Every time I tell someone about the cottage, at some point, I almost apologetically say, “It’s small. But it’s a place to get away.” I’ve heard others say it as well. “I have a cottage/cabin/camp/homestead as well. It’s small but it’s on x amount of land.” Or “It’s small. But it’s enough for us.” As if somehow small is a negative thing.
I remember being asked at work once whether I was going to host a social. I had been to several socials already at homes that were huge and beautiful and could have been in a magazine. And my first reaction was abject terror. The next was, Where would everyone fit?? The house I live in in the city is small. It has older appliances and cupboards that haven’t been fashionable since I was a child and it’s decorated with our own eclectic tastes of worldly souvenirs, Ikea furniture and mismatched DIY projects. But time and time again, whether people actually realize they are doing it or not, there is an implied notion that small is not good enough. We live in a country of wealth and everyone should take the time, energy and money to make sure that their house displays that.
So I ask this question: Why do North Americans need so much space? What does one do in all that space (other than relentlessly clean it)? Why is our culture so quick to give up so much money in order to have big spaces, heat big spaces and hire other people to clean their big spaces? Why do we feel like we need to make excuses when we try to reduce our carbon footprint by living smaller? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? What has led us to believe that having more space will give us a better life?
I grew up in a small house of about 1200 square feet. It is a three-bedroom home built in 1900 and housed my mother’s family – my grandmother, grandfather, my mom and four more siblings. When we were growing up the division of space was similar to what it was when Mom was growing up, one bedroom was for my parents, one for me (the only girl) and one for my two brothers. The rooms had enough space for the beds, nightstands and dressers. That was it. But we didn’t need a lot of space because we were either in the living room or the kitchen (which was also the dining room) with each other, outside in our big yard playing any number of games, or out with friends. I think I recognized that it was a small amount of space but it never bothered me.
After graduating high school, I spent six months in St. Petersburg, Russia. I lived with a Russian family – a mother, two sons and a daughter – in a two-bedroom apartment. Again, we girls shared one room, the boys another and the mother slept on the couch. The laundry was done in the bathtub, the dining table was a small table in the corner of a small kitchen with counter space equal to the stovetop, a sink, a dish rack above the sink and a fridge in the hallway. And even though the kitchen was the smallest room in the apartment, most of our time was spent there, talking about the day. And this is not unusual in many places around the world.
Then after coming home and finishing university, I traveled to Japan, where they have elevated tiny living into an art form. It was architecturally brilliant. Every piece of a living space had a purpose yet everything was aesthetically pleasing as well. Many a dinner party was spent sitting on the floor around a large blanket spread out across the floor. Or sleeping on the floor, so that every morning bedding is stored away and voila! A whole new room. Their use of sliding walls not only saved space by not opening into a room, but they pushed to the sides, opening two small rooms into one large one. And their shelving… How enchanting it was to walk in to a house whose walls were covered to the ceiling with shelves of books and artifacts and photos. And I don’t mean the artfully posed three books and a frame on one shelf, like here. I mean shelves crammed with books and love and life. All of these design aspects are necessary in order to make their limited space more efficient and more comfortable.
For some reason, we as North Americans have been led to believe that we NEED a lot of space. It’s like we think that because we live in a huge and largely unpopulated country that we should somehow claim all that space. So homeowners now want a bedroom for each child, an office (or two), a fully furnished basement, several TV’s and, oh, don’t forget the guest room with the ensuite bathroom because sharing is somehow creepy. We are led to believe that we actually can’t function without it. Many people actually believe it’s okay to buy a house they can’t afford just so they don’t have to share a bathroom with their children or their guests. As if, it’s a bad thing to actually want to socialize with other people in your space. (Is it any wonder that the younger generations who grow up in this type of lifestyle go through life with an unrealistic sense of entitlement?)
Canada, the US and Australia have, on average, the largest houses in the world. We are also three of the largest consumers of the world’s natural resources. According to a UN census, in 2009 for new builds, there was an average of 779 square feet PER PERSON in the house. Which is almost twice the floor space of a Mongolian yurt (ger) in which an entire family lives. In 1975, the average Canadian house was 1050 feet. Now, it is double. Yet, families are having fewer children and are less frequently taking on the primary care of their elderly parents which means fewer people on average occupying these larger spaces. Again, I wonder: What does one do with all this space?
|This is a 780 square foot floor plan. This is the equivalent of the amount of space per person in the average Canadian house.
More resources are used to create these larger homes, to heat them and to maintain them. Not to mention, the fact that to create these homes, we destroy wild space and the homes of our furry and feathered friends. And then we have to fill these vast spaces. With furniture, with trinkets, with decorative accents that serve absolutely no purpose other than to gather dust and create more work. Because these huge spaces still need to be cleaned and the more space you have the longer you have to spend cleaning it and the more stuff you have, the more time and energy you spend having to put things away and keep them organized. Even in my small ‘city’ house, I am always thinking about what needs to get done – the baseboards need to be washed, the floors to be mopped, those damn carpets need to be vacuumed AGAIN, the dishwasher needs to be emptied, the sink is overflowing with pots, the front yard light is out, etc. Sound familiar? There is always something that needs to get cleaned or tidied or put away. Even if a space isn’t used in weeks, it still needs to be maintained and cleaned. And let me tell you, I don’t think cleaning the house is anyone’s fulfilling life ambition.
What people are only starting to realize now is that to live more fully, to have more time, money and energy to live the life you dream of, you need to live smaller, not bigger. Now is the time to embrace the Tiny House Movement. The key is to get rid of all the extraneous things in your life so that you can focus on what’s really important to you. We spent three days at the cottage over March Break, living in one room the size of a small living room and we were more relaxed than we had been in a very long time. We had to keep everything clean and put everything away. There was no space for mess and there was no space for useless items. But it was very comfortable and easy to do because it was such a small space. For dishes, we only had a pot, a frying pan, four plates, four cups (which doubled as bowls) and two sets of cutlery. The bed folded away and was turned back against the wall. Books, games and puzzles were stored in the chest that was the coffee table. Living tiny with only the things you need freed up so much more time and energy for us to do other, more interesting things, like reading, journaling, snowshoeing, getting out and taking photos or just sitting with a warm cup of coffee looking out the window at the snow-covered trees. Living the tiny life is what makes a happy life.