Tiny Homes Present Big Ideas for Transforming Urban Ecosystems

Bounded by the cluttered shelves of a mid-century one-car garage, his laboratory for the time being, Tim McCormick tinkers with the 64-square-foot cube he hopes will “hack the housing crisis.”

As he envisions it, an 8x8x8-foot skeleton of perforated square steel tubes, small enough to fit in a parking spot, could become an “erector set” suitable home or workspace. From there, one could build up or out—as spartan as a post-apocalyptic bomb shelter or as elaborate as a several-story dwelling. Modules could be separate or stacked, side panels swapped, dimensions complementing existing urban spaces, like a small yard or a garage.

“It’s about creating systems to solve a very wide set of potential needs in the built environment,” he says, “analogous to how Linux or Android [and other open-source software] are used in a wide variety of computing contexts.”

McCormick calls the low-cost, open-source units Knight Houses, a reinvention of the home as a product that consumers could order online or build themselves. Under the aegis of Houslets, the alternative housing research effort he’s spearheading, McCormick is one of nine San Jose finalists vying for a slice of $5 million in grant money being distributed across the country by the Knight Cities Challenge. “If we do this right,” McCormick says, “we can transform Silicon Valley’s urban ecosystem.”

Tiny homes are nothing new. If anything, they’re part of an age-old tradition of carving out space, of squatting and occupying, of highly adaptive living systems. Last year, San Jose city officials floated the idea of building micro-cottages to shelter the homeless: 150-square-foot, $5,000-apiece pods that could hunker down on unused public land or empty warehouses as transitional housing options.

“We studied the idea and found that we didn’t have the public land to make this work,” says Ray Bramson, San Jose’s homelessness response manager. Santa Clara County is working on a similar review. “We’ll see what the county comes up with,” he says. The small units could serve a diverse demographic—not just for the homeless, McCormick says, but also young singles, students and the elderly looking to downsize.

“There’s a global archetype: faced with the hierarchy and status of the environment, the little man wants to carve out a piece of it—trailers, rooms, attics, cottages, in-law units,” McCormick says. “That’s what we can do, design and implement a fleet of moveable housing units, which can be quickly deployed, moved around and potentially combined into larger units.”

The concept has gained more traction in recent years as soaring housing costs continue to price middle class families out of urban job centers. For perspective, consider that “middle class” in the San Jose metro area means a household that earns $94,077 annually, according to real estate site Trulia. By that measure, only 30 percent of homes in the region’s market are affordable enough for middle-income earners.

“So our challenge is how to bring the cost down,” says McCormick, who spent the past few years living in a 200-square-foot converted garage in Palo Alto. The best way to do that, he posits, is to cut down on size. Americans have learned to equate square-footage with value, however, making the notion of downsizing an insurgent idea.

McCormick is a relative newcomer to the tiny home movement. Early pioneers in the 1970s advocated for scaled-back homes in reaction to widespread suburbanization that normalized excessive living spaces. The average size of a single family home four decades ago hovered around 1,780 square feet. Each new U.S. Census Bureau count broke another record, the latest in 2013 when the average home size stopped just shy of 2,600 square feet, despite a concurrent decrease in the size of the average family. The housing market’s free-fall in 2007 galvanized McCormick and others’ push for smaller living quarters.

“We had this huge breakdown, where the housing system is stammering,” he says. “All of a sudden regular middle-class people can’t find housing. It became a first-world problem, so to speak.”

McCormick has lived in plenty of small, sometimes improbable spaces. Growing up in London, his parents lived in a 1,000-square-foot home. His bedroom, called a “box room,” was no more than 48 square feet—intended as a storage space, really. His father’s job as an architect moved the family to various urban hubs, always settling into economical living quarters. “That was a key, informative influence,” he says. “As long as I could remember, I was going to building sites, low-income housing projects.”

Locally, in the Santa Cruz Mountains just minutes south of Los Gatos, tiny cottages—not all permitted—dot the forested landscape. One property owner built a yurt, a circular dwelling propped up by stilts on a hillside. Another, who’d rather just go by Bob, constructed a 244-square-foot cottage on a dusty plateau overlooking redwood forests and, on a clear day, a shimmering Monterey Bay.

