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The Surprising Origins of the Tiny House Phenomenon

Why ancient hermits are the key to understanding our tiny home obsession

Tiny houses are as variable as the people who love them. They can be gingerbread cottages or ice fishing shacks, sit on wheels or float on water. Some settle like dust motes in the wilderness, while others sprout in inner-city lots. What tiny houses have in common is their Lilliputian size (generally agreed to be no more than 400 square feet) and adoring followers. Their fans include Governor Jerry Brown of California, who at the age of 78 retreats with his wife to an unheated redwood cabin in the desert that is just big enough to hold the couple’s bed. They use an outhouse and huddle with their dogs for warmth.

Thanks to the early millennium real estate crisis, we are having a tiny-house moment. But there have been many such moments before. The current fad for miniaturized living has been traced most immediately to Sarah Susanka’s 1998 book The Not So Big House, which reached number one on Amazon and spawned a Not So Big franchise. Though Susanka’s work wasn’t about tiny houses per se, it sought to reverse the long obesity trend in residential architecture by arguing for the environmental benefits of small houses.

Before that, compact living spaces were a theme pursued separately by the artists Allan Wexler, starting in the 1970s, and Andrea Zittel, starting in the 1990s. In 1987, Lester Walker published the book Tiny Houses: Or How to Get Away From It All, sharing photographs and drawings of projects like a 192-square-foot prefabricated house that bolted together and a 56-square-foot shack built on a raft. Lloyd Kahn and Bob Easton brought out Shelter in 1973 to spread indigenous construction methods and small-house designs from around the world.

And so on down through the decades: The little pavilions surrounding Philip Johnson’s Glass House. Jean Prouvé’s 64-square-foot prefab cutie. Buckminster Fuller’s 314-square-foot Dymaxion Deployment Units, conceived as bombproof wartime shelters. Roadside shacks. Emergency cottages so appealing that displaced survivors of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake were reluctant to leave them. The Little House on the Prairie.

And of course every tour of history’s tiny houses stops at Henry David Thoreau’s 150-square-foot shingled cottage at Walden Pond, and Marie Antoinette’s 255-square-foot "Boudoir," part of a rustic building complex at Versailles.

But people who opt for tiny houses—meaning the kind that tug at heartstrings and star on cable—generally choose to live small. The reasons aren’t just practical, but also ethical and emotional.

Invariably, someone will remind you that civilization emerged from tiny houses—caves, yurts, tents, wigwams, igloos, grass huts, and so forth.

These early antecedents are beside the point. Sioux, Samoans, and Inuits were not offered more spacious alternatives. But people who opt for tiny houses—meaning the kind that tug at heartstrings and star on cable—generally choose to live small. The reasons aren’t just practical, but also ethical and emotional.

The idea that tiny-house advocates are a special subset of humanity is supported by at least 10 reality television shows today. The regular intro to the HGTV series Tiny House, Big Living asks the question: "Do you think you have what it takes to live in a tiny house?" No, but it would appear that the people on the show, who work with builders to design their own micro-domiciles, do. They are not the types that come to mind when you hear that Americans spend an average of 93 percent of their lives indoors. They are willing to forego flush toilets and suppress any urge to collect. The simple act of living modestly transmits a bold message about who they are.

From this perspective, the true parents of tiny-house living are hermits. From the ancient Chinese Taoists in mountain caves to the Desert Fathers of third century Christianity and onward (the word "hermit" derives from the Greek word for "desert"), hermits were the first people to actively downsize to confined, remote, and minimally furnished living spaces.

The ascetic impulse has cut across faiths and terrains—Himalayan Buddhists, Hindu forest dwellers, Russian Orthodox priests in the icy taiga—continuing to this day. We know there are at least 1,500 hermits in the world because that’s how many request the online newsletter published by Raven’s Bread Hermit Ministries out of western North Carolina. And while not all people who consider themselves hermits are religious in the traditional sense, many find a common mission in ridding themselves of possessions and gaining a purer relationship to nature.

Thoreau, that secular bard of hermit life, expressed this attitude powerfully. Writing in Walden about what he saw as an inverse relationship between lavish accommodations and an exalted spirit, he noted:

From the cave we have advanced to roofs of palm leaves, of bark and boughs, of linen woven and stretched, of grass and straw, of boards and shingles, of stones and tiles. At last, we know not what it is to live in the open air, and our lives are domestic in more senses than we think. From the hearth to the field is a great distance. It would be well perhaps if we were to spend more of our days and nights without any obstruction between us and the celestial bodies, if the poet did not speak so much from under a roof, or the saint dwell there so long. Birds do not sing in caves, nor do doves cherish their innocence in dovecots.

The longing for simplicity, economy, self-sufficiency, and oneness with the natural world, a sense that life on the margins is required to reorder one’s priorities—all of these hermit traits are typical of the contemporary tiny-house enthusiast, too.

What sets the two groups apart is hermits’ other significant inspiration, the need for solitude.

Building a self-contained, pint-size freestanding building, possibly surrounded by wilderness, is not the same as moving into a studio apartment or double-wide trailer. It takes a particular combination of grit and romance.

