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Posted: February 26, 2014

The futurist: The huge potential of the tiny house movement

A mortgage-free alternative

Thomas Frey

(Editor's note: This is the first of two parts.)

Most of us hate feeling cramped. We hate being stuck on a crowded plane, stuck in congested traffic, and wading through packed concert halls. We like to be able to stretch out, get casual, and relax, but we can’t do that when people are invading our space.

Over the past century, space has become synonymous with wealth, status, and luxury. Naturally the most important people have the biggest houses, biggest cars, biggest boats, and work at the biggest corporations.

In 1900, the average U.S. house was a mere 700 sq. ft. with an average of 4.6 people living inside. A century later, the average home had mushroomed to 2,500 sq. ft. with only 2.5 residents.

As a society, we’re caught up in a self-perpetuating make-money-spend-money loop that blinds us to other possibilities We’ve been in a race to the top and a tremendous number of service organizations have cropped up that both heighten our fear of missing out and provide quick financing to buy the “good life” today with tomorrow’s money.

But the recent recession delivered a sobering gut-check to life as usual. Easy money has caused housing prices to spiral out of control, and all of the things we thought were so important, suddenly became less so.

Out of this has sprung a low carbon living crusade as a natural follow-on to the green and renewable energy movements. But it tends to be less about solving the world’s ills and more about people taking control of their own destiny.

At the heart of this movement are a new breed of tiny homes that are comfortable, efficient, often portable, and most important, mortgage-free. They represent freedom, freedom from debt, freedom from conspicuous consumption, and freedom to live a life of passion.

Here’s why the tiny home movement is likely to be far more than a tiny blip on the radar screen of change.

The Emperor has No Clothes

Young people feel like they’ve been lied to.

Gen-Y, or Millennials, were born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s. They’ve inherited a country that is broken. From the worst economy in 80 years, to a post-9/11 surveillance state, to a dysfunctional healthcare system, they have indeed been dealt a losing hand.

They were told the path to success was an overpriced college degree, but even with tons of education, very few are employed in jobs that require a college degree.

  1. Only 6 in 10 Millennials have jobs, half are part-time [Harvard University]
  2. 284,000 American college graduates were working in minimum-wage jobs in 2012. [Wall Street Journal]
  3. 48 percent of employed college graduates work in jobs that don’t require a four-year degree. [The Center for College Affordability and Productivity]
  4. 63 percent know someone who had to move back home because of the economy. [Pew Research]
  5. 35 percent of employed Millennials have started their own business on the side to supplement their income. [Iconoculture]
  6. 90 percent say being an entrepreneur is really a mindset instead of just the role of a business owner [Millennial Branding / oDesk]
  7. More than 63 percent of Gen Y workers have a Bachelor’s Degree. [Millennial Branding / PayScale]
  8. They are now on track to become the most educated generation in American history. [Pew Research]

As a result, we have the world’s highest educated workforce of bartenders and waitresses.

Tiny Homes Defined

In general, tiny homes represent simple living in small homes. A small house means less room for clutter, less energy costs, less taxes and a smaller ecological footprint.

Other than that, there are very few rules that govern tiny homes. Most are under 300 sq. ft. with some even less than a third of that, but others in the 400-500 sq. ft. range.

Construction varies widely from DIY wood and shingles, to retrofitted shipping containers, to unique architecture with alternative energy systems. Some are mobile, some transportable, and some fixed-foundation. Some are single person homes, others for couples or families. Some consist of durable construction, others will only last a few years.

A number of companies are sprung up offering pre-built tiny homes:

Other companies are helping people build their own:

For some, these may be the perfect second home, cabin in the mountains, or vacation place along the coast. Others may want them as their primary residence. 

The Ella Jenkins Story

Ella Jenkins of Frazier Park, California, is a 23-year-old “homeowner” She built her own house, and it has everything she needs, in only 130 square feet and it’s built on a trailer frame. Total cost was $16,000 to build, and she constructed it with her father in the driveway of her family’s home.

It was a yearlong DIY project. But no mortgage or rent means she has the economic freedom to pursue music and art. She won’t get forced into a career path she doesn’t want.

Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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Readers Respond

The most comfortable home I've ever lived in was only about 800 square feet on a small lot in the town of Palisade. When my wife and I retire in the next 10 years, we plan to build another straw bale home, no larger than 1,000 square feet. We look forward to the time savings in home cleaning and maintenance that comes with living in a small space, not to mention the "cozy" feeling you get with a small home. By Chris Muhr on 2014 02 26
I love my small home. It's not quite as small as the ones you described, but each occupant gets about 300 sq ft of space. Although I still have a mortgage, what I don't miss is all the "stuff". We live lean. That means no sitting on excessive inventory and no temptation to buy a lot of junk. Basically, I will never have a Costco membership and I am absolutely fine with that! By The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoebox on 2014 02 26
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