More than just an affordable alternative, living small can be a wise and comfortable choice regardless of your economic situation.
BY: Tony Biasotti
Photos: Courtesy of BiLDEN Inc. and Peter DeMaria.
Ten years ago, Los Angeles architect Peter DeMaria was approached about designing homes built from shipping containers for an affordable housing complex. Though he was, and still is, passionate about building with repurposed shipping containers, he turned the job down. The optics of building affordable housing from containers weren’t quite right at the time. “We felt the containers would be used politically,” DeMaria says now. “We thought people would say, ‘You can’t put poor people in metal boxes that you use to ship bananas.’” So, DeMaria and his colleagues at DeMaria Design waited until a client came along who wanted a luxury home in Redondo Beach. That client was open to being DeMaria Design’s first venture into container-based construction. “Once you build a house like that, the folks who are building affordable housing and who are living in affordable housing can say, ‘If it’s good enough for a $2 million house, it’s good enough for affordable housing,’” DeMaria says.
What DeMaria saw 10 years ago is now conventional wisdom: Building smaller-than-usual homes, often with repurposed shipping containers, can keep construction costs low and bring homes into the reach of people who couldn’t otherwise afford them. A high quality shipping container, with only a few trips across the Pacific under its belt, costs between $2,500 and $3,000, DeMaria said. He estimates that in the Los Angeles area, using containers brings the cost of construction down to $150 per square foot, about 25 percent less than the typical cost for residential construction.
Small homes, whether they’re from containers or not, are big right now and money isn’t the only reason. People who buy or build small homes often want simplicity, or environmental sustainability. They might be baby boomers downsizing after their children have moved out or millennials moving into a place of their own for the first time. The drivers of the trend, though, are the young, people who came of age during the Great Recession and aren’t interested in the conspicuous consumption of the last real estate boom. “There’s a change in the way in which people want to live, especially in Southern California. In general, there’s a whole generation of folks who are part of the digital age that see the world a little differently. There’s something about excessiveness that doesn’t appeal to them,” DeMaria says. “Some people want more and bigger, but in general the client base is more frugal, more responsible about the environment and not looking to overdo things.”
There is no agreed-upon definition of what categorizes a living space as a “small house,” a “tiny house” or a “micro home.” Micro-apartments can be 100 square feet, small enough that beds and tables have to be tucked into the walls when not in use. A single shipping container is about 320 square feet, which meets most anyone’s definition of small, but is big enough for a single person to live in without having to eat dinner on the bed. Because of their size, low cost and simplicity, single-container homes are catching on as possible solutions to homelessness in American cities.
But everything is relative. In many cities, a 700-square-foot house is smaller than almost any single-family home built in the last 50 years. And in the context of new, upscale homes, 1,500 square feet might be considered small. “It ties back to the number of people,” DeMaria explains. “If it’s a single person or a couple, then 640 square feet might be fine. If you have a family of three or four, you’re going to have a tough time in 640 square feet. You’ll probably need at least 1,000 or 1,100 square feet.”
One of DeMaria’s recent projects, Green on Main, in Venice, is a complex of three homes built on top of a parking garage and an art gallery. The structure uses 14 shipping containers, and in DeMaria’s design, the containers are prominently featured. The homes are around 1,200 square feet. The containers are extra tall models, so the ceilings are higher than they are in a typical home.
They aren’t tiny houses, by any means, but they are about half the size of the median new home built in the United States. At that size, DeMaria says, there needs to be a different approach to design, with an emphasis on shared spaces rather than bedrooms. “Our objective is more about creating a space that’s conducive to family living in smaller spaces,” he says. “It’s not a drastic design approach, but it serves the needs, and it sends a message to the next generation, to those kids, that you don’t need a 5,000 square foot house.”
DeMaria says his business has taken off since he started focusing on shipping containers and smaller homes. Still, the small house trend is not much of a trend—at least not in any measurable way.
