Shortly after graduating from Ohio University in 2005, Laura O’Neil decided to call Athens her home. Working at the Athens County Visitors’ Bureau in Nelsonville and volunteering her time with AmeriCorps, she saved enough to buy her own house: an 1800-square-foot, three-bedroom house on the outskirts of town. Over the course of the next six years, that house began filling up with furniture, belongings and a pet cat – the kinds of things that make a house a home. Though she has always been a minimalist, O’Neil, now a teen librarian at the Athens Public Library, realized that all her free time was going into the house doing mundane things like yard work and cleaning. Then, she came across the idea of tiny living, a movement that has recently gained attention across America.
For a year, O’Neil considered her circumstances. Eventually, she convinced herself that it was time for a change, and that is when she met contractor and designer Danny Yahini.
Yahini has a 25-acre plot of land tucked away in the hills near Strouds Run State Park. Speckled along the drive leading to his own house is a neighborhood of small homes. Hand crafted and elegantly finished, most of the small homes look like the average suburban homeowner’s shed. But, on the inside, they reveal so much more.
After downsizing, or as she likes to call it “smart-sizing,” O’Neil made the move to one of the small homes on Yahini’s land. The 300-square-foot “cabin” is fully equipped with a large bed, a full bath including a sensible shower, a full-size stove, cabinet and closet space and a small table for eating and working.
A common misconception of tiny living is that people must sacrifice their comfortable way of living and all of their belongings, but O’Neil says making the move was easy for her.
“Living here has made it so much easier to downsize. I can see all of my belongings in the space, which helps me evaluate what to keep. And now it feels good to just give things away, and I keep doing it.”
Artist and illustrator Erica Magnus, who also lives in one of Yahini’s small homes, moved into her mobile, 18-by-8-square-foot house in January 2013. Similar to O’Neil, her place has all the amenities. She has a built-in table that folds in and out to provide more space, cozy sleeping arrangements, plentiful counter space, a large sink and a significant amount of storage space.
“It has everything I need: a place to eat, a place to work, a place to sleep. It’s the perfect size,” Magnus said.
The way Yahini builds his houses is intentional and all from scratch. Magnus’ home took nine months to build, and she had a hand in the design. Yahini said the houses are so compact they must be personalized to the owner’s needs.
“There’s no room for furniture; everything is built in, so each one is a little different to suit the person buying it,” Yahini said.
Small homes are generally better for the environment because they are built using less resources, Yahini said. However, smaller is not better unless it is built with quality. His goal with each new build is to make the homes as energy efficient as possible, and he says his designs are more insulated than a refrigerator.
“Most homes are typically not built to last,” Yahini said. “Building stuff that falls apart in a few years is wasteful, so build something that’s going to last for a long time. Put the money into quality rather than into features. That’s environmentally-friendly behavior.”
The homes are so energy efficient that when the sun shines through the windows, they can heat the entire space and sustain the heat overnight. O’Neil said her bills have drastically decreased since making the move from her large house. On average, her electric bill is $15-20 a month, whereas in her 1800-square-foot home it was typically more than $100.
Tiny house bills are a fraction of what the average American home costs every month for electric, water and gas. With the use of solar panels and rain water collection systems, tiny houses have the ability to go completely off the grid.
However, Yahini said there are a few pitfalls to disconnecting from the electric grid and plumbing. Rain water collection systems are large and difficult to transport, and the amount of water homeowners are able to use depends on how much it rains.
“If you want to be off grid and not have a shower, that’s fine. You can live like that. People do all of the time,” Yahini said. “But, if you want to be off grid and have the benefit of modern conveniences, that’s what gets tricky.”
The new FYI series Tiny House Nation and several up-and-coming magazines and blogs are increasing the popularity of these houses nationwide. The decision to go tiny is being made not just for environmental concerns, but financial ones as well.
According to the United States Census Bureau, the average single-family house was nearly 2600 square feet in 2013 and cost $298,000. In contrast, tiny houses cost $23,000 on average and are anywhere from 100 to 400 square feet.
Magnus says her house, which she will finish paying off in a couple of months, cost less than a new SUV.
“This is an affordable way to have your own place. It’s very practical and it can be moved to wherever you choose to live,” Magnus said.
Tiny houses can move anywhere thanks to the wheels underneath their floorboards, but for now, Yahini’s tiny house neighborhood in Athens is functioning just fine for its residents. The neighborhood has two gardens, and everyone contributes a small bit of time tending to them for a portion of the harvest. They also have a chicken coup that gives them fresh eggs every day and a compost pile that can be used as fertilizer.
Magnus said her compost toilet is her favorite feature of the house.
“It really makes you aware of everything you’re using. It’s not weird at all. I know that what I’m contributing is positive.”
Tiny living is not for everyone, said Yahini, who believes that America has a consumerism culture that encourages the idea that people better themselves through getting higher paying jobs, buying bigger houses, nicer cars, more clothes and collecting other material things.
“It’s an addiction to consumerism, and like any other addiction, the transition to no addiction is painful,” Yahini said. “The psychological aspect of downsizing is amazing. That means letting go of stuff and letting go is hard because it’s your stuff. Your stuff is your identity, almost.”
O’Neil believes the motivation to go tiny has to come from within.
“I think a lot of people move into tiny houses because their debt helps them realize that their material things are keeping them from the life they want to have,” O’Neil said.
Since moving into Yahini’s cabin, O’Neil has made plans to build her own tiny home. She’s looking at 160-square-feet plus a loft to separate the sleeping area from the living area. She also hopes to get solar panels.
“My philosophy now is to have a place I can make a small investment in and then pay it off in five to ten years and just be done,” O’Neil said.
As the movement progresses, some are warming up to the idea of tiny living and taking the plunge. Others see it as a lesson of living more simplistically, even if it’s not in a tiny house.
“It’s a big ship,” Yahini said. “It’s going to take a while to turn and it’s just starting.”