TINY HOUSES

As a rule, people in New York wish for smaller places to live about as often as people on airplanes wish for smaller seats. I used to dream sometimes that I had found rooms in my apartment that I didn鈥檛 know were there, and, as I explored them, I felt a serenity that I did not feel in my waking life. I never had a dream where my apartment was smaller, and I don鈥檛 think I would feel very good if I did. When I was a child, I wanted a house so big that to go from one end to the other I鈥檇 have to ride a motorcycle.

For someone who lives in New York, one of the more enigmatic modern micro-trends is the decision to live in the smallest space possible, in a structure known as a 鈥渢iny house.鈥 The occupants of tiny houses tend to be committed, and slightly self-regarding, citizens, who cook on little stoves and have refrigerators like wall safes. They shed years of possessions and keepsakes to get by with two shirts and two pairs of pants and two mugs and two forks, in order to occupy what amounts to a monk鈥檚 cell, for the sake of simplicity, frugality, or upright environmental living. They often embody the zeal of religious converts.

Tiny houses are built on trailer platforms. Typically, they are between a hundred and a hundred and thirty square feet, roughly the size of a covered wagon. They aren鈥檛 toys or playhouses or aesthetic gestures鈥攁 copy of Monticello as a sandbox in a field in East Hampton, say鈥攁nd they aren鈥檛 shacks or cottages, either. Shacks don鈥檛 have kitchens and bathrooms, and a cottage is larger than a tiny house. There are between several hundred and a thousand tiny houses in the United States. Kent Griswold, who, four years ago, began Tiny House Blog, told me that initially he 鈥渞eally had to scrounge to find material. Now I can鈥檛 keep up. People send me stuff constantly. It鈥檚 all across the country.鈥 The number is difficult to know, because tiny houses usually violate building codes by being so small, and thus occupying one is often illegal. Their owners tend to keep them secret and move them around. A man who sold a tiny house on terms went to repossess it, and it was gone.

People who live in tiny houses, or aspire to, appear to fall into one of three overlapping categories. The first consists of young people who see a tiny house as a means of owning a place while avoiding property taxes and maybe rent, since they can often find places to park their house free. The second group includes older men and women who have either sold or walked away from a house they couldn鈥檛 afford. A subset of this group is retired couples whose children are gone, and who want to live more simply. Both of these groups include transients; that is, people for whom a tiny house is temporary. Among these is a woman named Elaine Walker, who recently listed her house on eBay, although she didn鈥檛 find a buyer. She had built the tiny house, in New Hampshire, to live in while selling a house. She had planned to build another normal house, then decided instead to move to California. She found a man who would tow the tiny house there for her. Before he delivered it, he took the house to a car wash. The third group is composed of people determined to live environmentally responsible lives鈥撯搕o live 鈥渓ightly,鈥 as they put it. According to Greg Johnson, the publisher of a tiny-house Web site called ResourcesForLife.com, to inhabit a tiny house 鈥測ou have to remodel your sense of what success is and how important it is to you to convey to the outside world 鈥楬ey, I have a big house and big car and I鈥檓 successful.鈥 If you have a piece of inner tranquillity, you don鈥檛 have to prove anything to anybody.鈥 A tiny-house builder describes this group as including people who 鈥渨ant to live off the grid. A lot of vegans. The younger people are idealists. They鈥檙e big into off-the-map and sharing their experience.鈥

Human beings have always lived in small houses鈥攏ot to make a statement but because small houses were practical and cheap. 鈥淣omadic people, indigenous people traditionally have small houses,鈥 Witold Rybczynski, the architecture critic, says. 鈥淚n the Middle Ages, people slept many people to a bed and many beds in a room.鈥 A Pilgrim house was about a hundred and sixty-five square feet. In 鈥淲alden,鈥 Thoreau describes one-room houses owned by laborers who kept their front doors open for light. In winter, the places were perpetually cold. In 1987, an architect named Lester Walker published a book of photographs and drawings called 鈥淭iny Houses,鈥 which influenced a number of people who build such houses now. Walker鈥檚 book includes the dune shacks in Provincetown; the two-hundred-square-foot houses built in Texas in the late nineteenth century by German farmers to use on the weekends when they came to town; and the hundred-and-forty-square-foot houses that San Francisco built in 1906 for survivors of the earthquake.

