The Original Tiny House

By: Victor Normand

Thoreau's cabinEarlier this month, Sarah Hastings was unable to get town meeting in Hadley to approve a zoning bylaw amendment which would have made her Tiny House legal, so she and her 190 square foot house will be moving on, literally. The first Tiny House builder constructed his house on land owned by Ralph Waldo Emerson at Walden Pond without any complaints from the Town of Concord.  But it wasn’t long after Thoreau built his house in 1845 that the first zoning regulations in the nation were adopted in 1916 in New York City.

The new regulations were seen as a violation of the 14th amendment to the Constitution by some who felt zoning regulations unlawfully restricted property rights of individuals. Lower courts agreed but in 1926, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of zoning regulations. Today, the bylaw most commonly affecting Tiny Houses, including the Tiny House in Hadley prohibits more than one residence on a building lot, even though tiny usually means less than 400 square feet of living area and most of these houses are built on wheeled trailer beds.

Sarah, like most Tiny House proponents, seems undaunted. The “light touch on the earth” Sarah believes in, extends to her heart as well. Although 214 voters at town meeting voted against the amendment, 102 supported her and she believes her efforts have advanced the conversation on the subject of living small. And that, after all, is what Tiny Houses represent.

Sarah, who recently graduated from Mount Holyoke College with a double major in Architectural and Environmental Studies, built her house about a year ago and lived there until May 7th when the town made her vacate and cut power to the house. Thoreau only lived in his tiny house for two years, two months, and two days, never intending for it to be a long stay, though he was at the height of his creativity while he lived there. Similar to today’s Tiny House builders, Thoreau wanted his house to be both a philosophical and practical expression of his life.

He wanted the design to be a unique expression of his personality and probably would have objected to the availability of plans that may be purchased today for replica enthusiasts. He used recycled building materials and kept meticulous records of every penny spent on the project, for a total of $28.13; less than $3,000 in today’s money.

Walden, first published as Walden; or, Life in the Woods, compresses his time in the tiny house to the four seasons of one year and is about his experiment in simple living, clearly the same theme captured by Sarah and her contemporaries. The five main attractions to life in Tiny House Nation include:

  • Aesthetics, both Sarah and Thoreau were concerned about having a design that expressed their individual sense of beauty;
  • Philosophy, living small in a space that denies materialism;
  • Environmental Impact, even as an existentialist, Thoreau probably never contemplated his carbon footprint, but he would have gotten it;
  • Efficiency, the reconstructed images of the Walden Pond cabin and the online video of Sarah’s house read efficiency;
  • Financial, Thoreau cleared the land and eventually gave the cabin to Emerson in exchange for building rights, grew crops in surplus and otherwise lived cheaply; Sarah’s finances are not public, but her millennial cohorts are having difficulty affording housing and besides, they would rather spend their money on travel then housing.

So, where is the Tiny House movement going? Not to Hadley, nor most any other community in most any other state. But there is no question the Tiny House is becoming one of the iconic images of our times and as Sarah says, the conversation carries on.