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The Joys (and Unexpected Perils) of Sleeping in a Tiny House

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In the age of Marie Kondo’s imperative to declutter, downsizing is starting to look a lot more glamorous. Some of us content ourselves with throwing out old socks that no longer “spark joy” within us. For the more ambitious, the desire to live minimally goes beyond belongings. For some, it’s not just about cleaning your house, but about getting rid of your house, too.

Enter the tiny house, pint-sized dwellings that vary in size and design, but tend to take up less than 500 square feet of space. They’re typically built on a wheeled trailer, as if the love child of a mobile home and an RV dressed up in the trappings of a high-end Brooklyn coffee shop. They have a minimal carbon footprint, requiring fewer raw materials to build and less energy to power and heat, and compared to a mortgage for a traditional house, they're a bargain. They're mobile, ideal for people who suffer from wanderlust but still want to own a home. They're easy to customize, and plenty of people who don't have construction experience find themselves capable of building one on their own.

But while tiny houses can often look like Pinterest-ready fairy dwellings, for some residents, they turn out to be anything but magical. Zoning regulations are rarely tiny-house friendly, as many cities have minimum size requirements for dwellings or require houses to be on a foundation. The price tag isn’t usually as tiny as the living space, averaging about $25,000, excluding labor and land costs. Furthermore, it’s hard to start a family in 130 square feet, and being in such close quarters with another person can cause friction.

So just what is it like to live in such a home? In lieu of applying to star on Tiny House Hunters, mental_floss put one tiny house through its paces for a day, exploring its supremely minimalist kitchen, its terrifying bathroom, and more.

On one balmy summer night in August, I get the honor of being the singular resident of a luxury tiny-house cabin in the wilds of rural New York. It's a vacation home specifically designed for urban-dwelling adventurers who want to retreat from the hustle and bustle but not stray too far from the clean Scandinavian design aesthetics (think lots of bare wood) of the hipper parts of the city.

Getaway, a startup that offers tiny-house retreats outside New York City and Boston, lent me one of their four trailer-sized rentals in upstate New York—the company likes to keep its locations secret until just before guests depart for their trip—a spare, double-occupancy, 150-square-foot model called the Eleanor.

The tiny house movement is all about getting back to basics, and its eco-friendly and off-the-grid nature makes it particularly appealing to those who want to sequester themselves in picturesque backwoods, rural locations. Though Getaway understandably keeps its tiny houses on the same property, the wooded lot is sprawling enough—and the forest forest-y enough—to largely hide other occupants from view. When I arrive late in the afternoon on a Sunday, the property is quiet, and there’s no trace of other humans to witness as I drive in circles along the trails looking for my assigned bunkhouse. Eventually, I turn up a trail that doesn’t even look like it can handle the width of my rented Mini Cooper, and there she is, perched on wheels on a mound of earth overlooking the tiniest of streams. I punch in the keycode provided by Getaway for the front door, and I’m in.

Even as someone who eagerly gobbles up tiny-house blogs, I still manage to be surprised by the minimalism of the interior when I finally see it in person. It's virtually impossible to photograph the unit as a whole because my lens just isn't wide enough for that kind of a close-up. I spend a lot of my stay climbing onto the bed, the toilet, stools, and anything else with a little height just trying to capture a full view of the place for posterity.

Almost all the furniture has multiple uses, cramming more utility into a smaller space. The kitchen is also the living room, the counter doing triple duty as a food prep station, dining table, and work desk. There’s a built-in seating area covered with a cushion, about big enough for one person to sit on with their feet up, or two people to sit very closely together, but not enough for anyone to stretch out on. I later discover that underneath that thin cushion is a storage area for the gas tank powering the heater. The few dishes and cookware are stashed inside narrow shelf pockets that run underneath the kitchen counter.

I wasn’t told exactly what kind of cooking equipment there would be, other than an outdoor grill, and somehow imagined a compact built-in stove, or maybe a microwave. Instead, there’s a double hot plate. Below the counter, on the ground, I eventually locate a refrigerator about the size of a hotel safe, which I had initially mistaken for some kind of storage.

