Tiny houses have seemingly taken over the landscape of aspirational real estate, and not just for the green-minded. When it comes to choosing a compact cottage of one’s own, tiny house fetishists need only adopt the guiding principle of sage philosopher Ludacris: What’s your fantasy?

Ranging from impossibly twee to space-age minimalist, with rustic cabins in snow-covered woods lying somewhere in between, there’s seemingly no limit of miniature dwellings to fill the Pinterests of a growing audience. The prolific Tiny House Swoon website, for example, offers pages upon pages of shelter porn for those who dream of downsizing: a fairy-tale treehouse in Germany; a stark West Virginia cabin built entirely of recycled materials; and a transparent cube unit in Switzerland that may as well have been abandoned by an extremely adorable Martian.

What’s the appeal of a home the size of a toolshed? You can’t scroll through a page of design sites such as Inhabitat and Dwell without hitting at least one. Graham Hill, founder of TreeHugger, launched LifeEdited, an online publication about downsized living inspired by his own 420 square-foot apartment, in 2010. Outside of niche publications, tiny houses been featured in The New York Times, The Independent, and even Fox News – and that’s just in the past two months. Is all this hype a real push toward more sustainable lifestyles, or is it just a manifestation of widespread preoccupation with cuteness?

I spoke with Sally Augustin, an environmental psychologist based in Chicago and founder of design consultancy Design with Science. I asked her about how our most primitive instincts can cause this fascination with pocket-sized homes.

“If you go back to [prehistoric times], when we didn’t have all the tools and such that we have now, certain types of environments were really desirable to us,” she says. “They’d be places where we were protected, felt secure, but we could survey the world around us easily — think of the mouth of a cave in a hill, with a view out over the valley. I think a lot of tiny homes have that sort of arrangement, and so appeal to us at a really fundamental level, psychologically.”

She has a point. The most titillating tiny house photographs tend to feature a lone structure perched on a cliff over the ocean, nestled in a mountainside, or presiding over a vast prairie. But what about the more pragmatic placements of tiny houses — in cities, for example — where a million-dollar view isn’t an option? What’s the appeal there?

“Small spaces give you a lot of control over the experience you have there,” says Augustin. “You can be certain that you’ll have control over all the different sensory experiences, and you can also really personalize a small space so it sends exactly the right messages about who you are and what you value about yourself. McMansions, on the other hand — nothing is very distinctive [about them.]”

Without even taking the environmental or economic benefits into account, tiny houses appeal to both our most primitive instincts and our desire to be unique snowflakes — a pretty enticing combination.

And those benefits are certainly real. It’s logical that a small house would use fewer resources than a large one, but the size of that margin hasn’t been extensively measured. However, a 2010 study of small homes by the Oregon Department of Environmental Equality (DEQ) — and one would expect nothing less from the Most Delightfully Offbeat State in the Union — found that among 30 different green construction practices, reducing house size had the greatest environmental impact in terms of greenhouse gas reduction. According to the DEQ, a 50 percent reduction in a house’s square footage corresponds to a 36 percent reduction in carbon emissions over its lifetime.

In this study, a “small” house was defined as one measuring 1,630 square feet, and “extra-small” as 1,150 square feet. The prototypical tiny house tends to range from 120 to 500 square feet.

Ryan Mitchell, founder of The Tiny Life website, did some investigation into the financial advantages of tiny houses by surveying 120,000 tiny house owners. Mitchell found that the average cost of an owner-built tiny house is $23,000 — one-twentieth of the average cost of a house in the United States, with mortgage interest included. And for 68 percent of tiny house dwellers, mortgages aren’t even a concern.

I spoke with Nithya Priyan, 39, and Ally Muller, 29, who just finished construction of their own tiny house in Chico, Calif. Nithya works as an architect, and Muller, as a yoga instructor. Even on the spectrum of tiny houses, theirs is small, measuring just 120 square feet. The couple has lived in the house for about six months now, five of which were spent “camping” in the unfinished structure, which Muller readily acknowledges was a horrible idea. But now that it’s fully functional: “I love it,” she gushes. “I was shocked — I had my reservations, to be honest, but I absolutely love it.”

Muller and Nithya in their "micro-homestead."
Muller and Nithya in their self-built, 120 square foot “micro-homestead.”

The couple decided to go tiny because it enabled them to live simply, sustainably, and completely within their means. With no construction experience at all, they designed and built the house for just $8,500 on one-tenth of an acre. Their living costs in utilities have also drastically decreased — the unit is powered only by a 30-amp, 240-volt electrical supply, uses a 19-gallon water heater, and was kept warm entirely by the couple’s body heat this winter. Sexy!

