When Did Tiny Homes Start? A Tiny History

When Did Tiny Homes Start? A Tiny History

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The past years have been incredible for tiny houses. More and more people are switching to tiny homes to live a greener, more affordable, and more sustainable living. But when did tiny homes start?

How far back does the campaign go? 

Technically, the history of the tiny house is long. Back then, the first humans used to live in small caves. The modern-day tiny house movement, however, is easier to track. Many people started to reject spacious dwellings to downsize and live in more efficient homes. 

In this blog post, we’ll discuss the timeline of the tiny house movement. Let’s start in 1845 when a man published a book about how it’s like to live in a 150-square-foot tiny cabin. 

When Did Tiny Homes Start – Timeline

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Henry David Thoreau

1845 – Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau is a famous American essayist, poet, and philosopher. He is also well-known for being a transcendentalist. One of the core beliefs of transcendentalism is in the inherent goodness of nature and people and that people are best when they are independent and self-reliant. 

Thoreau’s belief must be the reason why he was urged to live a simple living in natural surroundings. In 1845, he published his book Walden (or, Life in the Woods). In his book, Thoreau reflected how his experience in two years and two months in a cabin near Walden Pond helped him be “one” with nature.

Here’s an excerpt from Thoreau’s book, Walden:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary.”

I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”

— Henry David Thoreau

No one was as committed as Thoreau back then in living in a tiny space to connect with nature. His experience helped him to focus only on “the essential facts of life.” Little did he know that his philosophy is what sparked the modern tiny house movement. 

Many believe that living in unnecessarily big houses is “wasteful and environmentally noxious,” as writer Alec Wilkinson describes it in the New Yorker. And aside from that, for many people, living in big residential houses is a “debtors’ prison.” And it makes sense since those who live in big homes are usually prisoners of astronomical mortgages and taxes. 

On the other hand, those who choose to dwell in tiny houses are more focused on the necessities of life, that is, in Thoreau’s words, “the essential facts of life.” Tiny housers only get what they need, be it utilities, clothing, food, or furnishings. 

The original cabin where Thoreau lived for two years no longer exists, but a replica was built to mimic the living conditions of Thoreau. Inside the cabin, you’ll see a desk, a chair, a bed, and a fireplace. 

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The replica of the cabin where Thoreau spent two years

What Thoreau and the tiny house movement want to teach us is plain and simple: we can live simply, and in the process, we’ll reap the benefits that improve our quality of life. 

The tiny house movement was not as loud as it is today. It was a century later (in the 1990s) when tiny homes started to get a bit of the spotlight. 

1998 –  Sarah Susanka

Sarah Susanka is an author, public speaker, and architect. She is the originator of the Not So Big philosophy of residential architecture, which plays a significant role in the tiny house movement. The core principle Susanka promotes is that we must “build better, not bigger.” 

Susanka was able to publish several books, all of which talks about build better, not bigger in broad details. Her first book that gained so much popularity is The Not So Big House. Seven of her other books are the following:

  • Creating the Not So Big House
  • Not So Big Solutions for Your Home
  • Home By Design
  • Inside the Not So Big House, Outside the Not So Big House
  • Not So Big Remodeling
  • More Not So Big Solutions for Your Home
  • The Not So Big Life

On her official website, Susanka shares how it [her commitment to her philosophy] all began. 

“In the mid-1990s, when I’d been working as a residential architect for more than a decade, I had an epiphany one day while driving [through] the suburbs of Des Moines, Iowa.”

“I had started noticing that new houses were getting extremely large and decidedly unattractive. For miles and miles, all I could see were these “starter castles” marching across the prairies, looking self-important and soulless.”

It was at that moment that Sarah started to spend most of her time designing homes that are better, not bigger; the kind that fits her clients’s lives, rather than superficial lifestyle “that few people ever lived anymore.”

Susanka is calling out all homeowners to put more emphasis on quality, not quantity. The solution is maximizing small spaces instead of buying bigger homes. 

In 1998, the average size of a home was 2,150 square feet. Susanka’s philosophies moved many future tiny home architects. Her concept is alive up until this day. 

2000 – Jay Shafer

A couple of years after Susanka published her first book, Jay Shafer, a professor from the University of Iowa, committed to being part of the tiny house movement. But Shafer was not just someone who joined the movement, he is one of the influencers of tiny house movement — he practically invented the tiny house. 

Tiny houses, in general, have a stellar minimalist design. They occupy very little space and promote a minimal carbon footprint. Most of the tiny house dwellers are students who don’t want to pay big for rent, couples who want to avoid mortgages, small families who don’t see the need for big residential homes, and even retired individuals who just want to live small and be truly financially free. 

And because tiny houses are technically not traditional houses, they sidestep building regulations and specific zoning rules. 

Shafer created tiny houses in the late 1990s after he wanted something compact and suitable compared to the 100 square-feet Airstream he had been living in for two years. 

His tiny house received the “Most Innovative Design” award in Natural Home Magazine’s 1999 House of the Year Content. And since then, building little homes became his bread and butter. 

He started Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, a company committed solely at helping people get their very own tiny home that their budget could afford. Schafer, however, hasn’t been with Tumbleweed for quite some time now. 