The median new home built in the U.S. in 2014 was 2,453 square feet, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, a mansion by the standards of the small house movement. In the mid 1980s, the median new home was about 1,600 square feet, no bigger than it had been 10 years before. But the trend for the past 30 years has been toward bigger and bigger homes. The recession reversed that trend in 2008 and 2009, but the American home is once again bigger than it’s ever been.
So, if our houses are getting bigger, what explains the sudden ubiquity of small homes on our magazine covers and television screens? “The space standard has bloated to an almost obscene amount, and maybe this is a reaction to that,” says Greg Crawford, an architect in Pasadena. Crawford and DeMaria both think the small home, tastefully appointed, is an aspirational item. It’s popular among a certain fashionable segment of the population, in urban, coastal areas. Since most Americans do not fit that description, the needle hasn’t moved on the larger trend of home sizes. Small homes are common in Venice and the rest of the Westside, but they haven’t really spread to Pasadena, much less Peoria.
Coastal urban centers are where trends often start, though. It’s perfectly plausible that, like hybrid cars, small houses could catch on nationwide. “How many times has California led the country on any kind of trend?” Crawford asks. “I think there are many people in middle America striving to attain this dream, and they want the biggest McMansion out there, because that’s what they’re used to. But the pendulum will swing, I think, and things will start to get smaller.”
There’s reason to believe that small homes might actually have the most potential outside of the expensive coastal areas where they’re most culturally accepted. In Los Angeles, where land is expensive, construction costs make up a relatively small part of the cost of a home. Building smaller means spending less on construction, so it isn’t going to save as much here as it would in, say, Houston, where construction is a much bigger portion of the cost of a home. In high-cost areas, small homes need to be combined with higher density development to generate real savings.
Crawford’s firm, BiLDEN Corp., designs a lot of smaller homes with a mid-century modern aesthetic. His first exercise in designing something small was actually a children’s treehouse in Brentwood. It won a major design award, and he began to incorporate its design principles into homes. His clients in and around Pasadena have been receptive to smaller homes, but nothing he’s designed, he says, is “as small as it could be or should be.”
“My clients are interested in shrinking the size of their footprint, but nobody’s going down to 600 or 700 square feet and that’s where the tiny house movement is going,” Crawford says. “When you’ve paid a couple million dollars for a piece of land, no matter what people say, it’s always in the back of their mind—‘I only need two bedrooms, but my real estate agent says I need four bedrooms, three baths.’ Sometimes I don’t get 10 words out of my mouth before I’ve doubled the size of the house.” Still, Crawford says many of his clients are interested in 2,000-square-foot homes when they could afford three times as much space. “That’s not a small house, but it’s in keeping with the idea behind the small house movement,” he says.
DeMaria said he sees similar resistance, particularly to container-based design. But, when clients see what a container home actually looks like, they often change their minds. “Most everyone’s initial reaction is, ‘We don’t want to do this,’ and then we show them our portfolio and they love it,” he says.
If small houses are going to be more than a curiosity, local governments will have to adapt to them. There are still political hurdles to building small in many American cities. Even in Los Angeles, a nexus of the small-house movement, it can be difficult to get some types of smaller homes built. DeMaria says the city of Los Angeles has slowed its processing of permits to build new container-based homes, while it draws up new regulations.
In more suburban environments, the obstacles are bigger. Increasing density—which building smaller often entails—is frequently unpopular. Using new materials, like shipping containers, can also rile up the neighbors. Crawford lives in Glendale, and said his neighborhood has 7,500 lots and rules that set both maximum and minimum sizes for the homes. A 1,000-square-foot house there would be a nonstarter. Many neighborhoods also have parking minimums that could mean a small house would have more space set aside for parking than for the house itself.
“Many urbanists have talked about making cities denser instead of sprawling,” Crawford says. “There’s got to be a fundamental rethinking of the rezoning and planning laws for this to work. They talk about building around transit lines, and that works much better if you can build smaller. The micro housing movement has a lot to offer. It goes from just being a trendy idea to something that actually makes sense for urban infrastructure.”