“Had this trailer then I got a wild hair and decided to build a house on it,” says Bob, trekking up to the place in his brown work boots, faded Wranglers and pine green plaid shirt with sleeves torn at the elbows.

Wide windows—the bulk of which he got for free from contractors—fill the cottage with natural light, giving it a roomy feel despite the limited dimensions. A former mechanical engineer, Bob crafted the place from ruddy cuts of ancient heart redwood. The logs had been lying around for a century or so before he decided to slice them to size with a sawmill he built out of an old boat trailer.

Sixteen solar panels cover the patio, far more than needed to power the home, and a sheet metal roof shelters the rest of the house. Inside, a wood-burning stove fashioned from an old water tank stands in one corner, a kitchen fills up the other, a cupboard and, overhead, a sleeping loft. The only separate room in the house is the full bathroom, with a bathtub and toilet that drains into a 1,500-gallon septic tank with a proper leach field. In all: $5,000 to build, about another $6,000 for the solar panels.

McCormick wants to see more of that self-sufficient ingenuity applied to housing in urban spaces. Given that he plans to work with pre-assembled modules, he thinks he could work within an even tighter budget.

San Jose has no zoning for micro-homes, per se, says Cheryl Wessling, spokeswoman for the city’s Planning, Building and Code Enforcement Department. To date, no one has even proposed a micro-home project to the city. “[However,] we do have a process that allows for ... unique projects,” Wessling says. “How these would come into play for the emerging concept of micro-homes would need consideration.”

The pushback often comes from neighbors who worry about parking supply and property values. Other issues: how to hook up units to plumbing and comply with zoning rules. McCormick says one way to make the idea of incorporating tiny homes within the urban landscape palatable to the public is to incentivize property owners. One model he’s looking at is a fairly new state law that give tax breaks to property owners who lease to an urban farm. McCormick suggests the same idea could be applied for micro-homes.

“Fearing people encroaching on you is human, but so is building, adapting, being able to change your environment,” McCormick says. “It’s all in how you present it.”

Tim McCormick

Tim McCormick demonstrating his tiny home concept with a scale model. (Photo by Jennifer Wadsworth)

Jennifer Wadsworth is a staff writer for San Jose Inside and Metro Newspaper. Email tips to [email protected] or follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.

13 Comments

  1. Ah, yes. Tiny homes are wonderful, but require subsidies and zoning changes to be viable. A few historical ones still around too – from the gold rush era; some for fishermen & cannery workers near the Monterey Aquarium. Aside from the novelty of residing in an origami-like dwelling, the economics and urban planning benefits are baffling.

    Virtually all of the new housing close to public transit is multi-unit – the only type that makes sense for our expensive land and population density.

    Tiny houseboats at the Alviso harbor or at Lake Cunningham would eliminate land cost & taxes. VTA cabooses could solve our housing and transportation problems with a single solution!

    But those that want them, have them. Distressed motorhomes & third-wheels line Ridder Park Drive and Hedding St near Commercial, Monterrey Rd, etc. They pop-up in residential areas too until tagged for parking violations. Most have expired plates and often leave trash and human waste when they depart.

    Our working-poor have limited choices. Tiny homes don’t pass the smell test for viable low income housing.

    Hope the Knight Foundation vets for practicality.

  2. > The concept has gained more traction in recent years as soaring housing costs continue to price middle class families out of urban job centers.

    When are these lunkheads going to ever grasp the concept that a free market clears itself. it magically, and effortlessly balances supply and demand.

    No need for housing “activists”, “visionaries”, planners, bureaucrats, social workers, and all the other assorted big hearts and “change agents”.

    If “urban job centers’ cannot find enough employees because middle class families are priced out of housing, the “urban job centers” will pay more so that the employees they want CAN afford housing, OR the “urban job centers” will move to where middle class families CAN afford housing.

    An “urban job center” without employees is not much of a “job center”.

    I think the idea of “micro housing” stacked check by jowl to maximize affordability and population density has been tried before.

    The results were called “slums”.

    • >The results were called “slums”

      Actually the results created basically every major city in the world, but I’m sure you know better for San Jose. If you don’t like the idea of a small house though, I suggest you exercise your power as a consumer and don’t move into one.

  3. Hook the homeless up with Elon Musk and send them on the Mars colonization flights. Hey, it worked in Australia, and those original Australian colonists were all career criminals.

