Experiment 82

Tiny Houses

How low can you go (in square footage)?

The average home built in the United States in 2010 was 2,392 square feet. As part of our ongoing effort to question how much space, energy, and other resources we really need to use, we decided to see how two of our team fared in a somewhat smaller floorplan.

Tiny Houses, as some people call the compact living quarters designed to pack all the essentials into a little package, are popping up all over. Definitions vary, but these structures tend to be just a few hundred square feet. Trina, a CX Mentor and Training Assistant, and Brooke, a graphic designer, each spent a weekend at a tiny house and reported back on their experiences.

Why They Volunteered

An online photo of a tiny house in Montana sparked Trina’s interest in the alternative dwellings. “It was in the middle of the woods,” she recalls of the house in the photo. “I thought, how cool would it be if, working from home, I got to work in a house where all around me I had a 360 degree view of the wilderness. How cool would it be to come home every day and be here.”

Brooke says she wasn’t familiar with the Tiny House movement when FULL Creative CEO Michael Payne asked her to look into them. He wanted to offer our employees the chance to stay in a tiny house, he told her, “to change how the world works, lives, and vacations,” he explained, “and to reduce and reuse.”

Being a designer, it’s probably no surprise that the tiny houses’ designs drew Brooke in. Some of the dwellings she found online, she says, had amazing exteriors or spectacular sites. Others had creative solutions to the tight interior spaces. “How do the architects or, in many cases, just ordinary people, solve the problem of including everything one needs in a living space in a few hundred square feet?” she says. “It was really fun to look at the solutions—the stools tucked under the table that then slides off to the side, the bed that folds down from the wall, the wet baths, etc. It was incredible!”

First Impressions

Trina and her fiance, who live in Roseburg, Oregon, stayed at a cottage in Eugene of about 350 square feet. She had never been to Eugene before, and never taken a vacation with her fiance without her kids. “It was the coolest place. They had the heated floors, they had a full bathroom in there, they had a kitchen, they even had pans and stuff and a little burner that you could use. They had everything you would need in order to survive,” Trina says.

Brooke stayed at a 230-square-foot tiny house in Northeast Portland, just a mile or two from her home. “When I first walked in, I did a lot of squealing with delight,” Brooke says. “It was like I had a puppy in front of me or an itty bitty sock, but it was just a house. A really really small house. I picked up and examined every miniature object in the house—tiny glass, tiny teapot, tiny ice cubes. I was very excited.”

 

Setting

Each tiny house sat in the backyard of the respective owner’s house. “It was actually in their garden,” Trina says of the place in Eugene, “so if you ever were to go in the summertime, it must absolutely be beautiful there.” Brooke’s Portland house was similarly situated. “The house in general does a great job of letting in natural light,” she says. “One whole side is a glass accordion-fold door that can open all the way. I was absolutely in love with the open-air feel.”

Kitchen

Brooke brought some groceries with her, and quickly discovered one of the challenges of living in a tiny space. “Every drawer or cabinet in the kitchen was already filled,” she says. “I shoved my baguette on top of some rice and bean containers and then fit a tomato or avocado in-between each one. A lot went into the teeny tiny mini fridge!”

Trina took advantage of the recommendations of her tiny house’s owners, who gave her two pages of recommendations of restaurants and other Eugene destinations. Meanwhile, FULL treated her to dinner at McMenamin’s, a local chain known for repurposing unusual buildings as brewpubs. “It was pretty cool. McMenamin’s is fun,” she says.

When Brooke set out to make a simple dinner of chicken, salad, and bread, she discovered that the two-burner stove didn’t work. Luckily, there was a hot plate. “I forgot dressing for the salad,” she says, “so I had to make do with the only condiments in the house—rice vinegar and teriyaki sauce. The teriyaki and rice vinegar salad was interesting, but not terrible.”

Bathroom

Trina’s tiny house in Eugene had a stand-up shower and toilet. “For being a tiny place,” she says, “it was a really good-sized bathroom.” At Brooke’s Portland tiny house, the bathroom was separated from the rest of the space by a curtain rather than a door. “You must be really comfortable with your housemate if you’re sharing the room,” she says. Just getting into the bathroom proved challenging. “I hit my back against one side, made a slight adjustment, then hit my shoulder. Then I found the sweet spot in between the two,” Brooke says.

