At the Democratic National Convention, Joe Biden said the nation will not downsize the American dream, which is a fine and noble vow that everyone should ignore.
Of course we must downsize the American dream — or at minimum the size of our mortgages, lest we all be living in huts when the dollar fails and Social Security dries up. How best to do this? Simple: Live in a hut right now.
It’s not a hard sell, once you inspect the offerings of the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, a California firm that markets homes and house plans that range from small (874 square feet) to ridiculously tiny (65 square feet). While many have wheels and are technically mobile homes, they look more like Lilliputian mountain cabins than the sad rectangles that crowd trailer parks. These new tiny homes are the descendants of Henry David Thoreau’s 125-square-foot cabin at Walden Pond. They, too, front the essentials of life. If some of these essentials can be found at the Stoughton Ikea, so be it.
Thoreau is beloved here in his native New England, so it’s no surprise that Tumbleweed’s upcoming seminar in Boston has already sold out despite its $399 cost. (It’s Feb. 9-10 at Simmons College, and there’s a waiting list on the Tumbleweed website.) Participants will learn how to design and build their own tiny houses, just like Thoreau — and to do some stuff Thoreau didn’t have to do: how to haul it on a utility trailer, how to placate suspicious zoning officials, and possibly, how to Dumpster-dive to find materials. The presenter, Derek “Deek” Diedricksen, says he’s built homes for $1,000 using building materials he’s foraged from dumps. Others cost from $15,000 to $40,000.
To see the appeal of tiny homes, as offered by Tumbleweed or a New Hampshire company called White Mountain Yurts, we need only look at our January heating bills. With a tiny house come tiny utilities, tiny taxes, and tiny housework, ostensibly leaving money and time for bigger, more numinous things. In the 1960s, Pete Seeger sang derisively about “little boxes” made of ticky-tacky that all looked the same. Today it’s the big houses that reek of conformity and waste.
But purveyors of jumbo mortgages need not fear; we’re not ready to part with those big houses yet.
The tiny-house movement does battle with a hardened mindset, one that equates home size with success. There is no Buckingham Cabin, nor will the White House become the White Hut, no matter how passionately green its future occupants. Like George Jefferson, we all want to move up to that dee-luxe apartment in the sky. So-called micro-apartments, like the much-hyped ones going up on the waterfront in South Boston, are fine because they’re rentals. Which is to say, they are usually temporary dwellings, mere stepping stones to the ultimate destination, that dee-luxe mansion in the ’burbs.
The divide between our aspirations and our acts is as characteristic of Americans as our love of wide, open spaces and our devotion to excess. The Tumbleweed Tiny House Co. has 62,000 “likes” on Facebook, but it’s hardly changing the suburban landscape. Radical minimalism is in, but more in theory than in practice. In 2011, the average new home in America had 2,480 square feet, up 88 feet (half a tiny house!) from the year before. Thirty-nine percent of new homes have four or more bedrooms, even though the birth rate is in decline and more US households have dogs than children.
Per usual, wisdom occupies the middle, and folly skirts the extremes. A 100-square-foot home, for most people, is as impractical as one a thousand times bigger. Mercifully, things made of ticky-tacky decay rapidly, and in their place will rise new structures better suited to the economic times. Maybe Cape Cod-style cottages, which are small but not claustrophobic, classy but not ostentatious.
The nation could do far worse. We won’t all be in smelling distance of the ocean, but this is America, and dreams are permitted.
Jennifer Graham lives in Hopkinton and writes regularly for the Globe.