Last weekend I went to Garfield with the wife to tour Pittsburgh’s first tiny house.
I spent last week trying to think of something more clever than what Diana Nelson Jones already said in the Post-Gazette: “The tour consisted of standing in the middle of the open space and wondering where the bedroom was.”
Hint: if the room you’re in doesn’t have a sink, you’re in the bedroom.
It was a hot ticket. When we were there, the line stretched from the building entry at the lowest corner of the lot all the way up the hill to the next house. Luckily, the line moved pretty quickly, owing to the fact that it doesn’t take very long to poke your head into three rooms.
There’s the aforementioned bedroom, occupying half of the building when split along the length of it’s rectangular 350 square foot footprint:
And there’s a tiny kitchen, which is more functional than my larger kitchen:
And finally a small bathroom with some storage space:
Not pictured is the full-height basement, accessible through a hatch in the floor.
Finally, outside, the small footprint allows for more yard than usual for a city lot.
That’s really the whole tour, they’re not kidding about the ‘tiny house’ thing. I believe that America could do with a home diet that limits consumption of McMansions; as a nation, we’re second only to Australia (another country with a small, rich population and lots of buildable land) in square footage being built per person.
Keep in mind that the chart above considers new homes, to be bought by the wealthy (who have smaller families), so the actual number of square feet per person is probably even larger. Square footage is another of many areas that Americans could stand to cut back on, especially when you consider that smaller areas are easier to heat and thus contribute to a smaller carbon footprint. Win-win.
There are many things, though, that make me think that the tiny house movement will, for the moment, remain tiny. First, there are building codes specifying minimum square footage, and a given municipality may have requirements that further increase that minimum. Furthermore, many places prohibit houses on wheels. This makes it difficult to realize many of the cost efficiencies of building a home off-site in a climate-controlled factory and parking it on a piece of property. As a result, the stunningly low figures quoted for tiny house living are too good to be true for most. One Pittsburgh woman is finding this out the hard way.
You can actually call it two Pittsburgh women if you include Eve Picker, the Australian architect, urban planner and developer for the tiny house in Garfield. The asking price for this tiny house ($109,500) raised my eyebrow, but the total cost to build it ($191,000) dropped my jaw. In addition to the issues outlined above, she also ran into many underground problems that contributed to that figure, including excavating an old foundation and creating a new sewer connection.
The design of this house is a genial modern. “Genial” being a word that you wouldn’t use to describe your new crush. More like, the guy in your office who talks too loud but brings in cookies every once in a while. The color started as a proud shade of purple, then was lightened until somebody said “that’s cute”. This house introduced itself to its neighbors by saying, “I know what you’re thinking, but I’m not that kind of modern house”. The fasteners for the exterior cladding are placed precisely, in pairs, a thoughtful bit of detailing that’s been overstated by the way the dark heads stand out against the light-colored panels. The panels, for their part, are already showing signs of wear.
The interior is dressed in white drywall, the “khakis” of finishes. The spaces supporting the open plan are disappointingly devoid of the clever space-hacks that lend character to tiny houses. What good is living efficiently if you can’t smugly demonstrate that lifestyle to your friends? (“Coffee mugs? They’re in the ceiling cabinet. No, the other ceiling cabinet.”) Instead there’s a playset version of a conventional kitchen, and a bathroom that’s just fine but definitely not ready for use.
The end result is one that is certainly not offensive, but also not very appealing: in other words, it hits the spec-home bulls-eye. I see tiny house die-hards balking at the style and the price. And when those with the means can rent a similarly-outfitted apartment in a cushier neighborhood, or buy something more spacious locally and still have money to improve, who is the buyer?
Ms. Picker seems to be hunting for someone young, with means, committed to the tiny house lifestyle but not the cluttered aesthetic; this may prove to be rare game in Pittsburgh. Her development here is a bet that tiny houses are ready to break from fringe to fad. I think she’s either too early or right on time. In the next few years we’ll see if she soars like a Jett or if her Arrow missed the mark.