There’s only one thing I like about the “tiny house movement.”

It’s not a movement.

It’s actually a sign.

It’s a sign that people are not necessarily confined to “the norm” or some idealized concept of home and also that trailers are finally getting the respect that they always deserved.

Historically if you told someone you live in a trailer it would conjure up images of dirt paved trailer parks and unruly children running wild. If you told someone you live in a van down by the river, well, that’s just a ridiculous Saturday Night Live skit. If you told someone you live in a mobile home well then you’re just asking for the question: “What are you doing with your life?”

Americans have plenty of jokes about living in your parent’s basement or garage but in some countries parents actually want their kids at home.

I just heard a joke saying, “I don’t date guys without a bed frame.”

I feel targeted since I sleep on a futon… oh the disgrace.

We say owning a home is a sign that you’ve succeeded in life but in actuality renting is often a much better financial decision and allows for freedom that homeowners long for while repairing their roof or buying a new water heater.

For some reason, right now, tiny homes and trailers are gaining respect and are even seen by many as their ultimate dream. Of course the reality of these rediscovered lifestyles is not really worth the hype but I wonder why now. What has changed and is it a good sign or just a passing trend?

One thing for sure social media is a driving force in creating romantic, idealized views of these simpler homes. There are plenty of posts with dramatic pictures of tiny homes in pastoral settings or nestled in a forest next to a gentle stream. I can’t even guess how many pictures I’ve seen of sunsets at the beach with people’s bare feet hanging out the back of a van. This photoshopped and Instagram filtered view is not what I’m pontificating about.

In reality “the simple life” is not actually all that glamorous. It takes a lot of work and determination and also money. Okay, not as much money as a 3 bedroom house in San Francisco but there is serious money in this industry and, in my opinion, it’s a little out of control. When I see these decked out Sprinter vans with super modern interiors, full kitchens and baths and roof decks and surfboards and bicycles, I don’t see simple, I see money. These are not the people I’m thinking about.

Tiny house people are much more invested in their future than some rich mega van owner with toys in tow. Many people build their own tiny house and I have nothing but respect for that. What I don’t get is why they have to look like rolling hobbit cottages or gingerbread barbie houses. (Sorry, had to get that off my chest.) What I really respect are the people that use their tiny house as a starting point for a true off-the-grid homestead with vegetable gardens and solar power and toilets that make gas for cooking. These people amaze me.

It’s not a brand new idea though.

As the old fart that I am, the first people I remember to head out to the country and live off grid were pot growers. They’re the ones that really started the demand for solar panels in the first place. I’m pretty sure they lived in trailers or mobile homes too. They were considered degenerates and misfits. Hippies living out of their vans in the forest were considered weirdos. Remember the Whole Earth Catalog? That was the hippie bible and serves as a testament to their dedication to that lifestyle. Today there are a million websites for living off grid, solar charging your van and composting or incinerating toilets.

Today it’s becoming less outsider, less hippie and more acceptable to seek alternate ways to create your own idea of home. I worry a little though that rich people are co-opting hippie culture and making it about Instagram posts and expensive toys instead of about living cheap and with kindness to nature.

A tiny dwelling in your back yard used to be called a grandmother unit but now it’s an “accessory dwelling unit” and might even be a tiny house trailer if you manage to sneak it in. 

City laws seem to be evolving a little. San Francisco recently lowered the minimum size of a condominium, modular housing is making a comeback, shipping container houses are a real thing. Cranes lowering a bolt-together house onto a new site is not that uncommon and is pretty cool to watch.

It’s kind of weird, though, how much city planning and building codes control. They’re great for making sure your house is safe but get a little creepy when determining what constitutes good design or a pleasant neighborhood. Maybe tiny house trailers try to look cute so that they can get permission to leave the trailer park at the outskirts of town and find a hidden spot within a neighborhood.

Does anything really change though?

I hope so.

During this moment of pandemic stay at home orders I’ve been spending lots of time at home and lots of time overthinking all about my life in my home. I feel very lucky to have it and very lucky for my whole life here. I hope that all people have a place to hunker down that doesn’t feel like confinement but rather like a peaceful refuge.

20 years ago I bought a 250 sq. ft. house and I really didn’t think I would still be living here today. My house is defined as “substandard.” Even with a new story I added, if it burned down today, I might not be able to rebuild it because at 700 sq. ft. it’s still not considered a legal size.

When I first moved in, I didn’t realize that this house was all that I would ever need. I had a stereotypical idea that this was a starter home or a stepping stone toward something bigger and better. I admit that, at first, I let the stigma get under my skin. The longer I lived here, though, and invested my time in rethinking and redesigning and building and modifying I realized that I could change both the house and myself. My house became very personal and very loved and uniquely me. It’s kind of hilarious that while I was learning to ignore convention and to rethink my own goals, my house was also becoming super trendy in the eyes of our fickle culture.

Although I definitely think we’re fickle in our constant search for change and theoretical improvement, I wonder if this tiny house mind shift will stick and I hope the definition of home is actually changing. I hope it becomes less of a status symbol, less ego based, and more of a reflection of who we are individually. I hope it’s a sign that people are finding their personal voice in a systematic and industrialized world and I hope it’s not just a new category for industry to take over and ruin. I hope it’s a sign that the definition of home is not tied to some supposed standard and that people are rejecting meaningless traditions or conventions of value.

The people that I see being creative and ingenious in creating their home and ignoring traditional standards really do inspire me. A home should be deeply personal and original. It should be a source of joy and comfort. 

It’s much more important what your home looks like on the inside than what it looks like on the outside. It’s more important that you want to cook there than whether your kitchen has trendy granite and stainless steel finishes. We should not be looking at others for approval we should be looking within for insight. Don’t waste too much time looking at Pinterest and lifestyle magazines for inspiration from others and spend more time looking within to decide what is right for you. 

Obviously I’m not writing this to proclaim that everyone should live in a tiny house, quite the opposite. I’m writing to hopefully inspire people to reject the stereotypes and classist concepts of home and to embrace the endless options for what home can be.

If a tiny house is an example of resetting our value system and destigmatizing living outside the norm then I’m all for it.

About dirk

I'm living in a very small house and documenting my processes and discoveries in the hope that it may be useful to someone else.
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