What square footage is best?

Written by Gabriella

We received a great email from a reader this week speaking to the topic of what square footage is best, human scale and the tiny house movement so we thought this would be a great topic to bring into a larger conversation with all of you.

Pop up trailer on Baja beachIn the quest to achieve a simpler and more enjoyable life, we all need to be asking questions about space and how we inhabit a home. After all, home is not only where the heart is, but is also where we spend a lot of time, energy, and money in the quest to maintain it.

Over the last few years we have been captivated by the process of questioning how we live in a home and if it that experience is bringing us joy or not. We believe that the question of ‘what brings me joy’ is a vital one. Its one that we ask ourselves in nearly every decision we make. Does so and so bring me joy? We have lived enough years under the impression that one must suffer in life to grow to the next level and to take life seriously. Fortunately, it only took 40 years to shift our viewpoints and to prioritize joy.

We are happiest when living simply in small housing. After all, small and tiny houses are easy to clean freeing up time, less expensive to build and maintain freeing up money to do things like travel and play. Also, its nearly impossible to keep a bunch of old crap one doesn’t need in a very small space. There just isn’t room for it. Living small in many ways demands attention to detail, presence of mind and open communication. After all, there is not really anywhere to retreat to when there is an upset.

How do we know that living small is our favorite way to live? Because we have been able to test this concept again and again over the last few years while experiencing various living situations (from pop up tent trailer, to 2,000 sqft house, to extremely ‘fancy’ house on the larger size as well). At no time did we feel more at ease in life and able to tap into our joy and creativity than when we were living in the tiny pop up.

In living simply comes a sense of calm and contentment that most people didn’t realize they were missing until they scaled their lives back (belongings, expenses, living sizes). But what is not so clear, is just how FAR to scale back. Honestly, we think that the tiny, under 150 sqft houses are too small for long term living, even for just a single person. We would love to be proven wrong so if you feel strongly that we have this point wrong, share your tiny house living experience.

We have not heard from anyone living in less than 200sqft say that they wish they had built smaller. However, we have heard from many that 500sqft was too big and they wished they had built smaller. In all of this speculation lets say that we are considering square footage requirements for one-two adults with no children living in the home.

We don’t think there is a magical square footage number that represents the housing needs of everyone on this planet in any way. Nor is that number even important to find because ultimately, all of these factors are extremely personal and each and every person that is building or choosing a space to live in should explore how they occupy space. It’s a fascinating process and what you find out about yourself may surprise you!

If you are not sure about where to begin in the process of learning about space, how you occupy it and ultimately what brings you the most joy when living in a home, let us know. We have some ideas, exercises and fun activities that we created and used ourselves that we would be happy to share with you.

girl jumping on beachWe also want to clarify that it’s important to follow the guideposts towards joy, but not necessarily comfort. Making a change into simplification can sometimes actually be the opposite of comfortable. The process of thinning out can be new and disorienting. Going against the status quo can be unsettling and bring up doubt. Fortunately, there are so so many amazing people out there that are exploring the concept of home and space that one doesn’t need to look far to find ideas.

It’s all an interesting journey isn’t it?! And for us, every time we think we’ve got it figured out, there is another layer of depth even beyond that. And that’s a great thing. Nothing stays stagnant. 🙂

Want to learn more about straw bale houses and how to build one? Want to do so for FREE? Sign up for our totally free 16 Day Straw Bale eCourse! Find out more HERE.

14 Responses

  1. The County Ordinances I have dealt with in a urban environment require a minimum of 650 sf The unofficial reasoning I was told is due to the property tax ratio cost of infrastructure cost and maintenance. I suppose smaller sf homes and higher taxes is possible but then who wants higher taxes on anything?
    But then what happens to those with bigger homes and their taxes?
    In a rural environment infrastructure cost and maintenance start at your property line and still have county codes standards to be maintained to.
    My latest interaction was with the fire code: a 20 ft minimum driveway width to the house and a “code proper turn around”,maximum grade and allowable surface material.

  2. “Less is more”
    “God is in the details”
    American architect – Ludwig “Mies” van der Rohe

  3. This is a hugely important topic Andrew in an age where subdivisions have wiped out millions of square miles and literally define our built environment, air, water, culture, personalities, communities and energy usage, for starters. Less square footage entails all you have noted as well as implies increased relationship to what is outside the walls.

    Specifically I mean that single structures on single lots is so unimagined. I could really do two dissertations and a TED talk on this, but I’ll limit my topic here to a simple point… Once we get sketching on smaller floor plans the next step is to consider modular units on the property or landscape to make up the total interior amenity we dream of creating.

    Think of 6 yurts on a property, one main, one food prep, one main bath, the rest private sleeping quarters. A barn or shed for landscape support or animal husbandry. That’s a useful and lovely 2 acres… a mini Shire.

    If we apply this approach to strawbale structure it’s the same. Units can be connected or not, relational or not, with kitchenette/bath options. Guests, teens and elder family members are easily accommodated. Privacy is increased, heating and cooling reduced… well i can go on for hours describing benefits physical, psychological, social, political, artistic, practical…

    By starting with smaller sq. footage we can predict increased happiness in so many ways there’s no end to the topic. You may have noticed I’m all for the idea.

  4. Thanks for your input Jon. There is a movement towards reducing minimum square footage requirements on a national level. There are so many people fed up with these square footage requirements that they are pushing back and hopefully that will make a change. The fire codes do make sense. Having seen emergency rescues in person, having open access can mean difference between life and death and/or house burning or not. Those trucks are big! Still never fun to have to create such a large driveway.