Many hermits shun company because they believe that society, no less than luxury, hinders spiritual life. Some Christian hermits are motivated by the desire to escape claustrophobic monasteries, where everyone eats, prays, and works together. This is not to say that hermits who take refuge in small, detached shelters are always isolated. From the earliest days, the public has sought out hermits for their counsel, sometimes with such enthusiasm that they drove the solitaries deeper into the desert or forest. But even in their nutshell lodgings, hermits find communion with something beyond themselves that gives a feeling of infinite space.

Writing about the hermitages of the Desert Fathers early in the first millennium, the modern-day author Peter France describes a simplicity so austere that it could belong to any period.

The hermitage would be a hut of stone with a roof made from branches. It had a door which could be closed and locked, for we often read of visitors knocking there. Inside was a reed stool on which to sit when working, a reed mat on which to sleep, and a sheepskin …. There was a lamp or candlestick, a jar of oil for the lamp and one of wine for visitors. There would also be another jar of brackish water for the hermit to drink and in which to steep the palm leaves to soften them for working. The preserved food would be dried peas and lentils, and these, after soaking could be cooked and seasoned with herbs from an outside garden.

In the early 20th century, Charles de Foucauld, a French-born hermit-monk, wrote of his long sojourn in North Africa,

One must pass through the desert and spend some time there in order to receive the grace of God; it is there that one empties oneself, that one drives away from oneself everything which is not God and that one empties completely the house of one’s soul in order to leave all of it to God alone.

De Foucauld’s lifestyle was Spartan. So Spartan that church authorities feared that if he succeeded in attracting recruits to a mission he had founded in western Algeria, the newcomers would perish from his daily regimen of fasting and prayer. Among his requirements were that helpers "be prepared joyfully to die of hunger and lack everything for Jesus," and that they "be prepared joyfully to have their heads cut off for Jesus." No one answered his call. In southern Algeria, on a parched, treeless plateau, he built a hermitage with stones and dry mud. It had a single room and no windows, just slits for ventilation. He was later murdered by a gang of Tuareg tribesmen.

It is their capacity for living alone, minimizing physical needs and maximizing spiritual rewards, that allows hermits to survive in tiny houses—and even then, sometimes only for short periods. Thoreau pulled it off for two years—bringing his laundry home for his mother to wash—before returning to conventional life in Concord, Massachusetts. About his decision to live austerely, he wrote in Walden, "I did not wish to spend my time in earning rich carpets or other fine furniture, or delicate cookery, or a house in the Grecian or the Gothic style just yet" (italics mine).

For non-hermits, full-time residency in a tiny house clearly can be torture. Most of us like company. Obtaining bank financing to build tiny homes or finding cities that allow owners to occupy them legally is part of the difficulty, but so is being crammed into a shoebox with a partner and maybe children. Watching Tiny House, Big Living, I wince at the couples with a baby or two as they plan their new homes, installing Murphy cribs and collapsible dining tables that double as cutting boards, crouching as they ascend stairs with built-in storage to reach their unprivate loft beds. The episodes always end with the family newly settled. If it were a horror movie, this would be exactly when the teenagers break out the bongs and have sex. Doom seems right around the corner.

But don’t take my word for it. A recent article in the Toronto Globe and Mail questioned the sustainability—in human terms—of tiny-house living. The article singled out couples who moved out of their tiny homes soon after the reality show cameras blinked off. It also cited both an environmental psychologist and a design expert on the health dangers of overcrowding and quoted a few tiny-house apostates. "At the end of the year, I was seriously worried I was going to have a heart attack from stress," the former resident of a 150-square-foot house on four acres in Arkansas recalled. She and her husband "looked at each other, and decided, then and there, to sell the land, with the house on it, and walk away."

Chuck Wendig, who blogs at the site Terrible Minds, unleashed his skepticism of tiny-house living in a colorful 2,650-word rant published in April. Here is a small portion directed specifically at families with children and pets:

Your kids do not want to live that close to you. Or to each other. Your dogs want to run and jump and — I mean, they’re not hamsters, you understand that, right? They’re not hamsters, and you’re not diminutive little fairy creatures, and tiny houses are not houses, they’re GI Joe playsets, they’re hipster sepulchers, they’re absurdist shoebox dioramas. I admire your desire to lean into austerity and trim the fat from your life, but unless you have a huge property, shoving a family of 6 into one of these turtle terrariums is something some people have to do, but they wouldn’t choose to do it, y’know?

Wendig doesn’t spare single people, either: Recent college grads, musicians, widowers, "aging hippies," "yarn ladies"—in his mind, anyone who lives in a tiny house—have succumbed to an infantile fantasy. As if "tiny house" weren’t belittling enough, he also describes the buildings as dollhouses, hobbit houses, and "Keebler Elf Trees."

The longing for simplicity, economy, self-sufficiency, and oneness with the natural world; a sense that life on the margins is required to reorder one’s priorities—all of these hermit traits are typical of the contemporary tiny-house enthusiast, too.