Walker told me that he was especially drawn to fishermen鈥檚 shanties in Vermont and Minnesota. 鈥淭hese guys take a lot of care in their workshops in the summer to decorate the outsides of the shacks,鈥 he said. 鈥淥n the inside, there are two seats, and they drink beer and eat potato chips, and sleep there. They don鈥檛 wash, and they can鈥檛 open the window because of the cold, and they have a kerosene stove giving off fumes, and they keep fish in there. But on the outside they鈥檙e very ornate.鈥

The rhetoric of modern tiny-house living begins with the assertion that big houses, aside from being wasteful and environmentally noxious, are debtors鈥 prisons. Their owners work in order to afford them, and when they actually occupy them they鈥檙e anxious. Tiny houses are luxurious, because they are easier to take care of and allow their (presumably debt-free) owners to spend more money on pleasures. The owner of a tiny house, while living intimately indoors, has a larger life outside, and a lighter conscience.

Banks won鈥檛 finance tiny houses鈥撯揳ny house smaller than four hundred square feet is difficult to mortgage鈥撯揳nd, in addition to being tricky to occupy legally, the houses are excluded from many R.V. parks because they鈥檙e too tall. Having corners instead of rounded edges, a tiny house is expensive to tow; it is not a practical substitute for a mobile h

Owners of tiny houses often believe that there is a conspiracy among home builders and banks to make houses that are bigger than what people need or can pay for. The Times recently published a piece noting that larger houses have become difficult to sell, because more people want smaller houses, closer to where they work. 鈥淲e might be at the edge of an epochal, cyclical change,鈥 Rybczynski says, because house builders have run short of money and building has almost stopped. 鈥淲hen we start again, will houses be the same size as before, or will people think that small is better?鈥

Jay Shafer is the brainy misfit behind the tiny-house trend and the builder of the most stately tiny houses. He built his first tiny house in Iowa, in 1999, and lived in it for five years. It was a hundred and ten square feet, with a steep gabled roof and a porch. It looked like a Gothic cottage from a children鈥檚 story. Designing the footprint of a tiny house is simple, since it follows the contour of the trailer. The complicated part is preserving space. What makes Shafer鈥檚 houses different from others is the classical elements of form and proportion and the graceful compression of his design. More than tiny, his houses feel sleek.

Shafer calls himself a 鈥渃laustrophile.鈥 He is forty-seven, tall and thin, with a high forehead and reddish-brown hair. He has an upright carriage, and he sits with a straight back, like a dancer. His voice is slightly nasal. His hands often seek a settled position around his face as he talks鈥攂alled into fists on which he rests his chin, or spread beneath his jaw, so that he appears to be posing but is really just paying attention. He is the species of fierce and stubborn person who conceals his nature behind a mild fa莽ade. He makes lists of errands on small pieces of paper, because the small size makes the lists look more manageable. Once, I saw him writing on the wrapper of a drinking straw.

Shafer has lived in three tiny houses鈥攖he one in Iowa, and two in California鈥攂ut four years ago, in a yoga class, he met his wife, a veterinarian named Marty. 鈥淚 didn鈥檛 really get it that he lived in a tiny house,鈥 Marty told me. She is small and slim with brown hair, and her manner is intent. 鈥淭he yoga class had a small changing room, and one day he said, 鈥楳y house is about the size of this room.鈥 I listened and didn鈥檛 really hear. Our first date, I went to pick him up, and there was a regular-sized house, and his house next to it, and I looked at them and was, like, 鈥楥an鈥檛 be.鈥 鈥

The Shafers have been married for three years, and after they had a son they moved to a five-hundred-square-foot house, in Graton, California, north of San Francisco. Shafer鈥檚 tiny house sits behind a picket fence in his yard, and he uses it as an office, where he draws plans for other tiny houses. The house is eight by twelve (a porch makes it fourteen feet long), with a sheet-metal roof above cedar walls. In the main room, which Shafer calls the great room, there are two chairs, a closet, a desk, bookshelves, and a stainless-steel propane heater built for a boat. A hallway with more shelves leads to a kitchen, a bathroom with a shower, and, above them, a sleeping loft that has a lancet window large enough for Shafer to climb through if the downstairs ever caught fire while he was asleep.

