Christopher Tack

In a sign that consumer interest in smaller houses is gaining traction, attendance at this year’s Tiny House Conference more than doubled from last year’s. The event, held earlier this month in Portland, Ore., helped educate attendees on how to design, build, and live in a house that’s 10 times smaller than the average American house.

Tiny houses are generally under 200 square feet—obviously not a type of dwelling that production builders are considering--but the movement is putting the spotlight on a new way of thinking about home building. The idea has some takeaways for the country’s mainstream builders as the number of Americans aiming to reduce their carbon footprint and live affordably grows.

Here, BUILDER talks with conference organizer Ryan Mitchell, a tiny house builder and editor of, about the growing enthusiasm for downsized dwellings. 

On your blog, you call the tiny house movement a social movement. What do you mean by that?
Tiny houses are more than just a shelter; there is an entire philosophy that surrounds tiny houses and in some ways, is more important than the houses themselves. Often when you talk about normal houses, it's all about the space, the layout, the appointments, and the materials.  With tiny houses, while we talk about those things too, we also deeply connect with living a debt-free life, about spending time with loved ones, about a space that suits the needs of the inhabitants but also the environment.

A personal example: Living (mortgage-free) in a tiny house was a financial game changer for me. I was able to leave the corporate world and start my own business. I now travel the world three to six months out of the year and have ample time to spend with loved ones.  

Why are more Americans opting for tiny houses?
I think it’s primarily a reaction to living in big houses that are mortgaged to the hilt, where we spend all our time working a job just to pay for that house. Over 75% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck with one-third to one-half of their income going to housing (utilities, taxes, insurance, maintenance, etc). People who live in tiny houses can save their money to better weather life's ups and downs. 

Tiny houses aren't for everyone--aren't for most--but some of the ideals can still be applied more broadly.  

Our readers are production builders who probably aren’t going to start constructing tiny houses any time soon. But, are there things they can do to help decrease the square footage of the homes they build?
I think we are going to, maybe already have, see a shift in American housing. With the Baby Boomers entering retirement and becoming empty nesters, they want smaller spaces for mobility in their later years and they need a smaller space to make retirement work.  With the recession, a lot of people are left wondering how they can afford to retire.

I also think people are going to want more custom and design-oriented solutions in these small spaces. We’re seeing a big growth in using tiny homes as accessory dwelling units (ADUs). Also known as granny flats, in-law units, laneway houses, or secondary dwelling units, these backyard dwellings are used for a variety of reasons, from gaining income via rent to housing an aging family member.

What are the top roadblocks to building a tiny house?
There are three: 

--Land is expensive and in short supply in cities.

--Building codes and zoning is the biggest barrier because many cities have minimum square footage requirements that make tiny houses illegal. City planners know that the future of cities requires more density, but the codes are slow to address current needs. I think it's telling that we have average citizens picking up hammers to build their own house, despite it being illegal, by the thousands. I estimate there are about 10,000 tiny houses in the U.S. today.

--Until tiny houses are legally recognized, loans aren't an option, so right now most people are paying for their tiny houses with cash or credit cards.