Small is Big
September 23rd, 2015 by Dianna Troyer
Using shipping containers for housing or office needs is growing in popularity. This 24-foot model in Menlo Park, California, sleeps a family of four. Photo courtesy of Cargotecture

Using shipping containers for housing or office needs is growing in popularity. This 24-foot model in Menlo Park, California, sleeps a family of four. Photo courtesy of Cargotecture

A growing number of home buyers are choosing tiny, alternative housing options

For Oregon architect and builder Todd Miller, at one time or another during the past two decades, home sweet home has been a log cabin, yurts and a tiny house.

“I wanted a simpler lifestyle and to be closer to nature,” says Todd, who lives near Eugene and established Oregon Cottage Company to build tiny homes. “For me, building and living in these types of houses expresses my values.”

Like Todd, many Americans are opting to live in smaller, alternative housing—everything from tiny houses, converted shipping containers, treehouses and yurts—because they want to save money, lessen their environmental impact or simplify their lives.

Do-it-yourselfers are also opting for alternative building materials, such as straw bales or cob—a combination of earth, sand and straw that originated in England centuries ago.

“The type of home people live in is an expression of who they are,” says Todd, who worked at a commercial architectural firm in Portland before opening a solo practice with an emphasis on alternative housing options.

“The size of the homes I’ve built for myself may seem non-traditional by today’s standards, but they’re nothing new,” says Todd. “They were a typical size when Americans were building their first homes on the frontier. Many of those small homestead cabins still stand.”

Besides cabins, other small living spaces—such as yurts, sheepherder wagons and boats—have been used for centuries.

While the average size of an American home has increased from 983 square feet in the 1950s to 2,600 square feet in 2014, some homeowners have been inspired by the Small House Society—and other, similar organizations—to downsize to 400-square-foot houses or smaller.

The society offers advice on its website,, to those who want to live in diminutive dwellings.

“In May, we had more than 22,000 visitors to our website, and our Facebook page has over 14,000 followers,” says society president Greg Johnson. “Our site regularly sees visits from people living in more than 100 different countries.”

Small but Growing
Interest in tiny houses is growing, but it’s impossible to pinpoint how many there are nationwide because no organization tracks the numbers.

Far from a passing fad, the tiny house movement is gaining momentum. Books, blogs and television shows have publicized the small home lifestyle, and tiny house communities are being established.

“Dozens of books have been written in the past few years about living with less,” says Greg.

He says people live in small houses for several reasons. The homes have a small environmental impact due to their size, and they appeal to people seeking a simpler, less materialistic lifestyle.

Financial freedom is another factor.

“Some consumers want to be free of the stress caused by a mortgage and home maintenance,” he says.

Greg says those factors motivated him to live in a 140-square-foot cottage for six years and write a book about the lessons he learned from voluntary simplicity.

After marrying in 2009, Greg sold his tiny house, and he and his wife moved into a 360-square-foot apartment.

“We’ve since expanded from a single bedroom to a diminutive two-bedroom apartment that can accommodate a home office,” he says.

Technology is enabling many people to downsize, too, says Greg.

“We can compactly store our books, movies and music on our smart phones or other electronic devices,” he says.

For Greg, living small is a mindset.

“It isn’t so much an architectural challenge but a challenge of rethinking what we need to live,” he says.

Some of the Challenges
Homeowners who live in small spaces face challenges other than “disciplining yourself when it comes to accumulations,” says Sharon Read, who started Seattle Tiny Homes in 2010 to meet the needs of clients.

Her clients’ biggest challenges are finding financing, if needed, and dealing with zoning regulations.

“We work with a credit union to provide financing,” says Sharon. “As for zoning regulations, they vary so much, but generally are more liberal in California, Texas and the South. Portland is very accepting, too. Our tiny houses are licensed and certified as an RV, so they can be parked legally in many locations.”

A physical challenge faced by tiny houses mounted on trailers is they must withstand jostling if they are moved frequently.

“My tiny home is 4 years old and has been pulled more than 10,000 miles, sometimes at 60 miles per hour while bucking a 30 mile an hour headwind. It’s still square and mold-free because of its design,” says Sharon, who uses her small home as a vacation retreat.

