Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Does the Tiny House solve a real problem?

The topic of the tiny house got another small boost when the Atlantic Magazine's CityLab reported about Baltimore's CivicWork's tiny house designed by Davin Hong. The reason for yet another article about the well worn topic was that the Baltimore version solves not only a problem of space and affordability but includes workforce development and is trying to address the problems of the many vacant houses and the many poor residents, although the article doesn't make it quite clear which or how.
Civic Work's Baltimore tiny house (Photo: Philipsen)
Baltimore certainly isn’t the only city experiencing a housing crisis: The U.S. as a whole can’t seem to keep up with the growing numbersof very low-income households. In response, a handful of cities, from Nashville to Dallas, Detroit, and Seattle, have launched programs to build tiny houses for folks priced out of their homes.... Civic Works, wants to build units for low-wage workers without waiting for government support—and do so while working with youth seeking job training, a knowledge of sustainable building practices and design, and a path to their GED. The organization sees tiny houses as a viable solution that will support residents now. (CityLab 7/14/17).
Baltimore's tiny house, designed by architect Davin Hong and his Living Design Lab, a firm focusing on social issues, as Hong explained on WYPR, is very pleasing to they eye, inside and out. No resemblance with a  trailer or an RV, two cousins with which the tiny house shares its status as a vehicle and which limits it to 8.5 width, 13.5 height and theoretically 40' length. (most tiny houses staying well under 200 sf in area are much shorter). The Baltimore prototype is also a model for sustainability and energy efficiency. Unlike the factory produced mobile homes it isn't emitting toxic fumes and unlike the regular RVs it boosts ample insulation and is suitable to be powered on or off the grid. It represents a minimalist's dream quite well and is like a Swiss Army knife packing a lot of utility into a an elegant very compact space.
Councilman Ryan Dorsey in the tiny home
(Photo: Philipsen)

Who can live in it? Hong says one person and "if they are really close", maybe two. CivicWorks wants to offer the $60,000 mini homes to first time home-buyers who can't afford a regular house. Or to non-profits or housing agencies which would offer it as an affordable, even transitional rental unit.

The tiny house movement is another design strategy in a long history of attempts employed by architects to address housing affordability and access to a place under a roof which is frequently seen as a fundamental human right. Architects got involved in the social aspects of housing at least since CIAM, le Congrès International d'Architecture Moderne with its various conferences that started 1928 and dealt with issues such as the Minimum Dwelling (CIAM II). Corbusier's living machines and Wright's Usonian House stand in this tradition and so do the Katrina cottages in new Orleans. It is well known, that many or even most of those architectural explorations of new prototypes of design intended to solve a slew of housing issues did not end well . To this day the CIAM idea of employing industrial production methods in the service of lower cost did not really pay off. The building industry remains a domain of much manual labor. The closest thing to an industrially produced house is the mobile home, a product that architects typically despise, even though it may have contributed more to make housing affordable than all the architectural prototypes combined.
Tumbleweed tiny house (Tumbleweed)

The tiny house is actually a reversal of the industrial production idea: No mass product insulated prefab panels and all those finishes that made the mobile home a toxic environment, instead a highly customizable standard 2x4 construction method with materials that convey sturdyness, warmth, comfort  and solidity. Used for workforce development in an area of low skills and high unemployment, manual labor is welcome. The reason that the tiny house sits on a trailer frame is not an attempt to produce it like an automobile but the US building code and the financing advantages that come from the classification as a vehicle.  The same regulatory set-up also advanced the mobile home in the US, a production type that plays no significant role in many other countries where regulations are different.

Morgan University architecture professor Fred Scharmen explained in the CityLab article that the tiny houses as a quintessentially suburban solutions (a house in a yard) don't easily make a city, a street or even a city block and, therefore, make probably the most sense as temporary housing solution. While $60 k is cheap compared to a regular basic house which can hardly be built under $150,000, the tiny house costs a lot of money per square foot and even more when one considers that wealth creation in the US largely revolves around the house, its appreciation, tax deductions and the fact that it is an easily to trade commodity. All these attributes a tiny house may not have once it becomes less fashionable.
Katrina Cottages 

Baltimore doesn't have a lack of space and it doesn't even have a shortage of not enough affordable living space. There is plenty of it, except that it is in the wrong location, a problem that even the tiniest house can't fix. What Baltimore is lacking is a large enough group of people that would want to move into disinvested areas or a group that would want to invest in those areas. Not even $60,000, unless there is a guarantee that the investment will see a return one day.

Cities that really have a space problem, New York and San Francisco come to mind, would indeed profit from a mindset that small is beautiful and the realization that home sizes have run amok while the number of people living in a household have steadily declined, but the last thing such cities need is a suburban freestanding home. In those cities the tiny house's urban sibling, the micro apartment, makes eminently more sense.

Meanwhile, in Baltimore, a village of tiny houses could be a way of offering the homeless a transitional structure that is better than a tent city. Those tiny houses, to be truly affordable, though, need to be stripped of kitchen and bath, the two most expensive items which in a transitional village should be located in a communal service center just like on a campground.

The tiny house biggest contribution may just be that it directs attention to a necessary shift from quantity to quality, and from low initial cost to low operating costs, shifts the country urgently needs.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

The WYPR piece about the tiny house was broadcast Tuesday 8/1 as part of Sheilah Kast's "On the Record". Featured are Greg Cantori, Davin Hong and I.

Note: Community Architect Daily will continue to be less regular in August due to travel. A good time to catch up with previous posts!


  1. "What Baltimore is lacking is a large enough group of people that would want to move into disinvested areas or a group that would want to invest in those areas."
    Right on.

  2. An interesting take and a perspective on tiny homes that I haven't seen much elsewhere. Thank you for sharing.