Little Boxes

The Small House Movement shows how tiny kitchens and baths can pack a big punch of function and style
By Ellen Sturm Niz
November 08, 2010

Today’s little boxes are no longer made of ticky-tacky, and they don’t all look just the same. American, British and Japanese home designers are re-inventing the idea of a house to include tiny ones that are both functional and fashionable. Forget the McMansions of yesterday. An economic downturn and increasing concern over sustainable lifestyles are causing more and more people to consider downsizing in a big way.

“I think there’s something inherently attractive about well-made, little homes and the freedom they afford,” said Jay Shafer, owner of Tumbleweed Tiny House Company and author of The Small House Book. “Folks are getting fed up with the laws prohibiting small houses in the U.S. and with the over-consumption these prohibitions require. All the bailouts, the housing crisis, and the economic strife caused by our current system has a lot of people thinking that it may be time for a change.”

While some tiny houses just barely measure 100 sq. ft. in total, the Small House Movement isn’t necessarily about sacrifice. It’s more about living simply and efficiently, making better use of each square foot to reduce the ecological, economic and psychological toll that excessive housing can take. In terms of smaller housing, size is relative. The Small House Movement is about people making their own choices toward simpler and smaller living, however they feel best fits their life.

“When I started Tumbleweed Tiny House Company and helped cofound The Small House Society, I did so in hopes of empowering people who may have once felt that their only housing options involved paying a lot more money for a lot more house than they needed and doing a lot more environmental damage with their house than they really had to,” said Shafer. “My friends and I have been trying to turn things around by showing that bigger isn’t necessarily better. With good design you don’t always need such a big house.”

Kitchens and bathrooms, of course, are usually high-use areas in a home, but even they can be tiny if properly designed. “If the kitchen in a small house is going to function, it needs to make use of every inch available,” said Shafer. “Vertical space is often overlooked. Put storage over and under every work surface where it is possible.”

“Also, minimize your traffic areas and maximize work areas,” Shafer added. “My favorite kitchen design is the U-shaped counter where you can essentially access over 20 sq. ft. of counter space and appliances without taking a single step.”

Bathrooms can be extremely efficient when you start consolidating, said Shafer. “I like the little sinks that sit on the back of the toilet that are common in Japan,” he said. “Wet baths [where the bathroom is the shower] work well, too, in a pinch. There’s a drain in the floor and you can pull a plastic curtain over the toilet to keep it dry.”

While special fittings aren’t always necessary, Shafer said it’s nice to have the option. “A Japanese tub, for example, is deeper than most other baths and takes up less space horizontally,” he said.

The key to smaller living is arduous editing and thoughtful design, said Shafer: “Once you get rid of all the unused and unusable parts of the average American home, there isn’t really that much left.”


The Small House Movement is afoot not only in the United States, but also in the United Kingdom and Japan. The following three examples are homegrown from Tumbleweed, but check back in the coming weeks for “little boxes” from overseas.

Tumbleweed Tiny House Company offers a selection of quaint yet modern tiny houses that range from 65 to 140 sq. ft. Because they are on wheels, they are considered travel trailers and do not require a building permit. You can pretty much put one anywhere you can place an RV. Tumbleweed sells the tiny houses prefabricated or in plan form for build-it-yourselfers. Tumbleweed also sells building plans for small houses. Designed to meet International Building Code, small houses have one room of no less than 120 sq ft.

[1] Weebee. The 102-sq.-ft. Weebee from Tumbleweed Tiny House Company is finished wit h cedar plank siding and a corrugated aluminum roof. Bump-out windows in the front of the house flood the living room with light. Ready made, the house is $48,997. Build it yourself for $21,150. The interior, including the 4 1/2-ft. x 4-ft. kitchen, is completely finished in pine with stainless-steel counters. The kitchen features a sink, two-burner stove top, undercounter refrigerator and ample shelving. A small water heater is below the sink. There is also space where you can store a small toaster oven or microwave. The kitchen is too small for a dishwasher, but a washer/dryer combo can be placed in the lower half of the closet in the back left of the living room. Although the ceiling height is 6 ft. 3 in., the lofted bedroom adds another 3 ft. 8 in. at its peak. Vertical storage is available over the kitchen. Like on many boats, the 4-by-2-ft bathroom is a shower called a wetbath. Metal diamond-plate finishing on the walls adds a modern look. The shower water is heated from the small water heater under the kitchen sink and can last about five minutes. The toilet is a low-flush RV toilet designed to conserve water. Or you can substitute in a composting toilet. [2] Lusby. The 117-sq-ft. Lusby from Tumbleweed has vaulted ceilings above the main room/kitchen, which makes this tiny house feel much larger than it really is. The outside is finished with cedar plank and the roof is covered with corrugated aluminum. The interior is completely finished in pine with stainless-steel counters. Ready made, the house is $49,997. Build it yourself for $21,250.
The living room is shared with the kitchen and warmed by the stainless-steel fireplace. The custom-built kitchenette runs the length of the living room and features a sink, two-burner stove top and refrigerator. Below the sink, there is a small water heater. The Lusby is Tumbleweed’s only house on wheels that features a full bathroom (3 ft. x 6 ft.) with a shower, toilet and sink. The small water heater allows a warm five-minute shower. The toilet is a low-flush RV toilet designed to conserve water, or you can replace it with a composting toilet.

[3] EPU. This 89-sq.-ft. house is the personal residence of Jay Shafer, Tumbleweed’s owner. The EPU comes with a desk and fireplace in the main room; a kitchen; wet bath; and a loft upstairs. For its small size, the EPU has a large amount of storage space. Ready made, the house is $45,997. Build it yourself for $19,950. The 4 1/2-ft. x 4-ft. kitchen features a sink, two-burner stove top, refrigerator and ample shelving. Below the sink, there is a small water heater and the refrigerator. There is also space where you can store a small toaster oven or microwave. The 4-ft. x 2-ft. bathroom is like the bath in the Weebee. The living room comes with a built-in desk and is warmed by the stainless-steel fireplace. The four windows that surround the living room make the space very bright. (All photos by Jack Journey)

Want more? Check out Little Boxes: Part 2 and Little Boxes: Part 3.
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