Jay Shafer got the attention of the US in 2007 with an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show to promote his “tiny house” idea. He was living alone deep in the country in a 9-square metre wooden house on wheels, full of ingenious ideas. It was a light structure with a pitched roof and a porch, and the inside was sober and elegant in its rustic decor; the bed with its white quilt was on a little upper deck; there was a wood-burning stove. He had lived in three such tiny houses that he had designed and built, in his native Iowa and in California, over a decade. After co-founding the Small House Society in 2002, he had launched a company to design houses selling for under $30,000.
In a country where subprime mortgages were leading to disaster, his ideas for defusing the housing and home-ownership crisis, and promoting a simpler, more balanced and more ecological lifestyle, seemed good. He believed a small living area was “real luxury” because it did not take up much of his income or require much upkeep, leaving him free time for what he really wanted to do (1).
There are arguments for simplicity. Shafer stressed that between 1950 and 2000, while the average household size shrank, the average living space of new housing more than doubled, to 218 sq m, four times the international figure (2). Shafer grew up in a 370-sq m house, which his parents considered a sign of social advancement, but some of its rooms, such as the dining room, were almost never used. He said: “We like our homes as we like our food: big and cheap” (3).
Many US states impose a minimum floor area requirement for houses, which obliges small house owners to circumvent the legislation. They generally add wheels, even if they have no intention of moving, as that alters the status of their homes. Shafer is vehemently against such laws, as he believes they make many people homeless by reducing the amount of affordable housing. Some people have seen tiny houses as a solution for the homeless. In Wisconsin, volunteers from the Occupy Madison movement (a local offshoot of Occupy Wall Street), built nine houses in 2014 from recycled wood, financed by donations. In Texas, California and Oregon, villages for the homeless have been created out of small housing units around communal kitchens and bathrooms, as a lasting version of tent cities (4). One Californian artist created a $100 hut, which invites comparisons with a kennel (5).
Shafer defines himself as a “claustrophile”, and anyone who enjoyed a playhouse as a child will know what he means. There is something magical about small spaces. They correspond to the funk hole, a primitive shelter with boundaries as close as possible to the body. In a society that generates false needs, we can imagine the pride that might be felt in being satisfied with so little. There is a playful, adventurous aspect to the small house, like being suddenly inserted into a dolls’ house.
A house for better days
But living in such a small area can build up frustrations in the long term. People may tire of bending their heads when they go to bed under the sloping ceiling, or tucking in their elbows in the shower. And people living together may want to close a door and have some privacy — not just in the lavatory. The French version of the tiny house, a 57-sq m prefabricated wooden “house for better days” (maison des jours meilleurs) designed for the homeless in 1956 by Jean Prouvé for Abbé Pierre (6) might be a better solution, although the prototype was never officially approved.
In 2013, when Michael Bloomberg was still mayor of New York, he announced the construction of a residential tower of micro-units — flats between 23 and 34 sq m — for couples or single-parent families, due to be completed this autumn. Here the small space is offset by large windows, balconies and common terraces, laundries and gyms.
It doesn’t take much for the neat little home to turn into a constrictive cell. Experts warn about the dangers of this response to the affordable housing shortage. Dak Kopec, director of design for human health at Boston Architectural College, described such homes as “fantastic for young professionals in their 20s” but advised against them for anyone else. Residents “may feel trapped in a claustrophobic apartment at night — forced to choose between the physical crowding of furniture and belongings in their unit, and social crowding, caused by other residents, in the building’s common spaces.” Crowding-related stress can increase domestic violence and substance abuse, and folding down beds and tables daily means extra tasks that people eventually tire of, so they leave the stuff in place, shrinking the living area. Another expert, Jacoba Urist, said children have trouble concentrating in such small spaces, which may affect their schooling, and not being able to entertain may have a negative effect on the occupants’ social and love lives (7).
When Shafer says the tiny house’s advantage is that it doesn’t consume all his income, he accepts the current cost of housing in the US as a natural law, whereas it is an economic factor resulting from human decisions and political connivance. The US subprime crisis was triggered by the irresponsibility of banks, permitted by financial deregulation and the frenzied promotion of mortgages. Tiny house enthusiasts put themselves in the exact place assigned to them by an iniquitous social order, squeezing themselves into the cupboard the system has allotted them, while claiming to be achieving their desire. People can over-adapt to circumstances for just so long.
Shafer writes that “the tangible happiness of a well-lived life is worth a thousand vehement protests.” He believes that rather than waste energy trying to change consumer society, people should teach by example. That does not always work. Oprah Winfrey’s enthusiasm for Shafer’s ideas did not extend to her putting them into practice. Besides a house worth $85m on a vast California estate called the “Promised Land”, Winfrey owns an apartment in Chicago, a chalet in Colorado, two residences in New Jersey, one in Miami Bay and another in Georgia, a holiday home in Hawaii (where Michelle Obama celebrated her 50th birthday in 2014) and another in Antigua in the West Indies. She travels between them in her private jet. If the rich spend the share of wealth that eludes the middle and working classes, how many Jay Shafers does it take to offset the carbon footprint of an Oprah?
While Shafer’s approach triggered much interest and speculation, only a few hundred people across the US imitated him in 2011 (8). In 2014 the Oprah Winfrey Show visited Shafer for its “where are they now?” feature. He has married and has two children. He has also moved into a 46-sq m spread. The tiny house stands in its garden and serves as his office (9). He is realistic and admits that a tiny house is fine for people living alone or as a couple, but that things change with a family. Between a trailer and a typical large American house there is room for compromise.
Translated by Krystyna Horko.
Mona Chollet is a member of Le Monde diplomatique’s editorial team.This is an extract from her recent book, Chez soi: Une odyssée de l’espace domestique, Zones, Paris, 2015.
(2) Jay Shafer, The Small House Book, Tumbleweed Tiny House, Sonoma, 2009.
(3) Documentary by Merete Mueller and Christopher Smith, Tiny: a Story About Living Small,Speak Thunder Films, US, 2013.
(6) Abbé Pierre (1912-2007) was a French Catholic priest who devoted his life to the underprivileged and the homeless.
(9) “Jay Shafer, the man with a tiny house, has had to expand — just a little”, HuffingtonPost.com, 19 February 2014.
This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.