Shafer owns a design-and-build company called Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, and he has built sixteen tiny houses. He sold his first house to a filmmaker in New Hampshire nine years ago, for thirty thousand dollars. His second house was built for Greg Johnson, who saw Shafer鈥檚 house in Iowa and commissioned one for himself. Shafer sold one tiny house to a couple from Berkeley, who put it on a property they owned in Telluride. In 2009, Shafer built a house in northern California and towed it to the parking lot of a hotel at the end of Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, where he gave a workshop on how to build a tiny house. When no one in New York bought the house, he parked it in the driveway of his in-laws鈥 house, in Connecticut. Eight months later, he displayed it on a Harley-Davidson lot in Ohio, where it was sold.

On the second Saturday of each month, Shafer opens his tiny house for a few hours, to attract clients. About twenty people showed up for a recent tour, including Steve Weissman, Shafer鈥檚 partner in Tumbleweed, who told everyone, 鈥淛ay sleeps over there,鈥 pointing to Shafer鈥檚 house, 鈥渂ut he spends all his waking hours here,鈥 pointing at the tiny house. Shafer sat on his porch, welcoming people, then admonishing them not to touch his stuff. 鈥淚t鈥檚 a visual tour, not a tactile one,鈥 he said. He asked them to take off their shoes before they entered, which they did with a certain obeisance, as if they were paying homage to a deity. Shafer adopts an affable persona while discussing his houses, but he is an introvert, and the tours are an ordeal for him. In the intervals when no one had a question, he sat on the porch with his head on his forearm. He looked like a child who has been forced to take part in an adult activity.

A young couple from Michigan told him that they were moving to Palo Alto and wanted to live in a tiny house to save money. A stout woman whose face was framed with long graying hair that she had braided beneath her chin, like a bell pull, asked, 鈥淐an you get a piano in there?鈥 Shafer nodded. 鈥淧ut the piano in before you finish the house,鈥 he told her. A guy and his son who were dressed like lumberjacks circled the house with a measuring tape and made notes on a clipboard until Shafer told them to knock it off.

Now and then, he stepped inside to demonstrate how a plastic pocket door closes off the bathroom. Several people asked to have their photographs taken with Shafer, and he obliged. A lanky young man whose head was shaved, so that he looked like a standing lamp, said, 鈥淚鈥檓 surprised there aren鈥檛 more military people interested in this. It seems like a good idea for a few years.鈥 Another tall man banged his head on the doorframe, then said he should have known better. 鈥淚 used to live on a submarine,鈥 he said. A few people got down on their knees and pointed their phones under the trailer platform and took photographs. They stood on Shafer鈥檚 lawn in groups of two and three, and, when a light rain began, they opened umbrellas.

Tumbleweed Tiny House Company offers plans for seven tiny houses. In the past year, it has sold a thousand plans, but Shafer doesn鈥檛 know how many houses have been built from them. The majority of the plans cost less than a hundred dollars, but a few, for the larger of the tiny houses, cost nearly a thousand. Shafer has sold about a hundred of those, and assumes that many of the people who bought them were serious about building. The tiniest house that Tumbleweed Tiny House Company sells is the XS-House, which is sixty-five square feet, and costs sixteen thousand dollars to build yourself, or thirty-nine thousand dollars if Tumbleweed or someone else builds it for you. Tumbleweed鈥檚 most expensive house, the Fencl, is a hundred and thirty square feet; it costs twenty-three thousand dollars to build yourself and fifty-four thousand dollars to have built. Conventional houses cost about a hundred dollars a square foot (ones built by national builders can cost as little as fifty dollars a square foot, according to Rybczynski). Shafer says that his house cost three hundred dollars a square foot, because it is essentially handmade; it is probably the cheapest house in Sonoma County by volume, he says, but the most expensive proportionally.

Tumbleweed also sells plans for small houses on foundations, but the bulk of its business involves tiny houses. It builds about one house a month, then tows it to the owners. It makes most of its money from selling plans and from Shafer鈥檚 self-published book, 鈥淭he Small House Book,鈥 which costs about five dollars to print in China and sells for thirty dollars. Over the past year, Tumbleweed has sold ten thousand copies through its Web site.

