What are micro houses anyway? Are they foundation built? On wheels? A tent? Less then 400ft2? 150ft2? Or a building with less than X ft2 per person? 90% of NYC and Tokyo apartments?
Definitions abound, but here we define a microdwelling as: any residential structure, foundation built or on wheels, with full utilities (electric/ water/ sewer) and living facilities (kitchen/ bed/ bath/ commode) designed for full time occupancy that accommodates occupants at less than 300 ft2 per person. It is fundamentally a question of livability + living density.
It is a sign of the American times that in 2014 a ‘microhouse’ would have been considered just a ‘house’ in 1950. In 1950 the average ft2 per person was 292. The first units in Levittown, NY, were built at 750 square feet. In 1950, houses averaged 983 square feet. We are now 3x that and still growing- 2,384 square feet in 2013, a 3.4% increase from 2012.
Here we a) review the factors driving the trend, b) present a taxonomy of micro-housing, and c) ask whether the trend is really a trend at all.
What is driving the interest?
There are at least five factors currently driving the interest in microliving.
Economics: At an individual level, the overwhelming factor cited by many advocates of micro-living is the lower cost of living- be it a recent college grad, a victim of the mortgage crisis, or a retiree concerned about cost of living in old age. On the commercial side, developers of microhousing apartment units clearly see an upside from adding more units in a given building footprint.
Demographics: Nationally, over 26% of households consist of a single person living alone (1). In Washington DC, that figure is 45%. The share of adults who are single has been rising dramatically- in New York, Austin, Denver it’s 57%, in DC it’s 71%. In past 11 years the marriage rate has also decreased from 8.2 marriages per 1000 (in 2000) to 6.8 in 2011. And on the older spectrum: 28% of adults 65 or older lived alone as of 2010, and the numbers of Americans over 65 has grown dramatically in the past decades- from 7 % in 1940 to 13% in 2010- now over 40 million. Add to this the average family and household size has also been shrinking significantly- 3.29 in 1980 to 3.16 in 2010, and household declined 2.76 to 2.59 during the same time.
Green living: Many are motivated by the lower ecological footprint of living small. A 2010 study of small homes by the Oregon Department of Environmental Equality (DEQ) found that among 30 different green construction practices, reducing house size had the greatest environmental impact in terms of greenhouse gas reduction. According to the DEQ, a 50% reduction in a house’s square footage corresponds to a 36% reduction in carbon emissions over its lifetime. (Grist)
Simpler Living: there is a growing sense among many that busy and expensive lives are unsustainable at both an ecological and personal level. Many in the micro house movement come to it with a realization that happiness in their lives has never correlated with the size of the spaces they have inhabited. Some search for a simplicity of existence, the elegant economy of form of a well designed small structure, an added freedom when unshackled from unneeded rooms and unwelcome mortgages. Others believe that life is ‘too short to live big’- to spend more precious life energy than needed dedicated to the designing, building, financing, cleaning, furnishing, decorating, maintaining, and repairing, when we might better be loving, discovering, creating, traveling.
Technology: modern technology is allowing us to fully or partially outsource services that previously required personal ownership of private goods and services: transportation (Uber, Car2go, Zipcar), music (Spotify, Soundcloud, etc), laundry (Washio, WashCycle), food shopping (Instacart, Peapod), and even certain chores (Task Rabbit). It also has the potential to dramatically compress the physical space taken by the goods we have remaining: music, books, photos, videos, audio/visual systems, computers/printers, camping gear, furniture. The only thing getting bigger seems to be our houses, our iPhones, cars, and maybe our bellies. All this makes fully cultured micro-living more possible.
So what does micro-living look like today? Here I present an aesthetic taxonomy of microhousing, as well as a review of the current state of this housing trend in the U.S.
These are buildings of micro units. While outside of the U.S. there are many examples, stateside the trend has been small units in urban areas, modern, with multifunctional furnishings. Examples, as of late 2014, include:
- Seattle: the U.S. micro-housing pioneer, with over 3000 units across the city. Seattle permits living units down to 90ft2.
- NYC: has a 400ft2 minimum apartment size rule (frequently violated). The current NYC Adapt project is the main example, with 55 units of 370 ft2 (zoning had to be waived for the project to proceed).
- DC: currently the primary example currently is PN Hoffman’s Wharf project, with 170 micro-units of 330-380 ft2, though several other developers have micro-units in their pipeline.
- San Francisco: the city recently approved a trial of 375 units, some as small as 220 ft2.
- Boston: is developing 195 units, with a size of 350ft2.
These are single unit, detached (free standing) structures. Most municipalities across the country have minimum size requirements (500ft2, etc) for detached housing, so small structures often must be ‘accessory’ to larger ones. They are know in urban planning parlance as ‘accessory dwelling units (ADU’s), but are commonly referred to as ‘in-law’ suites/carriage houses/’granny pads’ and are located behind a primary residential structure. Increasingly, responding to calls for greater urban density and more affordable housing, some municipalities such as Portland, Vancouver (where they are known as ‘laneway homes’), and Washington DC are allowing new construction of detached ADU’s, and/or conversion of existing structures such as garages into ADU’s.
