The notion of living in a “Tiny” home or basic shelter has been around for centuries.
Ascetic monks from the 15th century and earlier have written about the spiritual benefits of casting off the extraneous luxuries of society and getting back to the bare necessities of life.
The ascetics felt that only without encumbrances and distractions is man truly able to achieve spiritual grounding. Only by practicing simple daily rituals can one enjoy a meaningful life.
Henry David Thoreau got back to basics at Walden Pond in Massachusetts in the 19th century and wrote extensively about the beauty and spirituality that filled his days. Thoreau was quite outspoken in his criticism of common “city dwellers” who were distracted by too much of everything. Of course, Thoreau who lived in the 1800s had no way to imagine the distractions that man would face by 2016. My wife Betsy is quick to point out that Thoreau was a frequent visitor of his mother’s home around mealtime, and that he sent his laundry out to be washed. (I guess it’s tough to be a perfect ascetic).
The early 19th century Irish Poet and academic William Butler Yeats spent many hours “living alone in a Bee loud Glade” in a tiny cottage on the Lake Isle of Innisfree in County Sligo. Many of his poems are situated at this, or other “sacred” natural places. Yet, he also taught writing at University in Sligo, and had a very complex life as a university administrator, husband, father, and community member. For Yeats, a simple thatch hut was a respite from the stresses of day to day living.
The current revival of the small, or “tiny” houses can be attributed in large part to the vast popularity of architect/writer Susan Susanka’s 1998 book “the Not-so-Big-House”. In her book, Susanka asks the basic question of “why does it need to be so big?”
After all, the average size of the North American family has been shrinking since World War II. Yet our houses have been steadily growing. In 1950, the average US home was 1000 square feet. In 1960, it had grown to 1200 square feet. By 1990 it was 2000 square feet. In 2016 the average new home built in the US was just over 2,400 square feet. The only nation in the world with larger homes is Australia where the average sized home built in 2016 was 2,500 square feet.
How did we evolve from a family of four in the 1960’s that fit into a 1200 square foot home, to a family of 2.5 that requires twice as much room? Are we happier now that we have all this room?
Most studies show that the overwhelming reason for the “super-sizing” of North American home has mostly to do with our ability to afford it. Simply put, North Americans have a lot more money than we had back in 1960. In a market driven society, all that money needs to be spent on something. Why not buy a bigger house?
The modern day iteration of the truly “tiny” house evolved from this rethinking of house size that followed on the heels of Susan Susanka’s best selling book. In fact, these days we even try to define what the limits are for each category of small house.
Tiny house = 80 and 400 square feet
Small houses = 400-1000 square feet.
Experience with Tiny Houses
As I mentioned in a previous article, I have lived in a shipping container in Alaska for 2 summers. At 8’x40’ the 320 square foot container was the perfect “tiny man cave” for warming up and sleeping after a long, long day of commercial fishing. However, I would not consider this amount of space (especially the 8’ ceiling height which felt really low) to be a space that I would have appreciated in any other context.
Even my 262 square foot studio apartment in Seattle’s University District where I lived during graduate school, was much a more pleasant space.
This apartment had been carved out of the second floor hallway and a corner room of a hundred year old craftsman house. It had huge windows, and nearly 10’ ceilings. It was much smaller, but it was a perfect city apartment for a busy student on a budget. An added bonus was that my landlord really didn’t care what I did to my unit, as long as I asked first. So, I cut an interior opening between the kitchen and the bedroom to get a view and some daylight into the kitchen/desk alcove. I also installed a new shower and tiled the bathroom.
Rising Interest In Tiny Homes
With the insane rise in home prices in Seattle, and other similar cities, many people, especially the young and retirees on a budget are revisiting the Tiny home concept in order to continue living in the cities which they have come to love and appreciate. Not everyone has an extra $2000 to be able to rent a studio apartment. Many do not want to move out to the suburbs and spend their day commuting to and from the city.
