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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

Know of something you think we should cover? Email us at tips@mentalfloss.com.

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Courtesy of Houlihan Lawrence
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5 Frank Lloyd Wright Homes You Can Buy Right Now
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Courtesy of Houlihan Lawrence

It can be hard for homeowners to sell Frank Lloyd Wright houses, even if they are live-in works of art. Some prospective owners don't want to deal with pilgrims or rubberneckers, while others simply aren't fans of Wright's style, or his penchant for building in far-flung locations. The upside? The architect's mega-fans have a better chance of scoring a genuine Wright original, occasionally at a relatively bargain price. From suburban Minnesota to rural New York, here are five drool-worthy Wright residences that you can purchase right now.

1. THE PAUL OLFELT HOUSE IN ST. LOUIS PARK, MINNESOTA

Exterior shot of the Paul Olfelt House by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright in St. Louis Park, Minnesota.
Courtesy of the Berg Larsen Group, Coldwell Banker Burnet

Address: 2206 Parklands Lane, St. Louis Park, Minnesota 55416

Asking Price: $1.3 million

History: In the 1950s, Wright designed one of his moderately priced Usonian homes for clients Paul and Helen Olfelt, who lived with their young children in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. A fan of Wright’s work, the couple had written the architect a letter requesting that he design their family one of his stylish single-family residences.

“We hoped for a refuge from the world for part of our day, a place where we could enjoy nature and the beauty of man’s creativeness in harmony with nature,” Olfelt, a radiologist, wrote in 1969 in the journal Northwest Architect. “We wanted a home that by virtue of its character would help us and our children be dissatisfied with the ordinary.”

Wright accepted the commission and briefly met with the Olfelts to discuss his vision, although he never visited the actual site—a tree-filled cul-de-sac—in person. The three-bedroom home's design was completed shortly before the architect’s death in 1959, and the Olfelts officially moved into the home in September 1960, and listed it for sale for the very first time in 2016. It’s still on the market, just waiting for a lucky Twin Cities area buyer to snap it up.

Bona Fides: The Paul Olfelt House comes equipped with a wood-burning fireplace; a fully equipped kitchen; and a master suite with both a dressing room/closet and an en suite three-quarter bath. It also includes many furniture pieces—including chairs, ottomans, desks, lamps, and tables—that Wright custom-designed for the home. Many, if not all, of these items are included the home’s sale price.

Fun Facts: The home has a basement, which is “rare for Wright homes,” a representative from Berg Larsen Group of Coldwell Banker Burnet tells Mental Floss. “He drew the line at the request for a bathroom; therefore, there’s an odd little commode in the unfinished storage area that we refer to as ‘plumbed for additional bathroom.’"

The basement also includes an office, which was designed for Olfelt; a play area for children (complete with swing); and a bar with banquette seating.

Interior shot of the Paul Olfelt House by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright in St. Louis Park, Minnesota
Courtesy of the Berg Larsen Group, Coldwell Banker Burnet

Interior shot of the Paul Olfelt House by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright in St. Louis Park, Minnesota.
Courtesy of the Berg Larsen Group, Coldwell Banker Burnet

2. TIRRANNA IN NEW CANAAN, CONNECTICUT

Exterior shot of Tirranna by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright in New Canaan, Connecticut.
Courtesy of Houlihan Lawrence

Address: 432 Frogtown Road, New Canaan, Connecticut 06840

Asking Price: $7.2 million

History: "Tirranna" is an Australian aboriginal word meaning "running waters"—a fitting choice, considering that the U-shaped residence sits next to a pond fed by a nearby river and overlooks a tiny cascade. The home was built in the 1950s, and was one of Wright's very last houses built before his death.

Bona Fides: "Tirranna is one of the two or three biggest homes Wright ever built or designed, just from a size perspective," Houlihan Lawrence broker Doug Milne tells Mental Floss. "As you enter the main room, it goes from very low ceilings to soaring ceilings and glass, with Brazilian mahogany walls and ceilings that are just in miraculous condition."

Tirranna has seven bedrooms, and is surrounded by 15 acres of forest. Also on the grounds are a barn and stable, a greenhouse, a guest house, a swimming pool, a tennis court, a workshop, and gardens designed by Frank Okamura, the landscape architect for the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

Fun Fact: If Tirranna achieves its $7.2 million asking price, it will set a record for the highest price ever paid for a Wright house. This money will go toward an important cause: mental health research.

