Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 15, Issue 16
Tiny state of mind: Mini homes scale down on money, footprint, and size
BY KRISTINA SEWELL
Here in America, the idea that “bigger is better” is a long-standing, cultural line of thought. “Go big or go home” is an archetypal American colloquialism. We love our mega-churches, super-size meals, big-box stores, giant trucks, enlarged breasts, and most of all—big houses.
Part of our desire for bigger things can be attributed to our history and the belief we have all of this space to spread out—Manifest Destiny, if you will. But bigger isn’t always better. Nowadays our population and carbon footprint continue to increase, while our resources and space for living continue to diminish.
Faced with more global, environmental, and economic changes than ever before, there is a growing social movement in this country that is attempting to escape the “bigger is better” train of thought in the form of tiny houses. Better known as the “small house movement,” tiny is an apt architectural description for this growing social movement, which advocates living simply in a smaller space—generally no bigger than 400 square feet.
From tool shed chic, to space-age minimalist, to rustic looking cabins, tiny homes have started dotting the real estate landscape, particularly in Washington, Oregon, and California.
More and more websites dedicated to tiny-house enthusiasts are popping up across the Web. These spaces have also been featured in publications like The New York Times, The Santa Barbara Independent, and even on Fox News.
Recently, the Sun decided to explore the world of micro-homes, and found out there is much more to these houses than meets the eye.
Small space, big idea
Even though it would only take you three steps to reach the other side of this structure, Marc Hyman’s newest tiny home design doesn’t feel small in the least. Open, light, and airy with vaulted ceilings and a generous loft bed, this home delivers the ambiance and simplicity Hyman’s client was looking for.
Hyman came from New York 20 years ago; you can still hear his accent when he speaks. He got the idea to open his business, Custom Cabins of Santa Barbara, 10 years ago. While the tiny home movement is still gaining a foothold on the Central Coast, traffic is picking up in other places.
“Rural areas like Northern California, Washington, Idaho, and Oregon, there is a lot of this going on,” said Hyman, who also builds custom utility sheds and outdoor spaces.
He said these homes could be as small as 200 square feet or as big as 400 square feet. The Custom Cabins owner explained that there are three basic reasons behind this alternative home movement.
“It started out 10 years ago as a carbon footprint issue,” he said. “A big house has a big footprint and uses a lot of materials, which take energy to make.”
Many people choose this lifestyle as a way to remain energy conscious.
“These people tend to be very aware of their energy use,” Hyman said. “There is a big effort to use salvaged wood and other materials to build tiny homes.”
Tiny homes are also capable of supporting solar panels, solar water-heaters, and compostable toilets—though the latter is less common at this point. Hyman said there are also special paints that can be used to help with insulation.
It’s a logical conclusion that a smaller house would use fewer resources than a large one, but the size of that margin has not been measured enough. Despite this, a 2010 study of small homes by the Oregon Department of Environmental Equality (one of the more progressive states in the Union) found that among 30 various green construction practices, reducing size did in fact have the greatest impact in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
The tiny-house craze jumped into hyper speed after the economic collapse; the financial crisis made the need for less more relevant. “You can build them much cheaper and even afford to go with higher-quality materials because they are built on a smaller scale,” Hyman said.
Hyman helps save money for his clients by building what they can’t, but the average person can finish the building on their own. The financial savings generated by tiny homes are a big appeal for interested homebuyers.
Browsing a number of websites dedicated to tiny houses revealed that the average cost of building or ordering a tiny home can be as low $23,000 or as much as $67,000, depending on the size. According to thetinylife.com, 68 percent of tiny-house people have no mortgage compared to 29.3 percent of all American homeowners.
“Older people and those on a limited income realized they didn’t need to live in a giant space,” Hyman said. “Tiny homes can be a lifeline for people who don’t have the money to carry a big house.”
The tiny house movement has struck a chord with the younger population as well, he shared, adding that that group has taken notice of people who are chained down by their houses and monstrous bills.
“They just want a simpler life, and you won’t destroy the economy by living below your means,” Hyman said.
One such person taking notice is The Tiny Life website founder Ryan Mitchell, who launched his site five years ago.
“It started out as me cataloging design ideas for tiny houses when I decided to build mine,” Mitchell told the Sun. “From there, it grew with the movement and became a blog for my journey to the tiny life.”
His site helped inspire the first-ever Tiny House Conference, held last April. Mitchell said next to Oregon and Washington, his site receives the most traffic from California.
Mitchell’s own tiny paradise can be found in Charlotte, N.C., in a 150-square-foot space. It has lots of windows, a loft, a queen-sized bed, and cedar siding.
“I originally became interested in tiny houses for money reasons,” he admitted.
He said housing typically represents 50 to 60 percent of people’s incomes, but when someone changes the equation to having their house bought and paid for, it would be like doubling one’s income. According to the Tiny Life website, 76 percent of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck, with almost 70 percent of Americans trapped in a vicious debt cycle.
“It changes the game financially and opens up possibilities,” Mitchell said. “I live in a tiny house, but [I] live very comfortably and can save money.”
