Two years ago, Dee Williams, a toxic-waste inspector, put her 2,000-sq.-ft. bungalow in Portland, Ore., on the market and moved into an 84-sq.-ft. cabin on wheels that she built using salvaged cedar, torn-up jeans for insulation and solar cells for power. Then she hitched her tiny house to a biodiesel truck and drove to Olympia, Wash., where friends agreed to let her park in a grassy corner of their backyard. Although Williams, 43, admits that she misses having room for friends to spend the night, she says, "I love my tiny house."
Living small is hardly a new concept. Henry Thoreau tucked himself into a 150-sq.-ft. house on Walden Pond in the 1840s, and the city of San Francisco built some 5,600 earthquake cottages for survivors of the 1906 temblor. But over the past decade, dozens of architects and builders have begun specializing in tiny-house designs. And home buyers--motivated by the desire to simplify their lives, use fewer resources and save money--are falling in love with the little things. Gregory Johnson, a co-founder of the Small House Society in Iowa City, Iowa, estimates that anywhere from a few hundred to a thousand homes measuring less than 500 sq. ft. and costing less than $100,000 have been built since his group of 40 architects and builders formed in 2002. Says architect Marianne Cusato, a small-home designer who lives in a 300-sq.-ft. apartment in New York City: "It's human nature to gravitate toward something that makes you feel contained."
Cusato designed her first small home after hurricane Katrina as "a dignified alternative to the FEMA trailer." Her models, which the government is considering for Katrina-ravaged areas, range from a 308-sq.-ft. studio to a 434-sq.-ft. two-bedroom version and feature full-size porches shaded by eaves. Already, Cusato says, she is in negotiations with a large retail chain to sell her houselets to the public as well.
Dennis Fukai in Archer, Fla., drew the inspiration for his tiny homes from squatter cottages in Chile, which he studied as a Fulbright scholar in 1992. Fukai has designed six 65- to 133-sq.-ft. homes, which he calls Nests, for about $5,000 each.
Small homes make sense not just for the frugal or displaced but also for single city dwellers like students or business travelers. In Germany six students at the Technical University of Munich spent a year living on campus in cube-shaped Micro Compact Homes, designed by British architect Richard Horden. Measuring about 74 sq. ft. and selling for $95,000, the houses are modeled after a Japanese teahouse, with a sunken eating space and a bed that folds up against a wall.
Such amenities, designers believe, prove that downsizing doesn't mean downscale. "When you build smaller, you can put in a lot more quality than you can in a larger space," says Geoffrey Warner of Alchemy Architects in St. Paul, Minn. Warner's weeHouses, shaped something like shipping containers, start at $69,500 for a 364-sq.-ft. studio with bamboo flooring, built-in cabinetry and floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors. Far less conventional is the Rotorhaus, created by German designer Luigi Colani. A single-model prototype, the Rotorhaus features a rotating central unit containing a bedroom, bathroom and kitchen. It allows the occupant to relax in the fixed living room and bring the desired room into place with the flick of a switch.