As a rule, people in New York wish for smaller places to live about as often as people on airplanes wish for smaller seats. I used to dream sometimes that I had found rooms in my apartment that I didn’t know were there, and, as I explored them, I felt a serenity that I did not feel in my waking life. I never had a dream where my apartment was smaller, and I don’t think I would feel very good if I did. When I was a child, I wanted a house so big that to go from one end to the other I’d have to ride a motorcycle.
For someone who lives in New York, one of the more enigmatic modern micro-trends is the decision to live in the smallest space possible, in a structure known as a “tiny house.” The occupants of tiny houses tend to be committed, and slightly self-regarding, citizens, who cook on little stoves and have refrigerators like wall safes. They shed years of possessions and keepsakes to get by with two shirts and two pairs of pants and two mugs and two forks, in order to occupy what amounts to a monk’s cell, for the sake of simplicity, frugality, or upright environmental living. They often embody the zeal of religious converts.
Tiny houses are built on trailer platforms. Typically, they are between a hundred and a hundred and thirty square feet, roughly the size of a covered wagon. They aren’t toys or playhouses or aesthetic gestures—a copy of Monticello as a sandbox in a field in East Hampton, say—and they aren’t shacks or cottages, either. Shacks don’t have kitchens and bathrooms, and a cottage is larger than a tiny house. There are between several hundred and a thousand tiny houses in the United States. Kent Griswold, who, four years ago, began Tiny House Blog, told me that initially he “really had to scrounge to find material. Now I can’t keep up. People send me stuff constantly. It’s all across the country.” The number is difficult to know, because tiny houses usually violate building codes by being so small, and thus occupying one is often illegal. Their owners tend to keep them secret and move them around. A man who sold a tiny house on terms went to repossess it, and it was gone.
People who live in tiny houses, or aspire to, appear to fall into one of three overlapping categories. The first consists of young people who see a tiny house as a means of owning a place while avoiding property taxes and maybe rent, since they can often find places to park their house free. The second group includes older men and women who have either sold or walked away from a house they couldn’t afford. A subset of this group is retired couples whose children are gone, and who want to live more simply. Both of these groups include transients; that is, people for whom a tiny house is temporary. Among these is a woman named Elaine Walker, who recently listed her house on eBay, although she didn’t find a buyer. She had built the tiny house, in New Hampshire, to live in while selling a house. She had planned to build another normal house, then decided instead to move to California. She found a man who would tow the tiny house there for her. Before he delivered it, he took the house to a car wash. The third group is composed of people determined to live environmentally responsible lives––to live “lightly,” as they put it. According to Greg Johnson, the publisher of a tiny-house Web site called ResourcesForLife.com, to inhabit a tiny house “you have to remodel your sense of what success is and how important it is to you to convey to the outside world ‘Hey, I have a big house and big car and I’m successful.’ If you have a piece of inner tranquillity, you don’t have to prove anything to anybody.” A tiny-house builder describes this group as including people who “want to live off the grid. A lot of vegans. The younger people are idealists. They’re big into off-the-map and sharing their experience.”
Human beings have always lived in small houses—not to make a statement but because small houses were practical and cheap. “Nomadic people, indigenous people traditionally have small houses,” Witold Rybczynski, the architecture critic, says. “In the Middle Ages, people slept many people to a bed and many beds in a room.” A Pilgrim house was about a hundred and sixty-five square feet. In “Walden,” Thoreau describes one-room houses owned by laborers who kept their front doors open for light. In winter, the places were perpetually cold. In 1987, an architect named Lester Walker published a book of photographs and drawings called “Tiny Houses,” which influenced a number of people who build such houses now. Walker’s book includes the dune shacks in Provincetown; the two-hundred-square-foot houses built in Texas in the late nineteenth century by German farmers to use on the weekends when they came to town; and the hundred-and-forty-square-foot houses that San Francisco built in 1906 for survivors of the earthquake.
Walker told me that he was especially drawn to fishermen’s shanties in Vermont and Minnesota. “These guys take a lot of care in their workshops in the summer to decorate the outsides of the shacks,” he said. “On the inside, there are two seats, and they drink beer and eat potato chips, and sleep there. They don’t wash, and they can’t open the window because of the cold, and they have a kerosene stove giving off fumes, and they keep fish in there. But on the outside they’re very ornate.”
The rhetoric of modern tiny-house living begins with the assertion that big houses, aside from being wasteful and environmentally noxious, are debtors’ prisons. Their owners work in order to afford them, and when they actually occupy them they’re anxious. Tiny houses are luxurious, because they are easier to take care of and allow their (presumably debt-free) owners to spend more money on pleasures. The owner of a tiny house, while living intimately indoors, has a larger life outside, and a lighter conscience.