Nithya’s interest in tiny living began when he was an architecture student in his native Singapore: “My thesis project was on housing in repurposed cargo containers. I always had this strong interest in living in unconventional spaces … [and in] the whole idea of not having unnecessary stuff.”

While talking to Nithya and Muller about their lifestyle, the conversation keeps coming back to the idea of designing a living space for humans, instead of — in the words of George Carlin — as a “place to put our stuff.” And sure enough, the great appeal of their “micro-homestead,” as they call it, is that it fits them perfectly.

“It feels less about cramming ourselves into it, and more about it fitting us like a glove,” says Nithya.

“Tailor-made!” Muller adds.

And for them, there’s no going back. They tell me that they’re committed to “simple living” from here on out. Their future plans for the property include growing their own food, harvesting rainwater, and raising chickens.

Cherae Stone of Tahlequah, Okla., population 16,000, moved into her tiny house in October of last year, and is similarly enamored. Stone, 54, is a massage therapist and holistic health specialist. In 2008, she endured a series of great challenges: She lost her job, then her retirement savings, and then her father, and to top it all off, broke her arm, leaving her unable to work for months.

“I was kind of in a daze at the time,” she says. “You follow the rules, you do what you’re supposed to in America, and you think everything is going to be OK.”

Stone’s plan, initially, was to move out of the 2,000 square-foot home in which she’d raised her family and purchase a large, 150-year-old (read: high-maintenance) house in Tahlequah. With her children grown and moved away, her savings depleted, and apprehensive about going back into debt, she began to reconsider the purchase:

“I had to decide, ‘Do I want to put X amount of dollars [that I made from selling my house] into this property, and then work my butt off every day from sun-up to sundown to keep it repaired, or do I want to take this money and have something built to fit me?’”

While exploring her options, Stone found some images of tiny houses online, and instantly fell in love. “Have you seen the Tiny Texas Houses?” she asks me. “Oh, my gosh. They are works of art!”

She abandoned her plan to buy the 150-year-old house, and instead put the money from her property sale toward a lot on the Illinois River. She calls the area “beautiful,” adding, “it’s the place everyone wants to live if they’re from here.” Then, she commissioned a 240 square-foot house from Scott Stewart of Slabtown Customs in Mountain View, Ark. Stone and Stewart worked together on the design and used Arkansas pine and corrugated tin as base materials. The house took about six months to construct.

Cherae Stone's 240 square-foot house, made of Arkansas pine and corrugated tin, took just six months to construct.
Cherae Stone’s 240 square-foot house, made of Arkansas pine and corrugated tin, took just six months to construct.

Was environmental impact a factor in Stone’s decision? “Absolutely,” she says. And since she’s moved into the house, she’s been paying a lot more attention to the sustainability and healthiness of her lifestyle. But another, equally significant factor was the idea of a simple, baggage-free lifestyle.

Stone tells me that I would not believe the amount of stuff that she’s gotten rid of since downsizing. “The hardest thing has been the books — that’s an ongoing process,” she says. “But [even now], I’ve still got every single thing I need.”

She’s also reacting to the American culture of “buy more.” “In the United States, we very often are defined — and we define ourselves, as well — by what we do for a living, and what we own. ‘This is what I do, this is what I have.’ But that doesn’t fit my way of being in the world. It doesn’t make sense in the long term, for any of us. It’s not healthy.”

By opting for small and simple over large and lavish, are Stone, Nithya, and Muller living the new dream? In today’s economic climate, a culture of excess seems increasingly ridiculous, and more and more people are beginning to question a lifestyle facilitated by debt. In talking to tiny house enthusiasts, I hear a number of themes repeated: affordability, simplicity, living within one’s means. There’s an intent focus on unburdening oneself from material possessions, and fixating on things besides money. These may sound like radical ideas, the soapbox declarations of crazed anarchists or hippies, but the people who are espousing them are intelligent, educated, and, for all practical purposes, quite normal.

I must admit: I hear these ideas more loudly and with more enthusiasm than “I want to save the planet!” But that motivation is still very much present, and there’s no question that shrinking one’s ecological footprint is a significant reality for anyone who’s downsized their lifestyle. And that just might be the big hope for greater environmental consciousness: that it will sneak in on the heels of a desire for a more affordable, simplified lifestyle.

Check back with us in the coming weeks, as we explore the tiny house movement and the future of miniature communities.