2021 in Review: The Year in Tiny Living

Tiny houses, vans, apartments, shipping containers, and even an ambulance! Here’s our tiny home coverage from the year.

tiny house at night

Mireya Acierto/Getty Images

56% of Americans Say They Would Live in a Tiny Home

Treehugger writer Kimberley Mok kicked off the 2021 calendar year with this headline, remarking on a survey finding that Americans are indeed warming up to the idea of living big in a smaller house: 56% now say that would live in a tiny home. Furthermore, 86% of first-time homebuyers would consider a tiny home as a first home, which speaks to the affordable appeal of these smaller-sized homes, as they aren't associated with the burdensome mortgages that bigger homes are.

Mok writes:

"Other oft-cited factors behind the appeal of tiny houses include efficiency, eco-friendliness, the minimalist lifestyle, the ability to downsize, with the top motive being affordability, as 65 percent of respondents indicate. Of those surveyed, 61 percent say they would spend $40,000 or less on a tiny home, compared to 16 percent who would spend more than $70,000. Seventy nine percent say they would be able to outright buy or finance a tiny home, rather than a traditional starter home."

That's because, as Mok notes, only 53% of Americans can pay the median price for a starter home ($233,400), compared to 79% of Americans who can afford the median price of a tiny house ($30,000 to $60,000). But that doesn't mean that cities and towns will let them in: They want taxes; they want the people who can pay for the starter home. As one commenter noted,

"Well, remember that these cities, communities and other areas collect taxes from someone putting up a home and have a steady income based on that. With THOW [Tiny Home on Wheels] they can not tax the people as it falls outside of there taxable constraints. So, they either will not or can not limit there income by allowing these communities of tiny homes. The cities/various communities have roads and infrastructure that they need to upkeep. This is why I think it is so hard to get changes made to allow small homes."

Young Biologist Builds Her Own Tiny House for $30,000

The Tangled Tiny by Tori interior

Tiny House Expedition

Some manage to pull it off. Tory went tiny because "a tiny house allowed me to have full creative direction." She admits: "And it was a bit of a challenge—it was a scary task to take on, and in doing that I proved that I could accomplish something that I had no experience in."

She did a nice job and all the commenters are impressed. I am too. She put stairs up to her sleeping loft, and "the bedroom has an operable skylight for fresh air, and as an extra egress in case of fire." That is something that few designers think of but should be required in every headbanger sleeping loft.

It has a dining table big enough to eat and work at. She made a few mistakes and it took three years, but Mok writes: "Tori's story is an inspiring example of how even someone with zero construction experience can indeed build a beautiful place to call home."

This Steel-Clad Tubular Cabin in the Woods Is Built Like a Ship

Russian Quintessential cabin by Sergey Kuznetsov exterior

Ilya Ivanov 

Tory's aforementioned tiny house was such a labor of love—sometimes architecture without architects is nicer than what the architects do. Case in point: this totally tubular cabin in the woods designed by Sergy Kuznetsov, who is also the chief architect for Moscow. It took 12 tons of material to hold it up, is wider and far longer than Tory's tiny house, and about half as useful.

Comments are withering:

"You could not give this one to me! First off it is incredibly ugly and, secondly the lack of windows would drive me up and around the walls. If I am in a forest I want to see nature" "Reminds me of the 35 minutes I was in an MRI machine."... "It's materially wasteful, expensive and cramped. Can somebody please explain what the point of this is?"

Couple's Extra-Wide Tiny Home Features Mudroom and Ergonomic Kitchen

tiny house by Mitchcraft Tiny Homes interior

PHOCO Photography

After World War II, a lot of people lived in trailers because of a drastic shortage of housing. They, and all recreational vehicles, were limited to 8' and later 8'-6" wide. The tiny house was conceived as a way of using the RV rules to get around zoning and building code rules, but it is really not a very good dimension for living. As Steward Brand wrote in "How Buildings Learn":

"One innovator, Elmer Frey, invented the term "mobile home" and the form that would live up to it, the "ten-wide"- a ten foot wide real house that would usually travel once, from the factory to the permanent site. For the first time there was room for a corridor inside and thus private rooms. By 1960 nearly all mobile homes sold were ten-wides, and twelve-wides were starting to appear."

So strictly speaking, this shouldn't be in the tiny home section—it's a 10-foot-wide mobile home. And the difference that bit of width can make is amazing.

Small Parisian Apartment Revamped With Clever Space-Saving Staircase

Boulevard Arago apartment renovation Studio Beau Faire interior

Studio Beau Faire

The nice thing about a tiny home in the city is the city: the parks are your backyard, the cinemas are your home theater, the restaurants are where you party. In Paris, there are many garrets and attics that used to be quarters for domestic help and many of them are now lovely tiny apartments.

