Tiny houses: A growing trend?

During the height of the recent recession, with foreclosures in the news daily and the building industry almost at a standstill, the concept of the tiny house emerged into the mainstream.

These miniscule structures, usually well under 1,000 square feet, began to appear in the media and all across the Web. Many are only about 100 square feet, bringing to mind the roadside rental cabins of years gone by that housed a bed, bureau and bathroom – and not much else.

Some look like rustic cabins, while others are minimalist cubes or whimsical fairy-tale cottages.

Inside they’re charming and efficient, reminiscent of a ship’s cabin or gypsy caravan in the way they make the most of each and every inch. High ceilings and open space counteract the perhaps claustrophobic feeling they might cause.

As a result of the trend, companies like Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, established in the 1990s, have seen explosive growth. Tumbleweed sells pre-built trailer-transported homes from 69 square feet to 172 square feet and, in addition, offers plans for houses up to 1,000 square feet.

Affordability, minimal environmental impact, and desire for a simpler lifestyle are all reasons cited by tiny house advocates for downsizing their living space. These attitudes give a cachet to Lilliputian living that counters the mindset of regarding ever-larger homes as a marker of success.

The U.S. census tracks new construction by square footage, reporting data by size category, location and total units versus contractor and owner-built. Average square footage is used by the real estate and construction industry to track general trends.

The year 2007 was the watershed year, when 45 percent of new single-family homes were 2,400 square feet or larger. That is also the year the largest average size ever was reached at 2,521 square feet. Looking back through the decades, in 1977 the average was 1,720; 1987, 1,905; and 1997, 2,150.

In 2008, the average declined only to 2,510 from the peak of 2,521, but after averages dropped in 2009 (2,438) and 2010 (2,392), industry experts were concerned that shrinkage was a long-term trend. However, the drop was short-lived.

In 2011, the average rose to 2,480, and in 2013, to 2,505, closing in on the peak size again.

Does this reversal mean that tiny houses were just a short-lived fad? Looking more closely at the data, the big growth in small house construction has occurred in the owner-built category.

Considering houses under 1,400 square feet, the percentages have always been weighted toward owner-built. For example in 2001, they made up 10 percent of all houses, 13 percent of contractor-built, and 16 percent of owner-built. Then in 2008, the percentages for owner-built spiked to over 20 percent. In 2010 and 2012, 26 percent of all owner-built homes were smaller than 1,400 square feet.

Other trends could impact the future of the tiny house. For one, the Baby Boomer generation, the largest in history, is now beginning to retire. Retired households are often small, consisting of a couple or a single adult.

According to Tumbleweed, a good number of their homes are being built as second homes, providing a very affordable option. Small homes are also used as retreats, offices or guest homes. For younger households, tiny houses can function as starter homes, with additions as the family grows.

In any case, the tiny house is an example of how the industry can quickly adapt to ever-shifting customer desires and demands.