She says her construction methods keep homes airtight, so moisture cannot enter and create mold and condensation.

“We use specially built trailers, spray foams, caulks, extra flashings, high quality house wraps and rain sheathings, and multiple hurricane reinforcement measures.”

As for the future of tiny homes, Sharon says, “They’ll never be the norm, but they fill a niche.”

All Shapes, Styles and Materials
Besides tiny wood-framed houses, homes are now being built from used shipping containers because they are durable, resistant to fire and insects, and withstand high winds. Typically, the containers are 8 feet wide and 20 to 40 feet long.

At Cargotecture in Seattle, Joel Egan builds six or more projects annually. The retrofited containers feature all the comforts of home: appliances, insulation, electricity and plumbing.

“Our projects are mostly houses and offices,” says Joel. “Interest has been growing in the past few years.”

Clients have sought the refurbished cargo containers because they want to support recycling, and the homes can be designed to be off-grid.

Another increasingly popular alternative housing option is the yurt, an iconic, centuries-old, circular Mongolian dwelling.

Since Alan Bair opened Pacific Yurts Inc. in Cottage Grove, Oregon, in 1978, his company has shipped yurts across the country and worldwide.

“Our clients are government agencies, recreational businesses and individuals who use yurts in all climates,” says Alan, company president. “About 200 yurts have been erected in Oregon’s state parks for campers.”

Alan built his first yurt on a wooded lot in Oregon when starting his family.

“A yurt appealed to me because it was affordable, had minimal impact on the environment and had an aesthetically pleasing design,” he says, referring to the radial rafters, lattice interior wall and clear ceiling dome that allows light to warmly infuse the interior.

Friends soon asked him to build yurts for them. To keep up with the growing demand, he started Pacific Yurts, the nation’s first modern yurt company.

Alan incorporates innovative modern technology into his yurts, while retaining the traditional design. The wall and roof are durable vinyl and polyester-blend fabric, and the insulation is a reflective foil developed for NASA.

Seeking an affordable weekend retirement home, Peter Montgomery, who lives in the Portland area, ordered a 30-foot-diameter yurt from Alan two years ago.

“The walls are thin, so my wife and I love being able to hear the natural world, especially the ocean a half-mile away,” says Peter of their yurt on the Washington coast.

Peter was able to obtain permits designating it as a permanent residence after providing local zoning officials with engineering documentation showing it was structurally sound to withstand 110 mph winds and met energy-efficiency standards.

“It’s insulated between the inner and outer fabric walls with a layer of bubble wrap coated on each side with silver foil, which reflects heat,” he says. “When we get our pellet stove going, we’re warm and comfortable.”

After receiving a building permit, Peter hired contractors to build a platform, erect the yurt, and install electrical and plumbing fixtures.

“I did most of the finish work inside,” says Peter. “We have all the comforts of home with minimal yearly maintenance. You have to wash the roof twice a year, so moss won’t grow and deteriorate the material. Like with any wood, the doors, screen doors and door frames, as well as the deck, need to be protected, too.”

Alternative Construction Options
Instead of using fabric to cover his first yurt, Todd built it using cob. Similar in texture to adobe, cob is an earthen mixture that dries and solidifies like concrete.

After learning the technique at a workshop in 1995, Todd was so inspired that he bought five acres at the base of Mount Hood and built his two-story, 450-square-foot cob yurt. He lived there for two years.

Curious about alternative construction methods, Todd attended other workshops. Eventually, he began teaching people to build with natural plaster, rammed earth and straw bales.

“These methods have been around for centuries,” he says. “They’re gaining popularity as a way to help people build an affordable home.”

Todd’s company has developed several tiny home models.

“By positioning the windows and using light-colored interior materials, tiny houses can be designed to not feel small,” he says.

His company completed its 15th tiny cottage in early summer.

“There are five more in the queue for this year, and I’m starting to schedule for 2016,” he says.

“Some people might say I dropped out, but for me downsizing my living quarters and living rurally helped me to drop in to what I really want to do,” says Todd. “I want to empower people to build homes that reflect who they are and to help them have more freedom to do what they really want to do, and not be tied to household chores or a mortgage.”