Megan Lea's Backyard House

Why we can't stop looking at photos of absurdly small houses and apartments.

The world’s tiniest apartments are beckoning on the Internet every day. Come and gawk at them, drop your jaw at their multipurpose stove/bed/ironing board inventions, their clever shelving nooks, their movable walls and foldout lofts. Here we have a stunning 500-square foot New York studio – with only one window! Over here we’ve got a guy living in 258 square feet, in which he has managed to hide all of his furniture. Here have Seven Tiny Tumbleweed Homes, each smaller than 120 square feet. And we’ve even got a looker on Atlantic Cities this week, a 160-quare-foot creation that’s the smallest dwelling allowed by California code.

There is something oddly alluring about smartly designed but freakishly small spaces. I know this because enough other people must be into these things to warrant the steady stream of them flowing from my Twitter feed. I also know this because I have never met a link promising a teeny tiny home that I was not compelled to click on.

So what is it about these places? I’ve got no interest in slide shows of the world’s most palatial mansions. But show me a studio the size of my kitchen, and I could stare at it all day.

In my attempt to figure out what’s going on here (and if there’s something wrong with us tiny-home voyeurs), our own Allison Arieff suggested I talk to Mimi Zeiger, who has written not one, but two books on tiny homes. When I called Zeiger, she jokingly suggested that she could perform some kind of therapy on me, if I’d just send her exactly which links I’ve been clicking on.

Apparently, not all tiny-home lovers love them for the same reasons.

“They’re all small,” Zeiger says, “but they come from sometimes different ethos for why they’re being made, how they’re being made, how the aesthetics come out of them.”

She then offered to construct a typology for me on the fly.

First, she says, there are the people who are into tiny homes because they want to decrease their environmental footprint, to live smaller, with less stuff in less space. These are not your New York studio apartment-dwellers, people who live small because they have to. These are the Walden types.

The Weller home by the Tumbleweed tiny house company.

“They come from an impetus to reduce impact,” Zeiger says, “and to sort of position themselves against an abundant consumerism, which gives you big spaces and then makes you want to fill them.”

Then there are the DIYers, the people who are so committed to making their own stuff they even want to make their own home to put it all in. The tiny house is the ultimate DIY project; this is way more serious than building a scrapbook on a budget, or remodeling your bathroom without an interior designer. The parameters here are so strict, and because of that the requirement of invention is that much more compelling. A lot of these people are similarly interested in reduced consumption, Zeiger says. “But there’s also this sort of added lumberjack quality.”

Next are the people who are tapping into kawaii, the Japanese concept that means, Zieger says, “more than cute – the quality of cuteness.”

“You’re looking at the wholeness of it, and it is kind of cute,” she says. “There’s a certain ability to occupy it all at once, it encapsulates itself, you understand it all at once.”

Zeiger thinks this might be me, and at first I am a little offended. When I initially began mulling the psychological origins of my interest in tiny homes, I was hoping to come up with something more than, “you like cute things.” (It is true, however, that I do. I find relatively smaller versions of anything – cars, kitchenware, raccoons – generally adorable.)

“But what about the people who are just into puzzles?” I ask, hopefully. This seems like a more intellectual explanation.

I recently read a smart blog post equating the tiny home with the Swiss Army Knife. There’s just something elegant about squeezing so much utility out of something so small. Every component must be thoughtful and integrated. And a puzzler can appreciate the clever solution of turning a bookshelf into a dining table, even if you don’t want to eat on one in yourself.

The puzzle people, Zeiger says, are a distinct breed from the Walden people. Puzzlers aren’t interested in reducing stuff; they’re interested in fitting as much stuff as possible into small spaces.

“This is the New York apartment dilemma,” Zeiger says.

I don’t have a New York apartment dilemma myself, but this definitely sounds like my breed. I would much rather gawk at a tiny Manhattan apartment that neatly contains a million books and a minibar than a small space with nothing in it. There’s no challenge in that (or, at least, the challenge of cramming all your stuff into a constrained space appeals to me more than the challenge of minimalist living).

“It’s almost like an extreme sport,” Zeiger says.


We seemed to be onto something here. So I told Zeiger another story that I thought might help her diagnose me: A few weeks ago, I was staying in a B&B near the Blue Ridge Mountains that had, somewhat inexplicably, a book on the coffee table called “Compact Cabins: Simple living in 1,000 square feet or less.” This book contains the floor plans for building 62 progressively smaller summer chalets, and I mentally walked through every one of them, saving the most ridiculously tiny (100 square feet!) for last.

Now, I have no intention of building myself a compact cabin – and before I spent 45 minutes with my nose in this book, I thought, “why would anyone own this?” – but I was sucked into their designs. And this is a large part of the mystery to me: I want to look at all these things, but I don’t want to live in them. This is an entirely hypothetical pursuit.

My compact cabins book reminded Zeiger of the cherished old idea of the writer’s retreat.

“There are these tropes in literature and popular culture about what these [tiny homes] mean,” Zeiger says. “Like Ted Kaczynski's cabin. They’re loaded – aside from being cute or efficient, they come with a lot of cultural baggage.”

Look at Abe Lincoln. He wasn’t really born into a log cabin. But the idea that he might have been makes for a great metaphor about his humble beginnings. We tell similar stories in modern times: “’Oh, she lives in a one-room studio apartment in Brooklyn,’” Zeiger says. “That has its own kind of connotations.”

Zeiger herself lived in such a New York studio for about five years, and this has something to do with her own path into writing about tiny homes. She also suspects some latent influence from the inventive pop-up trailer her family had growing up in Berkeley.

I asked her then how she diagnosed herself.

“I don’t have an obsession with tiny houses,” she claims, boldly. She's moved on to obsession with tactical urbansim (which, incidentally, often involves other tiny things, like pocket parks). “But I think you do,” she adds, citing my lack of self-control with tiny-home link-bait on the Internet. “I have been where you are. I feel you, because I have been there, and I have been following and looking at every tiny house, evaluating whether it’s a design option, putting it on these kinds of scales. I’ve been there.”

She then imparted some advice (which it is now way too late for me to follow).

“You have to be careful who you tell this to,” she warns. “Because if you find a like-minded person who’s also interested in tiny houses, you will also get a barrage of emails. Every time they find a tiny house, they’ll send it you.”

This does not sound like such a bad thing to me, which is maybe a sign that I am nowhere near ready to move on. So, has anyone seen any good ones lately? Anyone?

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