The Incredible Shrinking House

Dramatic downsizing is forcing us to consider a psychological shift.

I’ve lived in a New York City shoebox apartment, the kind where the bathroom is in the kitchen and the bed is above the refrigerator, literally. Back then, tiny was more of a price consideration than a conscious one. Nowadays, small is the new cool with professionals, artists, sustainability activists and Tiny House People vying for less (and less) space by choice. Consider it a backlash against the McMansion era, an unsustainable trend wherein vast swathes of suburban and exurban landscape were razed to erect prefab palaces for anyone with enough cash burning in their pocket, regardless of whether or not they could afford it.

Thanks to small space advocates like Treehugger’s Graham Hill, Tumbleweed Tiny House Company’s Jay Shafer, and George Jetson’s architect of record Nano Systems, this is the year of the smaller and vastly more environmentally considerate house that actually is affordable, in principal and derivative. But by constructing and modulating on as small a scale as possible, are we over-correcting?

Tumbleweed Tiny House Company’s “Weebee” model

Shafer’s Tiny House plans start as small as 65 square feet. That’s pretty tiny, though he’s living comparatively large in a 96-square foot home north of San Francisco in Sonoma County, an area known for particularly pricey homes.

Treehugger’s Hill crowd-sourced designers to optimize his low-footprint, 420 square foot SoHo living space, inclusive of a home office, space for two guests to stay over, dining area fit for a feast for 12, and a lounge space for eight.

The Cube Project

And now this, the 3x3x3m Cube Project. That’s the standard size of a backyard storage shed, a fairly major foray into the miniscule.

The innovative structure, a true shelter if ever there was one, is quite genius if you can wrap your head around the idea of leading with your left foot everywhere you turn. The house is meant to “generate at least as much energy as it uses,” and features solar panels, cork floors, LED lighting throughout, a composting toilet and an Ecodan air-source heat pump. It’s suitable for one lithe individual and includes a lounge, dining table and two custom-made chairs, a double bed, full-size shower, kitchen, microwave oven and a washing machine, too.

The Cube, which made its debut at the Edinburgh International Science Festival, certainly challenged onlookers to reevaluate what they thought they knew about compact, low-carbon living.

But it also makes one wonder: Is this level of extreme downsizing healthy on a purely psychological level? My Manhattan “studio” apartment of yesteryear nearly landed me in an altogether different bin. Dr. Mike Page, a Reader in Cognitive Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire and creative force behind the project begs to differ. He believes that addressing climate change requires as much of a psychological shift as a technological one. “The Cube Project,” he says in his mission statement, “is an attempt to show that many of the technologies we need are already commonly available and at an affordable price. The question is why aren’t we using them?”

We’ve certainly seen the average size of the American home drop after 15 straight years of growth, a reasonable shift in the right direction. I suppose that because extreme micro-living, a concept that is leaps and bounds ahead of logical down/rightsizing, requires such a dramatic shift in our cultural paradigm that it can leave some of us feeling a bit claustrophobic. But such a shift is possible. Ask any Manhattanite.

Image: The Cube Project

K. Emily Bond

K. Emily Bond is the Shelter Editor at EcoSalon and currently resides in southern Spain, reporting on trends in art, design, sustainable living and lifestyle.