Thursday, September 21, 2017

Simple Things -- Tiny House Thoughts

Tiny house marketing on the teevee and in books and magazines likes to present relatively large, relatively expensive models over and over, models that are anything but "simple." They are often far more elaborate technologically and in every other way than they need to be to function. And of course when the price approaches or exceeds $100,000 one is understandably suspicious of the concept. Just what is going on here?

As I've suggested previously much of the "movement" is about a certain kind of almost entirely Anglo American individualism and showing off; much of the rest of it is pure marketing, hype and salesmanship. We're dealing with what amounts to an aging, formerly disruptive start up "industry". With a product that at best has a limited appeal. At worst, it's simply vanity.

And yet the tiny house idea began as an alternative to traditional urban/suburban American housing, the consumption society, an alternative that has Hippie roots, and one that was intended to become a feature of alternative lifestyles. You can still see early tiny houses, before there was a "movement," in some of the remaining communes from back in the day. Newly formed intentional communities also have unostentatious tiny houses. They tend to be self-built or community built and relatively simple, more like frontier-pioneer cabins than the current phase of the tiny house you find on television or on the proliferation of tiny house websites and in books and magazines.

Our home here in New Mexico began as a frontier "cabin." It is largely self built of adobe dug on the site, and it appears to have started with two rooms around 1900, each about 15x15. Not exactly tiny house standard, but not very big either. Additions followed much the same standard. Rooms continued to be added until the 1950s when the current ground plan was finalized (at least we haven't enlarged it. Yet.)

To me, that represents organic growth over decades, and living in this house now, with all its many quirks, seems quite natural. Sure, there are things we think about doing, improvements and even enlargements, but if they don't happen, the house is fine for us as it is. We don't think we need granite countertops and recessed lighting in every room.

Finishing The Studio presents certain challenges, the first of which is finding someplace else for the things stored in there. Some of it is reusable in The Studio -- things like the Deco tables mentioned in the previous post, a bookcase saved from my childhood, a chair or two, an old electric heater that works well, some cushions, etc. -- but much of the rest, including a wheelchair, walkers, paintings and frames and other things need other homes. We'll find some other place for them, but for now strategizing what to keep and what not to is taking some doing.

What it boils down to is "what do we really need?"

Up the road from us lives a Navajo family. They live on a ranch in a fairly large double wide as many Navajo families do, but they built a hogan too. If you've ever been in a family hogan, you know they're not very large, consist of one multi-sided room with a heat source (usually a wood stove) in the center and enough space around the heater to accommodate four or five people. The door faces east. There may or may not be windows.

The wood stove in the center can be used for cooking; there is usually no indoor plumbing-- but a washing-up area is provided for. If there is no bathroom, there is probably a chamber pot or other receptacle for human waste. There are beds that double for seating along the walls, sometimes bunks, and various storage shelves and containers. There's not much else. But not much else is needed.

Tiny houses, on the other hand, more and more tend to do their uttermost to resemble high end urban apartments or suburban houses or fantasy cabins in the woods and feature the most expensive appliances, finishes, and design ideas imaginable. There are certain "must haves" in tiny-house kitchens these days. Kitchens are generally the center of the newer model tiny house. They must have: granite or marble countertops, expensive faucets and sinks and a dishwasher, top of the line cooking stoves; a full-sized or nearly full-sized refrigerator  -- stainless steel of course. A combo washer-dryer, the more costly the better to fit under the stairs. Stairs instead of a ladder, stairs with clever storage compartments under the treads. Copper or stainless steel surfaces are required. Clever low voltage lighting. Custom made cabinets. On and on. The more complex the furnishings and storage, the cleverer the design of the house, the more there is to satisfy the need for spectacle, the better. The flooring should be exotic hardwood or a reasonable imitation; again, the more expensive it is the more the senses are satisfied. A mini-split heat/AC system has become de rigueur for many tiny houses, along with the most expensive "composting" toilet. Mini-splits are to be supplemented with marine-style propane heating stoves. There must be two lofts, one at each end, both with ceilings nearly high enough to stand up under. The thought of reusing or repurposing materials (which was fundamental to the early tiny houses and still is on the margins) is considered gross. Everything must be new, shiny bright and as costly as possible.

