How tiny is tiny?

A member of a Facebook group on housing recently asked this question about a project to build tiny houses for veterans in southern Oregon. And since starting Springfield/Eugene MicroDwellers, I’ve often been asked it too. (Is our culture obsessed with size?)

For an expert opinion, I reached out to Renee McLaughlin, organizer of annual TinyFests in the Northwest, Southern California, and Midwest. She said there aren’t a lot of definitions at present, but cited Appendix Q of the IRC (International Residential Code), which defines a tiny house (on a foundation) as under 400 square feet.(Side note: Renee lives in an uber-cute, 87sf THOW (Tiny House on Wheels) — the tinest full-time permanent residence that we’ve seen so far.

Here’s the way I have come to think about home size, based on our research and field visits so far:

  • 64-80(?) square feet: A pre-housing micro-shelter or bridge housing, like the Conestoga huts constructed by Eugene nonprofit Community Supported Shelters (CSS). Provides residents with basic protection from the elements and crime, while they pursue a plan to obtain permanent housing. Not generally thought of, or approved to be, permanent housing; CSSs Safe Spots, clusters of huts with shared kitchen, bathroom, and community room, are technically temporary, situated on land borrowed from the city of Eugene.
  • 150-430 square feet: A tiny house. At Emerald Village Eugene, the 22 unique tiny homes renting for $250-$350/mo. range from 160 to 330sf. Under San Diego’s proposed rules legalizing THOWs in backyards, tiny houses could range in size from 150 to 430sf.

    Oregon’s Building Codes Division has adopted the 2018 IRC, including Appendix Q, as part of the Oregon Reach Code to provide minimum standards for the construction of tiny houses (400sf or less, not including loft areas). These code provisions also establish a new occupancy classification for tiny houses on wheels (R-5). Portlands Bureau of Development Services has assigned an official to create implementation materials and help developers. (Wouldnt that be great if Eugenes government did the same thing?)
  • Up to 600 square feet (or a bit more?): A small cottage/bungalow. This housing form, prevalent in cottage clusters and the bungalow courts popularized in California in 1910 through 1930, could be regarded as the original tiny house. Our neighborhood boasts a charming cluster of six 500sf cottages, which date from the 1930s; residents range from seniors to students at the nearby University of Oregon. Tim McCormick of the Village Collaborative (a network of those planning tiny-house villages for low-income folks) recently compiled an excellent summary of progress and possibilities for this form.
  • 750 square feet: A larger cottage. In the 1940s, this was a respectable and accepted size for a modest middle-class home — as demonstrated by Levittown, our first truly mass-produced suburb, where 6,000 homes (first for rent, then for sale) were built at a rapid clip (30 per day!) to house America s returning (white) veterans in the late 1940s. (In a common practice at the time, no people of color were allowed to buy homes there, thus denying them this key opportunity to start building wealth through home equity.)

    In smaller or less-developed towns, houses of this size may still exist; a friend in Eugene lives in a house that was originally 726sf, for instance (it now measures a whopping 926sf with a garage addition). We’ve seen a number of similar-sized homes offered and sold in our 15 months here — to be lived in, not demolished, as they would be in larger cities.

    For perspective, the average American home is now 2,641 square feet and, according to The Minimalists, has 300,000 items in it — while the average American household has decreased, from 3.3 people in 1960 to 2.5 in 2018.

Published by Sherri Schultz

Writer & change-maker exploring micro-dwelling in Eugene, Oregon. Founder of Springfield/Eugene MicroDwellers: https://www.meetup.com/Micro-dwellers .

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