Washington DC isn't exactly known to attract those with modest ambitions – I'm still flabbergasted at how often I hear the phrase “changing the world” used unironically at happy hours – so I was surprised at how enthusiastically the tiny house was received.
Parked randomly in the middle of a Wangari Gardens in Petworth, there was a 30-minute wait just to pop inside and look around, even in the intense midafternoon heat. (Though in all fairness I think quite a few of the people in line thought they were waiting to use a porta-potty.) At only 130 square feet (no, I didn't forget a zero), the tiny house, the Fencl model, manufactured by Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, looks at first scarily tiny, like a coffin with a roof over it. But it was definitely cute. During our wait in line, most of the conversation overheard centered around its endearingly miniature proportions.
“Someone should do a reality show starring the tiny house,” said the woman in front of us to her companion. “You could take it from city to city for each episode and live in it with a tiny dog and everywhere you stop you could have a tiny romance and at the end of the episode you could have a tiny epiphany. Like, 'this week I learned that blue is not that flattering of a color on me. But it still looks okay, I guess.' All you need is a host.”
“You'd be perfect,” I said, leaning over to my girlfriend. “You have a tiny heart and a tiny soul.”
She continued looking straight ahead. “Do you want to talk about what you have that's tiny?” She asked.
I have no idea what she was talking about. The heat was getting to her, I think.
But once I got into the tiny house, I realized that it was not that tiny at all. You enter into a small but serviceable main room; you could absolutely fit a modest flat screen and one or two pieces of slim furniture in there. Behind that is kitchen; equipped with a sink, a two-burner stove, a small college-type fridge, and a water heater (under the sink), it's surprisingly functional. You may not have acres of counter space, but you could certainly cook a full meal. And look at it this way, if the meal turns out to be less than impressive, you could just blame it on the kitchen. At home, cooking in a full kitchen, you've got no excuse but incompetence. Off the kitchen is the bathroom, which was impressive. A full shower (the hot water heater in the kitchen is good for five minutes of hot water) and a toilet; no sink, but you can install one above the toilet, Japanese-style.
Up above is the peaked sleeping loft; it can accommodate a queen-sized bed, and at its highest point, it's 3' 8”, so sitting up in bed is not out of the question (though standing up is). I climbed up there and laid down and it was basically like being in a really nice tent. It was cozy and even womblike. Throughout the tiny house there was, as you might imagine, a huge amount of built-in shelving, on every available surface, though bringing your ceramic cat figurines and laserdiscs to your new minimalistic tiny house seems a bit counter-intuitive. The house I saw, the interior was unvarnished pine, leaving the particulars of the final product up to the consumer. There are a lot of tiny house blogs online showing the looks people have gone for, though I will say that if you're lazy like me, you could probably convince yourself that the unpainted wood looks “rugged” and “austere.” Since the tiny house is so tiny, heating is quick and inexpensive; the literature claims that the stainless steel fireplace in the main room can heat the house in conditions as low as -35F.
Bottom line, the tiny house was absolutely nicer than any dorm room or efficiency apartment I've ever been in. When you add in the portability and efficiency, I think we'll be seeing a lot more of these in the future. Whether they'll be in the District is uncertain; many models of tiny houses, like the Fencl, can be kept on a trailer, thus evading local zoning requirements. Larger ones could run into problems, being in a gray area between house and shed. There's been talk of rewriting the local zoning code to accommodate more alley lots and accessory housing (both of which would be tiny house-friendly), but at the moment, you might want to keep your tiny house in Maryland or Virginia.
More notably, the mood at the exhibition was celebratory, if not downright fetishistic. People were snapping pictures, touching the house, waiting half an hour just to step inside for a minute, like pilgrims at Lourdes or something. Just five years ago, with the economy booming and the concept of American maximalism still intact, I think the tiny house would've been met with eyerolls and contempt. But in this post-recession moment of cultural reconsideration and humility (even if it is forced), the tiny house is now emblematic of virtue, of modesty – above all, of enlightenment. The same cultural tides that have rendered the SUV the official vehicle of the tacky and philistine have reached housing culture; behold, the Prius of homes. What it lacks in square footage and spare rooms, it more than makes up for in environmental karma and financial practicality. After all, imagine what you could spend all that money on that would've gone to 25 years of mortgage payments on a McMansion. Fine wine instead of box wine, a month in Europe instead of five days in Rehoboth, working twenty-five hours a week instead of fifty. When it comes to cramping your quality of life, the tiny house is nothing, compared to the tiny life.
Photos via Flickr/AtomicLlama
Photos via Flickr/AtomicLlama