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Why Isn't It Easier to Build Small Houses?

This tiny house costs $700, takes up 215 square feet, and would likely be illegal to build in the United States.

How much would you like to spend on your next house? How about $700? That’s how much Tata, the company that marketed a $2,500 car in India, is charging for its new house. The “flat pack” house comes disassembled, like a piece of furniture from IKEA, and takes about a week to construct. The house is a mere 215 square feet. A more expensive, 323-square-foot model will have a solar panel on the roof. Either way, these houses are small: Some people build their children playhouses that are almost as large.

In the United States, the tiny-house movement has gained noticed outside of the most environmentally conscious circles. This week, The New Yorker ran an article describing the “rise” of the still-small movement: the author, Alec Wilkinson, reported that “there are between several hundred and a thousand tiny houses in the United States.” Compared to tiny houses, which cannot be much more than 150 square feet, the Tata house is a palace.

The Tata house is being marketed as a solution to India’s homelessness problem. Other tiny-house dwellers sometimes choose their small spaces for green reasons. The houses take fewer materials to build, less energy to run, and have space for less stuff. But even though it’s small, the Tata house is not necessarily a boon to the environment. Meant to last 20 years, it’s practically disposable.

If these two shifts -- people with big houses going smaller, people with no houses going bigger -- continue, they could complement each other. Tiny houses exist at an extreme of small spaces. As Wilkinson reports in The New Yorker, tiny-house builders must wedge them into an uncomfortable legal space, using trailer beds for their foundations and making them mobile, because to build a house that small would violate building codes. In other words, some tiny houses are so tiny because if they were built a smidge bigger, they’d start running into legal problems.

As a general rule, in America, a house must be about 261 square feet to conform to building codes based on recommendations from the International Code Council, a domestic trade group, Wilkinson reports. That means that the Tata house would likely be illegal in this country.

Living in a house with a footprint of less than 100 square feet might be too extreme for most people. Even in Manhattan, infamous for its tiny spaces, the average apartment takes up around 1,300 square feet. But there are advantages to opting for a small space. As tiny-house dwellers will attest, a small living spaces costs less to maintain and require no mortgage to worry about defaulting on. They hold less stuff, and what stuff there is must be more organized. If more Americans want to live in houses that take up less space, local governments that oversee building codes should be making that easier, not harder.

Photo courtesy of flickr user Rowdy Kittens, Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0

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