More to tiny houses than size in “Beyond Curb Appeal: Jay Shafer and the Politics of Tiny Houses”

George Packard, “Beyond Curb Appeal: Jay Shafer and the Politics of Tiny Houses” (2011)

While cruising the Internet (as you do), I found this little film about Jay Shafer, an architect and director of Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, who specialises in designing tiny houses. The interview was conducted with Shafer in his own tiny house in February 2011: he talks about the political, psychological and economic aspects of living in small houses and the freedom and luxury they offer as opposed to larger houses and the restrictions those impose on their inhabitants.

Why did Shafer decide to live in a tiny house? First reason, and one that impressed me, is that in many parts of the United States, there are municipal zoning codes that actually prevent people from living in houses below a certain floor size (minimum required size in many zoning jurisdictions is 750 square feet and rises to 1,000 square feet in areas where land is expensive): Shafer reveals that many zoning codes regarding residential requirements originated with insurance companies and the building industry. Presumably the larger your home, the more “stuff” you collect and pack into it, the more housing and contents insurance (or what passes for such) you might require and the more expensive and complicated your housing and contents insurance policy might be. In addition, many safety codes set as minimum requirements levels of safety that far exceed what’s needed in homes and might require the owners to spend far more on meeting these minimum safety levels than they otherwise would. In larger houses, such minimum safety requirements might have a bigger impact on the owners’ hip-pockets than small houses would: there are bigger and more rooms to heat or wire for electricity, and warm air might dissipate more quickly in larger spaces than in smaller spaces so the rooms need even more heating to compensate for the greater heat loss than might be expected for their size. Shafer also notes that local government councils even prohibit people from doing certain things in their homes – for example, some councils won’t allow people to camp on their own properties, even if the camp is temporary, but will allow people to keep recreational vehicles in their backyards – and suggests that, though the intention may be good, the municipalities may be infringing on people’s Fifth Amendment rights.

Shafer notes that the banking industry is biased in favour of large houses: large houses cost more and might require larger loans to finance them. A large mortgage will be a millstone around the house owner’s neck and the bank can exercise great psychological control over the owner. Shafer suggests that a large house can be a virtual debtor’s prison, forcing the owner to slave away just to make the mortgage payments, and limiting the owner’s options to exercise choice in other areas of life such as employment: a person with mortgage obligations will be very reticent to change jobs or careers even if s/he doesn’t enjoy the job or has reached a career dead-end and needs a sea-change.

Shafer talks about his educational background in art, design and architecture, and about the various places he lived in: dormitories, a large 4,000 – 6,000 square foot house, even a truck. He discusses the aesthetics of his architecture: the proportions of the houses he designs, where the inspiration for particular proportions, forms or designs comes from, the almost instinctive feel that humans have for structure, balance and form. Even a seemingly trivial issue such as whether to add a porch or not to a house becomes significant: a porch signifies a transition zone from the public to the private and this can be very important to an owner or tenant going in and out of the house; likewise a transition zone alerts people inside that there are strangers coming in. The issues of community and individuality, and of communal space and individual privacy are also briefly discussed.

Late in the film, Shafer takes his interviewer, Joan Packard, and director / cameraman George Packard on a tour through his 96 square foot house, explaining how his house has been designed for efficiency and maximum use of space. The entire bathroom is a shower and Shafer explains how he keeps the toilet dry while showering. The one bedroom is placed in the roof space and Shafer shows that the bedroom window is large enough for him and a partner to squeeze through in case of fire.

Last, Shafer discusses how useful his tiny houses might be for ageing baby boomers as alternatives to living in nursing homes or in large houses long since vacated by children and grandchildren. He does not suggest other groups who might find his houses convenient: temporary boarders, teenage or college-age children, university students from overseas living on campus, people needing urgent emergency accommodation or temporary / casual workers who have to live on their employers’ properties for some reason. People running bed-and-breakfast operations who might need extra accommodation for guests would also find such houses useful. The houses would also be useful in areas where natural disasters have destroyed buildings and left many people homeless; they would also be good for people who have some mild physical or mental problems or are only able to hold part-time jobs yet can live independently.

In some ways, this film was quite an eye-opener: it had never occurred to me to think that the type of housing we live in, and the kind of houses advertised to us, their design and styling, could be deliberately slanted towards forcing us to spend more money and keeping us in thrall to a political / economic ideology that restricts our freedoms and denies us choice. Since houses are reflections of our culture, what we value or don’t value, and influence the way we interact with family members, or even the kinds of family structures we have, then forcing people to live in larger houses than they need or can afford, in conditions that might isolate them from others at great personal cost or cause strains that could result in misunderstandings, even domestic violence or divorce, extreme though those issues are to consider, is shockingly cruel and might well infringe on people’s rights.

Shafer is an affable interviewee and the film is well-made for its budget and ambition. It doesn’t probe very deeply and challenge Shafer in the issues he talks on, and some background information on the history of housing in the US since 1945 would have been useful, so the film perhaps appears as an oversized advertisement for its subject and his company.

The film is available for viewing on Youtube.com or at George Packard’s Curiously Local blog. It really is worthwhile watching and some people may be inspired to design and build their own small houses or to find out more about them and whether their own councils allow them to build tiny houses.

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