Tiny Houses, Big Dreams

Not long ago I was part of a conversation with a builder who wanted to put some tiny houses on some tiny lots. The lots had been in existence for some 50 years, never developed because their size made them impractical in the rural setting of Central Virginia. A well and septic would hardly fit, let alone a house, yard, driveway and picket fence.

This builder thought his plan, to construct houses of, say, 300 square feet, would meet the needs of at least a handful of the people who need affordable homes and can’t find them. It’s a good idea, for even in this depressed market, even in a rural area, affordability is like this theoretical thing, seemingly never to be seen in the flesh.

Each tiny house would have enough room for a young couple or empty-nesters, if not a family with kids. The houses were delightfully old-fashioned looking, like miniatures of the way we were. I kind of wondered if they could really be useful homes, though, if would-be owners were being encouraged to live in a shoebox.

Aside from the obvious space constraints, the design features of these houses — the sharp angle of the gable roof; the decorative porch railing, etc. — still make them a financial stretch for the average family. Consider that many people choose to buy no-frills trailers or modular homes, basically boxes with a touch of a roof on top.

People buy these boxes because they have no other options. Then, over time, they personalize them, just like people have been doing to their factory homes ever since Levittown. They add space, too, as their assets allow.

Down the road from where I live, I’ve noticed a trailer that has a two-floor appendage stuck on one end. It looks pretty goofy to my eye, but clearly the unwieldy addition made sense because the owner didn’t have room on the lot to extend further out on the ground floor.

With tiny houses, the mindset is that you want to buy small, and stay small. The house is designed accordingly. I don’t know that this corresponds well with what most Americans are looking for.

Tiny houses are a wonderful idea, but they are ahead of their time. Here in this patch of rural, where people maintain their dreams of moving up over time to a bigger home, they may have to do it while staying right where they are.

David Holtzman is a planner for Louisa County, Virginia, a freelance writer, and a former Shelterforce editor.


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