Go small or go home: how the tiny house movement got so big

We look into why so many people are looking to downsize – and how we can apply some of the movement's principles to our own humble abodes

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Design Pics Inc/Shutterstock (9683350a)
Tiny House ready for transport, near Kenai Alaska, United States of America
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

The general philosophy of property seems to be that bigger is better. When we venture out from our parents' house and rent or buy our "starter home", we're usually looking at something relatively small. Then, when we get married, we might upgrade, certainly when children come along. We get more space for the extra people and the increasing amount of stuff we accumulate as life goes on.

But there is a growing group of people who have decided that constantly striving for more isn’t the way to live your best life. These people are downgrading the size of their homes in a rather extreme way in order to upgrade their lifestyles. They are the proponents of the tiny house movement, and they are gaining more followers all the time. 

Let's face it, tiny houses aren't new. From Mongolian yurts and Native American tepees to traditional vardo – the colourful horse-drawn caravans historically used by British Romani people – dwellers have been living in small, mobile homes for centuries. But, these days they are in the minority, with more people living in permanent, solid ­structures that are bigger – oftentimes significantly so – than the tiny portable properties of the past. So where did the modern tiny house movement spring from?

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 27: An interior view of the Tiny House during Booking.com's "Tiny House With Big Personality" Curated By Kevin Hart on September 27, 2018 in New York City.   Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for Booking.com/AFP

US designer Jay Shafer is credited with kicking things off in 1999, when he founded the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company and published an article on the merits of simple living. But there are others who have contributed, including Lester Walker, author of Tiny Houses: or How to Get Away From It All (1987), and Sarah Susanka, whose 1998 book The Not So Big House was a bestseller and led to her forming the Not So Big franchise.

Today, the idea is mainstream enough to have its own TV show, Tiny House Nation, which is available on Netflix. It first aired in 2014 and it is currently on its fifth season. The trend has also grown hand-in-hand with the minimalism movement. From Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus's popular blog, The Minimalists, and their book Everything That Remains, to Marie Kondo and her book, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, we've ­become obsessed with decluttering and trying to live in a more simple way.

The popularity of extreme downsizing can be attributed to many things. In the US, one key factor was the housing crisis of 2008, which led many to rethink their large mortgages. For American blogger Jenna Spesard, of Tiny House Giant Adventure, it's about freedom and travel. "I was working full time at a job I hated, just to pay the rent," she writes. "Then, one day, I decided to change my life. I downsized, built a tiny house, and found freedom. Now I'm a full-time happiness addict with the freedom to travel the world on a part-time job, and I'm never turning back. So far I've visited 28 countries around the globe."

But it’s not just Americans who have bought into the tiny house philosophy – you can find examples around the world, from Japan to Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Spain and the UK. 

Journalist John Henzell embraced minimalism while living in the UAE. Although his 50-square-metre studio in Abu Dhabi was larger than the approximate 11 square metres that defines a tiny house, he still needed to apply the same principles.

In an article for The National, he listed his incentives as the high cost of accommodation and a desire to reduce his carbon footprint by having less space to cool with air-conditioning. "An added benefit was that having a unique design would also avoid one of my pet hates: walking into a friend's home and feeling like I'd crossed through a portal leading to Ikea's showroom," he wrote.

John Henzell's space-smart Abu Dhabi studio. Ravindranath K / The National

The tiny house movement is as much a philosophy about living in a simple and ­minimalistic way as it is a design trend. So, naturally, it has led to some wonderfully innovative and stylish design elements, too. And many of these can be just as effectively applied within a more traditionally sized house, with benefits that include huge savings on space, a reduction in clutter and the ability to create multifunctional rooms.

Chances are, you aren’t quite ready to ditch the majority of your possessions and move yourself into a 2.5 metre by six metre house just yet – if ever – but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy some of the practical benefits of this trend in your own home, whatever size it is. Here are a few ways to make that happen.

Find a place for everything

Tiny houses can get messy ­really fast, so their owners follow the adage of having a place for everything and ­putting everything in its allocated slot. Set yourself a goal of having a good old tidy up and notice where there isn't enough room. Those are the areas to focus on when it comes to decluttering or storage.

Get rid of anything you don’t need

Speaking of decluttering, you're going to find it a lot easier to keep everything in its place if there's less "­everything" to sort out in the first place. From creating a capsule wardrobe to following Kondo's advice and keeping only those items that "spark joy", get rid of as much as you can so that you're living with the tiny house minimalist philosophy.

Go for multipurpose

One trick for reducing the amount of stuff you have in your home is to choose multifunctional items. From a combination washer-dryer to a bench that doubles up as a trunk, it's all about a clever combination of functionality that saves you space.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Felipe Trueba/EPA/Shutterstock (8594904a)
People look at the interior of a home unit, a small mobile living space, part of a project of the Tiny House University at the Bauhaus Archive Museum of Design in Berlin, Germany, 10 April 2017. The Bauhaus Campus is an artistic experiment composed of 'Tiny Houses', mobile architectural structures no larger than a parking space, approaching topics such as minimal living space, co-working or study programs for refugees.
Tiny House project in Berlin, Germany - 10 Apr 2017

Ditch unnecessary furniture 

Do you really need bedside tables? With clip-on reading lamps that attach to your bed and a small shelf above your headboard to hold essentials, you can free up a lot of space in your bedroom. A lot of furniture is bulkier than it needs to be and doesn't take advantage of the full height of your room, so consider whether you could replace it for something taller and slimmer that gives you a little more floor space.

Use the full height of your room

Tiny houses may have limited floor space, but they still need to be tall enough to accommodate normal-sized adults. This means wall storage becomes very important and no spare inch is left unused. If you're building a bookshelf, for example, let it go right up to the ceiling and even over the door. If you have very high ceilings you can build a mezzanine level to give you an extra room – this works especially well for bedrooms where you don't need to stand up in the space.

Melissa Meshey walks out of her tiny home called Grackle, built at Liberation Tiny Homes, on June 5, 2019 in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania. - In a country where bigger is nearly always better -- think supersize fries, giant cars and 10-gallon hats -- more and more Americans are downsizing their living quarters.  Welcome to the world of tiny homes, most of them less than 430 square feet (40 square meters), which savvy buyers are snapping up for their minimalist appeal and much smaller carbon footprints. (Photo by Don Emmert / AFP)

Turn everything into storage

If you walk around your house with a tiny house mindset, you'll see that there are so many spaces that are being wasted and could be turned into storage. Tiny-house-­dwellers construct drawers under their stairs and their beds, they fit miniature shelves into awkward gaps and put hanging rails in all sorts of places. Where could you fit extra storage?

Only have things out when you need them

From fold down or expandable tables to pull-out or sofa beds and folding chairs that can be stacked in a cupboard, there's no need to have everything out all the time. Think how much less cluttered your home would look if your bed was tucked away under the sofa during the day, or if you only used your dining table at full width when you had guests round. 

By applying tiny house principles you'll be able to upgrade your space without needing to move somewhere bigger. You might even be able to downsize and save yourself money by choosing a smaller apartment. There's no need to ditch your home altogether – "tiny house" is a mindset, after all.