Tiny House Promote Less Space, More Life
But what if Americans went about the dream differently?
Enter Will Johnston and the organization he founded, MicroLife Institute, formerly known as Tiny House Atlanta. Johnston wants to build houses—tiny houses of 150 to 400 square feet. Currently, there are two basic designs for tiny houses on the market: Those on wheeled trailers and those built on foundations. Both are equally tiny, and both suit Johnston.
“I’m interested in living,” says Johnston. “The idea that we are chained and enslaved to our possessions is kind of interesting. We think happiness is stuff, and it’s not.”
The answer? To Johnston, it’s community, and it all ties in with MicroLife Institute’s slogan: Less space, more life.
“We need to have less space so we can be bigger people in our communities,” Johnston says. “There’s so much more to this movement than small space.”
Of course, to build a community, you need a diverse group of people willing to form one. Luckily for Johnston, surveys conducted by his institute indicate those people are everywhere.
“It is from people with no money to people with all the money in the world. It’s every race, every class, every age group,” he says. “It’s everybody.” Johnston is an advisor to the Eco Cottages at Eastpoint, a planned community with 40 houses on permanent foundations placed on 7.6 acres of land. The community’s houses will be between 500 and 1,000 square feet and include greenspace. It has a waiting list of more than 400.
While the Eco Cottages await final zoning approval, the MicroLife Institute continues to work for and promote the tiny-house life. The institute held the second annual Decatur Tiny House Festival September 29 to October 1 in downtown Decatur.
This year’s approximate 6,000 attendees, up from last year’s 5,000, formed long lines that stretched back and forth across Decatur Field to tour the small homes. The number of houses on display had tripled to 24 from last year.
Emory Elliott, along with father Dwight Elliott, built one of the homes on display. Emory and dog Ruby were at the Decatur festival showing off their Dragon Wagon, which they, along with a cat and fish, now live in.
“It took about a year to plan and [gather] the material and two years to build it,” said Emory, who mentioned it would have taken less time if they’d gone with a less ambitious, less curvy, design.
The house drew a lot of attention, and they received multiple inquiries about the price, says Emory. But they refuse to sell.
“I love it,” says Emory, who feels like their 170-square-foot house could be even smaller. “I designed it on a 12-foot trailer because I was thinking, ‘I just don’t need that much stuff.’ My family and friends—everyone sort of talked me into getting a 16-foot-trailer, and now that it’s built, I’m like, I still could have done 12-foot.”
Emory moved around a lot for the 12 years before building the tiny house.
“I know I’m not gonna be evicted,” says Emory. “If I have to move, I got wheels. I got all my stuff and it’s great, so yes, having the mobility and the housing security was really important to me.”
Emory lives near Dahlonega, outside of Atlanta’s city limits, and there may be a reason for that. The biggest obstacle to tiny-house development is city zoning, and MicroLife Institute is well aware of the issue. It hopes to open cities to tiny-house dwellers such as Emory, but first there have to be changes to city zoning laws.
Kim Bucciero, a zoning expert and tiny-house advocate, explained the problem while giving a talk at the festival.
“The issues in the city of Atlanta is the lot sizes,” said Bucciero. “You can build a tiny house on a foundation in Atlanta right now, but you have to put it on a full-size lot.”
This would seem to directly contradict the “less space, more life” motto; most people do not want buy a full plot of land to build a tiny house.
Will Johnston only knows of two tiny homes legally erected in the Greater Atlanta area, and they're both rented through Airbnb.
Fortunately, Bucciero, Johnston and the rest of the MicroLife Institute staff have been working with Atlanta city-planning personnel, and recent zoning changes essentially allow tiny houses to be built on foundations in people’s backyards.
Johnston also understands that zoning is confusing, frustrating and can dissuade those interested in the micro lifestyle from committing.
“That’s why we’re the pioneers” said Johnston. “I don’t particularly enjoy it all the time, but [it’s often] fun to just kind of help people, and say, ‘I can help you get to your dreams.’”
Johnston wants to build communities to help people connect to one another. Tiny houses, to him, are an essential tool for getting Americans out of structural isolation and back to communal socializing.
He fights this battle on all fronts, by working with city planning commissioners, changing zoning laws, designing micro living communities and spreading awareness for a lifestyle he sees as promoting happiness and connectivity.