Tiny Houses Have A Not-So-Tiny Problem

Many tiny house designs fetishize smallness while missing what makes micro-housing so useful: density.

Tiny Houses Have A Not-So-Tiny Problem
[Image: zeroHouse]


As much as we love gorgeous small-scale architecture, not all micro-housing is created equal. Over at City Lab, Kriston Capps argues that tiny houses plopped onto huge lots in the middle of nowhere miss the entire point of micro-housing: to provide more options for affordable housing, especially in crowded, expensive cities.

He takes issue with the 650-square-foot prefabricated zeroHouse, the self-sufficient modular home seen above:

The zeroHouse is so modular and low maintenance, in fact, that all you need to own a zeroHouse is–after $350,000–a plot of land. Any kind of land.

Which is, of course, the problem with zeroHouse: Nobody needs micro-housing in places where plots of prairie, mountain, and sea (!) are available in plenty.

The Delta Shelter by Olson Kundig in Mazama, Washington. Image: Courtesy Olson Sunderberg Kundig Allen Architects/Taschen

If you’re determined to live on a sprawling piece of rural land, it’s probably more environmentally friendly to do so in a prefab house that’s designed to function off the grid. “Basically, a tiny house is sort of the suburban or maybe even rural version of a small apartment,” as Ryan Mitchell, author of the book Tiny House Living, told Salon.

But trendy tiny dwellings more often come in this form than the variety people more desperately need: the kind that makes urban living affordable for those of us who aren’t oligarchs. “Lovely granny flats, Voltron head-cubes, and stories that tug at the heart-strings are nice, but support for these doesn’t amount to support for real micro-housing–or congregate housing developments, perhaps a better term for urbanist housing solutions,” Capps writes.

What cities need in micro-housing, he argues, is “at least the option to build for a range of buyers and renters, at a range of densities. When tiny-house enthusiasts go on about what are essentially single-family homes, they are confirming the status quo, if shrinking it a little.”


Ultimately, we need both. It’s true that crowded cities–especially those with a high concentration of young professionals who aren’t trying to fit an entire family into a 129-square-foot apartment–need affordable micro-units to alleviate intense pressure on the housing market. It’s perhaps no surprise that we don’t see that many of those designs yet, considering that even in housing-strapped cities like San Francisco, micro-apartments remain controversial. The prospect of allowing developers to pack people into a whole new definition of “cozy” worries some tenants rights advocates and even some psychologists.

And 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.

[H/T: CityLab]

About the author

Shaunacy Ferro is a Brooklyn-based writer covering architecture, urban design and the sciences. She's on a lifelong quest for the perfect donut.