Fit and finish must be precise. No gaps anywhere, no irregular areas, nothing make-do, no improvisations. Why is this? Well, obviously, people with a lot of money are paying a lot of money for... a folly, in the traditional sense of a "folly" -- something you have that is not necessary, but is intended to be possessed and to show off, preferably against a bucolic setting on your own estate or on someone else's where you've taken it or had it built for display. These tiny houses are not meant to live in. They are meant to look at and wonder.

And of course, the traditional folly was in some ways the precursor to the contemporary high-end tiny house anyway, wasn't it? That and the pleasure yacht.

The Nugget micro house mentioned in the previous post looks like a very modest Sears or other catalogue house, shed or garage from the early 20th century -- actually, more like a shed from the era than a house. The wheels, of course, show that it is transportable. But otherwise, its exterior is about as plain and nondescript as can be. Nothing ostentatious about the Nugget!

Yet at $36,000 it is obviously a high-end folly. Something you'll need a trust fund inheritance to purchase.

The interior is as modest appearing as the exterior, but the kitchen has custom cabinets, a butcher block countertop, silestone undermount sink, copper finished faucet. There is an undercounter refrigerator -- but it's a high end three-fuel one. There is said to be a two burner portable cooktop and a convection/microwave oven hidden away, but who knows.

The extraordinary cost of this portable tiny house is said to be due to its off-grid capability including solar electric system (not visible in the photos) and extensive provisions for water. Neither solar nor water systems are visible in any of the many photos of the Nugget I've seen.

A contrast is provided by the Salsa Box (plans only). Essentially the same floor plan as the Nugget, the Salsa Box is considerably less expensive: perhaps $8,000 for all new materials, $15,000 to build complete, minus solar electric system. (Actually, I suspect all new materials would run closer to $10,000 and the completed build would be in the neighborhood of $20,000).

Costs might be reduced with reclaimed, recycled, and repurposed  materials and equipment, but -- and it is a big but -- actual costs to purchase and reuse reclaimed materials can be as much as double new materials and equipment, and even when you can pick up materials and equipment free or nearly so, reuse can require so much extra work that the economic benefit of using reclaimed materials and equipment is lost.

This article goes into some of the costs associated with tiny house building and living. As does this one.

One of the major dilemmas of tiny house living is that in many jurisdictions, tiny houses are not legal dwellings and cannot be made legal. This is why many are built on trailers and have certain electrical and plumbing features of RVs. Still, in many areas, they are not considered legal dwellings, and are only allowed in RV/mobile home parks -- which often forbid the placement of any "tiny house."

Even on one's own land, a tiny house, whether or not on wheels, may face permitting obstacles, just as an RV used for living quarters on private land may not be permitted by zoning and building codes.

In many ways, the Tiny House (writ large) makes no logical sense at all, but it can be emotionally fulfilling, a deeply personal statement, or a necessary project for an individual in need of something to do.

That last would be me, I guess.

In our county, the authorities are not terribly particular about RVs and accessory buildings on one's own land as long as residents don't make a spectacle of themselves or their alternative living spaces  -- and as long as accessory buildings are no larger than 160 square feet (*until this year, the limit was 400 sq ft without a permit*). So I'm not terribly worried about the conversion of The Studio into a tiny house... of sorts. More than likely no one would care. Those who did care might find it charming or at least entertaining.

On the other hand -- apart from needing a project -- I have to ask myself why. The point, of course, has always been to give Ms. Ché a place to write where she can be unbothered by the animals, the phone, or other interruptions, and where she can have a view of the garden. (Potential garden, still have a lot to do on that project!)

As I say, she has a space of her own in the house, a small room we call The Library, currently filled with books, but it has a phone that rings far too much, and the cats love to find her in there and demand her attention. There's a window which faces west -- heat build up in the daytime, wind whistling in the winter. She has a desk and chair and a casual chair the cats tend to sleep in, but no place to stretch out. The Library is at one end of the house, the bathroom is at the other. If she wants coffee, she has to go to the kitchen, another hike though not as far. Same if she wants to go outside for some air.

It would be nice to have everything in one convenient place -- though it's by no means a necessity.

The Studio was intended to be that place.

And so maybe the time has come.

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