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Small Spaces, Big Ideas: 7 Tiny Homes With the Power to Transform How We Live

Don’t let their sizes fool you. Microhouses are solving many of our national problems, from providing shelter to the homeless to making communities greener.

Innovations in technology and infrastructure have given rise to McMansions in America over the last few decades, but as the old adage goes, bigger isn’t always better. That’s the thinking behind the recent trend toward tiny homes, spearheaded by citizens who want to live more simply on less. And given the recent housing bust — nearly 1 out of 4 Americans now owes more than their house is worth — smaller doesn’t just seem smarter. It’s more sustainable, too. Here’s a look at how seven microhome communities are challenging our traditional approaches to housing — and helping tackle big problems along the way.

Courtesy of Quixote Village

1
Quixote Village

Location: Olympia, Wash.

Backstory: This 30-home communal-living village grew out of a homeless camp in the state’s capital city. Launched in December 2013, it’s now supported financially by Panza, a faith-based nonprofit named after Don Quixote’s servant in the iconic  novel by Miguel de Cervantes.

Impact: Governed by the 30 previously homeless adults who call it home, Quixote Village is comprised of 144-square-foot cottages and a communal space that includes a shared kitchen, showers and other meeting spaces. Since it typically costs less to house the homeless than to leave them without shelter, the community is a fiscally wise setup that also gives underserved citizens a chance to live on their own for the first time.

Courtesy of Garden Cottages

2
The Garden Cottages of Upper Albina

Location: Portland, Ore.

Backstory: With a mantra of “refind, reuse, recreate,” builders Jeffrey Gantert and Brad Bloom built two 364-square-foot cottages in an empty parking lot in 2008.

Impact: The cottages are a vivid example of what happens when urban renewal meets sustainability. The homes were crafted almost entirely with reclaimed materials that would have likely ended in a landfill: Flattened tin cans make up the outer walls, while flour sacks from local bakeries serve as wallpaper. Elsewhere, old benches from Dairy Queen are used as bases on porch swings. The cottages come furnished with rents starting around $1,000.

Adam Kuehl/SCADpad

3
SCADpad

Location: Atlanta

Backstory: After learning that at least half of America’s nearly 105 million commercial parking spaces are empty about 40 percent of the time, a team of students, faculty and alumni from the Savannah College of Art and Design joined together to find a unique way to transform these concrete areas into colorful and creative living environments.

Impact: In April, the college unveiled five 135-square-foot SCADpads in the parking garage of its campus in Atlanta, a city infamous for its urban sprawl and traffic congestion. As more cities experience a shortage of affordable housing and unused parking spaces, SCAD hopes its microapartments can become a model for sustainable living in urban areas. Since the launch, the school has had students live in its SCADpads for a week at a time, with plans to scale in the future.

Courtesy of Boneyard Studios

4
Boneyard Studios

Location: Washington, D.C.

Backstory: In 2012, Lee Pera (a geographer for the Environmental Protection Agency), Brian Levy (a vice president of a renewable energy company) and Jay Austin (an artist) created Boneyard Studios in a D.C. alley lot to explore the benefits of a tiny-home community. The founders see tiny homes as a viable solution to beautify and make use of small urban spaces that are otherwise left untouched.

Impact: All three homes in Boneyard Studios are less than 200 square feet and were built with sustainability in mind. The Matchbox home, for example, is zero-waste and designed with green features like skylights and large windows for natural cooling. Because of a zoning law that forbids the founders from living there permanently, Pera and her team use Boneyard Studios as an educational tool, hosting regular workshops, tours and events for locals to learn about downsizing, affordable building and advantages of small-home living. They’re also working to change the zoning law that prevents tenants from living full time in small alley spaces.

Courtesy of Clothesline Tiny Home

5
Clothesline Tiny Homes

Location: Santa Fe, N.M.

Backstory: When Carrie and Shane Caverly needed to downsize their living situation to save on rent in 2012, they built their own 204-square-foot home on a trailer foundation so they could move whenever — and wherever — they wanted.

Impact: The recent housing collapse was a stark reminder of some of the consequences of excess, like ballooning mortgage debts and a glut of vacant homes. With their new, smaller house, the Caverlys cut their rent from $1,500 a month to $350 a month (the latter figure also includes electricity and water). The couple — Carrie is an architectural designer and Shane is a builder/contractor —are now on a mission to help other families live simpler, more affordable lives, and they have established a company, Clothesline Tiny Homes, to do just that.

Brian Reynolds/Homeless Homes Project

6
Homeless Homes Project

Location: Oakland, Calif.

Backstory: After retrofitting a Dumpster into a home for himself, artist Gregory Kloehn is now using his talent to provide a solution to the lack of affordable housing for homeless citizens in Oakland, Calif., through his Homeless Homes Project.

Impact: On the project’s website, Kloehn says that he hopes to turn “everyday garbage into viable living spaces,” by scouring illegal street dumps and commercial scrapyards to create his whimsical homes — where washing-machine doors become windows and bed frames become walls.  To date, Kloehn has created approximately 15 homes in Oakland, which are all designed on wheels for easy mobility.

Courtesy of SmartSpace SOMA

7
SmartSpace SOMA

Location: San Francisco

Backstory: America’s first prefabricated microhousing project aims to provide affordable housing for students in one of the country’s most expensive cities by offering 23 apartments, each 295 square feet, in one building.

Impact: The average American student graduates with a crippling $30,000 in student loan debt, a significant portion of which goes to housing. The SmartSpace SOMA effort hopes to provide relief to some of these students — specifically, the ones at the California College of the Art — by charging $1,600 a month in rent for these student residences. That’s almost half the cost of similar spaces in San Francisco’s pricey real estate market.

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Feifei Sun is a staff writer at NationSwell. She previously worked at Time and Vanity Fair.