"Free Spirit" tiny home built by Hudson River Tiny Homes. Photo: Hudson River Tiny Homes
To many, the idea of America has become intertwined with excess: big in size, big in consumption. There is no Little Mac. This stereotype, however, that Americans always think bigger is better, has only recently come to the fore, beginning in the latter half of the 20th Century and possibly cresting in the 80s. The United States has a storied relationship with parsimony and conservation, too. One of its latest burgeoning collective interests is the Tiny House Movement. The movement’s aims are quite clear: its adherents choose to live in very small (by relative standards) houses.
The idea of living small has a long history in America. Henry David Thoreau’s Walden is frequently invoked as the movement’s philosophical antecedent. An advocate of the lifestyle, he wrote: “I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life...I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.” For transcendentalists like Thoreau, living simply was a way of living in harmony with nature, and in awe of it. In recent decades, living in a tiny house has come to be connected with environmental concern, with living green by using fewer resources.
The movement has recently picked up speed, and tiny house builders are popping up all over the country. New York State practitioners include Mark and Jessica Dunkirk of Tiny Hamptons in Southampton, Long Island, who began building tiny houses two years ago. They are experts at designing and building tiny houses in ways that maximize space without curtailing amenities. The Dunkirks are the first builders to bring the Tiny House Movement to Long Island, and they join an increasing number of tiny home builders all over the state from Hudson River Tiny Homes in the Capital Region to Bear Creek Carpentry in the Adirondacks.
A tiny home built by The Dunkirks of Tiny Hamptons. Photo: Tiny Hamptons
The movement is not without its obstacles, however. “People like us have a few numbers that constrain us. One is eight and a half feet wide. Wider than that, you need a police escort and a wide-load permit. Eighteen and a half feet long is the maximum length and ten thousand pounds is the weight limit...The fourth number that’s sort of a holy number is thirteen feet six inches. You start to kiss bridges if you’re much taller than that.” This from Elizabeth Turnbull, an owner of a tiny house, talking to Alec Wilkinson of the New Yorker in 2011 about the regulations around tiny houses.
The average American household is around 2,600 square feet. The typical tiny house is defined as having between 100 and 400 square feet. For this reason, the movement continues to be stymied by the rules surrounding dwellings in the United States. Zoning regulations typically specify a minimum square footage for new construction on a foundation, one which exceeds a tiny house’s own definition, therefore most often tiny houses are built on trailers and are legally defined as recreational vehicles (R.V.s).
But zoning regulations in most places, especially more dense, developed areas, do not typically allow full-time living in R.V.s or moving tiny houses. Tiny house owners are restricted by law from living in so small a house, and forbidden from living in their R.V. permanently. Therefore, a large proportion of people who choose to live in tiny houses do so in some state of contravention with the law.
There is, however, increasing pressure on municipalities to accept tiny houses as legal residences. The American Tiny House Association was formed in order to advocate for the legality of tiny houses throughout the U.S. and, as they put it, “to promote the tiny house as a viable, formally acceptable dwelling option for a wide variety of people.”
There has been some headway already. The International Code Council has approved a model code for tiny houses for inclusion in its International Residential Code, the most widely recognized residential building code in the country, and advocates hope that, over the course of smaller legal victories, more ground will be broken in the future (or at least have a tiny house parked on top of it).
For Thoreau, living in his 150 square foot cabin was an experiment, but today adherents to this minimalist philosophy have taken it to be a way of life. And while Thoreau is often invoked as an ideological progenitor, Jay Shafer is considered the father of the modern Tiny House Movement we know today, or at least credited with jumpstarting a current of thought bubbling since the late 80s.
In 1999, Shafer published an article on the merits of simple living and in the same year, founded the first tiny house building company, Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, in Sonoma, California. His part in the movement grew to the point where he even appeared on Oprah to promote the tiny lifestyle. According to him, during a commercial break, Oprah told him that he had inspired her to get rid of one of her mansions.
The Tiny House Movement gained more traction in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and the burst of the housing bubble. Many people lost their homes and sought more affordable, sustainable ways of living. But since then, the movement has been embraced not through tragedy, but out of an urge to live a greener lifestyle through reducing the environmental footprint. With less space, less energy is needed to heat and light a home, fewer materials are needed for maintenance, and fewer possessions can fit inside, discouraging excess or waste.
Of course, other reasons for living in a tiny house are numerous. Many just enjoy living in a smaller, simpler space. Some want one to function as an Airbnb on their property. Jessica Dunkirk describes her clientele as “all kinds of people..there is not one type.” People of all ages and backgrounds have independently come together to embrace the movement.
There’s even a tiny house startup.
New York Catskills tiny home cabins by Getaway. Rent here. Photo: Getaway
Getaway, founded by Jon Staff, who lived and worked from a ’26 Airstream trailer for several years, offers a more rarefied, temporary tiny house experience. The company provides the opportunity to experience life in a tiny house in the middle of the woods removed from technology, a quiet escape from a more hectic world. It has tiny houses in the Catskills (as well as in Washington D.C. and Boston) where one can get away for the weekend. If you are curious about tiny house living and whether you might like to make it a part of your future, this might be an ideal way to give it a try. The risk would be...small.
Looking to rent a tiny vacation home in New York? Here's a list of our Editor's Picks:
"The Flat: A Tiny House Perched Over the Creek" in South Cairo
"Mizu: A Tiny House Overlooking the Catskill Creek" in South Cairo
"The Lux: A Tiny House with Amazing Views" in South Cairo
"2 Bedroom Eco Tiny House" in Lake Placid
Ohka"s "Luxury Tiny House" in Bronx
"Tiny Home on Farm Upstate Catskills" in Woodbridge
"Tiny House Experience in Beautiful Mohawk Valley" in Fort Plain
"Waterfront Tiny Home on Great Lake" in Lyndonville
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