There is a loophole in the maximum housing density law in Seattle which allows Tiny homes to be located on residential property, provided that the home is equipped with functional tires and a trailer hitch. In other words, these “homes” must fit on the roadway and be moved from the property from time to time (I am not sure how often). In other words, the Tiny homes allowed in Seattle are really more like wood framed trailers. As such, the sizes are quite standardized, in order to conform with the building codes as well as the transportation codes. Being so standardized is, from a design standpoint, pretty boring. Most Tiny Homes tend to look alike, sort of “cookie cutter” versions of one another, just with different window treatments, siding materials, and of course, interior finishes. However, the good news about this standardization of size and form is that these tiny houses can be factory built and delivered to your home site pretty much anywhere in the US.
Tiny Homes as Vacation or Rental House
We have had a few inquiries in recent months from folks who already live in Boquete, or in other highland areas of Chiriqui who are curious about what it would take for them to park a trailer, or mobile home on an affordable lot on or near the beach, to use for long weekends, so that they could get their “beach fix” without the having to stay in a hotel.
To my mind, the tiny house concept might be the perfect solution for those who just want a semi-permanent “camp” at the beach that is always waiting for them. I have not priced shipping containers lately, but I think that a shipping container base/secure storage locker could be used as the construction locker/storage unit for beach chairs, bar-b-q, surf boards, etc…so that there would be no risk of break-in in the event that one didn’t have anyone watching the property.
The tiny house, as a short-term accommodation is also a natural rental unit. Many short-term guests to the beach don’t have much luggage, no possessions, and they don’t need much space. Rentals in Puerto are still tough to find. As such, rental rates in Puerto are high. I think it is just a matter of time before some enterprising builder begins to produce tiny homes as rental houses. We have had a couple of calls from guys who have experience building pre-fab homes and tiny homes, already. It is not out of the question that we, ourselves, may build a tiny home or two on one of our properties, so that our clients will have a pleasant place to live while they explore Puerto Armuelles.
Our Ideal Tiny Home Is Bigger
After all our recent researches of tiny homes, Betsy and I are drawing the same conclusion that many others have arrived at before us. That is, Tiny Homes could be just the ticket as a weekend retreat, or a short-term rental. Tiny Homes seem like an amazing business opportunity.
However, when I consider designing a retirement home for my wife Betsy and myself, a small house feels better than a tiny one. I know that I would breathe a little freer in a slightly bigger space than the sub-400 square foot size which defines the truly “tiny” house.
If I had to throw out a number, my own personal ideal size dwelling for a single person would probably fall in the 600-800 square foot range. For a couple, I would think 800-1200 square feet would do well. This allows room for one to be alone for awhile to study, meditate, or practice a musical instrument, without disturbing one’s partner.
Living In Panama House
The Living in Panama House is probably not the final and “perfect” solution to the idea of living a big lifestyle in a small house in the tropics. However, it is the best that I have been able to come up with so far. Believe me, I have given this a lot of thought. I consider the Living in Panama House to represent an honest attempt at a “Not So Big Tropical House”.
As we have been refining the Living in Panama House design, our model has grown a bit, and shrunk a bit. But we keep coming back to about 500 square feet of finished, potentially air conditioned space. This “module which contains the two bedrooms, bath, and a small hallway, is all housed within the “umbrella” of a big sheltering roof. The three-bedroom model is about 650 square feet enclosed. The total square footage of the first model home (two or three bedrooms) is approximately 1,500 square feet.
The Living in Panama house is a bit bigger than my ideal house size for North America, because we think that it is beneficial to have a bit more covered space in the tropics to allow one to enjoy an open, breezy feeling, since it can get hot here. Also, we have more “hang out” time in Puerto Armuelles than we have in Seattle where one just doesn’t have much time to enjoy being at home. So, we end up using our house more here. Betsy and I will undoubtedly adjust the size of the Living in Panama House up or down over time, depending upon feedback we get from clients.
Tiny Home Builders Wanted
If you have any interest in building tiny homes in Puerto Armuelles, we would be happy to help you get started. Drop us a line. There is certainly room for competition in our untapped housing market.