He said that at 31, his student loan debt is already paid off. He doesn’t have to worry about money; in fact, he plans to travel abroad later this year.
While money was his original incentive for going tiny, Mitchell said as he fell further down the proverbial rabbit hole, he realized the tremendous environmental benefits of downsizing his living.
“You become more aware of the ecological issues and things we’re facing,” he said. “Just by their size, they’re inherently more sustainable. You can fit 22 of them in the average American home.”
But while the appeal of tiny houses is quickly spreading, Mitchell shared that building codes and zoning are the biggest inhibitors for living in tiny houses.
California presents some unique challenges for tiny houses because of its myriad of zoning and building regulations. As a result, Hyman said, tiny homes operate in a murky zoning gap.
“For my clients, I build the shell of an accessory structure, and then what they do with it after that point is none of my concern,” he said.
Mitchell said there are all sorts of people who have done creative things to address these issues, with some living in their tiny homes “off the grid.”
While the size of tiny homes provides the greatest appeal and benefit, the size seems to be one of the larger points of dispute on the regulation side. The Sun wanted to find out if tiny homes could become a feasible housing option locally.
Massoud Abolhoda, director of Santa Barbara County building and safety, said that though California residential building code has no minimum size for houses, there are certain requirements a house must meet.
“Every dwelling unit shall have at least one habitable room that is not less than 120 square feet in floor area,” Abolhoda said. “Efficiency dwelling units shall have a living room of no less than 220 square feet of floor area; each unit shall have its own bathroom and kitchen.”
The bathroom and kitchens in these spaces are combined, and some tiny homes are 120 square feet or less.
John Karamitsos of Santa Barbara County Planning and Development said zoning rules and regulations for the inland area of the county are governed by the Land Use and Development Code (LUDC). The LUDC identifies no specific minimum size for a primary dwelling unit, but for a second unit on a legal lot, the smallest size is 300 square feet.
Planning Supervisor Karamitsos explained that zoning ordinances are the implementing regulations for the state of California. While these zoning regulations must be very precise, he admitted they cannot include specific answers for all zoning issues.
“In order to provide an efficient and effective land-use regulatory process, [planning and development] staff must use judgment regarding certain zoning questions,” he said. “I think it’s likely that we would apply the 300-square-foot minimum size requirement for a second unit to the development of a principal residence on an undeveloped, legal lot.”
However, he added that the uniform building code has mandates that prevent a 300-square-foot primary structure from being approved. Boiled down into laymen’s terms, tiny homes are not permitted as permanent residences.
Hyman and Mitchell said some tiny-home owners have tried to skirt around regulations by building the house on wheels, but even then it’s not considered a permanent, livable structure. Until these units are certified by the state as cost-effective housing options, they’re not permissible in Santa Barbara County.
“It would be useful to update the general plan and zoning ordinances in order to provide specificity regarding measures to ensure compatibility with surrounding urban development,” Karamitsos said.
Shifting the mindset
Even though establishing a tiny house as a permanent residence presents many hoops to jump through, Mitchell is confident that various municipalities will change their requirements. In many places it’s already happening.
“Going forward with urban density, we are going to have more people in a smaller space,” Mitchell said. “Regulatory code is a very slow process to change, but various cities are becoming more aware of the small-house concept.”
He speculates that part of the issue with changing regulations is the inability for tiny homes to generate healthy property tax revenue. Hyman is hoping government regulations will catch up with the tiny-house trend.
“Low carbon usage means encouraging smaller housing; it’s a way of increasing capacity without turning farmland into living communities,” he said. “It will take a while for everyone to agree that the positives will outweigh the negatives.”
Living in a tiny home might present a less expensive lifestyle, more simplicity, and more freedom, but Mitchell said these homes aren’t for everyone.
“The biggest impact tiny houses are going to have is to expose people to the concept that there are alternatives to housing,” he said. “People that are exposed to those ideas might make decisions about their home on a smaller scale.”
Both Mitchell and Hyman said transitioning to or preparing to live in a tiny home requires mindset change about how one wants to live.
“You have to get rid of your things; it’s like living on a sailboat,” Hyman said. “You have to want everything about your life to be simple.”
Mitchell said there are definitely some things to consider before opting for a tiny home, and, as Hyman said, doing so requires a mental shift in how you perceive American consumer culture.
“The American way is to have a nice, big house, fancy car, and nice clothing, which amounts to a lot of spending,” Mitchell said.
He tries to explain to aspiring tiny-housers that saying yes to all those material things means saying no to other things.
While Mitchell is not against big houses and fancy cars, he prefers to say yes to a life where he has more free time to spend with the people he cares about and to pursue his dreams. He did admit that it took him a long time psychologically to pull himself away from consumer culture.
However, he thinks people are growing tired of the mortgage game and the debt, and that there is a resurgence of people interested in living a more simplified life.
“People want to have a job and not kill themselves to get by,” Mitchell said. “Happiness and relationships are more important than other things that have been seen as the status quo.”
Contact Staff Writer Kristina Sewell at firstname.lastname@example.org.