Banks won’t finance tiny houses––any house smaller than four hundred square feet is difficult to mortgage––and, in addition to being tricky to occupy legally, the houses are excluded from many R.V. parks because they’re too tall. Having corners instead of rounded edges, a tiny house is expensive to tow; it is not a practical substitute for a mobile h
Owners of tiny houses often believe that there is a conspiracy among home builders and banks to make houses that are bigger than what people need or can pay for. The Times recently published a piece noting that larger houses have become difficult to sell, because more people want smaller houses, closer to where they work. “We might be at the edge of an epochal, cyclical change,” Rybczynski says, because house builders have run short of money and building has almost stopped. “When we start again, will houses be the same size as before, or will people think that small is better?”
Jay Shafer is the brainy misfit behind the tiny-house trend and the builder of the most stately tiny houses. He built his first tiny house in Iowa, in 1999, and lived in it for five years. It was a hundred and ten square feet, with a steep gabled roof and a porch. It looked like a Gothic cottage from a children’s story. Designing the footprint of a tiny house is simple, since it follows the contour of the trailer. The complicated part is preserving space. What makes Shafer’s houses different from others is the classical elements of form and proportion and the graceful compression of his design. More than tiny, his houses feel sleek.
Shafer calls himself a “claustrophile.” He is forty-seven, tall and thin, with a high forehead and reddish-brown hair. He has an upright carriage, and he sits with a straight back, like a dancer. His voice is slightly nasal. His hands often seek a settled position around his face as he talks—balled into fists on which he rests his chin, or spread beneath his jaw, so that he appears to be posing but is really just paying attention. He is the species of fierce and stubborn person who conceals his nature behind a mild façade. He makes lists of errands on small pieces of paper, because the small size makes the lists look more manageable. Once, I saw him writing on the wrapper of a drinking straw.
Shafer has lived in three tiny houses—the one in Iowa, and two in California—but four years ago, in a yoga class, he met his wife, a veterinarian named Marty. “I didn’t really get it that he lived in a tiny house,” Marty told me. She is small and slim with brown hair, and her manner is intent. “The yoga class had a small changing room, and one day he said, ‘My house is about the size of this room.’ I listened and didn’t really hear. Our first date, I went to pick him up, and there was a regular-sized house, and his house next to it, and I looked at them and was, like, ‘Can’t be.’ ”
The Shafers have been married for three years, and after they had a son they moved to a five-hundred-square-foot house, in Graton, California, north of San Francisco. Shafer’s tiny house sits behind a picket fence in his yard, and he uses it as an office, where he draws plans for other tiny houses. The house is eight by twelve (a porch makes it fourteen feet long), with a sheet-metal roof above cedar walls. In the main room, which Shafer calls the great room, there are two chairs, a closet, a desk, bookshelves, and a stainless-steel propane heater built for a boat. A hallway with more shelves leads to a kitchen, a bathroom with a shower, and, above them, a sleeping loft that has a lancet window large enough for Shafer to climb through if the downstairs ever caught fire while he was asleep.
Shafer owns a design-and-build company called Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, and he has built sixteen tiny houses. He sold his first house to a filmmaker in New Hampshire nine years ago, for thirty thousand dollars. His second house was built for Greg Johnson, who saw Shafer’s house in Iowa and commissioned one for himself. Shafer sold one tiny house to a couple from Berkeley, who put it on a property they owned in Telluride. In 2009, Shafer built a house in northern California and towed it to the parking lot of a hotel at the end of Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, where he gave a workshop on how to build a tiny house. When no one in New York bought the house, he parked it in the driveway of his in-laws’ house, in Connecticut. Eight months later, he displayed it on a Harley-Davidson lot in Ohio, where it was sold.
On the second Saturday of each month, Shafer opens his tiny house for a few hours, to attract clients. About twenty people showed up for a recent tour, including Steve Weissman, Shafer’s partner in Tumbleweed, who told everyone, “Jay sleeps over there,” pointing to Shafer’s house, “but he spends all his waking hours here,” pointing at the tiny house. Shafer sat on his porch, welcoming people, then admonishing them not to touch his stuff. “It’s a visual tour, not a tactile one,” he said. He asked them to take off their shoes before they entered, which they did with a certain obeisance, as if they were paying homage to a deity. Shafer adopts an affable persona while discussing his houses, but he is an introvert, and the tours are an ordeal for him. In the intervals when no one had a question, he sat on the porch with his head on his forearm. He looked like a child who has been forced to take part in an adult activity.