In sneering at the aesthetic charm of tiny houses, Wendig attacks the movement’s very roots. Implied in his rant is the question of motives: Is the building type popular because it is economical and sustainable, fostering noble values and family cooperation, or is it immature? Does the small scale allow efficient management of resources, or despotic control of one’s surroundings? (Children may be powerless everywhere else, but they’re the kings and queens of their playhouses.) When the fantasy of an arrested child bumps against the need for balanced society and privacy, how can the outcome be anything but disastrous?

The tiny house as regressive fantasy shelter has antecedents that go beyond Marie Antoinette and her courtiers dressing as peasants in their faux farm cottages—or, for that matter, beyond the modern man cave. One of the oddest moments in design history came in the 18th century, when British aristocrats commissioned elaborate landscapes for their estates on which ornamental follies had been built as … hermitages. Some of these little dwellings suggested a resident hermit through the arrangement of props; visitors would peek in to find a book and half-eaten loaf left on a table. Others were furnished with stuffed facsimiles of hermits, posed in a contemplative way. Yet others were occupied by real men who pretended to be hermits with scraggy beards and uncut nails. Sometimes the estate’s owner filled that job, but there were notorious cases in which the "hermits" were hired through newspaper ads or posted notices.

Why did the most frivolous and most severe of tiny-house traditions come together in this period? Gordon Campbell, an authority on garden hermits (yes, there is one), sees the unkempt wild man, who lives beyond society in sympathy with nature, as a mascot of the changing temper of the Age of Enlightenment. What had previously been orderly and refined—those terms applying both to landscapes and human behavior—was becoming rugged and spontaneous. "The hermitage and its corporeal or imagined hermit," Campbell writes in his 2013 book The Hermit in the Garden,"represented the sympathy of the person of sensibility for the natural world, and the emotional insights afforded by melancholic withdrawal." In the Romanticism of the early 19th century, when sensibility overwhelmed sense and poets like Coleridge and Wordsworth spread the gospel of nature, the rebellious garden hermit grew passé and ultimately devolved into the garden gnome. Hermitages disappeared from aristocratic properties. Now we have tree houses.

It’s a given today that those who live in tiny homes are not expected to be as antisocial as hermits. On a recent episode of the FYI show Tiny House Nation, a woman named Carol spoke for many of her peers when she said, "I see going tiny as a way of getting rid of distractions and being closer as a family …. What I wanted is not to be cleaning the house but to be connecting with the children." She and her husband, Clayton, had two sons, ages 3 and 2, at the time they were building a 400-square-foot house in Aloha, Oregon. I hope they’re still there and not in line for a fantasy HGTV show that Chuck Wendig imagines:

a follow-up WHERE ARE THEY NOW special and 75% of you will have died in murder-suicide schemes, having gone mad not in the labyrinthine expanse of The Shining hotel but rather gone cuckoo bananapants inside the claustrophobic MRI machine you decided to call home.

But hermits and tiny households don’t necessarily share an antimaterialist impulse. Also on Tiny House Nation, a young couple was driving the show’s designer cuckoo bananapants with their demand for space for multiple hobbies in their 250-square-foot home. Eventually some ingenious storage solutions solved the problem.

Is the building type popular because it is economical and sustainable, fostering noble values and family cooperation, or is it immature?

Meng-hu, the pseudonymous editor of a website for hermits called Hermitary, recently wrote about what might seem like a promising trend: millennials paring down their possessions. In fact, Meng-hu noted, it is not that millennials are deaccessioning so much as that they benefit from the shrinking and transparency of consumer products, especially features on smartphones and tablets. "The application of new technologies to everything from automobiles to banking to shopping to learning foster the illusion of simplicity even while increasing dependence on larger infrastructure, corporate control, and easier surveillance."

When millennials insist on limiting their books, clothing, and furniture, Meng-hu goes on, they are not necessarily embracing a simpler way of life. They know they can—if they are among the subset of millennials who have the financial resources—replace such objects easily through digital marketplaces and two-day delivery. "In this case, minimalism is resistance to the temptation to buy too much because of minimal living space rather than the virtue of abstinence."

Living small, in other words, has grown more convenient, and convenience is not the way of the hermit. But to what extent is simplicity really a virtue? Meng-hu refers to the stranglehold of post-industrial commercial culture with its noisy demands, lapses in conscience and incursions on privacy. There is an urge to disentangle oneself from the weeds and live in peaceful self-sufficiency. But to do that one has to have much mettle and shed many passions.

Michel de Montaigne, the 16th-century humanist philosopher who was not above withdrawing into a tower for contemplation and essay writing, considered lonely self-abnegation fine for people who warm themselves with thoughts of the hereafter. But Montaigne wasn’t ready to give up his earthly pleasures. In his essay "Of Solitude," he wrote:

Wiser men, having a strong and vigorous soul, can make for themselves a wholly spiritual repose. But I, who have a commonplace soul, must help support myself by bodily comforts; and since age has lately robbed me of those that were more to my fancy, I train and sharpen my appetite for those that remain and are more suitable to this present season. We must hold on, tooth and nail, to our enjoyment of the pleasures of life, which our years tear, one after another, from our hands.

Affordable, attractive housing for commonplace souls. It may not be a reality series, but it’s what we really need.

Editor: Sara Polsky

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