Tirranna's last owner was the late businessman Ted Stanley, who died in early 2016 at the age of 84. But while Stanley became rich selling collectibles, his true passion ended up being medical philanthropy. It all started when Stanley's teenage son, Jonathan Stanley, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in the late 1980s. His eventual recovery was largely due to being treated successfully with the right medicine. The experience turned Stanley into a staunch advocate for mental health research, and he spent the remainder of his life donating vast portions of his fortune to research institutions like the Broad Institute, a biomedical and genomic research center in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The Broad Institute employs some of the world's top scientists, who research both the genetic and molecular causes of psychiatric disorders and potential treatments. “My son’s life was saved,” Stanley told The New York Times in 2014. "I would like to purchase that happy ending for other people."

When Stanley died in 2016, he left the Broad Institute much of his fortune. Tirranna's proceeds will also be directed toward the research center.

Exterior shot of Tirranna by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright in New Canaan, Connecticut.
Courtesy of Houlihan Lawrence

Interior shot of Tirranna by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright in New Canaan, Connecticut.
Courtesy of Houlihan Lawrence

3. THE LOUIS PENFIELD HOUSE IN WILLOUGHBY HILLS, OHIO

Exterior shot of the Louis Penfield House by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright in Elmhurst, Illinois.
Courtesy of Howard Hanna

Address: 2215 River Road, Willoughby Hills, Ohio 44094

Asking Price: $1.3 million

History: Designed by Wright and built in the mid 1950s, the Louis Penfield House is a nature lover's dream. The restored Usonian home sits atop a knoll overlooking the nearby Chagrin River, and across the street from protected forest, creeks, and hiking trails. The home was commissioned by high school art teacher Louis Penfield and his wife, Pauline, but has operated as a vacation rental house since 2003. New owners can opt to keep renting it or to use the home as a private residence.

Bona Fides: The three-bedroom, two-story home comes complete with Wright-designed furniture, which is included in the cost of sale. Owners can also say bye-bye to heating bills, as the home has a radiant-floor heating system fueled by one of two natural gas wells on the property. And just in case you were looking for even more bragging rights, the home is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Plus, prospective buyers have the chance to score two Wright homes for the price of one (well, kind of): "The last original Wright building site in the world is located adjacent to the Penfield House," and is included in the sale, listing agent Karen Eagle of Howard Hanna tells Mental Floss. "The building plans for Wright’s last residential commission, called Riverrock, are owned by the Penfields. The house is historically significant. It is design number 5909, and was on Wright’s drawing board when he died. The Penfields received the plans shortly after his death in April 1959."

Fun Fact: "Louis Penfield was nearly 7 feet tall," Eagle says. "The home was designed to accommodate his tall stature. Frank Lloyd Wright's ceilings are typically low. The staircase is pretty interesting too, since it accommodates for height."

According to legend, Penfield visited Wright's Wisconsin studio and challenged the architect to build a custom home for his towering frame. Wright accepted the dare, and mailed his new client a preliminary drawing six months later. The rest, as they say, is history.

Exterior shot of the Louis Penfield House by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright in Elmhurst, Illinois.
Courtesy of Howard Hanna

Interior shot of the Louis Penfield House by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright in Elmhurst, Illinois
Courtesy of Howard Hanna

4. THE F.B. HENDERSON HOUSE IN ELMHURST, ILLINOIS

Exterior shot of the F.B. Henderson House by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright in Elmhurst, Illinois
Courtesy of Zillow

Address: 301 South Kenilworth Avenue, Elmhurst, Illinois 60126

Asking Price: $1 million

History: Built in the early 1900s, the F.B. Henderson House is an early example of Wright's signature brand of Prairie style architecture. The architect built the home in conjunction with Chicago architect Webster Tomlinson, who briefly served as Wright's business partner. The two are both listed as the home's architects, although Tomlinson was reportedly more like the project's office manager and business agent.

Originally commissioned by client Frank Bignell Henderson in 1901, the home has been on and off the market for the past decade. That said, real estate agents tell Mental Floss that they've seen prospective buyers sniffing around as of late.

Bona Fides: Both the interior and exterior of the F.B. Henderson House have been recently restored, but the property still has plenty of original mid-century charm to spare. And if charm alone won't do, there's also three fireplaces, a wine cellar, and an expansive terrace overlooking the lawn.