A young couple from Michigan told him that they were moving to Palo Alto and wanted to live in a tiny house to save money. A stout woman whose face was framed with long graying hair that she had braided beneath her chin, like a bell pull, asked, “Can you get a piano in there?” Shafer nodded. “Put the piano in before you finish the house,” he told her. A guy and his son who were dressed like lumberjacks circled the house with a measuring tape and made notes on a clipboard until Shafer told them to knock it off.
Now and then, he stepped inside to demonstrate how a plastic pocket door closes off the bathroom. Several people asked to have their photographs taken with Shafer, and he obliged. A lanky young man whose head was shaved, so that he looked like a standing lamp, said, “I’m surprised there aren’t more military people interested in this. It seems like a good idea for a few years.” Another tall man banged his head on the doorframe, then said he should have known better. “I used to live on a submarine,” he said. A few people got down on their knees and pointed their phones under the trailer platform and took photographs. They stood on Shafer’s lawn in groups of two and three, and, when a light rain began, they opened umbrellas.
Tumbleweed Tiny House Company offers plans for seven tiny houses. In the past year, it has sold a thousand plans, but Shafer doesn’t know how many houses have been built from them. The majority of the plans cost less than a hundred dollars, but a few, for the larger of the tiny houses, cost nearly a thousand. Shafer has sold about a hundred of those, and assumes that many of the people who bought them were serious about building. The tiniest house that Tumbleweed Tiny House Company sells is the XS-House, which is sixty-five square feet, and costs sixteen thousand dollars to build yourself, or thirty-nine thousand dollars if Tumbleweed or someone else builds it for you. Tumbleweed’s most expensive house, the Fencl, is a hundred and thirty square feet; it costs twenty-three thousand dollars to build yourself and fifty-four thousand dollars to have built. Conventional houses cost about a hundred dollars a square foot (ones built by national builders can cost as little as fifty dollars a square foot, according to Rybczynski). Shafer says that his house cost three hundred dollars a square foot, because it is essentially handmade; it is probably the cheapest house in Sonoma County by volume, he says, but the most expensive proportionally.
Tumbleweed also sells plans for small houses on foundations, but the bulk of its business involves tiny houses. It builds about one house a month, then tows it to the owners. It makes most of its money from selling plans and from Shafer’s self-published book, “The Small House Book,” which costs about five dollars to print in China and sells for thirty dollars. Over the past year, Tumbleweed has sold ten thousand copies through its Web site.
Shafer knows that his occupation is the result of some daffy ideas’ having found a toehold. He is one of those fortunate people whose obsession has led them to a territory they more or less have to themselves. In the pattern of his life, themes and impressions recur prominently, like repeats in wallpaper. To begin with, Shafer is a pragmatic subversive. “I guess you could say I’m very angry, and I’m trying to find creative ways to use it,” he said. He believes that suburban neighborhoods of wide streets and big houses with false gables are cold and unsympathetic, even immoral, and his design philosophies are derived substantially in reaction to his upbringing among such lavish ideals.
Shafer was born in Iowa, but he was brought up in Orange County, California. His father was an airline pilot. While other kids played baseball, he and a friend built shrines to Athena out of bricks in the back yard and burned flowers as offerings. When he was fourteen, his parents decided to move back to Iowa, “to protect us from the corruption of California,” he said. In Iowa, “we lived in a four-thousand-square-foot house, which they saw as a trophy house, a prestige thing. My sister and I did all the cleaning. I spent at least a full day a week vacuuming and taking out the trash.”
Before long, his parents sold the house and bought one that they hoped to flip. The new house was so small that Shafer didn’t have a bedroom. His parents told him he could sleep on the floor in the den, but he often spent the night in the cab of his father’s pickup. His grandparents, who lived most of the time in Florida, spent four months a year in Iowa occupying an Airstream trailer.
Shafer went to the University of Iowa, where he lived briefly in a room with twelve other students, “trying to make this tiny space work.” In 1989, he moved to New York to go to graduate school in art at City College. He expected to become a painter. “I figured the New York experience would be an education of its own,” he said, “and I was pretty much terrified the whole time. My first month, I had a gun pointed at me. A month after that, a guy with a bullet in his head died on the sidewalk in front of our building, and the next month my roommate saved a guy on the subway who’d been stabbed, and he came home covered in blood. I was riding my bike once and a car backfired, and I dove behind a dumpster. Everyone was laughing, but I thought I was being shot at.”
