Friday, July 10, 2015

Want a "Tiny House?" Philadelphia's had them...for a while.

I've been obsessed with the Tiny House movement ever since it carved out its own corner of the architectural blogosphere. They're freaking adorable. If you disagree, or don't know what I'm talking about, take a quick look.

While there's no current standard for what empirically defines a Tiny House, the movement was born following the housing crisis of 2007 and encourages living spaces of less than 1000 square feet. In Philadelphia that might seem irrelevant. In much of the Northeast, 1000 square feet is plenty. In Center City or Manhattan, it's downright decadent. But the square footage threshold is far from set in stone, with many Tiny Houses taking up 400 square feet to as little as 80. 

It's hard to look at this without saying "totes adorbs."

I get it. They're "green," they're whimsical, and theoretically cheap. Ever since I saw the first Tiny House grace the silicon screen, I wanted one. Cutting ties with the trappings of materialism and nostalgia, eliminating clutter and living in my city, not my house, sounds utterly liberating. Then, as I was creeping down my pie staircase and stubbed my toe on my bike, I realized, I already live in one.

The Tiny House movement didn't originate in 2007. It emerged - at least in the United States - about 300 years ago in Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. These were known as Trinity Homes, usually consisting of one room per floor, a dirt floored kitchen in the basement, and a privy in the rear. It wasn't an altruistic movement. Our Founding Fathers may have been idealistic in their own way, but their dedication to environmentalism and carbon footprints ended with the fact that electricity and indoor plumbing hadn't yet been perfected. They were imperialists, industrialists, and at the time, some of the largest land owners in the world.

They built big, and for the next 200 years would continue to build bigger. The Tiny House movement of yesteryear was simply a place to store their human property, i.e. indentured servants and slaves. 

Centuries removed from the horrors of cramming families into these Trinity Homes, the immigrant tenements they morphed into throughout the early 20th Century, Philadelphians have developed a renewed interest in these houses. In fact, some of the most sought after homes in Philadelphia - those along Elfreth's Alley - are Trinities. 

One of America's first "Tiny Houses."

Some have been meticulously restored, others have been largely modernized or combined. Still many retain the bare minimum: modern plumbing and electricity, but few frills. The most desirable are throughout Washington Square, Society Hill, and Queen Village, while countless others are full of hipsters in Fishtown the Italian Market. 

When I moved to Chinatown's Winter Court about seven years ago, I got rid of my sofa, traded my fat-backed TV for a sleek Mactop, and put the heirlooms in a storage unit not much smaller than my floor-plan. And it was liberating, for a while. 

Tiny House living is a challenge, but in the regions that embrace the ideal - largely the Pacific Northwest - they work with ample space. In the dense cities of the Northeast, a tiny house - whether new or old - means vertical living. Unless you obsessively plan every second of your day, or are a complete slob, you're going to find yourself exhausted by your hourly game of Chutes and Ladders and end up with a pile of shoes and toiletries stacked at the foot of your stairs. 

The reality of our living spaces is that they are spaces in which we live. And that becomes painfully apparent the first time you fall down the stairs or leave a stack of mail a little too close to the stove. The oven is a great place to store boxes of cereal, but you'll never forget the smell of roasted Cap'n Crunch after preheating the oven for the Thanksgiving quail you're going to eat on tray tables with the two other people you can fit in your living room.

Don't get me wrong. The Tiny House movement is an astonishing one, and a part of me still wants to live like Frodo Baggins. Or, I should say, a part of me still enjoys living like a Hobbit. That's why I've stayed on Winter Court for seven years. 

But it's a daily effort. Even the smelliest hippy can wind up feeling like a hoarder after a few years in 500 square feet of vertical living space. You begin to make unusual considerations, like whether or not you want to cook that cajun catfish knowing you'll be smelling it while you sleep. And not to sound crass, but with only 500 square feet, you're never very far from the toilet. 

In a nation where the average home can easily grow to 2000 square feet and beyond, the movement, and Philadelphia's adoration for Trinity Homes, makes its point. Modern homes have become cheaper and cheaper to build, and it's easy to say, "sure, give me the extra bedroom or that Man Cave" without considering the eventual cost in utilities. Modern Tiny Houses allow a higher quality craft to be invested into a smaller space. Trinity Homes allow for savvy improvements that would otherwise be lost in the cavernous space of the average modern home. Money otherwise put into suburban expansions can be invested in better materials, insulation, and pricier, more efficient appliances. 

Still, as trends go, capitalists understand their market and the market for Tiny Houses is growing. What started out as a quirky campaign for the few who understood the philosophy behind these houses is evolving into one trading grassroots idealism for profit and panache. Today, many of these Tiny Houses, some essentially well designed modular homes, can cost more than a suburban McMansion, and that's not including the land. As for Trinity Homes, if you truly want to go-green, remember that the greenest house is one that's already standing. 

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