Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Living Large with Less

by Rebecca Nemeth

Anyone who’s looked for their first home in Albany, Berkeley, El Cerrito, or Kensington (or wants to downsize into something more manageable) has noticed that we have homes in an array of sizes. While most homes here begin at 900 square feet and go up from there (typically up to about 3,000 square feet), we do have a few that are teensy. I’ve seen a few as small as 500 square feet.

Why would someone build something so small?
Sure, its possible that people just had less “stuff” in 1920 than they have now, but have you noticed that even smaller “tiny houses” are getting increasingly popular now?

The historic precedent – Why Albany has some Relatively Tiny Homes
In Albany, for example, the city subdivided some lots into parcels of 3,800 or 3,300 square feet, and even as small as 2,500 square feet. Fortunately builders like Charles MacGregor took on building nice quality homes on these small scale lots in the 1920′s and 1930′s. This allowed people who were probably then “blue collar” homeowners to afford a nicely built home with details like dining room built-in cabinetry, curved archways, recessed niches, and beautiful fireplaces. The layouts follow a typical Craftsman style, with logical layouts that don’t waste space, and that integrate the kitchen, living room, and dining room into more open public spaces than Victorian homes did. These single story homes were usually 850 to 1,000 square feet, huge compared to today’s 65 (yes, 65) to 500 square foot Tiny Homes.

Urban planners and environmentalists will tell you, small is beautiful. Here are a few reasons why.

Smaller homes make it easier to have strong, interconnected communities. Smaller homes can be built closer together, on smaller lots (such as the semi-urban lots that are common in Albany and Berkeley), making it easier to support something like Albany and Berkeley’s Solano Avenue, an old school type of Main Street with locally-owned businesses, and an array of city parks. You’ll find many neighborhood shopping districts and parks like these throughout the 1920′s era parts of the East Bay.

Smaller homes make it easier to have good public transit. Because more people can live closer together, the community can support an excellent, robust public transit network with features like our BART trains and AC Transit buses.

Smaller homes are better for the environment. From an energy conservation standpoint, smaller homes use fewer resources to build, require less energy to heat and cool, and the owners will be using furniture and items that serve double or even triple purpose (so they’re buying less furniture, etc.).

Smaller homes are easier and more affordable to build yourself (vs. a larger new home).
Plans for many smaller homes are readily available online, especially if you’re interested in the micro-size Tiny Homes that have become more popular in recent years. Cheap building plans, designs with an eye to energy efficiency and easy of use, fewer materials needed, and fewer “man” hours needed to build a home = a less expensive home.

Smaller homes more affordable to own. A smaller home = a smaller purchase price. That means you may be able to pay all cash and not have a mortgage, or have a very small mortgage. A smaller purchase price = smaller property taxes. And smaller homes also = smaller utility bills. Every heating and lighting dollar can go into usable space instead of that huge atrium or “living room” people don’t actually live in.

Smaller homes may be the best fit for the available empty lots and suit what city building codes will allow. In our area, any lot that could be built on in conventional ways has been built on. But you may find some smaller lots, or some that would accommodate a smaller home in part of the lot. Also, most cities limit the amount of living space you’re allowed to have relative to the size of a lot (for example, in Albany that ratio is 55% of the lot size). Many cities also have set-back requirements, which state how far from a house must be from the lot line or the neighbor’s house.

For more information check out these articles and blogs on Tiny Homes. Many include plans for building your own tiny house.

Yahoo article on “Five Tiny Homes You’ll Love”:
Tiny House blog:
Tiny Green Cabins:
Tiny House Design:
Tiny Texas Houses:

No comments: