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 firstname.lastname@example.org.