He got his degree in 1992, and moved back to Iowa City, where he worked in the grocery department of a natural-foods co-op and taught painting and drawing as an adjunct at the university. At the co-op, he carved delicate archetypal forms into the skins of bananas and put the bananas out for sale. For an art show in Cedar Rapids, he wrote sayings from philosophers in soy ink on crackers like Communion wafers, and stacked them so that they made little towers. In a friend’s garage, he built a small dome out of pine, just large enough for one person to fit into while crouching. It was covered with spiritual sayings and was an attempt to describe a religion for one person. He had meant the dome to be burned “from the moment it was created,” he said, “but I couldn’t find a place to do it, and I got impatient and took it to the dump and watched a tractor run over it. I was moving, and I didn’t want to store it.”
As a painter, Shafer began to care less about subject matter and more about form and proportion. Finally, he gave up painting and decided to try to live artfully. He surreptitiously made a copy of his building key, gave up his apartment, and moved into the basement. He slept on a mattress, under a piece of plastic that he hid during daylight. Marty Shafer described this behavior, along with her husband’s habit of sleeping in cars, as his “esoteric sleeping arrangements.” Shafer said, “I thought you should just be able to fall asleep wherever you felt tired.”
Shafer eventually bought a 1964 Airstream, which had a lime-green Formica counter and an orange shag rug. “It was made to be renovated,” Shafer said. He did it over in wood, with spare aluminum highlights, then moved it to a trailer park, “and the day two weeks later when a neighboring trailer got a bullet hole in the side was the day I thought I should leave,” he said. He moved it to a friend’s organic hayfield. “I have a severe grass allergy,” he said, “and I would get welts on my legs when I went out in shorts.” In the winter, ice formed on the walls. “That’s how I began to figure out what I needed,” he said. “I definitely needed insulation.”
Shafer designs by subtraction. He began drawing imaginary houses, and they grew smaller as he started “to figure out what I could get rid of—mostly square footage, because a lot of space wasn’t used that efficiently,” he said. “If there’s elbow room for the activities you need, it’s good, but anything beyond that is not good.” His galvanizing imperative came when he learned, around 1999, that the houses he was drawing and not showing to anyone would violate building codes, which tend to be adapted from recommendations made by the International Code Council, a domestic trade group. The codes usually specify that a house must have at least one room of a hundred and twenty square feet, and that no habitable room be smaller than seventy square feet. The smallest a house can be and still conform to the codes is about two hundred and sixty-one square feet.
Until then, Shafer hadn’t really thought of building a tiny house. Designing houses was a diversion, a pastime. “Once I found out it was illegal to live in a small house, though, I had to do it,” he said. “It couldn’t be a trailer, either. It had to be very houselike.” From the Airstream he had the example of a structure on wheels, and he realized that if he built a house on a trailer bed it wouldn’t be a house; it would be a trailer load and housing codes wouldn’t apply. Michael Janzen, who writes the Tiny House Design Blog, describes this insight as one in which Shafer “thumbed his nose at the rules and took the concept of the trailer house and a stick-built house and mashed them together and made a solution that’s compelling and technically illegal, which appeals to a lot of people.”
Shafer’s first house was fourteen feet long and eight feet wide, with a porch in front. A novice carpenter, he built it in a contractor’s back yard. “He’d come out every three days and tell me what I was doing wrong, and I’d tear it apart,” he said. The design was based on sacred and church architecture, which his interest in form and proportion had led him to. “I had the heater right on the central axis,” he said. “You walked in the door and saw it, like an altar. I was also into an open plan, so you could see everything from the entrance—kitchen, bathroom, and living room.”
Iowa City law allows someone to have an accessory building that is smaller than a hundred and forty-four square feet, and while the law doesn’t say what the building must be used for, it doesn’t prohibit his sleeping in the place now and then. Shafer bought land with a house already on it, told the city he was living in the house, then rented the house, and bent the law for five years by living in the back yard in his tiny house. Then he decided to move to northern California. Through an ad on the Internet, he sold his tiny house to the filmmaker in New Hampshire. He built another one, which was seven feet by ten feet—small enough to parallel park if he had to live on the street. To protect it on the road, he wrapped it in plastic.
Jay King had never heard of Shafer, but he is building a tiny house in a garage in Danbury, Connecticut. Until recently, King had been using the garage to build a sports car called a K-1 Attack from components manufactured in the Czech Republic.