David Friedlander from Life Edited spoke to Jay to ask about his relationship with the company. When asked what happened with Tumbleweed, Shafer said, “I took on a business partner a few years back. He was a money guy, I was the design guy. It seemed like a match made in heaven.”

He continued, “As our relationship progressed, it became clear that this wasn’t the case, at all. It turns out that his means of growing the company’s bottom line and my own goals to grow a movement and improve on my designs were at odds. Our interests collided, so we split.”

Shafer is more about inspiring people to switch to tiny homes. Here’s another excerpt from Shafer from the said meeting:

“I never set out to design tiny houses. I set out to build an efficient house.”

The 2000s – Tiny House Community in Portland, Oregon

Tiny houses started to get the attention of the people, especially those that have been yearning to downsize to save money. In 2000, a tiny house community in Portland, Oregon was born — the Dignity Village

Dignity Village is a community that aims to provide shelter for 60 people a night. The goal, really, is to end homelessness. 

“We came armed with a vision of a better future for ourselves and for all of Portland, a vision of a green, sustainable urban village where we can live in peace and improve not only the condition of our own lives but the quality of life in Portland in general.”

2002 – The Small House Society

Remember Shafer? Yes, that guy. Shafer worked with Gary Johnson, one of the founding fathers of the tiny house movement. 

In 2002, Shafer and Johnson, along with other housing enthusiasts, teamed up for some kind of grassroots convention. 

At that meeting, the team decided to start an association. That’s when The Small House Society was born. The founding members were Jay Shafer, Gary Johnson, Shay Salomon, and Nigel Valdez. 

They immediately tripled in number. The year after, Johnson commissioned Shafer to build him a tiny home, which Johnson moved into in August 2003. 

2006 – Oprah and National Public Radio

Three years after Johnson moved into his new tiny home, he was interviewed by NPR for All Things Considered, a radio segment about the tiny house movement. 

NPR is a valued and respected media organization, so it’s not surprising that the interview got national attention. A publisher contacted Johnson to work out a book deal. 

A couple of years later, the book Put Your Life on a Diet: Lessons Learned From Living in Less Than 140 Square Feet was a hit. 

The tiny house movement even got a bigger spotlight in February 2007 when Oprah highlighted the 96-square-foot home Shafer built. 

At this point, almost everybody knows about the tiny house movement. 

2007 – 2008 – The Housing Crisis

Also known as the Subprime mortgage crisis, and part of a series on The Great Recession, the housing crisis was a financial downfall that happened nationwide. It occurred between 2007 and 2010.

when-did-tiny-house-start-housing-crisis

What triggered the crisis? A huge contributor was the decline in home prices after the housing bubble went downhill, which resulted in mortgage delinquencies and foreclosures. It also caused the devaluation of housing-related securities. 

What’s the housing bubble, you ask? It’s a bit complicated to explain, but Investopedia helps us understand this jargon more easily. According to Investopedia, a housing bubble is a run-up in housing prices due to demand, speculation, and exuberant spending to the point of collapse. 

A housing bubble usually starts with an increase in demand, albeit the limited supply. Speculators shell out big fat cash into the market to fuel up demand. At some point, however, the demand would decrease while the supply increases. This results in a price drop. 

Housing prices grew twice in amount between 2000 and 2006. The appreciation of housing prices was historical. Because of this housing boom, people started to believe that traditional homes should be treated as investments. 

As the country entered the year 2006, the housing prices peaked, but it eventually declined within the same year. The housing prices reached new lows in 2012.

The largest price drop in history was on December 30, 2008, as reported by the Case-Shiller home price index. 

It could be because people realized that investing for big homes and paying mortgages for like an eternity was simply not worth it. 

The housing market hit rock bottom, and thousands of Americans foreclosed homes. After the Great Recession, many people turned their attention to tiny houses. Tiny homes are a desirable alternative to conventional homes and mortgages. 

Unlike traditional homes, the costs of tiny houses are impressively low. And life in a petite dwelling is simple, and the environmental impact is light. 

2009 – Present 

After the Great Recession, thousands of people view homeownership differently. Because the founding fathers of the tiny house movement did a great job promoting the tiny homes, people, especially the Millennials who witnessed their parents suffer financially, started to opt for a more affordable option. 

Thanks to the Internet, shows, and tiny house documentaries, the tiny house campaign has been promoted widely. And while many don’t like to embrace the concept of downsizing to a tiny house claiming it’s a big time-waster, there is still a plethora of people who like the idea of living tiny and green. 

TV shows about tiny houses were launched, including Tiny House Hunters and Tiny House Nation. Enthusiastic tiny house dwellers share their experiences and teach others how to build a micro-home through vlogs on YouTube. 

These shows take people to the ins and outs of tiny homes, primarily to give them real-life examples of individuals and couples who switched to tiny homes. These shows also talk about the challenges of living in a home with constricted space, and how to maximize it. 

Indeed, tiny house shows and the Internet has helped legitimize the tiny house movement on a national and global scale. 

