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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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"They are realizing they have all this stuff they are not using and they are paying taxes and utilities on a house they don't need," he says. "You would be surprised at the number of houses where people are just living in one or two rooms, saving money because they aren't heating and cooling a whole house. By staying in one or two rooms they can control their environment.''

The Janssen family called this 250-square-foot RV home for nine months.
© Live Lightly Tour RV

Johnson of the Small House Society says his group has a membership that includes 40 architects and urban planners who have built at least 500 tiny homes around the world since it was founded in the fall of 2002. Those living in small homes are people who are concerned about their impact on the environment, those who want a simpler life and more free time. They are activists, artists, writers, divorcees, widows, nuns, Buddhists and singles, Johnson says.

One of the society's cofounders, Shafer, has for more than a decade lived in a space the size of some people's closets. "My decision to inhabit just 89 square feet arose from some concerns I had about the impact a larger house would have on the environment, and because I do not want to maintain a lot of unused or unusable space," Shafer writes on his website. "My houses have met all of my domestic needs without demanding much in return. The simple, slower lifestyle my homes have afforded is a luxury for which I am continually grateful.''

Shafer lives in Sebastopol, California, and his company builds homes that are 65 to 837 square feet and run between $20,000 and $90,000 to build. That may seem like a lot for such minimal space, but Shafer explains that the portable homes-on-wheels, or "travel trailers" are made from quality materials that typically cost $200 per square foot. Finished homes include hardwood floors, pine walls, built-in cabinetry and stainless steel counters. They are fully insulated and come with double-pane windows.  Doors are made by hand and windows are special order. Shafer says each of his houses takes between 500 and 800 hours to build, and, because they are movable, don't require a building permit.

New York company d-v design focuses on smaller spaces and energy-efficient materials with a modern look.
© d-v design

Living small doesn't have to mean living without luxury.   "With all the books and TV shows and magazine articles about small-house living, people are realizing you can really save on construction costs by building small homes without sacrificing on comfort,'' says Vlatkovic. "If the home is well designed, you can even live more comfortably [than in a big home] because you don't have unused space that you have to clean, heat and furnish.''

Olive 8 is a development of 229 homes under construction atop the Hyatt, a full-service hotel and spa in the heart of Seattle's downtown retail neighborhood. Some condos are as small as 800 square feet, but the building will be Seattle's tallest residential tower. Using less land space by building up and not out didn't come without a price. In exchange for building higher, developer R.C. Hedreen paid almost $1 million to preserve Sugar Loaf Mountain County Park in rural King County, as well as other privately held land for salmon habitat.

And if it gets approval after the project is complete, Olive 8 will be the first hotel/condo building in Seattle to have Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification from the U.S. Green Building Council, company officials say. The project includes a sustainable roof where native and adapted plants will provide a habitat for birds, bees and butterflies, helping to promote biodiversity. The roof will also be water-efficient and use light-colored, reflective paving materials to deflect heat. Urban summertime temperatures tend to be higher than in rural areas because of pervasive expanses of concrete and asphalt.

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