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From Houses on Sticks to Cabins on Wheels: The Wide World of Tiny Living

Jan 18, 2011 – 7:40 AM
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Dave Thier

Dave Thier Contributor

Forget walk-in closets, indoor pools and multiple dens. In the world of the great recession, it's the little things that are making the biggest splash in the housing market.

Tiny housing is going through a renaissance, and for many architectural experimenters, whether it's a 65-square-foot cabin loaded onto a trailer, an ultra-efficient cube or a repurposed shipping container, small is beautiful.

Many tiny living units are simple, practical attempts at maximizing efficiency in housing, from small cabins in the country to city apartments that do their best not to feel cramped. Other projects are just weird, like when a Beijing man spent two months living in a strange little egg covered in grass seeds.

Or the house on a stick, which turns out to be pretty much what it sounds like.

And if you're going to have a really small living space, you'd better have furniture that's more flexible. Transformer furniture has exploded far beyond the uncomfortable sofa bed, from desks that fit into suitcases to ovens that turn into lounges.

A finalist of the 2009 Reece Bathroom Innovation Award was an entire bathroom that folded into a wall unit.

Kent Griswold, editor of Tiny House Blog, sees modern interest in tiny spaces coming from a few different places, including an increasing awareness of environmental responsibility in the design community, a trend toward austerity during the recession and, for many of the cabin-builders he profiles, a desire to live without being responsible to a bank.

"I think economics has a huge influence on it," he told AOL News. "But even before that there was the kind of hippie trend -- a group of people who wind up more independent and not dependent on banks for mortgages."

Small houses present a challenge for the architecture community -- they require precision, attention and care. Without careful design, living in a closet just sort of feels like living in a closet.

Joeb Moore, an adjunct architecture professor at Columbia University, says interest in tiny spaces is cyclical -- people were interested in economy in the 1970s until the opulence of the '80s, and small homes saw a resurgence in the mid-'90s as well. He sees today's interest, in part, as a reaction to the McMansions of the early 2000s.

For him, small design is all about attention to detail and specificity.

"You have to be thoughtful and careful about how joints and things go together," he told AOL News. "You can't be as clumsy as you can with big open Sheetrock boxes. Everything needs to be tightened up, because you're right there, up against the detail. You have to be very aware of the ergonomics of the human body."

He also notes that while tiny houses may be a stylistic and economic trend in the Western world, it's Asia that's seeing the most growth in small living. Rapidly growing cities in countries such as China face twin challenges as they struggle to fit millions more people while simultaneously attempting to stem urban sprawl -- and small housing offers a possible solution.

In America, it remains to be seen how the collapse of the housing market will affect long-term trends in construction, but for now, tiny homes are in. And if they go out of style, most can probably double as closets.
Filed under: Money, Weird News, Economy, AOL Original
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