Mok writes:

"The star of the show, however, is the lovely metal-framed staircase leading up to the mezzanine. It feels more permanent and luxurious than the old rickety ladder, and it has a clever space-saving idea built into it: the last few steps have been constructed as a mobile wooden unit, which can be tucked away when it's not needed, and also doubles as a handy table and storage container."

Commenters disagree and call it a deathtrap. Others think it is too small; "There's nothing intelligent about trying to stuff ourselves into absurdly small living spaces. It's stupid." While 183 square feet is certainly small, I wouldn't complain about a pied-à-terre in the 13th arrondissement. 

Adaptable Furniture and Mirrored Walls Enlarge This Compact Apartment

3 in 1 Apartment by K-Thengono Design Studio interior with dining area out

Mario Wibowo

There is was an article in The Wall Street Journal about the newest design trend: the invisible kitchen. It notes: "The modern kitchen design craze that banishes all visual evidence of a room’s kitchen-ness. Everything is hidden away behind flat panels that may or may not have handles. Appliances or other kitchen items are hidden behind, or camouflaged as, more panels." This might be the invisible apartment, where everything pulls out of the walls.

It's very clever, a place for everything, all so neat, and I am impressed; readers were not. One wrote: "Looks like a bus station. Actually, a bus-station bathroom."

Family's Fabulous Bus Conversion Has Play Loft and Roof Deck

bus conversion living room The Lost Bells

Colby Bell / The Lost Bells

Mok knows her bus conversions—she actually wrote a book about them. Here she shows us a skoolie, a conversion of a school bus into a home for a family of five. They did what many people dream of: sold their house and hit the road. They explained: "We loved our house and we loved our neighborhood, but our travel changed the way we saw the world and our goals and priorities." They must have a really wide-angle lens; the bus looks as wide as my living room and longer than my house.

A commenter complains: "I find it interesting that after Lloyd's articles about huge vehicles, articles demonizing fossil fuels, and conservation, that Tree Hugger is running articles about Motorhomes." But I suspect that a whole family living in a 250-square-foot bus has a lower carbon impact than a family in a house 10 times that size with an SUV in the driveway, which probably would have a bigger engine than an old Navistar diesel.

This Ambulance Conversion Is a 4x4 Overland Rig With Shower, Toilet, and Hot Tub

Tanya ambulance conversion Tiny Home Tours exterior

Tiny Home Tours

Ambulance conversions are another story. This one is really well done, but ambulances have big engines to go fast and get terrible mileage. It has propane heating and a gasoline-powered immersion heater in the portable hot tub.

A reader complained: "This might just be the most expensive, least sustainable conversion I've ever seen - and it's being featured on Treehugger. These are strange times indeed." But again, another responded, "Assuming they're living there, these have a smaller physical footprint, and thus quite often energy footprint, than a house despite being usually less efficient." These are tough calls on a website dedicated to sustainability, but it's likely that having just one vehicle, bought used, and living in it, beats having a big house with a Tesla.

Young Couple Builds Sprinter Van Home for $8,000

van conversion Lifepothesis interior

Tiny Home Tours

Perhaps the best compromise is the Sprinter conversions. They can be really fuel-efficient and soon will be electric, they are not hard to drive, and white working sprinters are ubiquitous—you can probably park it anywhere. The couple who built it were project managers and construction engineers, so they knew how to build. It has solar panels and batteries and good insulation: "The idea was to keep things simple and modular so that if anything breaks, it's easy and cheap to replace."

If you want to look like a plumber's van and not like a camper's van, you can't have a propane tank hanging on the outside. I thought having the tank inside was dangerous but a commenter notes that it was designed by a construction engineer. The same commenter adds: "The propane tank in the "garage" under the bed is in a sealed-to-the-inside, vented-to-the-outside box. And there is a propane (and carbon monoxide) sensor alarm inside the van."

A Shipping Container House That Makes Sense

Gaia Shipping Container

Jakub Zdechovan

We will finish with a shipping container tiny house. I have often noted that shipping container architecture makes no sense, but this one gets it right. I wrote:

"It knows what it wants to be: a comfortable, self-sufficient cabin-in-the-woods type of place with carefully considered systems and a really well-resolved interior. The first thing that grabbed my attention was the galvanized corrugated steel hat that keeps the heat of the sun off the box, and provides extra area for rainwater collecting. The solar panels and wind turbine charge two batteries, which will generate enough power for lights and water pumps."

A commenter on the shipping container post asks: "Does anyone have any idea how long it would take a person to go stark raving mad in a space so small? A very short while." But a lot of people cannot afford big spaces these days. Many cannot afford any kind of traditional home. I am not sure I believe that survey from Mok's post that found 56% of Americans would live in a tiny home, but it is certainly an interesting option for these uncertain times.