Is bigger always better?

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Like many of us, I end up on a lot of unintentional Internet treasure hunts. One article, photo, video, or blurb will lead me to another, then another, then another. Before I know it, an hour or two has passed and I’ve forgotten what I sat down to find in the first place. Nevertheless, the Web is where I establish most of my day-to-day fascinations, from DIY projects to miniature pigs. Maybe it’s because I always wanted a treehouse as a child, but my latest preoccupation is with tiny houses. Tiny houses are, by their very definition, incredibly small. Ranging anywhere from 70 to 870 square feet but rarely exceeding 500, they are simply-built dwellings, the smallest of them attached to trailers for reasons of mobility and legality. Since modern building codes account for minimum house sizes, egress requirements, ceiling heights, and other factors, most tiny houses are constructed on wheels, allowing them to be classified as a semi-trailer or mobile home. Of course, this still leaves the issue of where to permanently park one’s teensy household, since time limits are imposed on the parking of recreational vehicles, and land prices and zoning regulations are often prohibitive.

Many tiny house dwellers of the mobile sort rely on merciful friends, family, and neighbors in order to keep their homes in one spot. So, why live in a tiny house, anyway? Most adopters of the tiny house movement identify sustainability and minimalism as their primary motivators. They seek a simpler way of life, one with a greater sense of freedom and little to no debt. Some desire an off-the-grid, carbon-neutral existence, utilizing solar or wind power to supply basic utilities. They don’t want to spend their weekends mowing a half-acre lawn or dusting five bedrooms’ worth of furniture. They don’t want to be house-poor or feel imprisoned by mortgage payments. While living in a 10-by-8 portable room isn’t suitable for everyone, we can all learn something from this downsizing crusade. The average American home has more than doubled in size since the 1950s, when a family of four or five coexisted happily enough in about 1,000 square feet, often sharing a single bathroom in the process. A typical family castle in the U.S. now stands at about 2,400 square feet, give or take a storage closet.

Our culture has developed new names to christen our ever-expanding collection of spaces: man cave, bonus room, game room, craft room, media room. HGTV broadcasts one show after another in which couples balk at a home with “only” 5,000 square feet of living space or gaze despairingly at a master bathroom with only one sink. And is all of this space making us happier? Many studies suggest not. An increasing body of research on happiness suggests that experiences, rather than material possessions, bring us greater contentment and satisfaction. The economic downturn has proved that mortgaging one’s future for a second garage and a fourth full bath does little to increase overall happiness; if anything, one could argue that the increased financial pressure has a negative impact on a person’s well-being.

Here on Long Island, we’re no strangers to large houses. It’s a common site to watch small capes and bungalows—considered comfortable homes in the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s — get swallowed up by dormers and additions, victims of a suburban Manifest Destiny. Even my own home, which we suspect had its humble beginnings as an 800-square-foot kit house, has undergone two modest expansions in its 75 years, with prior owners closing in the front porch and adding a small addition at the back to create an eat-in kitchen and pantry. A few other former bungalows in my neighborhood now sport second floors and sunrooms. While it may not be considered “tiny,” my small-for-Long-Island house offers a certain coziness and simplicity that larger spaces often lack. I can see most of the house from the front door.

There’s only one bathroom to clean. There’s also the benefit of lower utility bills, less yard work, and a walking-distance proximity to the train (which may have delivered my house in pieces decades ago), restaurants and stores. Although I may not move into a house the size of my detached garage anytime soon, I see the appeal in a humble home and am fascinated by the ingenuity with which many of these tiny spaces are designed. Who says you can’t put a chef’s-quality kitchen in a closet-sized space? And create storage almost anywhere? If you’re anything like me and I’ve sparked your curiosity enough to start an Internet treasure hunt of your own, Tumbleweed Tiny House Company and Four Lights Houses are two of the foremost builders and advocates of tiny houses here in the United States, and Tiny House Blog provides a wealth of information on “living simply in small spaces.” Kristen Lavelle is a marketing communications manager with H2M. She can be reached at