What is a Tiny House and Will Tesla Get Involved?
With the media awash in news of unaffordable housing and Tesla’s rumored foray into the tiny house market, The Earth & I asked journalist Robin Whitlock, with his interest in green transport, to look into the matter. His findings include a glimpse at the tiny house market and its promising future as an environmentally friendly lifestyle.
The tiny house movement began in the late 1970s, partly driven by repeated housing crises and environmental issues. It picked up speed through the 1980s in contrast to the proliferation of oversized, mass-produced, and expensive “McMansions,” and pop culture’s “greed is good” mentality.
The general idea behind the tiny house movement is to downsize, declutter, and lead a simpler, greener life. While tiny houses do not generally appear in censuses or surveys, in 2012 tiny house sales represented just 1% of the overall real estate market, according to ipropertymanagement.com.
But the movement is growing and may soon reach a turning point as singles, couples, seniors, and families look closer at this housing style’s affordability and benefits.
What is a Tiny House?
There are different definitions as to what exactly constitutes a tiny house. One of them is that of the International Residential Code, Appendix Q, which defines a “tiny” house as “a dwelling 400 square feet or less in floor area, excluding lofts.” This code is also often used as the basis for local building codes, which set conditions on how houses and other buildings are constructed.
Some tiny houses are built on foundations, but most rest and operate on trailers. The mobility factor of a tiny house on wheels, or THOW, has led some local authorities to classify them as “recreation vehicles,” which are unsuitable for use as a main dwelling.
All tiny houses need some form of sanitation system. Tiny houses with foundations in city or community settings can use local sewage options. Others use septic tanks for waste disposal.
Many tiny houses, including trailer-based, are also equipped with solar panels for electricity generation.
Scale, Materials, and the Supply Chain
Most tiny houses, thus far, are built to order rather than mass-produced at scale. An exception, though, is Boxabl’s tiny house, which is factory-produced.
Some cities are using the tiny house model as a potential solution to homelessness. But building a tiny home does not mean its building costs are tiny, too. On the basis of dollars-per-square-foot, a tiny house is rarely less expensive than a conventional home—and it may indeed be more expensive.
However, because tiny houses occupy less space, that means that the overall price tag is smaller. Tiny houses also use less electricity or natural gas, thus being cheaper to heat or cool. Energy-efficient appliances along with solar PV panels further help drive down costs.
Boxabl’s tiny house is an SIP (Structurally Integrated Panel) house. It is based on steel and Styrofoam structural panels, which, according to a review by a Certified Building Biologist Practitioner in 2021, are fairly safe materials as they do not produce any off-gassing. (Off-gassing refers to the release of gases that were trapped, dissolved, frozen or absorbed in a material.)
Magnesium oxide is used on the interior surfaces of Boxabl’s houses, and this, too, does not produce any off-gassing. A caveat is that if the magnesium oxide is attached to the walls with glue, that could produce unwanted release of gases.
Other materials appear to be glued-down vinyl for the floors, laminates for the countertops, and particle board for the interior cabinets. Laminate is melamine plastic glued onto a medium-density fiberboard (MDF) substrate. These three materials will produce a certain amount of off-gassing, particularly volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and fumes from plasticizers, glues, and formaldehyde.
However, it is entirely possible to use different, and much better, materials that are safer and healthier.
Amenities in Tiny Houses
Some tiny house builders have noticed customers asking for luxury materials in their homes, usually because buyers have the idea that if they are saving money by giving up living space, they can afford top-quality materials fitted into their tiny houses. However, this certainly excludes heavier materials, such as marble, granite or stone tile, except perhaps where a tiny house is built on a proper foundation rather than using a trailer.
Tiny houses are not a simple matter either, unless they are on a trailer. The foundations-based tiny houses are actually fairly complex structures.
“There is a lot of detail and complexity in connecting and integrating all the mains (electricity, sewage, heating) in a relatively small building” said Volodymyr Kupriyanov, a researcher at Porch.com, speaking to CNBC. “All of the material and labor often require custom or specialty sizing, which all adds to additional cost of building and maintaining the tiny home.”
Zoning Problems with Tiny Houses
As mentioned above, settling into in a tiny house can be tricky. For a start, zoning regulations can present a challenge if you want to live in a tiny house with foundations, as opposed to one on the back of a trailer. Zoning laws vary across the US, and their function is to divide areas into zones according to certain land uses. They are normally implemented by local authorities as part of a more general planning policy and are also used to calculate the rental value of a space, particularly with regard to retail businesses.
This means it is far from easy to build a tiny house in certain areas with the intention of living in it full-time. This is mainly because zoning laws often require a minimum square footage for new-build homes.
For owners of tiny homes that use trailers, finding a place to live is somewhat easier because zoning regulations do not apply. Tiny houses on trailers need to be preregistered to get a license plate—then the main challenge becomes where to park the trailer. Parking can be anywhere from a friend’s garden or driveway to a campsite, but with the latter there may be restrictions on how long the trailer can remain there. Most states do not permit the use of trailer-based accommodation as full-time residences unless they are situated in a proper “trailer park.”
Regardless of tiny house style, the question of “where can I park it” is still a priority for those seeking to call a tiny house their home. According to the Tiny House Industry Association, there is headway in state legislation and community building for the tiny house movement. Another group, United Tiny House Association, organizes tiny house festivals and says it has 51,000 members as of June 1, 2022. Jill Kanto, an intentional community enthusiast, created a searchable website at SearchTinyHouseVillages.com to help gather information on established and developing tiny house communities.
What will Elon Musk do with his Tesla tiny house?
Recently, there have been numerous videos and other sources on a new Tesla product called Tesla’s Tiny House. It represents Elon Musk’s interest in joining the growing tiny house market—but with a product that may cost an astonishingly low $15,000.
Tesla has yet to unveil its brand of tiny house; some websites claim that a Tesla product will be announced in August 2022.
The $15,000 tiny house price tag would be quite a feat, compared with other products now available.
The Nestron Cube Two covers just under 250 square feet and has two bedrooms and one bathroom. It is also fully furnished, so all the owner has to do is unpack it, plug in and start living in it. The Nestron Cube Two starts at $59,000 and ranges to $85,000, according to popular YouTube video blogger Kerry Tarnow, who follows housing innovations.
Another tiny house manufacturer, Boxabl, offers the Casita. It covers an area of 375 square feet and is modular—it can be unfolded and assembled on site in little more than an hour. The Boxabl Casita, which includes a kitchen, bathroom, living room, and bedroom, is listed at just under $50,000.
The COVID-19 epidemic paused tiny house festivals but drove up interest in building such houses, Insider.com reported in 2021. Going forward, experts say the tiny house movement is gaining momentum but needs more legislative accommodations and continued exposure for people to understand how these extraordinary houses may be the perfect solutions for many people, especially singles, couples, and seniors.
*Robin Whitlock is an England-based freelance journalist specializing in environmental issues, climate change, and renewable energy, with a variety of other professional interests including green transportation.