Tiny Houses In Context: What’s a “Normal” House, Anyway?

By Billy Ulmer, author of the Life in a Tiny House ebook.

A lot of people ask me what a tiny house is, but I think these questions are just as interesting: “What’s a ‘normal house?’ Where is it normal? And for how long has it been normal?”

The main thing that makes a tiny house tiny is what we’re comparing it to, and the context in which we see it. But context changes over time, and is different from place to place. I wrote recently about why it’s hard to choose something we’re not used to, and how we can do it anyway. A lot of that is emotional, but some of it is factual. When we look past the cultural moment we’re in right now and widen the lens of our perspective, do tiny homes still seem weird? And do they still look as tiny?

The Context of Time

Growing Homes Sizes: The average house of the 1950’s and the average house in 2014.

We sometimes hear statistics about how houses in America have been getting bigger over the years, but it’s hard to really notice when we live in the midst of it. It’s easier to see that what’s “normal” is relative when it changes right in front of us. I noticed these neighboring homes near me in Portland, Oregon. They’re a real life diagram of how a “normal” home in America has ballooned during the last 60 years.

The house on the left is 1,169 square feet and was built in 1955, according to public records. The often-cited statistical average size of a single family home in the United States during the 1950’s was 983 square feet, so that’s pretty darn close to average. The home on the left is 2,552 square feet and was built this year: 2014. According to the National Association of Home Builders, the average size of a newly-built home in 2013, the last year on record, was 2,647 square feet. So give or take about 100 square feet, you’re looking at two perfectly normal American houses, 59 years apart.

Nothing concrete occurred to make us need homes twice as large as we did in the 1950’s. Mostly, it’s our perceptions that changed. Even right now, the context you’re coming from is coloring what this photo makes you think. Is the house on the left too small? Or is the one on the right too big? It probably depends on where you live right now, and where you’ve lived before.

The Contexts of Place and Experience

Even in the present day, normal changes from place to place, so it’s defined by where you are. Normal, to you, might be a spacious, suburban house in a new development, a turn of the century farmhouse in a small town, or a 600 square foot studio apartment in New York City. All of those homes are completely different from one another, yet they’re all normal where they are, because they’re surrounded by other homes just like them.

A number of the tiny home builders I interviewed felt that their homes weren’t that tiny, in certain contexts: Dee and Alex had spent time spent in other countries with different cultural expectations for their size and amenities. Chris and Malissa had lived in New York City, and visited friends in compact apartments in San Francisco. When people experienced multiple contexts themselves, their ideas about what was normal seemed to open up and broaden. They didn’t feel they were looking at a spectrum of opposites, choosing between a “conventional house” on one side and “tiny house” on the other side. Seeing it that way is what makes choosing anything but “normal” feel uncomfortable. I mean, the opposite of normal is weird, right? Who wants to choose the weird thing?

Viewing housing as a choice between normal and weird

But the options we think are normal, or that we even know are options, are limited by what we’ve been exposed to: where we’ve lived, who we’ve met, what we’ve learned about. So our options open up over time if we move around, travel, and meet new people. I’ve met many more people who live in tiny houses than Recreational Vehicles, even though RVs have been around a lot longer. But last week I traveled to Southeast Oregon, saw RVs everywhere, and spoke with some folks who lived in them full time. Now RV living feels more like a realistic, “on the table” option than it did before my trip.

Likewise, when the tiny house folks I’ve met had a broader context for their housing options, it seemed to help them make their decision. The more housing options people were exposed to, the more it felt like they were choosing elements from a menu, instead of choosing between normal and weird – and that’s a much less stressful choice. A more realistic picture of our housing options isn’t an either/or choice, it would look something like this. And this is just the tip of the iceberg:

Alternative Housing Options

When you see this many options together all at once, where to live starts to feel less like a choice between normal and weird, or safe and risky, and more like a choice between many different but valid options. You can even mix and match – “I’ll have the RV, with a side of cohousing.” While I focused primarily on tiny homes on wheels in my interviews, it was important to me to interview people in a few other, related home types as well, like John Labovitz’s housetruck, Alex and Allison’s accessory dwelling, and John Wells’ tiny home on a foundation. Choosing a home shouldn’t have to feel like a battle between David and Goliath. If it does, look to some other contexts, find some more versions of normal, and your real options will begin to unfold.

For more stories about how real people decided a tiny home was right for them, check out the Life in a Tiny House ebook.

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