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7 things I learned from spending 36 hours in a tiny house

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The experience was chock full of surprises

Swoon over or roll your eyes at them, tiny houses are hard to overlook these days. They’re shared obsessively across Pinterest and appear in a bajillion cable TV shows, all while making headlines around the country as an affordable housing alternative. If, though, you live in a high-density urban area unfavorable to backyard tiny home projects, the easiest way to get a taste of one may be driving out to a tiny house for rent.

I had the chance to check out one such operation a few weekends ago. Getaway—the Harvard-grown startup that lets you book woodland tiny houses starting at $99 a night—recently expanded from the original three cabins outside Boston to three more north of New York City. According to the company, customers so far have been a mix of urban dwellers hoping to unplug and reconnect with nature and folks who are curious about the tiny house lifestyle. I, along with my guest, Sharon, fall into both camps.

micro-week

After covering tiny houses day in and day out here on Curbed, I was ready to finally see one in the flesh. I’m pretty tiny myself—measuring 5-foot-tall with shoes on—so fitting comfortably into the micro dwelling would be no problem. Less certain are things like: Is our tiny house, the 160-square-foot "Maisie" with a glorious bedside window, as impressive as it looks in promo photos? Could I see myself going tiny for the long term? Would we survive with the 15 (!!) total flushes supplied for our two-night stay (or would we have to call someone to refill the toilet cartridge?)

36 hours later, my questions were more or less answered. Without further ado, here’s an organized account of my thoughts about the tiny house recorded while living in it, ranging from the practical to the big picture.

A view inside the "Maisie," which features two tiers of bench seating, one top platform for the bed, and a lengthy counter with a sink to the side.

1. Less space for you means less space for bugs, tooand that’s not a good thing.

Though the Maisie is as mindfully designed and tidy as it appears on the Getaway website, we soon realized we’d be sharing it with bugs, lots of bugs, from the giant ants that would creep out of nowhere twice an hour to the incredibly nimble fly that could zoom from one end of the tiny house to the other in two seconds (and kept doing it.). While insects may be harder to detect and easier to ignore in a larger apartment or house, crossing paths with them was inevitable in a tiny house. We devised a system to fling the ants out the door after luring them onto a paper towel, but were virtually helpless against the supersonic fly until our final morning there, when I inadvertently trapped it in the tiny bathroom. Ahh, serenity at last.

2. For better or worse, senses are amplified.

This seems obvious, but everything really is exaggerated in a tiny house. When you first get inside, the tiny house will smell overwhelmingly like the wood it was made from. When you’re sitting down and someone moves at the other end of the house, you will feel it under your derriere. When acorns (that’s our guess, anyway) fall onto the house, it will be thunderous, and you will wonder if the whole thing will split right open.

3. The toilet situation is really, really weird.

If for any reason you want to leave this part a surprise, please skip this one. I wish I could show you Sharon’s face when she emerged from the bathroom after valiantly taking the inaugural flush. "It’s really weird," she said. "I can’t describe it." I followed suit, and understood. Here are some words that came to mind: Outerspacey! Creature-like! Suck, twist, deflate! We conspired to take a video of the process if we had any of the 15 flushes left over on the last day, but surprise, we didn’t. I do have this diagram, though.

After I returned home, I did do research and found out it’s the DryFlush, a toilet innovation ideal for small, off-grid dwellings. There’s even a video.

4. The shower was surprisingly easy to use yet unexpectedly small.

As someone who gets low-key stressed about figuring out shower handles in hotels or other unfamiliar places, the shower in the Maisie was new and straightforward, which suggests that going tiny doesn’t preclude modern conveniences—a certain quality of life can be preserved.

The shower was also raised so there's even less headspace.

What I didn’t expect was how cramped it would feel. Measuring no more than three by three feet, the space was tight even for me. In fact, anyone over 5-foot-4 might have a hard time. Whereas I once looked at tiny showers in tiny houses and thought, how neat that they could fit it in (with sleek stainless steel details, no less), I would now recall the claustrophobia and think that just because something can be done doesn’t mean it will be a pleasant experience.

Ahh...

5. Windows are the angel and the devil.

The hands-down best part of this tiny house was the huge window (which is also seen in other tiny house models like the Escape Vista.) The view out to the seemingly endless stone wall and woods was magical and transcendent—instant Walden vibes without Thoreau’s inner turmoil. The only con? What’s so divine and space-enlarging in the day suddenly becomes disappointingly oppressive at night.

Sigh, come back pretty views.

And at times, while I rested next to the big window, I felt akin to an animal in a cage on display. Something about the scale of the window compared to the rest of the house make it feel almost exhibitionist. An important factor that sets this tiny house apart from the tiny houses that people are trying to live in full-time is the setting. Should tiny houses get more mainstream, they may be placed in denser urban yards or lots. With no placid view but passersby potentially walking about, the luxury of an oversized window might actually lose its appeal.

6. Design matters.

After spending more time in the tiny house, as well as venturing out for quick hikes and a trip to a local grocery store, I began to feel that the Maisie works great as a place to return to after a day of outdoor activities—which is what it’s supposed to be—but perhaps not so much as a full-time home.

I’d aspired to figure out my life in this tiny house. I thought that without reliable cell service and other distractions, I’d be able to escape the daily grind and think broadly and critically, do some real sketches, journal. But all I ended up doing there, aside from preparing food and cleaning afterwards, was lie down, read A Little Life, nap, repeat. For me, a home should have a proper place for everything I might have to do, whether that’s entertaining friends, read, work, or eat. The beauty of the Maisie—its clean, flexible design—also encouraged me to do nothing at all except lounge at all the different lounge spots.

Of course, it’s difficult if not impossible to fit distinct living areas in 160 square feet, which is on the small end of the tiny house spectrum. If I were to go tiny for a longer stretch of time, I would for sure get something that’s well over 200 square feet, perhaps with a fold-down dining table, built-in sofa, and a more separated sleeping area so I won’t unintentionally end up there for hours.

The neat, long dining/kitchen counter quickly turned into a mess with all our stuff.

7. Tiny houses are great for the handy, DIY extraordinaire.

Throughout my stay, I could feel a lurking anxiety, awakened whenever we run the sink for 20 straight seconds and something under us starts grumbling, or when the toilet had a hiccup and we had to do a few flushes in row to get it working properly again. Our tiny house had lots of cool features, but I kept fearing that something would break, and we’d be screwed.

I’m not the most well-versed in home maintenance, so I can’t help but think that I’d be better off in a regular apartment or house, where if something is messed up, I can call building management or some external home services company to come and fix things. And when they come, they’d know what to do, because my home would more or less have standard features, and they’d be able to order new parts with no problem.

When it comes to tiny houses, where so many things have to be customized and hitting the road to remote locales is often the goal, being able to lift up the hood and figure out how to keep things running becomes of utmost importance. We didn’t have to this time around, thankfully, and even if we did, there was someone to call.

Bye Maisie!


Watch: Decor tips for living in a tiny cottage

A view inside the "Maisie," which features two tiers of bench seating, one top platform for the bed, and a lengthy counter with a sink to the side.