Shafer knows that his occupation is the result of some daffy ideas鈥 having found a toehold. He is one of those fortunate people whose obsession has led them to a territory they more or less have to themselves. In the pattern of his life, themes and impressions recur prominently, like repeats in wallpaper. To begin with, Shafer is a pragmatic subversive. 鈥淚 guess you could say I鈥檓 very angry, and I鈥檓 trying to find creative ways to use it,鈥 he said. He believes that suburban neighborhoods of wide streets and big houses with false gables are cold and unsympathetic, even immoral, and his design philosophies are derived substantially in reaction to his upbringing among such lavish ideals.

Shafer was born in Iowa, but he was brought up in Orange County, California. His father was an airline pilot. While other kids played baseball, he and a friend built shrines to Athena out of bricks in the back yard and burned flowers as offerings. When he was fourteen, his parents decided to move back to Iowa, 鈥渢o protect us from the corruption of California,鈥 he said. In Iowa, 鈥渨e lived in a four-thousand-square-foot house, which they saw as a trophy house, a prestige thing. My sister and I did all the cleaning. I spent at least a full day a week vacuuming and taking out the trash.鈥

Before long, his parents sold the house and bought one that they hoped to flip. The new house was so small that Shafer didn鈥檛 have a bedroom. His parents told him he could sleep on the floor in the den, but he often spent the night in the cab of his father鈥檚 pickup. His grandparents, who lived most of the time in Florida, spent four months a year in Iowa occupying an Airstream trailer.

Shafer went to the University of Iowa, where he lived briefly in a room with twelve other students, 鈥渢rying to make this tiny space work.鈥 In 1989, he moved to New York to go to graduate school in art at City College. He expected to become a painter. 鈥淚 figured the New York experience would be an education of its own,鈥 he said, 鈥渁nd I was pretty much terrified the whole time. My first month, I had a gun pointed at me. A month after that, a guy with a bullet in his head died on the sidewalk in front of our building, and the next month my roommate saved a guy on the subway who鈥檇 been stabbed, and he came home covered in blood. I was riding my bike once and a car backfired, and I dove behind a dumpster. Everyone was laughing, but I thought I was being shot at.鈥

He got his degree in 1992, and moved back to Iowa City, where he worked in the grocery department of a natural-foods co-op and taught painting and drawing as an adjunct at the university. At the co-op, he carved delicate archetypal forms into the skins of bananas and put the bananas out for sale. For an art show in Cedar Rapids, he wrote sayings from philosophers in soy ink on crackers like Communion wafers, and stacked them so that they made little towers. In a friend鈥檚 garage, he built a small dome out of pine, just large enough for one person to fit into while crouching. It was covered with spiritual sayings and was an attempt to describe a religion for one person. He had meant the dome to be burned 鈥渇rom the moment it was created,鈥 he said, 鈥渂ut I couldn鈥檛 find a place to do it, and I got impatient and took it to the dump and watched a tractor run over it. I was moving, and I didn鈥檛 want to store it.鈥

As a painter, Shafer began to care less about subject matter and more about form and proportion. Finally, he gave up painting and decided to try to live artfully. He surreptitiously made a copy of his building key, gave up his apartment, and moved into the basement. He slept on a mattress, under a piece of plastic that he hid during daylight. Marty Shafer described this behavior, along with her husband鈥檚 habit of sleeping in cars, as his 鈥渆soteric sleeping arrangements.鈥 Shafer said, 鈥淚 thought you should just be able to fall asleep wherever you felt tired.鈥

Shafer eventually bought a 1964 Airstream, which had a lime-green Formica counter and an orange shag rug. 鈥淚t was made to be renovated,鈥 Shafer said. He did it over in wood, with spare aluminum highlights, then moved it to a trailer park, 鈥渁nd the day two weeks later when a neighboring trailer got a bullet hole in the side was the day I thought I should leave,鈥 he said. He moved it to a friend鈥檚 organic hayfield. 鈥淚 have a severe grass allergy,鈥 he said, 鈥渁nd I would get welts on my legs when I went out in shorts.鈥 In the winter, ice formed on the walls. 鈥淭hat鈥檚 how I began to figure out what I needed,鈥 he said. 鈥淚 definitely needed insulation.鈥

