written by: Susan Lacke photos by: Adam Finkle
First came love, then came marriage, then came the tiny house. When Chris and Tamara started their life together, they wanted to do so with clarity and purpose—a life of experiences, friendships and leaving the world a better place than they found it. For them, that meant reducing their material possessions and building a tiny house in Summit County.
“We both experienced moments of minimalism in our lives, going through college and post-graduate programs and not acquiring too much,” says Tamara (who asked her family’s names be withheld). “We assumed going tiny would be a natural progression, and relatively easy.”
But as they packed their relatively meager belongings to make the move to their 240-square-foot tiny home, they discovered they had already acquired an excess of clutter—the basement was full, the attic was stuffed, and seldom-used items were stashed all around the house.
“If you live without these conveniences for a while, you really end up surprising yourself,” says Tamara. “Pare down, and then add things back into your life when there truly is a need. That true need gives those items all the more value in the end.”
In America, bigger is better: we want our meals supersized and our SUVs with extra cargo room. Our Big Gulp cups runneth over, as do our artificially-enhanced DD’s from Victoria’s Secret. We want everything to be, as the orange man in the White House says, yuge. Nowhere is this more true than in Utah, where we tout the nation’s largest average household size and the World’s Largest Costco, a whopping 235,000 square feet in Salt Lake City, bursting with barrels of Utz Cheese Balls and gallon jugs of Worcestershire sauce.
To contain all this, we build houses—big ones. The median home size in Utah is 2,300 feet, the largest in the nation. Utah is also the only state to post a median four bedrooms for the typical home—the other 49 tout a measly three. And yet this still isn’t enough space—our holiday decorations, DVD collections and too-small clothes fill the millions of rentable storage units throughout the state.
We buy things we can’t afford with credit card money we don’t have. To repay our debt, we forego family time for extra shifts and second jobs—in the name of the American Dream.
Cornell University researchers confirm that materialistic goods can only make us so happy—in a process formally known as “Adaptation Level Theory,” consumers get an initial thrill from acquiring new trinkets, only to quickly lose their satisfaction upon realizing what else is out there. We’re “stuff junkies,” constantly looking for our next high in the aisles of big-box stores and on Amazon.com.
In the face of materialistic madness, younger generations are redefining the American Dream. The minimalist movement—a lifestyle that eschews material accumulation for simplicity—believes the American Dream is no longer an accumulation of material goods and a McMansion, but freedom from debt and pursuing one’s passions.
Chris and Tamara are pursuing the new version of the American Dream. “We donated so much stuff before the move,” says Tamara. “It felt great.” One year later, the couple continues to downsize, realizing what they once thought was essential really isn’t: A small space in the kitchen that once held a microwave is empty; the same goes for a spot once designated for a washer/dryer unit.
Their life isn’t picture-perfect—despite their miniature floor plan, they still misplace things all the time. When their 60-pound dog shakes off his fur after coming in from a walk, mud is easily flung to all four walls of the home. Making the bed involves acrobatic contortions in the small space. For the newlyweds, it’s a small price to pay for the life they envisioned.
“Our dream is a life full of experiences,” says Tamara. “We have freedom from debt and to pursue our passions. Expensive houses, cars and dinners don’t equal fulfillment and happiness. Living in a tiny house forces us to assess what we need, what we buy and how we fill our lives. We love it.”
Tiny houses get a lot of buzz, but they don’t get built a lot. Stew MacInness of Maximus Extreme Living Solutions says even the most motivated builders become discouraged by the red tape of banks and zoning boards.
“Tiny homes are hard to place, harder to finance,” says MacInness, who has built tiny homes since 1991. “There are people who would make the jump, but are unable to do so because of the limited number of locations, and the ability to purchase them is quite difficult.”
Despite their low price tag, no consistent financing is available for tiny homes. If a loan is secured, most communities in Utah require a minimum square footage (800-1000 square feet) for new-construction homes. But as lifestyle, economics and social change create more demand for smaller floor plans, cities are beginning to listen. Salt Lake Mayor Jackie Biskupski has proposed cutting red tape by providing pre-approved tiny-home plans and more financing options.