Changing Spaces: Tiny homes, granny flats, and the end of the office cubicle

By Katie Hartin (Staff Writer)

In this article I discuss some fascinating trends: tinier homes, changing family living arrangements, and more open and egalitarian work spaces in the US. I will ask, are we seeing - in the actions of the Millennial Generation – evolving use of space, as well as attitudes to consumption and to family and private life? 

Early in the Spring of 2015, I was Skypeing with a friend from the United States. She was bubbling over with joy because she had just bought a 7x20 foot trailer on which she would start building a tiny home. With the help of friends and family she will be a homeowner by the end of summer and, in her words, ‘One step closer to a rent-free, off-the-grid life!’

At a time when many people I know in their mid-20s could not begin to conceive of owning a home within the next decade, she will have hers within the span of a few months. As I talked to her I found the language of “off-the-grid life” fascinating. Her ideas link to the rhetoric of sustainability and alternative economies often espoused by members of the Millennial Generation. This is the language of down-cycling, sharing economies, thrifting and other alternative ways of addressing material precarity. Her attitudes towards home, family and off-the-grid life mirror a shift in the American dream - away from McMansion, towards the phenomena of moderation and tiny homes.

The origin of tiny homes is often accredited to Sarah Susanka and her 1998 book, The Not So Big House: The Blueprint for the Way We Really Live[i], but the idea was popularized in the nineties by Jay Shafer and the Tumbleweed Company[ii]. A tiny home is a structure less than 500 square feet, but is often even smaller than 300 square feet. In comparison to the average 2,180 square foot American house [iii], this is striking. The idea grew out of concerns regarding the ecological impact of massive built structures, boasting large fossil fuel inputs[iv]. In the beginning, the movement and the company lived up to its name, ‘tiny’, selling only one home per year. However, with the 2008 financial crisis in the US and the ensuing burden of mortgages people could no longer afford to pay, the movement was brought into the spotlight and – now - the trend appears to be taking off. With entire lots devoted to tiny home communities made up of multiple families, these areas incorporate community gardens and spaces for knowledge-sharing, harking back to the 1970s ideals of E.F. Schumacher and ‘small is beautiful’[v]. Some are even creating tiny home villages to help curb homelessness[vi].

Aspirations for tiny homes reflect desires for greater autonomy from 'mainstream' society’s sensibilities – a counter-movement away from a dominant attitude or 'grid' that many feel is geared towards excessive and conspicuous consumption. Here we see the very ideas of social status, materiality, and even home and family, changing shape and size.

Not only are tiny homes changing the way people live, but they are also changing the ways in which they interact with others, from their own families to communities. Increasingly popular are ‘granny flats’ or ‘care cottages’ built in backyards, which offer an alternative to nursing homes [vii]. These structures allow older family members to keep their own space but within close proximity to those who care for them. Having only a limited space at home also pushes residents into public spaces, such as coffee shops or local community centers. This could mean more people will engage in the sharing of ideas and spreading of social capital outside their homes. In turn, this may alter what private life means. The more outgoing members of the Millennial Generation refuse to retreat behind the four walls of which Hannah Arendt spoke [viii], in favor of a life that is lived in public. As Victoria Rosner writes in her beautiful book, Modernism and the Architecture of Private Life, private spaces compose a ‘kind of grid of social relations that shifts and slips, often upending the individuals who traverse it’[ix].  Rosner quotes Antoine Prost, who notes that ‘boundaries of private life are not laid down for once and for all; the division of human activity between public and private spheres is subject to change’[x].  It seems we are in an era of change and this generation of 80 million strong is tilting the plane in more ways than one.

This trend is not limited to home spaces, but work environments as well. The return of the open plan office has updated work environments from stuffy cubicles into a collaborative space for easy communication. This open space solution has had mixed reactions. A study by a global design firm found that the majority of employees were unhappy with levels of noise at work. The solution offered has been to provide private and public spaces with ‘focus booths’ for those who need to place a phone call or a break from the din[xi]. Many do not equate privacy with seniority. Many would rather have an egalitarian space that encourages everyone to contribute, than work their way up to that corner office with a window[xii]. In their search for a better work-life balance than their predecessors, Millennials admit they are just as distracted by conversations of co-workers, but are more likely to find the trade-off of a few minutes of laughter versus productivity worth it[xiii]. These kinds of hybrid spaces appear to offer the best of both worlds as our attitudes toward space and connectivity change.

I ask: with tiny houses built upon rickety, second-hand trailers, with granny flats, and new egalitarian work spaces, are they contributing to changing, on a larger scale, the ways in which an increasing number of people conceptualize and use space? 

Virginal Woolf noted, almost exactly a century ago, that a distinct shift had occurred and the architecture of the Victorian household was changing to meet new social and cultural norms, such as where the cook resided [xiv]. Today, architecture continues to adapt to not only cut costs during fiscally tight times, but also to conform to our new desires – autonomy, egalitarianism, and sustainability.  As anthropologist Mary Douglas wrote, ‘the home is a realization of ideas’[xv]. Inscribed in our spaces and floor plans are a set of meanings and metaphors about our lives and how we organize society. It is perhaps too early to determine whether these phenomena will have real ramifications for our relationships and attitudes toward material things, consumption and spaces. When the economy in the US turns around, tiny homes might prove themselves to be merely a niche stop-gap. Yet, in keeping with my undying proclivity to believe that things will improve, I am optimistic that this will make at least a small imprint on peoples’ minds and the refiguring of space toward a better society.

[i] Dietsch, Deborah. “How Not So Big Got So Big” Washington Post (13 May 2004) Available at:

[ii] Friedlander, David. “Talking to Jay Shafer about Making the Universal House.” Life Edited (30 May 2014) Available at:

[iii] Friedlander, David (2014)

[iv] Lyster, L. Inside luxury tiny homes: Millennials, retirees bucking mortgages and McMansions. Yahoo Finance (27 Sept 2013). Available at:

[v] Schumacher, E.F. Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. (1973) Blond and Briggs: London.

[vi] Couch, Robbie. “Teens create tiny home village for Seattle’s growing homeless population.” Huffington Post (8 April 2015) Available at:

[vii] Lyster, L. (2013).

[viii] Arendt, Hannah. “The Crisis in Education.” (1954) Available at: p. 8

[ix] Rosner, Victoria. Modernism and the Architecture of Private Life. (2013) Columbia University Press: New York p. 3

[x] Rosner, Victoria (2013), p. 5.

[xi] Alsop, Ronald. “The victims of open offices are pushing back.” BBC (|12 September 2014) Available at:

[xii] Howe, Neil. “Open offices back in vogue – thanks to millennials” Forbes (31 March 2015) Available at:

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Woolf, Virginia. Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown. (1924) Hogarth Press: London, p. 4 

[xv] Douglas, Mary. The Idea of a Home: A Kind of Space. Social Research (1991). Vol 58, No. 1. p. 290.