Except for the bathroom, the entire house is essentially one room, though there’s a partial barrier blocking the top half of the bed from view. For the first 12 or so hours I’m there, I don’t even realize the cramped bathroom has a door, so seamlessly does it slide into the wall. Instead of a bed frame, one end of the tiny house is devoted to a platform that stands several feet above the floor, with just enough space for the mattress. A stool is provided to help you clamber into bed. The raised area, hidden behind a half-wall, gives it the illusion of being another room, just separate enough from the general living space to feel somewhat private without making it feel tight and cramped, as an actual bedroom not much bigger than a queen bed would undoubtedly be. At least as you fall asleep, you don’t need to stare directly into the bathroom on the other end of the house (though it feels impossible to truly think of it as a house, and not just as a room, or, at best, a studio apartment).

The tiny house, overall, requires much more clambering and climbing than expected. One can’t just fall into bed here—you have to break out the stool. Thanks to the fact that it’s on a trailer designed to haul it down the highway, the house itself is elevated, giving you a different vantage point on the world than most single-family residences outside of major flood zones. Like the bed, the shower is raised, though this seems to be more of a practical consideration than aesthetic, since it would be hard to store water tanks and other plumbing accoutrements on the bottom of a working trailer without scraping the ground. Thus, bathing requires a precarious climb, 2-plus feet off the ground. OK, climbing may be a stretch—it’s a single step. Still.

Most things feel precarious when you’re naked—especially getting into a wet shower that rests at knee height. I accidentally leave my towel on the floor because I don’t spot the hook placed far above my head, and when I turn the water off—quickly, because the cabin only holds 120 gallons of water at a time—I find myself having a near-religious experience trying to dismount without breaking anything. I imagine ending up naked and unconscious from a toilet-related concussion on the floor of a bathroom so small I wouldn’t even be able to fully sprawl across it. As I naked-slither down from the skyscraper of fiberglass or whatever it is showers are made of these days, I fear for the lives of any guest over the age of 40 who might attempt a similar feat. But I survive to shower another day—as I will soon, because it’s August. When I do return to bathing, I find that even with the towel in arm’s reach, disembarking feels wobbly.

The Eleanor is clearly a vacation retreat meant for short stays, not a full-time home. There’s virtually no storage except a tiny space under the sink and a high-up cabinet that’s hidden near the ceiling by the door. There’s a long shelf that runs the length of the trailer, over the bed and kitchen counter, but living there would certainly require an extreme paring down of your wardrobe and other belongings. There is no freezer and no drawers of either the kitchen or the bedroom variety. There is nowhere to store a broom or vacuum, and you could never cook a meal that required more than one pot. I have trouble figuring out where to put the backpack and single bag of groceries I brought, much less deciding where to store my laptop or toothbrush—the only sink is in the kitchen, while the only mirror is a hand-sized rectangle hanging above the toilet. You would probably need to buy your toilet paper in single rolls, or maybe just go without.

The toilet itself could be the subject of an entire article. It’s electric (much like this one) and runs on a cartridge that only includes 15 flushes. Don’t worry, if you need to, you can call Getaway and tell them that you’ve pooped so much that you need more, and they’ll bring a new cartridge just for you. I restrain myself, but am unable to resist flushing just to see how it works, because while this toilet looks perfectly normal on the outside, the bowl looks like it’s designed for the International Space Station. When you flush it, the foil-like material that makes up the bowl inflates, twisting and contorting to swallow your waste and seal it inside the liner, which can later be thrown away. Still, for a portable toilet that doesn’t use any water, it’s surprisingly effective at mimicking the experience of a normal domestic bathroom situation in its look, feel, and smells.

Late that evening, I crawl up into my platform bed and turn out the lights. When I wake up in the middle of the night, I realize that the joys of being in the woods—complete darkness—also make dismounting from bed at 3 a.m. to go to the bathroom tricky. Aside from stubbing a toe on the stool, I manage. From the queen-sized bed, the tiny house feels practically luxurious. There may not be room for more than a book and a cell phone between the mattress and the wall, but there’s not much more you need. At the end of the bed, level with the mattress, there’s a wide window looking out into the trees, giving this part of the house an open feel. This might actually be a downside in a more populated place, to expose your bed so fully to your neighbors, but here it's perfect.

When it comes time to go, I’m sad to leave little Eleanor. I might need an extra 50 square feet of space to really make a house like this into my full-time home, but the minimalist lifestyle is easy to embrace for just a weekend. My apartment back in Brooklyn is surprisingly spacious for the New York City area, and my roommates and I have always struggled with how to fill it. As is, I spend most of my time in the small triangle between the kitchen, couch, and bed, and I could lose a few square feet without any regret. I could probably park the Eleanor inside of my living room, in fact. The idea doesn’t sound so bad.