Partly in response to these trends, there is an uptick in custom site built ADU’s, as well as a new generation of companies offering prefabricated models: Studio Shed, Modern Shed, Kithaus, Kanga Room Systems, Fab Cab, and others.
C. Wheels/ ‘looks like a trailer, not a house’
This category contains Class A/B/C motorhomes (motors); travel trailers, 5th wheels, and popup campers. In 2013, there were 8.9 million on the road, up from 7.9 million in 2005. Every month in 2013 an average 25,000 new units shipped: of these 15K were travel trailers; 5K were 5th wheels, and 3,000 were Class A/B/C motorhomes. These are generally meant for recreational, not year round use, though there are certainly no small number of folks who live in them full time. This class of vehicle has perhaps done more to acquaint Americans with the concept of micro living than anything else.
D. Wheels / over 400 ft2.
These are manufactured/modular homes known commonly known as ‘single’ or ‘doublewides’. However these are frequently not ‘micro’, with sizes ranging up to 2300ft2 or larger, and HUD building code applies to them. Most manufactured homes are not truly mobile, usually they are transported one way from the factory to their final destination. This category represents approximately 7% of the housing stock in the U.S., as well as one of the primary sources of affordable housing in the U.S. In this market segment there are few signs of innovation.
E. Wheels, under 400 ft2
In 2012 the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association of the U.S. created new category: the Park Model Recreational Vehicle, or “PMRV”. Known as ‘Park models’, these are designed and marketed primarily for seasonal use. Among buyers of park models, 90% own their own home and use the RV as a vacation home, the remaining 10% reside full time. Park models are both standard 8’6’’, but the majority (95%) are wider. Typical park models are 12’x36’ to remain under 400ft2 and qualify as an RV. According to the RVIA, the industry shipped 275-400/month in 2013-14. Within this category, there are a number of manufacturers: Forest River, Athens, Cavco, Breckenridge, and others. One, WheelHaus, stands out as at the forefront of re-engineering these homes with a fully modern aesthetic.
F. Wheels or foundation: under 250 sq.ft ‘tiny’ homes
This category historically consists of mostly DIY’ers building their own very small homes from scratch or from plans. They are traditionally 8’6” wide or less so they can be hauled without additional wide load permits. Currently there are three manufacturers selling completed units: Tumbleweed, Nomad, Minim, as well as a few contract builders around the country. Tiny house enthusiasts typically cite the following reasons for preferring these types of structures to other micro-units:
- Site constraints: tiny houses are more typically built on wheels to avoid building code and zoning issues. Many builders have no desire for 400ft2+ trailers or RV’s.
- Portability: standard width tiny houses are easier to haul down the road than longer/wider units, and can fit in small spaces that other houses cannot (alley lot, backyard, etc.)
- Aesthetics: park models and other manufactured housing often look like they were designed by people who make trailers (which they do). Traditional housing proportion, scale and style all seem to to have lost out to the dictates of portability, weight constraints and affordability- although aesthetics remains an issue with many DIY tiny houses.
- Build quality: Few (if any) park models or trailers with R-26 walls and R-40 ceilings, hardwood floors, LED lighting, high quality fit/finish, etc.
Is there really a trend?
It’s been over 10 years since Tumbleweed introduced tiny homes to the U.S in 2003. Since then there have been over 13 million new houses built, over 3 million RV’s and trailers sold, sustained press interest in micro-units (both tiny houses and micro apartments), a major recession that stimulated downsizing, and a dramatic increase in the percentage and number of households consisting of a single person living alone.
Yet the number of tiny homes and micro apartment units (in NYC/DC/SF) actually built to date is best measured in thousands- i.e .00003% of these 13 million new houses. Part of this is surely due to difficulties with the widely cited issues of financing and local zoning issues, minimum square footage requirements, etc. But even if this prevented 99% of all micro-units from being built, there should still be 160,000 new micro-units across the land, tens of thousands in every major metropolitan area. But it appears there remains a micro market for micro structures: In 2013, just 1% of home buyers purchased homes of less than 1,000 ft2 (National Association of Realtors). Average new home construction square footage continues to rise each year: 2598 ft2 in 2013. (U.S. Census). Perhaps a glimmer of hope lies in the 3 million trailers + RVs sold since 2003–many Americans know how to live small, at least on vacation.
Yet with the tailwinds of economics, demographics, technology and trends in green/simple living, there is undoubtedly the potential for growing demand for microhousing. This potential dovetails with a ecological necessity to reduce CO2 emissions by 80% by 2050 (residential emissions account for 21% of the U.S. total). While switching to green power generation, new green construction, and retrofitting existing structures are all solutions, the ‘fourth leg’ of reducing CO2 emissions in the residential sector must be reversing the yearly increase in per capita square footage.