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Small Is Better: Big Houses Are Out and Downsizing Is In

With economic and environmental factors colliding, tiny houses are suddenly becoming the biggest rage.

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Vlatkovic is designing Rogers' home in Sebastian, Florida, about an hour south of Orlando, on the 80-acre Saint Sebastian River Conservation Easement. Of the 20 homes she has designed in the past three years, five have been less than 1,000 square feet. The floor of Rogers' home will be entirely made of polished pre-fabricated concrete -- an environmental improvement over many materials, since the flooring often comes from salvaged slabs, requires little maintenance and does not rely on the chemical glues and waxes of many wood floors and carpets. And the concrete floor -- which is able to absorb and retain heat -- will help keep her place warm in the winter and cool in the summer. In addition, Rogers plans to purchase all ENERGY STAR appliances, and to install a small solar unit on her roof for hot water.

Green building is critical, says Salomon, because 40% of the raw materials humans consume are used in construction. In Little House on a Small Planet , he writes: "Most of the trees we cut down become buildings. Half of the copper we mine becomes wire and pipe inside these buildings. Building an average house adds seven tons of waste to the landfill…''

Rogers' project could be completed this year, realizing a lifelong dream. "I've never been comfortable with a lot of empty unused space,'' she says. "I'm just not comfortable having a dining room that is used once a year."

If McMansions were the trademark of the overindulgent '80s and '90s, the not-so-big house may be the symbol of a generation that is slowing down, considering the earth's resources and doing what it can to preserve them. Consider this: a 2008 survey by the National Association of Home Builders shows that more than 60% of potential homebuyers would rather have a smaller house with more amenities than the other way around. And homebuilders such as KB Home, Warmington Homes and John Laing Homes are shrinking floor plans and offering smaller, less costly houses according to published reports. In a Chicago Tribune story in December 2008, Tom Stephani, a longtime homebuilder and the president of the McHenry County Home Builders Association, declared the "big house is dead.''

Tumbleweed Tiny House Company's Z-Glass house is not designed to be portable, but at only 14' wide, it can be trucked down the road.
© Tumbleweed House Company

Three years ago Brad Kittel, 53, got tired of looking at the piles of excess building materials in his 140,000 square-foot salvage business called Discovery Architectural Antiques in Gonzales, Texas. So he decided to put them to use as construction materials for tiny homes. "When I started talking about building a house that was 10' by 16' people said 'that is the size of my closet.' After I built the first one, everyone liked it," Kittel says. Tiny Texas Houses, which uses almost entirely vintage materials for the homes, was born. The company has built 20 of the diminutive homes for Texas residents so far but the calls are coming in from residents of other states who want to give living in a 12' by 20' (or smaller) home a chance. The homes cost $60,000 to $90,000 and include a loft at both ends, a downstairs bedroom, a living area, full kitchen and bathroom and outdoor porches along both sides. Styles vary from rustic to Queen Anne with gingerbread trim to a gambrel-roofed Dutch Colonial.   "My goal ultimately is to bring them to other places because the demand is there. We have calls for these from Virginia, all over California, New Mexico and Colorado," he says. "There seem to be plenty of people who want to downsize.'' Kittel's own home is a windowless, 600-square-foot room above his company headquarters. "My goal is to create outposts [where the tiny homes are built] all over the country," he says.   There's no plastic, sheetrock or fiberglass used in the homes, only quality salvaged materials. Kittel says he is often approached by baby boomers and older folks who want to live more modestly, and mortgage-free, as they are nearing retirement and fixed incomes. 

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