INRIVER Retreats

Cozy Spaces
And the trouble with tiny houses


Part of it sounds enchanting.

Imagine living in your own 200-square-foot tiny house. Off the grid. No mortgage, no rent. Carbon neutral, or nearly so. Maybe you have a patch of land, or maybe you are on the road—you can stay in one place, or, if you get tired of it, move on down the road. The views, the peace and quiet, the unmediated hipness! How can you argue with any of it?

Unfortunately, there are obstacles. This video from Portlandia makes the point. We love the idea of it, but in reality we are not ready to give up our places, to live off the grid full time; and maybe, while we find the idea of a small space adorable, we really prefer our somewhat bigger digs. If you have a partner, or kids, there are issues that fall under the category of privacy. Not the guaranteed-in-the-Constitution kind, but the common-sense kind.

First, noise. Take my wife: She likes to relax on a Sunday afternoon by doing laundry and watching The Good Wife or Blacklist or Criminal Minds. She folds the laundry on the bed and has her laptop open as well as the TV on, and she binge watches. I have no complaints. I appreciate the clean socks and I know this is one way she likes to unwind from her stressful job. But there is no place for me in the picture. She doesn’t want me in the room, and even if she wears headphones, the bright colored screen with the moving pictures is distracting. I want to read. I want the luxury of my own comfortable space. It works out fine; no one is unhappy, but it relies on us being able to be apart. Other sound issues: What if she wants to join a conference call, or have a long conversation with her sister? And what about snoring?

Then there is the toilet. On some level I like the idea that after I flush, someone has developed a good plan for what I have created, preferably that doesn’t involve me and my manual labor, very much. I am talking about a holding tank, and how to empty it. I am not proud that I don’t relish dealing with this issue for the rest of my life. I am, in this one small way, addicted to civilization and its decadent, pleasurable plumbing.

What about a social life? Let’s just say you have more than two friends and you want to invite them to dinner. I know, who am I kidding? But what if I did have three or eight friends, and my mom, and the two dogs. It’s not a crazy notion, the idea of a table set for eight. Maybe you don’t do it all the time but want the option.

As for being off the grid; I like having the grid. There. I said it. And by grid I mean: electricity always available, hot and cold running water and drains, and Internet please.

So why are tiny houses so appealing? (And they are! So cool!) So far, the tiny house movement, if it is a movement, has been largely a do-it-yourself thing. If you have the time, a little bit of money, and the inclination, and need someplace to live, you can put it all together for maybe ten or twenty thousand dollars. But then you need something to tow it with. It starts to look like a very esoteric thing to fit all those requirements. For those of us not ready, or not interested in taking the plunge into full-time living off the grid, in 200 square feet, tiny buildings still have a place and a purpose.

Maybe you want to write but you really could use a dedicated space to devote to it, a place where you go to do only that one thing. Maybe you want to meditate, or practice yoga, but it is hard to do those things without interruption in a home filled with things that buzz and ring, and people small and large that want attention. Perhaps you want to smoke, whatever it is you smoke but have agreed not to do so in the house. Maybe you dream about having a little cabin in the woods; I did a quick search and it looks to me that if you are willing to drive for an hour or two, you can still get a nice piece of land for about the cost of a new car. And here is four acres in Maine for the cost of a USED car. A tiny dwelling for a weekend or a week in August? Well, most of us can deal with off the grid for that long.

There’s one more area where I think tiny dwellings might be just the thing: About 15 years ago my wife and I added an in-law suite to our house in response to my mother’s declining health. It seemed at the time like the best solution. Turns out there were only a few weeks where her health was good enough that the in-law apartment made sense. Of course no one can predict those things, and some lucky people get to live with their in-laws for decades. Consider a beautifully crafted small dwelling for MIL and/or FIL, close to the grandkids, but with the kind of separation and inherent privacy that can actually make this kind of arrangement work for all parties. Furthermore, imagine being able to hitch up the small dwelling and take it across the state to park at the sibling’s place, with the different grandkids. And even better, imagine, when the time comes that the arrangement doesn’t make sense anymore, you can put that bad boy on eBay, or park it on that piece of property in New Hampshire listed above.

For some of us, little, portable buildings have a place, but it is not where we are going to live 365 days a year. It is where we might go for an hour, to meditate, downward dog, write that novel, drink an inch of single malt. Or where we might spend a weekend or a week, on that special patch of land. Or as a kind of extra private guest room/in-law suite/Airbnb space when the grandparents aren’t around. The thing that most attracts me to the small space movement is that tiny houses are beautifully crafted lovely boxes that we can inhabit, incorporate into our lives without necessarily moving off the grid. It’s kind of like Thoreau, having that incredible cabin by the pond, but only living there full time for two years, and otherwise going home for lunch.


Dick Pereli builds tiny houses at Inriver Retreats in Concord, Massachusetts.