Tiny homes are not a new idea or phenomenon. Pioneers have always built a small, fast-to-build shelter from indigenous materials.

Until recently, however, tiny homes were a fringe group of mostly solitary, owner-built homes.They’ve often been built or parked on a friend’s or parent’s land, away from urban areas.

tiny house on wheels

A tiny home built on a trailer offers flexibility for the owner to move at will.

Now these homes are evolving into an alternative housing option for people who:

  • Want to own a home in a high-cost area, but can’t afford one.
  • Live a minimalist life, with few possessions.
  • Have a small budget, or no budget.
  • Try to minimize their environmental impact.
  • Want a new home, rather than an older, high-maintenance home or conventional apartment.
  • Want to live with other people in a community, not out in the country.

 What exactly is a tiny home? Lloyd Kahn wrote and published Tiny Homes Simple Shelter in 2012 and defines the genre as homes of less than 500 square feet.

The Business of Tiny Homes

Homes as small as 98 square feet are available from Jay Shafer, who has been a figurehead in the tiny house scene for more than a dozen years. His former company, Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, was one of the first to create a successful business selling plans, workshops, partially built homes, and completed homes.

Since selling that business, Shafer has started up the Four Light Tiny House Company, where he sells tiny house plans, tiny home shells, and completed tiny homes. A new approach is Shafer’s creation of the “Napoleon Complex.”

The Napoleon Complex is Shafer’s tiny house village under development in northern California. Shafer said the village will be set up legally as a recreational vehicle park in which each resident will own his or her own home and pay a monthly fee for the rental of the land. Common areas, owned as a co-operative, will include a community house, garden space, storage units, outdoor recreation space, and parking spaces. The complex will hold 40 to 70 homes of up to 400 square feet and is expected to be completed in 2015.

Why build a tiny house village?

“It’s cohousing for the antisocial,” Shafer quipped.

Cohousing is a community housing model that integrates private housing with shared facilities, such as garden space, kitchen, dining room, playground, and workshop space. Cohousing makes it possible to eliminate a home’s kitchen, for example, because there’s one in a shared or “common” house.


Duwamish Cohousing near Seattle, Washington


Tiny Homes For the Homeless

In Madison, Wisconsin, tiny homes are poised to become a remedy for homelessness. Members of Occupy Madison floated the idea of helping homeless people with small cabins built on a flatbed trailer. The OM Build group formed in 2013 from the Occupy Madison group, and started building a tiny home in the summer of 2013. The first tiny home was completed recently and measures just under 100 square feet.

With space for a bed, kitchen, and bathroom, the homes are built from recycled pallet wood, new lumber, and other new materials. All work is done by volunteers, including the homeless people who will live in the structures. Madison’s city council recently changed a city ordinance permitting these structures to be placed in parking lots owned by churches and other nonprofit organizations, though that is seen as a temporary measure.

“Ultimately, we would like to get land,” said OM Build’s organizer Luca Clemente. “And the mayor has shown some support for this.”

In addition to a community of tiny homes, Clemente said they want to create gardens and workshops for other projects.

Other tiny home communities, existing and proposed, include:

  • Danielson Grove, Kirkland, Washington; a community designed by architect Ross Chapin.
  • Boneyard Studios, Washington, D.C.
  • Headwaters Garden & Learning Center, Cabot Vermont.
  • SoFair Farms, Fairfield, Iowa.
  • Community First! Village, Austin, Texas.

Though building a tiny home is simple enough, challenges abound in creating tiny home communities. Land may be unaffordable, and laws and zoning may prohibit houses below a minimum size. Some laws also prohibit trailers, so tiny homes built with an integral trailer are not allowed. Furthermore, for anyone who doesn’t have sufficient cash or other assets, securing a mortgage on a tiny home may be impossible.

Though the market for tiny homes also remains tiny, the momentum, success of tiny home builders, and creation of tiny home communities indicates that it may be more than a recession-induced fad.