12. jo
    Portland Or
    December 22, 2012, 12:11 pm

    Here in PDX we are encouraged to in fill and build small accessory units. I have a 525 sq ft house in my backyard that I rent. My sister is just now finishing building a 440 sq ft house in her yard for extra income. Both legal and the city has waived about ten grand in development and building fees for the next couple of years.
    My friends that live in Paris live in tiny 100 sq ft apartments. It’s the norm there.

  13. Janet Lavergne
    United States
    December 22, 2012, 11:37 am

    I’m afraid of heights and cannot climb a step ladder. So there’s no way I could sleep in the “attic” where he sleeps.

  14. Harold
    December 22, 2012, 11:37 am

    Also a great solution for governments to get the homeless off the streets and reduce the cost of related crimes.

  15. LaMar
    December 18, 2012, 9:19 pm

    Good article however Shafer is just one in a long line of small home builders that have promoted the movement. I built my 200 sqft solar cabin over 15 years ago and have been teaching people about homesteading lifestyle for all these years and I learned from the many authors like Lloyd Kahn and even the writings of Henry David Thoreau.

    Small homes have many benefits including being much less expensive to build, heat, cool, and lower property taxes. Add in solar/wind power and you have no utility bills.

    I do NOT think houses on wheels are the future and small residential homes and apartments of under 400 sqft are needed. Small homes can always be expanded later if needed and desired.

  16. RMH
    las vegas, NV
    December 12, 2012, 9:27 pm

    Has anyone considered an RV?
    Usually 8′ wide and 28 to 34′ long.

  17. Mark Burton (Tiny House UK)
    United Kingdom
    December 12, 2012, 4:26 pm

    Small living has been in the states for a few years now and is just starting to catch on here in the UK. I think it is fantastic what Jay has achieved over the last 10 years or so and hope this is just the start. The teenagers in the UK describe Tiny Houses as Awesome, Well Cool” or even “Sick !” (that means very nice I’m told). Ask any parent and they will agree “All Teenagers Should Have One” Live cheap, Save money.

  18. Dion
    United States
    December 12, 2012, 4:04 am

    So start out in a tiny home as a single or a couple, then park it in the back yard (for rental or visitors) of a larger house when the kids come along, Then when you have 2 teenagers, build another in the back yard -one for each of them (LOL). Then after the kids all move out – it happens sooner than you think! Sell the big house and move the tiny houses to a beautiful spot to retire in. You’ll still have 1 tiny house for visitors or for rent = extra income!

  19. Santa
    Greenville, SC
    December 11, 2012, 6:27 pm

    Such tiny houses run afoul of zoning restrictions in all cities that I know of in the USA. You can build one out in the sticks without much problem, but that often times eliminates their utility.

  20. Karl
    December 11, 2012, 4:32 pm

    Everybody seems to needs around 300 plus square feet of living space. A family of four: 1200 to 1500 sq/ft.

  21. Mark Iacocca
    Live Free or Die State
    December 11, 2012, 3:32 pm


    You and your readers might be interested in my company. Off Grid Shelters LLC launched in late October 2012. We are an architecture design firm that also sells plans and specializes in small home design. They are a little more practical than Jay’s homes (no offence Jay) but are significantly smaller than the “american standard”. The emphasis is on the integration of off grid energy, water and waste system solutions which are included in each of my designs. Please check us out.


  22. Dan Stone
    December 11, 2012, 11:30 am

    Some great points here. Yes, Nick, it is too small for one family. But the amateur home-builder in the video was building a separate house for her teenage daughter!

    And Lee, I wasn’t aware of the DC development. When I’m back from Calif, I’d definitely like to check them out.


  23. Sabrina
    December 11, 2012, 11:08 am

    I love tiny houses! They’re incredibly efficient and there are many beautiful ones that have been built. In response to Meryl’s comments there are actually multiple safe options for heating in a tiny house, combo washer/dryer units do fit (along with some other clothes cleaning options) and a good tankless water heater should take care of those hot showers. Oh, and a basement would be a great root cellar for a tiny house!

  24. Edgar Ethridge
    Albuquerque New Mexico
    December 11, 2012, 9:54 am

    Hey do you want a life without debt? , be able to homestead land you bought with cash?, have land that will be taxed under 200 dollars a year? and flip the bird to the banking system. Several tinyhouses 120 sq ft or under can build up a independent life. When you are finished with your solar electric system… You will have a life free of looming overhead and will give yourself the biggest raise you have ever had now that you don’t have to pay the bankers and power companies. It may seem tight at first but after 5 years you own your land and home. If you put on cheep land with no services then no reassessment of the property will raise your taxes. Who is stupid? wage slaves!

  25. Steve D. henrich
    December 11, 2012, 9:36 am

    It’s a great Idea in my my, and I don’t see much for concessions in a water heater & laundry. The water heater could easily be one of those instant zapper affairs that’d fit in a closet, and the same for the laundry, one would just want a sound insulating door on it., I think a basement/root cellar affair would be sensible too! (not to mention an antechamber/boot-room/root-cellar. Something I think should never have been done away with in home construction. A cool room for storing ones taters without them spoiling,… or brewing the good stuff lol!

  26. Lee
    Washington DC
    December 11, 2012, 9:29 am

    Dan, it already exists in DC – some land with tiny houses on wheels being built on them. Check out Boneyard Studios and come to one of our open houses.

  27. Lee
    Washington DC
    December 11, 2012, 9:27 am

    Dan, it already exists in DC – some land with tiny houses on wheels being built. Come check out one of our open houses. boneyardstudios.com

  28. Mary
    December 11, 2012, 9:22 am

    I don’t know about 100 square feet, but many people throughout the world-including in America-are living or have lived in less than 700 square feet. My family of four was raised in 800. My parents lived in 480 when they married.
    In America, there has been a mindset that “small” means “poor” and “large” means “rich”. If the tiny house movement helps people see that isn’t always the case, it will have been a very worthy movement.

  29. wafaa
    December 11, 2012, 8:57 am

    It’s a good idea

  30. merl
    dayton ohio
    December 11, 2012, 2:04 am

    Unfortunately there is hardly a safe heating system for a place that tight. Washer and dryer would also be a challenge as well as a water heater large enough for showers. A basement could work well.

  31. Nick
    December 10, 2012, 11:49 pm

    Good luck raising a family in that.

  32. Ely
    December 10, 2012, 10:34 pm

    It’s a pretty good idea about creating such “tiny” houses,but it’s rather hard that even 1-2 % of humanity will put up with such conditions.But i don’t mind living there for a couple of weeks.

    December 10, 2012, 6:10 pm


  34. Curt Veeneman, Ph.D. (UC Berkeley)
    December 10, 2012, 1:21 pm

    Hi Dan,

    Saw your ad in the December 2012 issue of NG: brilliant work, vital cause, and nice graphics idea (names of cities in colored fonts in the shape of California), except I think Berkeley is spelled with three Es (not ‘Berkley’). Maybe they could use this factoid on the entrance examination to get into the university . . .