The Tiny Home Revolution: Living Big in a Tiny Space

Even before Thoreau wrote of his experiences at Walden Pond, people knew that downsizing can be an important part of living sustainably. Reducing waste, our carbon footprint, and our impact on the environment are all aspects of life many residents of Corvallis consider necessary. Over the past 15 years, extending these choices to the homes we live in has gained popularity not only in the Willamette Valley, but across the entire nation.

People in cities across the globe have been living in “tiny homes” for decades… it’s just that they are all attached to and stacked on top of one another. We call them apartments. However, apartments leave something to be desired in the realm of individuality, not to mention privacy. One option to consider is to build an entire home with a footprint that approaches the area of a small apartment. These architectural achievements measure anywhere from under 100 to fewer than 1,000 square feet and are termed “tiny homes.”

While FEMA trailers (temporary dwellings provided by the US government to victims of natural disasters, including Hurricanes Katrina and Irene) perhaps provided an initial spark for the tiny home movement, Susan Susanka’s book series, The Not So Big House, released in 1998, poured gasoline on the flames.

Now, kits for procuring a tiny house are widely available. You can choose your favorite design and assemble the home yourself, or have it constructed for you and delivered to your desired property. The cost can range from $25,000 to over $100,000—going this route, clearly, doesn’t do much in the way of saving you money on your home.

The yurt in this photo was handmade and created with great attention to detail and a lot of love. Nestled in the woods overlooking a small creek, its natural colors blend with the forest, and the home truly appears to belong there. It is insulated with a layer of Batt insulation and is lined on the outside with cedar shakes. Its many windows allow a great deal of light in. A cast iron wood stove keeps everything warm and cozy. Recently married, the owners added the extra room and an additional stove to better accommodate their bed as well as extra clothing and books. Photo by Lisa Tedder.

To save on building costs, many tiny home builders use reclaimed or natural materials to put together the home of their dreams; as with larger homes, reclaimed materials, cordwood, and straw bale construction are all viable options that save money and are relatively friendly to the environment. Many small space dwellers choose to reclaim and restore existing structures rather than build from the ground up. In rural areas, old camping trailers and RVs are popular choices, as are grain silos and storage containers.

Still, according to the 2011 National Association of Realtors Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers, tiny homes only represent 1% of the real estate business. Tangible difficulties in procuring these homes can be summarized by three little words: Land, loans, and laws.

Land- Land is expensive! If you move out of the city, your tiny home may become the cheapest part of your homesteading investment.

Loans- Loans can be particularly difficult to acquire for tiny home builders. Often, banks do not feel these homes have a good resale value. As well as being unique, tiny homes are usually highly individualized and difficult to compare to other properties.

Laws- Many municipalities have minimum square footage requirements. Perhaps this is because more square feet means higher tax assessments. In urban areas, full water and sewer systems are required; outhouses and outdoor solar showers do not count.

Once overcoming these obstacles, small space dwellers face another distinctive problem: tiny homes are different from large homes. While this seems obvious enough, it’s incredibly important that a tiny home offer outside opportunities for entertainment; they are not meant to spend the majority of one’s time in.

While it’s wonderful to think of simply shrinking your house just as it is now, to a more manageable size, in reality it’s an impossible prospect. Living in a tiny home requires life to happen outside the house. Retired nature lovers and homesteaders alike build their homes on isolated pieces of property because they expect to spend the majority of their lives outdoors.

Urbanites position their new, miniscule digs where they have easy access to public transportation or bike lanes.

This is where insurance and zoning become issues.

Insuring tiny homes can be tricky. If you’re lucky, your structure could fall under a blanket policy so long as it resides on the land of another main home. Otherwise, many insurers are reluctant to offer policies for new tiny homes, especially if they’re on wheels.

Zoning is even more complicated. Zoning laws and building codes are in place to help prevent unsafe and unsanitary living conditions, but their restrictions often exclude tiny homes.

Some cities like Portland are beginning to allow tiny homes on wheels as legal “accessory dwelling units,” but the paperwork, again, can be tricky.

Depending on the property zoning, an accessory dwelling, or “mother-in-law apartment” can be as large as 40% of the square footage of the primary dwelling. Providing, of course, the primary home has not already maxed out the square feet available for personal homes. Cottage designs are popular, and often meet required building codes including maneuvering clearances around doors and hallways as well as fully connected to sewer and water. The Development and Planning Services for the City of Corvallis receive less than 10 requests per year for permits to build accessory dwellings.

As residents of Corvallis, environmental impacts play a large role in our decision making. It may be that smaller homes will become a larger part of the local housing mix in years to come. Corvallisites buy food from the Farmers’ Market, supporting local businesses, sourcing local products… these things matter! So it makes sense for a tiny home revolution to be gaining a foothold in our community. These homes have smaller footprints, require fewer utilities, and discourage the accumulation of vast quantities of “junk”. In addition, by cutting back on the opportunities to recreate in the home, tiny houses emphasize our need for involvement in our community. With our city-wide bike lanes and multiple cooperative businesses, Corvallis is a wonderful place to consider building a tiny home.


Want to Build Your Own Tiny Home?

Here are some links to help you get started:

Contact Corvallis’ Development (541-766-6929) and Planning (541-766-6908) Services for zoning requirements in your area.


by Lisa Tedder