King is small and lean, with the focussed manner of the Army sergeant he has been. He had got divorced, and had lost his house in the mortgage crisis. “I was looking for apartments, and I have a dog and a son, and it was such a pain to get an apartment for a dog,” he said. “I saw a little ad for a little house. I’m a carpenter, and I thought, I’m going to do this on my own and be able to move this wherever I want to. After having a five-hundred-thousand-dollar house and being dumped by this economy to where they doubled my payments, that inspired me. I didn’t need all the fancy stuff anymore. Simplicity is what I wanted.”
King had been working on the house for six months and was about half done. The shell was complete, but it didn’t have siding yet. The house had a pitched roof, and he had built a bedroom on a track so that it extended out from one side of the house like an alcove, and could be drawn inside the house when he moved. On the front, he planned to build a deck that he could lower like a drawbridge or raise so that it would cover the front door, making the house more or less impenetrable. The house was bolted together in the middle and came apart in five pieces. “It’s a modular type,” he said, pointing out the bolt holding the walls together. “Within twenty minutes, I can take it apart.”
King showed me where he planned to put the kitchen, beneath his son’s loft bed, and said that he was going to make the kitchen black. “I’m very much into being different from everybody else,” he said. We stepped over to the living room, where there was a big leather armchair facing a propane fireplace that looked like a small TV. “My goal is to have a 3-D Yankee Stadium wall, an eight-by-twelve mural, which will make the room much bigger-looking,” he said. “A guy gets divorced, and he loses everything, and this is all he needs.”
The house had so far cost about three thousand dollars.
“You know what this is about?” he asked. “It’s about the passion you feel about what you think you can do,” he said.
I asked if he thought it would be difficult to find women to go out with, living in a tiny house.
“If you’re going to date me, you’re going to be off the deep end anyway,” he said.
Farther up I-95, in New Haven, there is a tiny house that was built by a young woman named Elizabeth Turnbull, a graduate student at Yale who is interested in sustainable architecture. In 2008**,** she took a seminar with Jay Shafer in Manhattan, and then went to a two-week home-design-and-build class at the Yestermorrow Design/Build School, in Vermont. Turnbull, who is tall and long-limbed, with light-brown hair and blue eyes, told me that the course taught her “all the basic problems you would encounter—here’s how to frame a wall, here’s how to frame a window, here’s why diagonal bracing is important.” She looked at layouts of Airstreams and houseboats to learn how to manage small spaces. When she was accepted in the environmental-management program at Yale, she decided that she didn’t want to live in an apartment or a dormitory, and she used the money she would have spent on rent to build a tiny house.
Drawing plans, Turnbull said, “I couldn’t picture what it would look like. I just had faith that the drawings would finally become something I liked.”
Turnbull’s house is a hundred and forty-four square feet, with a pitched roof and a sleeping loft, a living room and a kitchen—no bathroom. It is parked in the back yard of a house belonging to someone affiliated with Yale, a couple of miles from the campus.
In her living room, we drank tea and ate strawberries and pistachios from bowls arranged on a little table like a still-life. I asked what sorts of concerns she had in mind as she designed her house, and she said, “People like us have a few numbers that constrain us. One is eight and a half feet wide. Wider than that, you need a police escort and a wide-load permit. Eighteen and half feet long is the maximum length and ten thousand pounds is the weight limit. Before I was finished, I towed the house to a sand-and-gravel pit where people were loading gravel, and took my place in line and had it weighed. I was just under ten thousand. That’s why my ceiling is made from canvas sails, which were given to me by a woman who makes handbags from them. Wood would have been too heavy. The fourth number that’s sort of a holy number is thirteen feet six inches. You start to kiss bridges if you’re much taller than that. I’m thirteen-two.”
Turnbull graduated in May, and isn’t sure what she will do with the house. “It’s such a part of my identity that it’s difficult to think about living elsewhere,” she said. “There’s something very satisfying about using your body to build a house. You’re channelling into something very human. It’s the same sort of ancient pleasure as growing food.” She looked around, then said, a little mournfully, “It feels really big, but when someone else is here it feels very small.”
One evening, I was having an early dinner with the Shafers and their infant son, Emerson, in a restaurant not far from their house. Outside, it poured rain and people arrived in the restaurant stamping their feet and leaving little trails of water as they made their way to their seats.
There were plates on our table from the salads we’d ordered and glasses for water and wine, and when the waitress arrived with our entrées there was no room for her to set them down. Shafer, who had been leaning over Emerson’s high chair to entertain him, sat suddenly upright and began briskly combining plates and moving glasses, as if solving a puzzle.
“I’ll make this work,” he told the waitress earnestly. “This is what I do.”