Shafer designs by subtraction. He began drawing imaginary houses, and they grew smaller as he started 鈥渢o figure out what I could get rid of鈥攎ostly square footage, because a lot of space wasn鈥檛 used that efficiently,鈥 he said. 鈥淚f there鈥檚 elbow room for the activities you need, it鈥檚 good, but anything beyond that is not good.鈥 His galvanizing imperative came when he learned, around 1999, that the houses he was drawing and not showing to anyone would violate building codes, which tend to be adapted from recommendations made by the International Code Council, a domestic trade group. The codes usually specify that a house must have at least one room of a hundred and twenty square feet, and that no habitable room be smaller than seventy square feet. The smallest a house can be and still conform to the codes is about two hundred and sixty-one square feet.

Until then, Shafer hadn鈥檛 really thought of building a tiny house. Designing houses was a diversion, a pastime. 鈥淥nce I found out it was illegal to live in a small house, though, I had to do it,鈥 he said. 鈥淚t couldn鈥檛 be a trailer, either. It had to be very houselike.鈥 From the Airstream he had the example of a structure on wheels, and he realized that if he built a house on a trailer bed it wouldn鈥檛 be a house; it would be a trailer load and housing codes wouldn鈥檛 apply. Michael Janzen, who writes the Tiny House Design Blog, describes this insight as one in which Shafer 鈥渢humbed his nose at the rules and took the concept of the trailer house and a stick-built house and mashed them together and made a solution that鈥檚 compelling and technically illegal, which appeals to a lot of people.鈥

Shafer鈥檚 first house was fourteen feet long and eight feet wide, with a porch in front. A novice carpenter, he built it in a contractor鈥檚 back yard. 鈥淗e鈥檇 come out every three days and tell me what I was doing wrong, and I鈥檇 tear it apart,鈥 he said. The design was based on sacred and church architecture, which his interest in form and proportion had led him to. 鈥淚 had the heater right on the central axis,鈥 he said. 鈥淵ou walked in the door and saw it, like an altar. I was also into an open plan, so you could see everything from the entrance鈥攌itchen, bathroom, and living room.鈥

Iowa City law allows someone to have an accessory building that is smaller than a hundred and forty-four square feet, and while the law doesn鈥檛 say what the building must be used for, it doesn鈥檛 prohibit his sleeping in the place now and then. Shafer bought land with a house already on it, told the city he was living in the house, then rented the house, and bent the law for five years by living in the back yard in his tiny house. Then he decided to move to northern California. Through an ad on the Internet, he sold his tiny house to the filmmaker in New Hampshire. He built another one, which was seven feet by ten feet鈥攕mall enough to parallel park if he had to live on the street. To protect it on the road, he wrapped it in plastic.

Jay King had never heard of Shafer, but he is building a tiny house in a garage in Danbury, Connecticut. Until recently, King had been using the garage to build a sports car called a K-1 Attack from components manufactured in the Czech Republic.

King is small and lean, with the focussed manner of the Army sergeant he has been. He had got divorced, and had lost his house in the mortgage crisis. 鈥淚 was looking for apartments, and I have a dog and a son, and it was such a pain to get an apartment for a dog,鈥 he said. 鈥淚 saw a little ad for a little house. I鈥檓 a carpenter, and I thought, I鈥檓 going to do this on my own and be able to move this wherever I want to. After having a five-hundred-thousand-dollar house and being dumped by this economy to where they doubled my payments, that inspired me. I didn鈥檛 need all the fancy stuff anymore. Simplicity is what I wanted.鈥

King had been working on the house for six months and was about half done. The shell was complete, but it didn鈥檛 have siding yet. The house had a pitched roof, and he had built a bedroom on a track so that it extended out from one side of the house like an alcove, and could be drawn inside the house when he moved. On the front, he planned to build a deck that he could lower like a drawbridge or raise so that it would cover the front door, making the house more or less impenetrable. The house was bolted together in the middle and came apart in five pieces. 鈥淚t鈥檚 a modular type,鈥 he said, pointing out the bolt holding the walls together. 鈥淲ithin twenty minutes, I can take it apart.鈥

King showed me where he planned to put the kitchen, beneath his son鈥檚 loft bed, and said that he was going to make the kitchen black. 鈥淚鈥檓 very much into being different from everybody else,鈥 he said. We stepped over to the living room, where there was a big leather armchair facing a propane fireplace that looked like a small TV. 鈥淢y goal is to have a 3-D Yankee Stadium wall, an eight-by-twelve mural, which will make the room much bigger-looking,鈥 he said. 鈥淎 guy gets divorced, and he loses everything, and this is all he needs.鈥

The house had so far cost about three thousand dollars.

