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Industry & Trends

Tiny Houses Soon to Hit the Quarter Century Mark

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September 20, 2023 | Warren Shoulberg

It may not be quite the darling of social media, HGTV and the counterculture but the tiny home movement is about to mark a quarter-century and continues to appeal to a certain homeowner.

In 1999, two years after building his own first tiny house, Northern Californian Jay Shafer founded the Tumbleweed Tiny House Co., generally acknowledged as the first builder in the field and still an acknowledged player in constructing living spaces that barely qualify as closets in the McMansions of the decade that would follow.

Today estimates put the tiny home industry at somewhere between $17 billion and $20 billion and while its wild growth period has leveled off, forecasts are that it will continue to grow at more modest rates in the years ahead.

Grist, which describes itself as “a nonprofit, independent media organization dedicated to telling stories of climate solutions and a just future,” recently profiled Shafer’s start in building his tiny home and helping to create the industry. “The exercise was part design challenge, part architectural rebellion. Shafer’s abode measured roughly 12 feet tall and 8 feet wide, less than the minimum size requirements for a house dictated by most building codes.”

Grist quotes Shafer saying, “Once I learned it was illegal to live in a house that small, I decided I had to just to show that it was actually a safe and efficient and reasonable thing to do.”

Tiny houses, like virtually everything else in the world, are defined in different ways by different people but Shafer – who should know – told Grist a tiny house is one in which “all the space was used efficiently and nothing was lacking.” Grist offers a more technical definition as a structure taking up no more than 600 square feet with living, sleeping, eating, cooking and sanitation. Others, according to Grist, say a true tiny house is 8.5 feet wide and able to fit on a wheeled base, like an RV chassis. The amenities of such structures can range enormously, from a barely glorified camp bedroom to a fully functioning home complete with hot water, a composting toilet and a solar array.

Grist says the tipping point for tiny houses came in 2014, with the debut of the Netflix reality show Tiny House Nation. That’s when Shafer said “The industry became a commercial thing. It wasn’t so much about civil disobedience or about aesthetics so much as it was about selling houses.”

Today, a well-appointed tiny home can set a buyer back as much as $100,000 and they are among the most popular alternative living spaces on Airbnb. They are also finding new life as the ADU – Alternative Domestic Unit – movement gains popularity in certain areas, especially the West Coast. 

For builders, they remain a niche market and the amount of raw materials – including wood – needed to build a tiny home will never approach their full-size counterparts. But Shafer, the tiny home pioneer, told Grist it’s a matter of perspective today. “You have the movement, and then a lot of people that were trying to make money off it. The movement is still strong.”

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