    • Might be plagiarism too. Google gives numerous free tiny house plans complete with a DIY shopping list. Use ‘Ikea tiny house’ for nice photos and renderings. Plenty of workshops as well. Seems like a popular topic among budding architects.

      Makes me wonder about the Knight Foundation’s selection criteria. Do they fork over awards for public domain copycat proposals?

  4. I believe this article was not so much about homelessness, but more about housing affordability. Regarding open housing markets, I don’t think it should be a completely “free” market, but perhaps the government should loosen zoning regulations and allow multiple micro-houses to be built on one residential plot. It might not look pretty, but it’s a more free market and it would allow more housing at lower cost. That would be good for the jobs market, which is currently subsidized on the lower end with government subsidies such as housing and food assistance. It is a complicated issue, but it’s good to ponder.

    • Josh, my understanding of the ABAG/MTC Plan Bay Area is “pack & stack” to address affordability. Single residences, be they MacMansions or tiny homes, simply aren’t a viable solution. They are considerably more expensive than multi-units and are effectively street level SROs – single room occupancy units.

      Agree that more could be done e.g, granny flats, detached housing on R2 lots , reduced permit fees for additions, etc.

      But parking is already scarce in some residential areas where there are 4-6 cars per residence with no off-street parking because the garage has been converted into a living space. SJ’s DOT has stopped installing residential parking zones that limit parking permits to 2 (I believe) per address – thus compounding congestion.

      Why not give market forces a chance by encouraging more effective use of existing property first?

    • Josh wrote: “but perhaps the government should loosen zoning regulations and allow multiple micro-houses to be built on one residential plot.” How about we put them on the lot next to your house? Just think about how warm and fuzzy that would make you and all your neighbors feel, Josh.

  5. “Agree that more could be done e.g, granny flats, detached housing on R2 lots , reduced permit fees for additions, etc.” The homelessness industry would love all your suggestions, Diogenes. More meetings, more solutions that don’t work, and most importantly to those for whom only endless homelessness provides job security, more grants.

    • My sense is that homeless advocates aren’t thrilled with the suggestions.

      Advocates tell me they want large projects – not individual conversions. Also, many granny flats are on owner occupied property. Owners tend to be intolerant of behavioral issues: feral tenants get evicted. Anyway, many/most homeless have eviction or other blemishes on their credit report and would be unlikely to pass screening.

      All of the granny flats & permitted conversions in my near downtown neighborhood are commanding prices below market rates. None were subsidized or received any tax breaks that I know of. Property owners tend to value stable renters more than charging market rates and associated turnover.

      Two of the nearby units have tenants (both handicapped) receiving Section 8 stipends. My hunch is that the remainder are occupied by singles or couples earning below $80K / year.

      The alternative is that they could commute from the central valley or south county for something affordable.

      There are plenty of teachers, clerical workers, etc. that struggle finding affordable housing near their jobs.

      • Well Mr. O’Connor’s simple solution would be that those teachers, clerical workers, etc. simply cease to exist.

        • I wasn’t writing about teachers, clerical workers, etc., Eric. Affordability of housing for them is a different issue than dealing with the chronically homeless who are chronically jobless. SRO’s slightly bigger than a prison cell or converted shipping containers are not the answer for teachers, clerical workers, etc. Nationwide, most of them do all right. It’s the high cost of real estate in this neck of the woods that is the issue for them.
          Many of the chronically homeless are voluntarily homeless, distrustful of the system, not interested in following the normal rules of society, jobless, and either because they have no interest in a job or are functionally unemployable. The homelessness industry has existed for decades and advocates for them. Chronic homelessness was cameo’d briefly in a 1986 episode of L.A. Law, where all the same conditions examined then continue to exist today, despite all the government grants and programs thrown at them. What I was decrying is the self-aggrandizing homelessness industry which brings forth a new “solution” every couple of years. If any of their proposed solutions actually worked, those in the homelessness industry would be out of “work”. Thus, don’t hold your breath that they will actually stumble on a solution.
          Instead, concentrate resources on those homeless who wish to work, and give them a leg up. Waste as little time, effort, and money on the rest as possible. The pay received by teachers and clerical workers in the Bay Area would be more than enough to support them in most other areas of this country. That is not true here, yet they stay here working for wages inadequate to support themselves. One must ask–why is that?