鈥淵ou know what this is about?鈥 he asked. 鈥淚t鈥檚 about the passion you feel about what you think you can do,鈥 he said.

I asked if he thought it would be difficult to find women to go out with, living in a tiny house.

鈥淚f you鈥檙e going to date me, you鈥檙e going to be off the deep end anyway,鈥 he said.

Farther up I-95, in New Haven, there is a tiny house that was built by a young woman named Elizabeth Turnbull, a graduate student at Yale who is interested in sustainable architecture. In 2008**,** she took a seminar with Jay Shafer in Manhattan, and then went to a two-week home-design-and-build class at the Yestermorrow Design/Build School, in Vermont. Turnbull, who is tall and long-limbed, with light-brown hair and blue eyes, told me that the course taught her 鈥渁ll the basic problems you would encounter鈥攈ere鈥檚 how to frame a wall, here鈥檚 how to frame a window, here鈥檚 why diagonal bracing is important.鈥 She looked at layouts of Airstreams and houseboats to learn how to manage small spaces. When she was accepted in the environmental-management program at Yale, she decided that she didn鈥檛 want to live in an apartment or a dormitory, and she used the money she would have spent on rent to build a tiny house.

Drawing plans, Turnbull said, 鈥淚 couldn鈥檛 picture what it would look like. I just had faith that the drawings would finally become something I liked.鈥

Turnbull鈥檚 house is a hundred and forty-four square feet, with a pitched roof and a sleeping loft, a living room and a kitchen鈥攏o bathroom. It is parked in the back yard of a house belonging to someone affiliated with Yale, a couple of miles from the campus.

In her living room, we drank tea and ate strawberries and pistachios from bowls arranged on a little table like a still-life. I asked what sorts of concerns she had in mind as she designed her house, and she said, 鈥淧eople like us have a few numbers that constrain us. One is eight and a half feet wide. Wider than that, you need a police escort and a wide-load permit. Eighteen and half feet long is the maximum length and ten thousand pounds is the weight limit. Before I was finished, I towed the house to a sand-and-gravel pit where people were loading gravel, and took my place in line and had it weighed. I was just under ten thousand. That鈥檚 why my ceiling is made from canvas sails, which were given to me by a woman who makes handbags from them. Wood would have been too heavy. The fourth number that鈥檚 sort of a holy number is thirteen feet six inches. You start to kiss bridges if you鈥檙e much taller than that. I鈥檓 thirteen-two.鈥

Turnbull graduated in May, and isn鈥檛 sure what she will do with the house. 鈥淚t鈥檚 such a part of my identity that it鈥檚 difficult to think about living elsewhere,鈥 she said. 鈥淭here鈥檚 something very satisfying about using your body to build a house. You鈥檙e channelling into something very human. It鈥檚 the same sort of ancient pleasure as growing food.鈥 She looked around, then said, a little mournfully, 鈥淚t feels really big, but when someone else is here it feels very small.鈥

One evening, I was having an early dinner with the Shafers and their infant son, Emerson, in a restaurant not far from their house. Outside, it poured rain and people arrived in the restaurant stamping their feet and leaving little trails of water as they made their way to their seats.

There were plates on our table from the salads we鈥檇 ordered and glasses for water and wine, and when the waitress arrived with our entr茅es there was no room for her to set them down. Shafer, who had been leaning over Emerson鈥檚 high chair to entertain him, sat suddenly upright and began briskly combining plates and moving glasses, as if solving a puzzle.

鈥淚鈥檒l make this work,鈥 he told the waitress earnestly. 鈥淭his is what I do.鈥