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Tiny houses, big lives: How families make small spaces work, in real life

Jan. 30, 2013 at 11:28 AM ET

When my husband and I bought our house, its 800 square feet of living space was perfect for two. We fought rarely, lived within our means without too much trouble, loved walking to restaurants and parks, went away many weekends, divided up the two closets, and dumped our extra stuff in the basement.

Then we had a kid.

Daycare bills left us broke, we argued 400% more often, and we spent more time inside. We replaced our single living room chair with a baby swing. We moved the desk into our bedroom, with one inch to spare. I invented a complicated consignment system, with revolving garbage bags of out-of-season clothes, unwanted gifts, and toys I could not stand. This Christmas, I provoked the familial equivalent of an international incident by limiting the number of presents that grandparents could send.

To be clear, my family does not live in a tiny house. People raising children in New York, or in apartments everywhere, will mock me.  But my own situation made me curious about families who live with a much smaller footprint. What happens when the chaos and wonder (and stuff!) that kids introduce explode all over your immaculately arranged tiny house?

With such small indoor living space, the Berzin family spends a lot of time outside on their deck.
Hari Berzins / Tinyhousefamily.c
With such small indoor living space, the Berzin family spends a lot of time outside on their deck.

So I asked Hari Berzins, who writes the Tiny House Family blog and lives with her husband and two children, 8 and nearly 10, in a 168-square-foot home. They downsized from a 1500-square-foot home after losing their family’s restaurant business. They are socking away her salary to finance a larger, mortgage-free home. But they’ve been in this tiny house for almost two years.

She’s often asked what is the hardest thing about tiny living. It’s hard to answer, she says, because the biggest challenges can turn into unexpected blessings. Living in a smaller physical space magnifies whatever dynamics and issues already exist in a family. But it forces open communication. As Berzins explains:

"You’re still whoever you are when you move in. But I think a bigger house gives you the room to leave things and let them pass without having to face them like we do in the tiny house…What we’ve done, and it’s helped a lot, is focusing on communicating rather than expecting. You can’t really run from things. It feels like we’ve been in therapy, but the therapy is our house."

The Berzins live in a 168 square foot home.
Hari Berzins / Tinyhousefamily.c
The Berzins live in a 168 square foot home.

While downsizing, they had many conversations with their kids about what things were most important to them. They each have a couple of crates for personal things, and her children will passionately argue that they lack for nothing. Berzins, who lives in rural Virginia, concedes that her lifestyle would be tougher in an urban setting. Outdoor space makes tiny living easier, as does having one person in your family who can build things (we have none).

Case in point: Interior designer Jessica Helgerson lives in a 540-square-foot home on Sauvie Island, 15 minutes north of Portland, Ore., with her family.

She combined the living, dining, and kitchen spaces into an open “great room” with a sleeping loft for the parents. The built-in sofas double as guest beds. And my favorite feature is the sliding closet in the kids bedroom. (Because her photos misguidedly lead me to believe that if only I built a sliding closet, my kid’s room would be this clean too! Paradise is always just one new storage solution away!)

The living room of the Helgerson family home near Portland, Ore. The family of four lives in 540 square feet.
Lincoln Barbour / Jessica Helgerson
The living room of the Helgerson family home near Portland, Ore. The family of four lives in 540 square feet.

Debra Jordan, who shares a mortgage-free 320-square-foot house with her husband and teenage son, says one key to living small is focusing on the things you do have. Because she likes to cook and entertain guests, her tiny kitchen holds four cast iron skillets, two soup pots, two crock pots, two full sets of beautiful china, a juicer, assorted baking pans, and 30 pieces of tupperware to keep things organized.

For overnight guests, she built an ingenious living room sofa bench that folds out into a guest bed. And there’s even a dishwasher hidden underneath.

So when my family had our day of reckoning about moving, what did we do? We refinanced into a smaller mortgage payment and started counting the days until our four-year-old would be coordinated enough not to fall out of a loft bed. Why?

Because like many people who’ve opted to live in smaller spaces, it gives us flexibility to do other things with our time and money. I wish I could say it has redefined our relationship with stuff, but our basement allows for a lot of overflow. I also wish I could say it has entirely right-sized our budget, but we still have that heinous daycare payment.

It has made me a more engaged parent. The lower overhead has allowed me to work a flexible schedule while our daughter was little. Plus, most of her play happens in the middle of our living room. And when my husband and I do argue, we resolve things pretty fast. It’s no fun to be ten feet away from someone you’re really mad at.

For sure, there are inconveniences, like the scuba diving regulator that lived on our dining room table for two weeks because there was no other obvious place to put it. But here’s the thing: I still like coming home to our little house. I like my family. I want to see them at the end of the day. It’s nice to have them close, in our familiar tight orbit. And it’s weirdly satisfying to survey most of the things you use on a daily basis just by turning in a circle. So, for now, we’re going to work with what we have, and aspire to have a little less.

This post first appeared on Sightline.org.

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