Even by astronauts’ standards, Greg Johnson lives in a small house.
For the past few years, he has resided in a 10-by-7 trailer-mounted home, dubbed “The Mobile Hermitage,” that stands in stark contrast to the super-sized McMansions cropping up in suburbs across the country. As the name suggests, the house can go anywhere — the trailer allows it to be towed by a truck. Most of the time, the house is parked on land in Iowa City, Iowa, that Johnson’s family has owned for 70 years.
Johnson is part of a growing movement for shrinking house sizes. He is coordinator for the Small House Society group that offers information about building techniques and the professionals who design and build these simplified structures. An activist who is involved in several organizations and causes, Johnson said he doesn’t plan on picketing or staging any big-house protests to promote more humble dwellings. Instead, he is simply providing living proof that small homes are viable options.
“I think it’s going to take people like myself and others to just live the life,” he said. “I don’t think we’re going to see big houses torn down,” though people may eventually “become less enamored with materialism,” he added. Energy prices and technology may also start to turn the tide against large houses.
“The computer really is becoming our TV set, our radio, our home entertainment system. Life is shrinking, things around us are shrinking,” he said. Digital technologies are eliminating the need for cassette tapes, CDs and even home libraries, he said. “We just don’t need the space anymore.” Within his home, Johnson uses a wireless laptop computer, cell phone and a portable video iPod for Internet access, communication and entertainment.
While Johnson lives at one extreme of the spectrum, he said he expects house sizes to reach more of a balance nationally. In his work as a technology consultant, Johnson said he gets to interact with people with wide-ranging views and backgrounds on religion and politics. And many people seem to share a common perspective on some environmental issues, he said.
“The thing that these people all seem to be talking about — they’re interested in alternative energy, or they’re interested in organic foods, or they’re interested in the efficiency of a bicycle. Because of the global crisis with environmental changes, humanity is going to have to come together now to confront (the environmental issues),” he said, “and set aside some of the differences that are not so significant anyway.”
In his optimistic view, that means living more simply and efficiently, consuming less energy, and re-establishing true communities — with world peace following close behind.
Johnson has a vision for a pilot project through which he will join other small-house enthusiasts to form a small village of small houses, perhaps sharing common facilities such as showers and restrooms. He also has a broader vision for multiple villages: perhaps one for college students, another for young professionals, another for families and yet another for retired people.
An article in a local newspaper sparked Johnson’s interest in miniaturized homes. Johnson posted a newspaper article to his Web site about Jay Shafer, an architect in Sebastopol, Calif., who since 1997 has designed small homes ranging from 50 to 750 square feet. In 2002, that article started to attract inquiries from visitors to his Web site.
Johnson contacted Shafer and told him about the Web traffic. Some groups expressed an interest in inviting Shafer to go to Iowa as a guest speaker. “He was kind of surprised at that. He didn’t realize there was such an interest in what he was doing.”
In fall 2002, Johnson attended a slideshow presentation in Iowa by small-house enthusiasts Shay Salomon, a handywoman, carpenter and construction manager, and Nigel Valdez. The pair live in southern Arizona.
Salomon, Valdez, Shafer and Johnson got to talking about the possibility of forming a formal small-house organization. Johnson said, “There really seemed to be a movement. People are building their own homes and building homes that are totally adequate. It’s really an amazing phenomenon.”
Johnson was living in a 10-by-12 room at the time, and he began to consider moving into a small house of his own. In 2003, Shafer and Johnson built the trailer-based house that has since served as Johnson’s residence. The structure is 13 feet tall and has two stories — the sleeping area is on the top floor.
“I was considering it very much as being an experiment, a research project — and I wanted to push the envelope,” Johnson said. “Interestingly I never really did bump up against any insurmountable limitations. It seems to be an efficient way to live.”
Even when he is housesitting for friends who have a 4,000-square-foot home, “I really miss my little house. And they’re actually envying my little house.”
But The Mobile Hermitage is lacking some of the usual amenities you would find in most single-family homes. Namely, it doesn’t have a restroom, shower or refrigerator, and it’s only designed for one person or a cozy couple. He uses energy-efficient bicycle lights to illuminate his home. He has a sink, a cooking area, and a small liquid propane tank supplies the heating. There are built-in shelves, a desk, closet areas and wheeled storage carts.
“I anticipated having my house be either in a campground or near a business or residence where if I needed a restroom I could go and (use those facilities),” he said. Johnson said he typically showers at the gym after his morning workout. The lack of a fridge and some other amenities “would be difficult for most people,” he said, and he sometimes wishes there was space in his home for guests. But overall, he said it has been a positive experience.
“It’s kind of life-transforming,” Johnson said of his time in the small house. “The simple life is very efficient, it’s very relaxing.” He has been eating well (he follows a vegan diet — no meat or dairy products), exercising and has lost about 100 pounds since he moved into the house.
While many people would not choose to live in a space as tiny as The Mobile Hermitage, Johnson said there appears to be some interest at his Web site by people who want to step down in size from a house that is 2,000-3,000 square feet. “It is costing a lot of money to heat, to clean and maintain. It is expensive to make monthly payments. People are asking themselves, ‘Can I do this in 1,000 or 500 square feet?'” he said.
Eric Miller, a real estate agent in Pittsburgh, Pa., who has visited the Small House Society Web site, said consumers seem increasingly interested in smaller homes, and there are plenty of small existing-homes on the market. “If you want a small house to save money, energy and the planet, consider recycling an already existing small house in an urban area,” he said.
As heating bills have soared, smaller homes have become particularly more attractive, Miller said. There are a lot of vacant lots in his market area, Miller also said, and he has tossed around the idea of placing multiple small homes on vacant lots to provide a new source of affordable housing. Small units in high-rise buildings are another cost-effective and environmentally friendly way to expand affordable housing options, he said.
While Miller sees a growing movement in the purchase of smaller homes, he said that the general national trends still favor giant homes. “I think houses are too big now, and might continue to get bigger for awhile.” Energy costs may ultimately reverse that overarching trend, he said.
“It will be interesting to watch this movement. I think it’s probably going to reach critical mass when you start to see small villages of little homes — then community can really take off. And community is what it’s all about.”