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How Did the Tiny House Movement Get Started?

Guest Post By Movoto Real Estate

The tiny house movement started from a need to simplify life and to become more environmentally friendly. The concept behind taking up residence in a tiny house is to limit impacts on both wallets and environments by costing less, creating less waste, and leaving a smaller energy imprint. The move from big traditional homes to small spaces may seem like a form of societal regression considering our ancestors lived in caves, teepees, huts, and other small spaces while uncomplicated ways of life. They say we all come full circle; it is possible that the tiny house movement is simply a completion of a circle where society has ceased needing more and has realized that the basics are plenty.

What is a Tiny House?

A tiny house is a small space that ranges between 85 and 400 square feet and can be either mobile or stationary. Tiny houses are basic homes for singles or couples who are seeking to pare down to the basics. These homes consist of standard spaces like a scaled down kitchen and bathroom as well as a multi living space that is crafted to meet the owner’s needs. There are a host of companies that are including the demand for tiny houses in their product lines offering customers pre-fabs, kits, and build-to-order homes.

Tumbleweed Tiny House Company Weebee Tiny house

Used by permission of Tumbleweed Tiny House Company. Photo by Jack Journey. This small house on wheels was created by Tumbleweed. The Weebee design is 102 square feet and costs about $49,000.

Who lives in Tiny Houses?
Anyone can live in a tiny house but many residents of tiny houses are young couples and students who see them as a cheaper option than rent, older individuals and couples who are recovering from the financial setbacks of the recession, people who find it senseless to spend their lives working to pay for a traditional home and casually refer to that ownership as “debtor’s prison, and people who are choosing to live greener. Some choose the tiny house lifestyle as an avenue to eliminate debt and “stuff” from their lives while learning to live a more streamlined existence allowing for the ability to afford more education, more travel, and more life.

The Movement

The tiny house movement itself is not a new concept but has existed on and off for decades. The most recent movement began in 1997 with Jay Shafer who built one on wheels for his own use. Two years later he introduced the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company to the world which provides building plans and detailed information on all aspects of tiny houses. The movement is similar to the RVers lifestyle in many ways; people choose to sell or give away most of their unnecessary possessions, move their lives into a motor home or travel trailer, and cut unwanted expenses from their lives. Tiny houses are much more eco-friendly than RVs and are less expensive while still giving owners multiple options for their futures.

For those seeking to invest in a tiny home of their own, it is important to visit a tiny home and imagine yourself living for long periods in the space. Tiny homes may not be for everyone, but they are the perfect option for anyone wanting to get back to the basics.

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More Like This: Tiny Houses | Grad Student’s Tiny House Tour and Interview on Living Tiny | THOW

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{ 23 comments… add one }
  • LaMar
    November 10, 2012, 10:00 am

    Hmmmm ?

    Well not to take anything away from Jay but the small house movement started long before his business and I was first inspired reading Henry Thoreau’s Walden and looking through Lloyd Kahn books at the unique designs. I built my first small cabin back in 1980 and in 1993 I built my solar 14×14 cabin and the wrote ebooks and created videos to help other people interested in the lifestyle and there have been many many people like me along the way that have promoted the ideas of simple living, smaller homes and sustainable living.

    The movement really took off as home prices tripled in the Bush years and people were stuck with Mcmansions after the economy crashed that they could no longer afford or wanted the bills that went with them.

    Then the world became aware of global climate change and the environmental impacts of living in a large home started people choosing to downsize for both economic reasons and a shred interest in caring for the planet.

    Now solar and wind power have become mush more affordable and cell phones, satellite, and internet make living in a more rural off-grid location more viable and that has greatly pushed the movement forward as people can now live comfortably and work in smaller homes with alternative energy and resources.

    We also have a very changing economy and people by choice or force are moving to new states for jobs and buying a large home or renting in a place where they may not want to settle down does not make as much sense so people are opting for smaller homes on wheels.

    I believe the movement will continue and ALL people that helped the movement can be proud and should continue their work to encourage the movement through teaching, writing books, creating videos and doing workshops and I hope they will.


    • November 10, 2012, 3:08 pm

      Well said LaMar, couldn’t agree more!

  • Joel
    November 10, 2012, 10:53 am

    I think you missed a few key points with this article. Your definition of tiny houses is very restrictive. In my world a family of 6 that lives in a 600sf house is defenitly living tiny and I agree with the above poster that the tiny house movement was around a lot longer than Jay’s Tumbleweed houses.

    • November 10, 2012, 3:12 pm

      I totally agree with your point Joel. Size is always relative. It’s just hard to call a 600 sf “tiny” once you’ve seen a 100 sf house. But I still totally agree with you. I guess I just see it more as being “smart” with space.

    • November 10, 2012, 3:12 pm

      And that being said I’ve heard people call 1500 sf houses tiny.. Probably because they’re used to a 4500 sf house or something. Lol.

  • alice h
    November 10, 2012, 11:49 am

    The first tiny houses I encountered, other than historical buildings and various Yukon shacks, were in a book called Tiny, Tiny Houses by Lester Walker published in the late 80’s. That book opened up a whole new world for me. Then there were all the vacation cabins in Popular Mechanics.

    • November 10, 2012, 3:13 pm

      Hey Alice. I love Lester’s books and actually a lot of folks were first introduced to the idea through his books. At least a lot of people I’ve talked to. Thanks for your thoughts!

  • Meg & Joe
    November 10, 2012, 12:10 pm

    I have a friend that just got back from New Zealand. House trucks have been around for a very long time indeed. Way before we adopted the house on wheels. Thoreau’s cabin is not such a big deal, I live in Montana and tiny homesteaders houses, long since abandoned, litter the landscape. Not so long ago everyone out here lived this way.