All photos by Shaunacy Ferro unless otherwise noted

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Fake It Until You Make It: 10 Artificial Ruins
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Ramones Karaoke, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The love of ruins, sometimes called ruinophilia, has for centuries inspired the creation of clever fakes—a host of sham facades and hollowed-out castle shells found on grand English, European, and even American estates. The popularity of constructing artificial ruins was at its peak during the 18th and 19th centuries, but architects occasionally still incorporate them today.

Why build a structure that is already crumbling? Between the 16th and 19th centuries, the popularity of counterfeit ruins was influenced by two factors—a classical education that enforced the ideals of ancient Greece and Rome, and the extended tour of Europe (known as The Grand Tour) that well-to-do young men and women took after completing their education. Travelers might start in London or France and roam as far as the Middle East, but the trip almost always included Italy and a chance to admire Roman ruins. More than a few wealthy travelers returned home longing to duplicate those ruins, either to complement a romantic landscape, to demonstrate wealth, or to provide a pretense of family history for the newly rich.

Here are a few romantic ruins constructed between the 18th and 21st centuries.

1. SHAM CASTLE // BATHAMPTON, ENGLAND

Sham Castle (shown above) is aptly named—it’s only a façade. The "castle," overlooking the English city of Bath, was created in 1762 to improve the view for Ralph Allen, a local entrepreneur and philanthropist as well as to provide jobs for local stonemasons. From a distance it looks like a castle ruin, but it's merely a wall that has two three-story circular turrets and a two-story square tower at either end. The castle is not the only folly (as such purely decorative architecture is often called) that Allen built. He also constructed a sham bridge on Serpentine Lake in what is now Prior Park Landscape Garden—the bridge can't be crossed, but provides a nice focal point for the lake. Today, Sham Castle is part of a private golf course.

2. WIMPOLE FOLLY // CAMBRIDGESHIRE, ENGLAND

Building a structure that looks as if it's crumbling does not preclude having to perform regular maintenance. The four-story Gothic tower known as Wimpole Folly in Wimpole, Cambridgeshire, England, was built 1768-72 for Philip Yorke, first Earl of Hardwicke and owner of the Wimpole Estate. Owned by Britain’s National Trust, the ruin threatened to truly crumble a few years ago, so restoration efforts were needed. The last restoration was so well done it won the 2016 European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage. The Wimpole Estate is now open to the public for walks and hikes.

3. CAPEL MANOR FOLLY // ENFIELD, ENGLAND

Capel Manor at Bulls Cross, Enfield, England has been the site of several grand homes since the estate’s first recorded mention in the 13th century, so visitors might be tempted to believe that the manor house's ruins date back at least a few centuries. But that sense of history is an illusion: The faux 15th-century house was built in 2010 to add visual appeal to the manor gardens, which have been open to the public since the 1920s.

4. ROMAN RUIN // SCHONBRUNN PALACE, VIENNA, AUSTRIA

The Roman Ruin was built as a garden ornament for the 1441-room Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna, one of the most important monuments in Austria. The ruin was once called The Ruins of Carthage, after the ancient North African city defeated by Roman military force. But despite the illusion of antiquity, the ruins were created almost 2000 years after Carthage fell in 146 B.C.E. The ruin’s rectangular pool, framed by an intricate semi-circle arch, was designed in 1778 by the architect Johann Ferdinand Hetzendorf von Hohenberg, who modeled it on the Ancient Roman temple of Vespasian and Titus, which he had seen an engraving of.

5. THE RUINEBERG // POTSDAM, GERMANY

One of the earliest examples of artificial ruins in Germany was the complex of structures known as The Ruinenberg. Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, had a summer palace in Potsdam, near Berlin, that was said to rival Versailles. In 1748 Frederick commissioned a large fountain for the palace complete with artificial ruins. The waterworks part of his plan proved too difficult and was soon abandoned, but not before designer Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff constructed the ruins. The complex includes Roman pillars, a round temple, and the wall of a Roman theatre. Since 1927 the site has belonged to the Prussian Gardens and Palaces Foundation, Berlin-Brandenburg.