2015 – The American Tiny House Association

In 2015, The American Tiny House Association (ATHA) was formed. The goal of this association is to help tiny house aspirants to deal with the problems that come with building and living in a tiny house, and that’s by providing them with valuable information and proper education. 

ATHA also cooperates with related government agencies, development organizations, educational institutions, and private industries to gather information and educate people about the movement. 

The Tiny House Movement and the Environment

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The tiny house movement helps people not only to get a home that’s way more affordable than traditional houses but also to live greener. 

Since tiny homes have limited space, the dwellers cannot put as many items as they could in a traditional dwelling. And that’s exactly how Thoreau lived when he stayed in a small cabin with no more than a hundred square-feet living space. 

He only had the things he really needed, and that helped him get more connected with nature. Many people nowadays move into tiny dwellings for the same reason — to spend more time outside with nature. 

Tiny House and Nature

Those who live in a tiny house on wheels enjoy the freedom to move from one place to another. The nomadic lifestyle is what pumps their hearts. These people spend most of their time traveling and finding spots with majestic scenery. 

Living in a tiny home is a great way to escape the superficial things that everybody views as the norm. People spend more and more time working to earn bigger and be able to afford the extravagant lifestyle.

Many in today’s society believe that more is better. And while the saying isn’t totally wrong, those who embrace the assertion often focus their lives working 9 to 5. They usually forget that there’s so much nature has to offer — endless blue sky, spectacular horizon, refreshing greenery, and revitalizing ocean waves. 

Tiny House and Money

Let’s face it… not everyone moves to tiny houses because they want to be one with nature but because it’s what they can only afford. 

Many people view the tiny house movement as a solution to the housing crisis. Thousands of individuals and families got fed up with the idea of getting a big, dream house and be a prisoner of debt and mortgages. 

Living in a petite home, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that you won’t be on the rocks. But the good news is that you won’t spend as much as you would in traditional homes. Here are some reasons why:

Tiny homes require fewer materials

Because tiny homes are technically small, they need fewer building materials. A traditional home would need about seven truckloads of lumber, but a tiny house would only need half of a truckload. 

Tiny homes use environmentally-friendly materials

It’s easier to build a tiny home using recycled materials that aren’t always available in large quantities for larger houses. Recycled materials are often more expensive but environmentally friendly. They also tend to last longer than cheap, conventional materials. 

Tiny homes have lower “life cycle” cost

As mentioned earlier, living in a tiny house doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t ever be on the rocks. You have to consider maintenance and replacement cost. But thankfully, tiny homes have fewer utilities than a traditional home. For example, a petite dwelling may have one bathroom instead of three, which means fewer fixtures to repair and replace over time. 

Tiny homes are energy-efficient

Oregon’s Department of Land Quality reports that 86% of the total environmental impact of any house is caused by its energy use. This includes lighting, water heating, and space heating. 

An average-sized house (about 2,500 sq. ft.) consumes over 12,000 kWh of energy per year. On the other hand, tiny houses (>200 sq. ft.) only consume no more than 1,000 kWh of energy per year. And that’s probably because tiny homes have fewer appliances compared to residential homes. 

What’s more, tiny house dwellers choose energy-saving appliances over conventional ones. 

Read more: This Is Why Tiny Houses Are Better For The Environment

Are Tiny Homes The Future Homes?

It’s not certain if people will continue to embrace the concept of the tiny house movement in the coming years. There are major factors to consider, the depreciation, for example. Tiny houses on wheels depreciate as fast as vehicles do, and apparently, people want to invest in something they can profit from. 

(Must read: Do Tiny Homes Hold Or Lose Value? What You Must Know)

But one thing’s for sure, thousands of Millennials, young couples, and small families move to tiny houses to reap the benefits: affordable dwelling, environmentally-friendly living, minimalist lifestyle, and freedom to roam around places. 

Tiny houses have also become the solution to homelessness. We can only hope for the best. We yearn for the day that every individual and family will have a safe, cozy shelter. 

Final Thoughts

Now we’ve got our answer to the question, “when did tiny homes start?”

The beginning of tiny houses goes back as far as the first humans. Back then, they lived in small caves and huts. It was in 1845 that people viewed tiny homes differently. For transcendentalists like Thoreau, living in a tiny home is not a gypsy living but a way to get connected with nature, live more simply, and be content. 

We also want to thank the other founding fathers of the tiny house movement. They’ve published books to open the eyes of the many that we shouldn’t be chasing after bigger homes, but better, more efficient ones. 

Related Questions

Who invented the tiny house?

As discussed in the article, we can trace back the first humans to have lived in small-spaced dwellings. But we want to recognize Jay Shafer as one of the people who introduced beautiful and efficient tiny homes, which inspired many architects to build tiny homes just as creative and beautiful as conventional homes.

Why are tiny houses illegal?

Back then, Thoreau refused to pay tax not because he was living in a tiny home but due to his rigid opposition to the American-Mexican war and slavery. His refusal to pay tax was what put him to jail. 

Technically, tiny houses aren’t illegal, but many argue that other people choose to live in tiny homes only to sidestep tax, regulations, and zoning laws. 

All About Tiny Houses is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.

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