  • Pony Rider
    November 10, 2012, 12:43 pm

    I also think the definition of tiny houses is too limited here. It’s not just for single people and couples and only “85 to 400 square feet”.
    But there is something to the idea about coming a full circle.. and going back to basics.

  • November 10, 2012, 6:24 pm

    I’m sure the author had good intentions with this article, but it reads like it was written by someone who doesn’t really understand the appeal of tiny houses, and was just looking for the most obvious and pat answers.

    Like the statement that people choose tiny houses “to limit impacts on both wallets and environments.” Of course that’s true for many – but there are also people who just love tiny houses! If it was only about money and the impact on the environment, it might make more sense to rent an existing studio apartment or rent an existing large house with roommates. But some of us are drawn to cute tiny spaces!

    And this sentence… “basic homes for singles or couples who are seeking to pare down to the basics” What? Basic homes? Has the author even looked at some of the tiny houses out there? Ella at littleyellowdoor.wordpress.com has a room for her harp in her tiny house. There are so many of these highly personalized tiny houses, that are anything but basic. Even Jay Shafer talks about subtractive design – where you keep all the good stuff you love, and take out everything you don’t need. As for singles and couples, what about the parents and families currently building or living in tiny houses?

    But perhaps the worst misrepresentation is the fact while the author mentions companies that offer “pre-fabs, kits, and build-to-order homes,” but what about all the people who build their own from scratch? Maybe I’m wrong, but it’s been my impression that most of the existing tiny houses were built, and are being built by people who came up with their own plans, and do the majority of the work on their own, with the help of a few friends, and maybe an expert or two. For me personally that is a huge draw! I love the idea of building your own home.

    I get that trying to sum up the tiny house movement in only four paragraphs is a tough assignment, and will of course lead to some generalizations – but this article just seems to miss the mark on so many levels. It would be great to read a similarly short essay on the movement, that was written by someone who truly understands it.

  • November 10, 2012, 7:54 pm

    I can understand the irritation at the suggestion that the tiny house movement didn’t really begin until Jay Shafer started his company. Some people likewise bristle when Sarah Susanka’s first book is identified as the start of a small house movement, pointing to the dozens of books on the topic that came out before hers, or to the fact that new American house sizes continued to grow until the 2007 crash. Nevertheless, both Jay and Sarah have done much to promote these concepts and introduce them to a wider audience, and I think it is fair to say that they popularized the ideas.
    – Frank

  • Anthony McCarthy
    November 11, 2012, 3:52 pm

    I honor Jay Shafer for popularizing the concept but I’ve known people who lived in what would be called “tiny houses” from my first memories in the 1940s. My mother who is nearly one hundred grew up in one and it was old then.

    Poor folks have always lived in tiny houses. Thoreau took down an Irish man’s shanty to build his cabin with. And far earlier, back into time immemorial. It would be easier to decide when the big house movement began.

  • November 13, 2012, 6:27 pm

    Wait, so a tiny house is 85-400 square feet- so anything under 85 square feet doesn’t count as tiny?? lol- kidding. Again, I think people love to get into the classification and ranking of things, when there are other factors involved (and its not that important either). Decent article though- I dug it.

    Part of the movements growth, and Jay’s place behind that/it was because he started doing his thing (and damn well, I might add) in the age of the internet- Lester Walker, who was my initiation to it in 1987 (when I built my first tiny house/cabin- inspired by that book), only had his book/printed matter to go by, and wasn’t aided by its being in today’s age if immediacy, where ideas spread like wildfire. And of course there’s Thoreau, Rex Roberts, Lloyd Kahn, and especially D.C Beard- about 100 years back. I’d certainly give a tip of the hat the Jay for its current resurgence though- no doubt at all- he brought some great curb appeal to the designs, which have carried him far- deservingly so.

    • November 14, 2012, 11:22 am

      Thanks Deek very well said!

  • November 13, 2012, 6:40 pm

    PS- one of my favorite tiny houses- also in Walker’s book- a Jeff Milstein design from the 1970s- check it out, its called “The Bolt Together House”- Family Circle Magazine sold 25,000 copies of its plans. Pretty wild….

  • Barb Blythe
    November 14, 2012, 9:58 pm

    I like the all of the comments ya’ll point out–I have learned so much…I was watching a decorating show the other day & there was a young couple with 2 small children living in a 3,600 sf house & they were “bursting at the seams”! They were looking for a larger house! Who would want or be able to pay for that??? Everthing seems out of control.

  • Ronald Martin
    March 16, 2019, 10:27 am

    I disagree that Tiny Homes are more economical and cost less to live in than say a Travel Trailer! I have an old Spartan 40 foot Mansion. It has two bedrooms, a full bathroom and kitchen plus a large Living Room. It can moved around a lot easier than a Tiny Home because it is lighter and not as tall and was designed to move around. I paid $5000 for it and over a three year period rebuilt the trailer into a very nice and livable home for about $10,000 more. I have $15,000 in it and it’s beautiful, movable. I haven’t seen a Tiny Home made that cost this little and can be moved around as easily. Even if the trailer and the Tiny Home were to be placed in one spot and never moved I think the Trailer with it’s cost is far less than Building a Tiny Home. In fact my Trailer is on my property in the woods and I can use it for vacations or just live in it during the Summer Months. I have friends that retired and built a Tiny Home on some land they owned. It cost them $30,000, they really can’t move it although it was built on a Trailer Bed. It’s just too big, tall and heavy for anything but a Semi Truck to move.

    • Alex
      March 16, 2019, 1:41 pm

      You’ve got an excellent point there, Ronald, thanks for sharing. PS – shooting you an email to see if you might be interested in sharing your Spartan 40 Foot Mansion with us!

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