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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.

It all traced back to two summers spent living in a 100-square-foot canvas yurt on an ashram in New York. (A yurt is a tent-like dwelling built around a circular frame that was first used by sheep-herding nomads in central Asia; an ashram is a place of religious retreat.) The experience left Chase Rogers convinced that she was ready to join the growing number of people nationwide who are downsizing for the sake of saving money, minimizing energy use and reducing their carbon footprint.

"You could [stand in the middle of it and] stretch your arms out and touch the walls,'' says Rogers, 40. "What I realized was that I didn't need that much. What was important to me was nature -- preserving it, and being near it." Rogers grew up in a sprawling 10-room home in the upscale community of Greenwich, Connecticut, and was living in a 2,300-square-foot home in New York when she moved to the ashram.

"I had all the material things and all this space but something was missing," says the writer and graphic designer. "I got rid of all the things and had less space and I realized I didn't need that much to be happy."

She's not alone. A growing number of people in the U.S. are downsizing their homes in response to the collapse of the housing market, rising energy prices and concern for the environment. The trend has long moved in the opposite direction, with the average American home size, about 2,500 square feet, up 140% from the 1950s.

"Housing has always been this competitive sport and there has always been a negative connotation to being small,'' says Genevieve Ferraro, who lives outside Chicago and runs a website called The Jewel Box Home, dedicated exclusively to small-home living. "Status has been acquired by trading up and moving up. But in my opinion, the new status symbol is not how you display it but how you do it responsibly. The best way to be a responsible environmental citizen is to stay in a smaller house or go to a small house because you are automatically consuming less.''

There are small-house blogs, websites and organizations such as the Small House Society. There are books like Little House on a Small Planet (Lyons Press) by carpenter and designer Shay Salomon and The Not So Big House (Taunton) by architect Sarah Susanka, and a growing number of mainstream resources teaching people they can live in less space and have more time to enjoy it.

"I wonder if the small-house movement is like clothing styles," muses Gregory Paul Johnson, who along with Jay Shafer, Salomon and Nigel Valdez founded the Small House Society. The organization promotes the research and development of affordable and ecologically responsible small houses. "They say you can keep the same clothing and it will eventually be back in style again. Relatively small homes were definitely the norm in decades past. Then big became the norm. Listen to the song 'Big Time' by Peter Gabriel. We like big cars, big homes, big televisions, big churches, even 'Super Sized' meals, which cause us to become big." Johnson lives in a 140-square-foot home dubbed the "The Mobile Hermitage" designed by Shafer's Tumbleweed Tiny House Company in Sebastopol, California, and wrote of the life lessons he learned there in the book Put Your Life on a Diet (Gibbs Smith). His Iowa City home features cedar siding, a metal roof, double-pane windows and a small deck. The walls, floors and cabinets are made of thick pine.

Tiny Texas House styles include this "Rustic Farmhouse," with an artist studio interior.
© Tiny Texas Houses

But finding a home designer who will think small can be a challenge. Rogers says she could easily be happy living in 50 square feet (about the size of a standard laundry room) if she could find the right design. But designers tried to steer her away from an 850-square-foot home with attached studio. Then she met Dragana Vlatkovic, the founder of d-v design in New York. "I had a client who was interviewing contractors for a home that he wanted to make energy efficient, but comfortable for cooking," Vlatkovic says. "He was consistently being told that he would need to add 500 square feet."

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