  5. Ron, we couldn’t agree more! This is exactly what we are setting up on our homestead. Each of our two teenagers will have their own cabin in the woods with its own heating and solar power mini-systems. We will build a 220 sqft tiny house which will have our sleeping loft and the kitchen/bathroom for winter use. We also have the 114 sqft cabin on the land already which will turn into community space once kids cabins are built. Unfortunately it’s not winterized. We’ve always been intrigued by the concept of tiny spaces with communal spaces tying little cabins together. It’s really fun to see it all finally come together!

  6. What about a flat base rate charge to cover those expenses for small footprints. For example, $2000 per lot and up to a 500 SF structure. Anything above that I taxed per square foot. Seems simple enough.

  7. I live in 944 sq feet with 5 other people (hubby and kids) and it works great. It works great even though we also keep a year’s supply of food in here with us, and my sewing company is run from home, and 2 of the four kids are teenagers, and we home school so it’s not like we manage by being gone most of the time. It is amazing what you can accomplish when forced (firmly nudged?) by your environment to think differently. By most of the world’s standards my family lives in unimaginable luxury. My life goes so much better when I remember that. (Hearing my friends complain about how much time they spend cleaning their houses helps to.) I love that my kids have no other option than to learn to get along with each other. Now we just need to wrap the place in straw bales so that winter stays outside. Andrew, do you have any DVDs, etc on straw bale conversions? I am loath to start over when there’s already so many materials invested in the structure that’s here.

  8. Great reminder about keeping a worldly perspective. I don’t have a retrofit DVD, but know that it can be done. I help people do that often as a consultant. Also, I have some info on the blog about it. Try searching for retrofitting at the top of strawbale.com. Good luck.

  9. Good topic Andrew!
    To me square footage requirements are ‘as small as possible’, but for headheight I like Fibonacci. Take the lenght of the tallest person who uses the space, and multiply by 1.618.

  10. Thanks Constance! We use Fibonacci’s Sequence a bit when designing for us. We generally call it rule of thirds and it works so well in nearly any creative project. Pretty amazing stuff really.

  11. Dear Andrew and Gabriella,

    You have brought up some interesting themes and guidelines in the pursuit of human scale. One of the themes is Simplicity. It’s a key one for me. To me, simplicity means not being tied to the grid. This is related to another of your guidelines: Joy. Off the grid means independence and security, which brings joy.

    I agree that the tumbleweed houses are just too tiny for most people for long-term use. That’s why it’s important to somehow assess what your minimum size (human scale) space is for function and comfort.

    I would love to see the layout for your 220 sq. foot home. If you break it down to individual rooms, I think you can get a better sense of how you can comfortably move around the space to best utilize what function the room was designed to serve. I think you should have enough space for two people to move around without crashing into each other or having wasted space.

    I would submit that the most important space in the house is the kitchen. Why? Because good health begins in the kitchen. Unless you have pre-cooked delicious organic meals delivered to your home (ha ha!) You must do it yourself. To prepare healthy meals for the family, you are going to spend a lot of time there. Therefore, it should be a well designed, roomy, cheerful, well lit space with all the best cooking tools available. I’m a big believer in mealtime being family time, so the dining area should be a comfortable extension of the kitchen. Mealtime should be time off from ipods, phones and tablets.

    I don’t know if there needs to be a separate space devoted to a “living room” area. I read a book that presented a study of the American home, and in that study it was revealed the traditional living room was the most under-utilized area in the average home. The kitchen was where people hung out most of the time. The book was written by a female architect who started questioning our big mcmansions and wasted space. I think the living room has turned into the entertainment center with the popularity of large digital high def tv screens. I got rid of my TV 4 years ago and haven’t missed it at all. I’m not a big entertainment junkie, but I do like to watch a movie once in a while which I can on my 24” screen computer. Perhaps the living/ entertainment room can be a hybrid extension of the dining area.

    For me and many others, close proximity to nature is important. I think it was a key factor when you lived in your pop-up camper on that beach in Mexico. Between that space and your little cabana, you were in paradise! But take that same living space and place it in a Walmart parking lot, you wouldn’t be enjoying the space as much, to say the least. Of course that’s an extreme example, but stay on that beach in the wintertime with snow. You would be confined to a tiny space. How comfortable would you be?

    I have to take issue with your statement that comfort not be important. Again, the key is what minimum space are you comfortable with? Why give up comfort? Especially in the planning stage? You both seem to be experimenting with that. But I believe you have set-up poor odds for yourself.
    A 50% chance of success for a 220 sq.ft. space are not the best odds. Perhaps you can design it so you can easily expand to additional space if you find 220 sq. ft. is too small?

    Your stats between the 200 and 500 square feet were very interesting! Looks like we are honing in on a natural human scale space. However, it certainly depends on the individuals’ criteria, but I believe there is a universal comfort zone for most people. Again, it may be related to your accessibility to the outdoors or confinement from it. Environmental factors have to be acknowledged.

    Back to joy; for me (admittedly and idealist) I want to be able to live my ideals of building an energy efficient house made with natural (clay, plaster, stone, wood) and recycled (straw) materials. I want to be part of the solution, not the problem. I guess I’ve rambled on enough!


  12. Great input Greg. I must say that our thoughts around success in our tiny home may not have been clearly stated. I certainly feel strongly that we have a MUCH stronger chance if success in that space than 50/50. It feels like an 80/20 success rate to me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.