"There is a real open feel on the first floor," agent Marilyn Fisher of LW Reedy Real Estate tells Mental Floss. "It’s a massive space. It has a huge foyer as you walk in, and then when you come into the main part of the house, you have a really big living room. On either side of the living room are mirror-image rooms. One side is half of an octagon, and the other side is the other half, making for a wide expanse. It's a very dramatic look."

Fun Fact: The F.B. Henderson House has more than 80 art glass, or stained glass, windows. Wright often referred to these mini works of art as "light screens," as they evoked the look of sliding Japanese shoji screens.

Exterior shot of the F.B. Henderson House by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright in Elmhurst, Illinois
Courtesy of Zillow

Interior shot of the F.B. Henderson House by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright in Elmhurst, Illinois
Courtesy of Zillow

5. THE MASSARO HOUSE IN PUTNAM COUNTY, NEW YORK

Exterior shot of a home on Petra Island, in New York, inspired by designs by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
Courtesy of Chilton & Chadwick

Address: Petra Island, Lake Mahopac, Carmel, New York

Asking Price: $14.92 million

History: Some Wright purists turn up their noses at the Massaro House, in spite of its spectacular location (on a 10-acre private island), its spectacular design (a 5000-square-foot home with a cantilevered deck that practically puts Fallingwater to shame), and its spectacular scenery (did we mention it's on a lake?). They say it's just "inspired" by the architect, instead of truly being his original work.

Around 1950, engineer A.K. Chahroudi commissioned Wright to design him a dream home on the island, but the client wound up not being able to afford the planned project. Instead, Wright created a small guest cottage for his client. In 1996, sheet metal contractor Joe Massaro purchased Petra Island, and he also acquired Wright's original plans for the site, intending to fulfill the famous architect's ultimate vision.

With the help of architects and scholars, the Massaro House was completed around 2007. However, the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation refuses to recognize it as an authentic Wright design, as they're not happy about some controversial design tweaks Massaro made to the plans.

Bona Fides: The home has geometric windows, a wraparound patio, and boulders integrated into the walls, giving it a natural feel. Other structures on the island include the aforementioned guest house and a tea house.

Fun Facts: If you own your own chopper, look no further than the Massaro House. "It has a helipad," Chadwick Ciocci, the CEO and founder of global real estate concierge Chilton & Chadwick, tells Mental Floss. "I don’t know of any other Frank Lloyd Wright homes that have that."

"Also very important is that the home is on a private heart-shaped island," Ciocci adds. (Really? We hadn't noticed.)

Interior shot of a home on Petra Island, in New York, inspired by designs by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
Courtesy of Chilton & Chadwick

Aerial shot of a home on Petra Island, in New York, inspired by designs by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
Courtesy of Chilton & Chadwick
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Want to Live Like Snow White? Buy This Cottage
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In the 1970s, one family in Washington state decided to bring the magic of Snow White home—and we don't mean on VHS. (That didn't come out until 1994, anyway.) They built a replica of the cottage from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in Olalla, across Puget Sound from Seattle. And now, you can take over Snow White’s housekeeping duties—the house is for sale, as we spotted on the listing site TopTenRealEstateDeals.com.

The house looks straight out of a Disneyland attraction, with a winding staircase seemingly built into a tree, hand-built doors of different sizes with giant iron hinges, stone details and exposed beams, a wood stove, and a rounded interior that “wraps around you like a big hug,” according to the listing. (Good luck hanging shelves, though.) Honestly, the shiny walls look a little plastic, but it’s all part of the Disneyfied appeal.

The interior of the first floor shows a stone oven, a fake tree, and a chandelier.

A spacious room with two different sized doorways looking through to another room.

A bedroom has a mattress tucked into a cave-like nook.

An exterior view of the cottage through an overgrown garden.

Unlike the Seven Dwarfs’ pad, though, this comes with a hot tub and high-speed internet, not to mention a washer and dryer to save any future Snow Whites the effort of hanging laundry. And there’s no need for everyone to sleep side-by-side in twin beds. The two-story “cottage” has four bedrooms and five baths.

The 2800-square-foot house comes on a five-acre gated property. Outside, there’s a sweet tree house with a fireplace inside, a wooden bridge over a creek, and a garden with fruit trees.

It’s $775,000, zero dwarfs included. You can see the listing here.

All images courtesy TopTenRealEstateDeals.com.

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