6. PARC MONCEAU // PARIS, FRANCE

Elegant Parc Monceau is located in the fashionable 8th arrondissement of Paris near the Champs-Elysees and Palais de l’Elysée. In 1778, the Duke of Chartres decided to build a mansion on land previously used for hunting. He loved English architecture and gardens, including the notion of nostalgic ruins, so he hired the architect Louis Carrogis Carmontelle to create an extravagant park complete with a Roman temple, antique statues, a Chinese bridge, a farmhouse, a Dutch windmill, a minaret, a small Egyptian pyramid, and some fake gravestones. The most notable feature of the park is a pond surrounded by Corinthian columns, now known as Colonnade de Carmontelle.

7. HAGLEY PARK CASTLE // WORCESTERSHIRE, ENGLAND

The ruins of the medieval castle at Hagley Park in Worcestershire are definitely fake, but they were built with debris from the real ruin of a neighboring abbey. The folly was commissioned by Sir George Lyttelton in 1747 and designed by Sanderson Miller, an English pioneer of Gothic revival architecture. The castle has a round tower at each corner, but by design only one is complete and decorated inside with a coat of arms. The grounds, which also feature a temple portico inspired by an ancient Greek temple, some urns, and obelisks, are now privately owned and not open to the public.

8. TATA CASTLE RUINS // TATA, HUNGARY

French architect Charles de Moreau (1758-1841) was a scholar of classical Roman architecture known for his ability to counterfeit impressive ruins. Nicholas I, Prince Esterhazy of Hungary, hired him to work on Tata Castle and to create the ruins of a Romanesque church for the palace’s English Garden. Even though the ruin Moreau created was fake, he built it with the stones of a real ruin, the remnants of the early-12th-century Benedictine and later Dominican abbey of Vértesszőlős. A third-century ancient Roman tombstone and relief were placed nearby.

9. BELVEDERE CASTLE // MANHATTAN, NEW YORK

Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux designed Central Park in the mid-1800s, and their plan for creating romantic vistas included the construction of a folly known as Belvedere Castle. The Gothic-Romanesque style hybrid, overlooking Central Park’s Great Lawn, was completed in 1869. Although the folly was designed as a hollow shell and meant to be a ruin, it eventually served a practical purpose, housing a weather bureau and exhibit space. The castle also provides a beautiful backdrop for Shakespeare in the Park productions, evoking the royal homes that play prominent roles in the Bard’s works.

10. FOLLY WALL IN BARKING TOWN SQUARE // LONDON

In a borough known for its real historic buildings, the ancient wall found in London’s Barking Town Square might look centuries old. It’s not, and ironically, the wall is part of the square’s renovation efforts. The wall was built by bricklaying students at Barking College using old bricks and crumbling stone items found at salvage yards. Known as the "Secret Garden," named after the children’s book about a walled garden, the wall was designed to screen a nearby supermarket and was unveiled in 2007.

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Dutch Tiny House Village Provides Houses for the Homeless
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The new residential development outside the Dutch city of Eindhoven is no ordinary community. Skaeve Huse is a special place designed for Eindhoven’s most vulnerable populations, according to Inhabitat. It’s aimed at providing permanent living quarters for previously homeless people with mental illness or drug addiction, or who otherwise struggle to live in traditional city residences.

The community was designed by the Amsterdam-based architects at Studio Elmo Vermijs for the Trudo Housing Corporation, a Dutch developer. (The company previously offered a rental discount for tenants who assist refugees.)

A bicycle is parked outside a slanted green tiny house.

“In recent years, several Skaeve Huse have been built in the Netherlands, always temporary, mostly in containers,” the architects write in their description of the project. “Trudo wanted a permanent and energy-neutral design so that this vulnerable group could benefit from the homes in the long term. Skaeve Huse Eindhoven is the first of its kind designed and built with these principles as starting point.”

The Trudo Housing Corporation partnered with the European Investment Bank in 2016 to create more environmentally sustainable social housing programs.

A bicycle is parked outside a slanted green tiny house.

Skaeve loosely means “slanted,” and some of the walls of the colorful houses do indeed slant, giving them a whimsical look. The high ceilings are designed to give the 355-square-foot houses a more spacious, airy feel despite the small size, while maintaining privacy with windows high off the ground. Each of the homes has a living room with a small open kitchen, a bathroom, and an entrance foyer.

The homes are spaced apart to help give people who have trouble living in the typical, cramped spaces of an urban environment extra room, which the designers hope will help limit disputes between neighbors. The land was formerly a forest, and the homes are placed between trees along a winding path.

Though designed for people who didn’t have homes, this tiny house community looks cute enough to replicate for traditional housing, too.

[h/t Inhabitat]

All images courtesy of Elmo Vermijs.

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