Sleeping

Brooke’s tiny house featured a loft bed above the kitchen alcove. “I climbed the ladder up into the loft bed, hit my head once on the ceiling, then again on the lamp, then got comfy,” she says, noting the Tempurpedic mattress was very nice. “There were a lot of sharp edges around my face and then a big dropoff to my right—a little bit scary. The skylight above my head was a nice touch, though, to make it feel less claustrophobic,” she says.

Trina’s cottage’s designers had found another solution to the problem of where to sleep: they installed a Murphy bed that folds up into the wall. She says the arrangement worked well for a short stay, but a loft might be preferable if she were to spend more time living in a tiny house. “We really discussed this. I was like, if we put the bed up, we could put a couch over here, so you could make it work,” she says.

The loft bed, Brooke found, did have some drawbacks—it wasn’t really big enough for two. When her boyfriend, who had a fever and wanted to sleep next to the heater, jumped down to the couch, she had more space. “There was just the right amount of light in the skylight to gradually wake me up in the morning,” Brooke says. “As I looked at my body taking up most of the bed, I decided it was really a one-man bed.”

Working

Trina’s weekend in the tiny house was purely a well deserved vacation. But Brooke wanted to see how it would be to both live and work in a tiny house. Things started well. “The sun shone far into the house and I had to keep moving the table back to shield my computer from the bright light,” she says. “But the heat felt so good at the end of February!”

Later, designer Evan and connections coordinator Kristen came by to visit and test the Work Anywhere waters. The four of them all worked on the patio until the sun became too bright. “We pulled the curtains back to shield the light from the interior,” Brooke says. “It still had a great feeling to it.” The Tiny House’s wifi did have some difficulty with four people sharing it—a good reminder that technology is critical when working from a remote location. An internet connection set up for browsing Yelp or watching Netflix may not have the bandwidth to accommodate an impromptu work party.

Exploring the Neighborhood

One of the benefits of staying in a tiny house is the opportunity to experience a different neighborhood. Trina and her fiancé hit the local mall, an old cemetery, and the campus of the University of Oregon, “which is amazing,” she says. “Absolutely beautiful. We just kind of hung out there. It was a blast.”

Brooke found the Florida Room at the end of the block. “It was a great place to get a beer, or perhaps a Bloody Mary on Sunday,” she says. In the morning, she checked out Coffeehouse 5 down the street. “It’s a nice and comfy space that I could imagine working in for a while,” she says.

Challenges

Of course, living in a tiny house comes with some challenges. “I washed some dishes before bed and the hot water never came on,” Brooke says. “I wondered if it was even hooked up. My fingers were white by the end.” The electricity in the Portland tiny house was also a bit feeble. “I had to be careful not to use more than one appliance at a time or it might blow the fuse,” she says. “I wanted to try not to do this because then I would have to call the owner immediately.”

Trina’s slightly larger tiny house had no such issues. “The only thing they didn’t have,” she says, “was a TV. I’m not really big on watching TV anyway, but I thought, the only thing this place needs is a TV and a DVD player, and you’d be all set.”

Wrapup

Both our explorers enjoyed their weekends in the tiny houses. For Trina, the experience was eye-opening and caused her to consider whether she could go tiny full time. “We actually talked about it,” she says. “If we didn’t have kids, I probably could do it for a while. Any more than two people is probably going to get too much. You’re probably going to kill each other. But if it’s just two people, you have what you need, there was plenty of space.”

As she returned home, Trina saw her living space in a different way. “Do we really need such a big house?” she asked herself, “do I need a big house with a two car garage? I mean, it’s nice to have those things, don’t get me wrong, but I think I would give up my house right now to go live in a tiny place. It was small but it had everything. So it kind of makes you re-evaluate the things that you have in your life and if you really actually need all that stuff.”

Brooke gave her experience a mostly positive review as well. “We loved our tiny house experience! It was so fun getting to live in another neighborhood for awhile. I would definitely recommend this house for a visit, but I don’t think it would be possible to live in unless the bed was a little lower. And maybe a door on the bathroom,” she says.

Back at home, Brooke was preparing for another move. As she considered two rental houses in Portland, her tiny house experience informed her thinking. The houses were just a block apart, but one was 1359 square feet, the other 832. “Living in the bigger house,” she says, “I could swing dance in the kitchen, host big parties, or have about 20 friends sleep over.” The smaller house, though, was $200 a month cheaper. The larger house, she decided, “was more space than I needed. Way more. I imagined myself buying a ton of furniture just so it wouldn’t look empty. We did all right with 230 square feet, so we should be fine with 3.5 times more space.”