Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Tiny House Cramps Style?

Seattle Times staff columnist

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This 230-square-foot rental on Lake Union used to house your columnist, who didn't feel especially confined.

Renting for $800 a month, it may not be the cheapest house in Seattle. But I bet it's the tiniest.

At 230 square feet, it's no bigger than some tool sheds. In fact, that's what it was before someone converted the wedge-shaped shack into a stand-alone home, complete with amenities of houses 10 times the size. It has a bathroom with a shower, a dishwasher, a four-burner stove, a pantry, built-in dressers. Even a closet.Seattle's Smallest House — I don't actually know if it's the very smallest, but the city planning department doesn't keep a list by size so I've decided to call it that until you readers prove otherwise — is so micro and oddly-shaped it's a bit of a tourist attraction.

At one end, in the kitchen, it's less than 5 feet wide. It sits on a dock on Lake Union. Duck Boat tour operators sometimes point it out as they gurgle by.

Whoever lives there becomes a Seattle curio. Strangers float by and lob questions. What's it like in that skinny place? Isn't it claustrophobic? What did you do with all your stuff — throw it in the lake?

I know all this because I used to live in Seattle's Smallest House. It was in the 1990s, when apparently I owned nothing bigger than a toaster. A friend called the other day to say it was for rent.

That espresso hut you used to live in is available, he said.

I went by and peered inside. Empty, it looks smaller than I remember. When I lived there I don't recall lacking for space. The walls never closed in. At 230 square feet it was plenty big to have guests over for dinner. Once I even hosted a Fourth of July party for two dozen (could they possibly have all come inside?).

Looking back it makes me wonder: Why are the rest of our houses — including the one I have now — so gargantuan?

Richard Waits, a 52-year-old furniture maker, has been mulling the same thing. He lives in a 10-by-12 cabin on Vashon Island. That's right — only 120 square feet (though it doesn't have a bathroom, so it isn't a complete house).

It was described in a rental ad as "tiny and magical." Waits says living small is cathartic. You free yourself of your junk. You spend little time cleaning. You don't use much energy.

He never feels cramped, except "when my four grown kids visit me all at once." To him it's the mega-mansion trend that seems freakish. And maybe temporary.

"Everything being huge is a part of our culture, but I think it's a part that's shifting," Waits said. "I would encourage everyone to try a little downsizing. Not just because you should, but because it feels good.

The house I live in now is 2,500 square feet — the U.S. average, but 11 times larger than Seattle's Smallest. Yes, I'm now married with two kids. But it's also true we have rooms nearly 230 square feet that we scarcely use.

When I was peeking in at Seattle's Smallest and its 3-foot-wide bathroom, I wondered: What if I moved back here, family in tow? Would we go crazy? Or could we fit?

I guess I'd go crazy. But there's a guy in California, Jay Shafer of Tumbleweed Tiny House Co., who sells and lives in 100-square-foot houses. He says that while micro is not exactly the new mega, the space you need truly is a state of mind.

"You can only take up 12 square feet at a time," he told American Profile magazine. "Everything beyond that is just elbow room."

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or

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