The picture of success used to be upgrading to a home with more square footage. These days? It's all about downgrading.
"Tiny" houses — structures typically spanning no more than 600 square feet — have gone from trend to full-on movement, fueled by documentaries, New Yorker profiles and a general desire to forego larger homes in order to simplify and live a more environmentally responsible life. The latter was what inspired Kathleen Morton, her boyfriend, Greg Laudenslager, and their dog, Blaize — the trio behind Tiny House Tiny Footprint — to ditch the idea of renting an apartment in downtown Denver and think small instead.
Frustrated with city life, the couple set up camp in a 140-square-foot camper trailer with the intention of simultaneously building a (slightly larger) tiny home — a 270-square-foot house they could continue to hone their greener lifestyle in.
Until, Morton says, they started doing the math. What all those articles don't tell you? How expensive and logistically difficult it can be to own a tiny home. While many early-model homes were built on friends' backyards, "now people are buying huge pieces of raw land, which looks great, but we just didn't have 20 to 30 percent for a down payment," she explains. "We went through the whole process of meeting with a lender and looking at our options. I got so disenchanted with the whole tiny-house movement."
The duo are still weighing their options; they might spend a year on the road in a van, buy a 600-square-foot cabin they can rent out while they live in the back field or start a tiny-living community with likeminded friends on a piece of shared land.
But just because they aren't happily situated in a tiny home doesn't mean they've abandoned their real goal: to live "tiny," adopting greener lifestyle choices to cut down on their environmental footprint. Here, they fill us in on the finer points (and frequently asked questions) of living small, no matter your square footage.
Your dog will get used to it
Morton says their dog, Blaize, took a few months to adapt to living within 140 square feet. "At first, she would stand in our way and we would have to tell her to go somewhere else," Morton says. "She kind of looked at us during that time as if to say, 'What do you mean I can't be next to you all the time?'"
Now Blaize has a routine, resting in her bed while Morton and Laudenslager clean or do dishes. "We laugh because sometimes Blaize puts herself to bed without us even asking her. Perhaps she knows that she's only going to get in the way if she doesn't do that."
Help your pets transition to a smaller space by giving them their own designated "spot" where they can go to rest or escape crowded areas, and let them go outside as often as possible. "It's been nice to have such a large backyard," says Morton of the rented land where their trailer is parked. "It's easy for us to open up the door and let her walk around and then let her back in again when she's ready."
You're allowed to decorate (creatively)
When space is in short supply (and even when it's not), displaying functional items in an organized way can double as your decoration. "In the beginning, the easiest thing we did was hang our go-to items (keys, cameras, guitar, jewelry, sunglasses, fruit) on hooks around the walls of our space," says Morton. "It's a cost-effective way to get things out of the way."
Multi-use items, like blankets, shawls and even hats, can be displayed to add color and texture to an otherwise bland space. "One of the best purchases I made was a handmade shawl from a local Western store," she adds. "We have it hanging above our bed as decoration, but it comes down as a curtain when the sun is too bright or it gets too hot in the camper."
Don't worry — your friends still want to come over
"When we know we're going to have a large group of people over, we have to spend an hour cleaning our space beforehand," says Morton. "One of the downsides of having a small space is that it gets dirty very quickly." Take large meals outdoors whenever possible, and when you have a big group indoors, use your space creatively. Toss pillows on the floor for impromptu seating, or invest in inflatable sleeping pads for overnight guests. Fold-up tables fit into narrow spaces but can be a huge improvement over sitting in the grass when dining al fresco.
Start with securing a better bathroom
"Greg had read the book The Humanure Handbook and was inspired to try to reduce our environmental footprint by using a composting toilet," says Morton. Instead of using a toilet that would produce gray water (the gently used wastewater that most RVs produce), the couple opted for the composting toilet, which is a dry toilet divided into two sections (for, ahem, number one and number two). Section 1 feeds into a bucket you can compost, while Section 2 feeds into a bucket that houses a natural, renewable soil amendment you can compost or dispose of.
"Our composting toilet was the most expensive purchase we made, but in return, it has been easy to use," she explains. "We were surprised how it doesn't smell. We like that it's transportable and can come with us if we decide to live in a more mobile house on the road."
You can live without a shower — at least in your home
Morton and Laudenslager both work full-time jobs, meaning they can't skip showers as much as they'd like. Instead, they pack a bag with work clothes and head to the gym nearby for daily showers. If your tiny house doesn't have room for a shower or you're living out of a van or trailer, there are still plenty of ways to find a shower; you just have to great creative.
"One of the hidden advantages is that I am at the gym all the time," laughs Morton. "Since I have to be there anyway, it makes sense to work out while I'm there. I also am encouraged to try 'free weeks' at yoga studios or other gyms just because I know I will have access to a shower."
And when you really can't find a place to rinse off? "I pretend like I'm camping and wait it out an extra day or two," says Morton.
Wasting water is so 1998
Speaking of fewer showers, Morton says one thing she's learned by living in a tiny space with a limited water supply is to be more thoughtful about her water usage in general.
"If we all treated water like it was a precious resource as opposed to an unlimited one, we could help restore our rivers so that we are not withdrawing more water than it is replacing," she explains. Toilets are the main source of water use in an average American home (according to the EPA), so to live with the tiny mindset, Morton suggests considering purchasing a composting or high-efficiency toilet instead.
Not ready to part ways with your porcelain throne? "It can also be as simple as turning off water between washing dishes, doing laundry less or taking shorter showers," Morton suggests.
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