Hermits and Tiny Houses

Thanks to the early millennium real estate crisis, we are having a tiny-house moment. But there have been many such moments before. The current fad for miniaturized living has been traced most immediately to Sarah Susanka’s 1998 book The Not So Big House, which reached number one on Amazon and spawned a Not So Big franchise. Though Susanka’s work wasn’t about tiny houses per se, it sought to reverse the long obesity trend in residential architecture by arguing for the environmental benefits of small houses.

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Before that, compact living spaces were a theme pursued separately by the artists Allan Wexler, starting in the 1970s, and Andrea Zittel, starting in the 1990s. In 1987, Lester Walker published the book Tiny Houses: Or How to Get Away From It All, sharing photographs and drawings of projects like a 192-square-foot prefabricated house that bolted together and a 56-square-foot shack built on a raft. Lloyd Kahn and Bob Easton brought out Shelter in 1973 to spread indigenous construction methods and small-house designs from around the world.

And so on down through the decades: The little pavilions surrounding Philip Johnson’s Glass House. Jean Prouvé’s 64-square-foot prefab cutie. Buckminster Fuller’s 314-square-foot Dymaxion Deployment Units, conceived as bombproof wartime shelters. Roadside shacks. Emergency cottages so appealing that displaced survivors of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake were reluctant to leave them. The Little House on the Prairie.

And of course every tour of history’s tiny houses stops at Henry David Thoreau’s 150-square-foot shingled cottage at Walden Pond, and Marie Antoinette’s 255-square-foot “Boudoir,” part of a rustic building complex at Versailles.

But people who opt for tiny houses—meaning the kind that tug at heartstrings and star on cable—generally choose to live small. The reasons aren’t just practical, but also ethical and emotional.

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Invariably, someone will remind you that civilization emerged from tiny houses—caves, yurts, tents, wigwams, igloos, grass huts, and so forth.

These early antecedents are beside the point. Sioux, Samoans, and Inuits were not offered more spacious alternatives. But people who opt for tiny houses—meaning the kind that tug at heartstrings and star on cable—generally choose to live small. The reasons aren’t just practical, but also ethical and emotional.

The idea that tiny-house advocates are a special subset of humanity is supported by at least 10 reality television shows today. The regular intro to the HGTV series Tiny House, Big Living asks the question: “Do you think you have what it takes to live in a tiny house?” No, but it would appear that the people on the show, who work with builders to design their own micro-domiciles, do. They are not the types that come to mind when you hear that Americans spend an average of 93 percent of their lives indoors. They are willing to forego flush toilets and suppress any urge to collect. The simple act of living modestly transmits a bold message about who they are.

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From this perspective, the true parents of tiny-house living are hermits. From the ancient Chinese Taoists in mountain caves to the Desert Fathers of third century Christianity and onward (the word “hermit” derives from the Greek word for “desert”), hermits were the first people to actively downsize to confined, remote, and minimally furnished living spaces.

The ascetic impulse has cut across faiths and terrains—Himalayan Buddhists, Hindu forest dwellers, Russian Orthodox priests in the icy taiga—continuing to this day. We know there are at least 1,500 hermits in the world because that’s how many request the online newsletter published by Raven’s Bread Hermit Ministries out of western North Carolina. And while not all people who consider themselves hermits are religious in the traditional sense, many find a common mission in ridding themselves of possessions and

The longing for simplicity, economy, self-sufficiency, and oneness with the natural world, a sense that life on the margins is required to reorder one’s priorities—all of these hermit traits are typical of the contemporary tiny-house enthusiast, too.

What sets the two groups apart is hermits’ other significant inspiration, the need for solitude.

Building a self-contained, pint-size freestanding building, possibly surrounded by wilderness, is not the same as moving into a studio apartment or double-wide trailer. It takes a particular combination of grit and romance.

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Many hermits shun company because they believe that society, no less than luxury, hinders spiritual life. Some Christian hermits are motivated by the desire to escape claustrophobic monasteries, where everyone eats, prays, and works together. This is not to say that hermits who take refuge in small, detached shelters are always isolated. From the earliest days, the public has sought out hermits for their counsel, sometimes with such enthusiasm that they drove the solitaries deeper into the desert or forest. But even in their nutshell lodgings, hermits find communion with something beyond themselves that gives a feeling of infinite space….

It is their capacity for living alone, minimizing physical needs and maximizing spiritual rewards, that allows hermits to survive in tiny houses—and even then, sometimes only for short periods. Thoreau pulled it off for two years—bringing his laundry home for his mother to wash—before returning to conventional life in Concord, Massachusetts. About his decision to live austerely, he wrote in Walden, “I did not wish to spend my time in earning rich carpets or other fine furniture, or delicate cookery, or a house in the Grecian or the Gothic style just yet” (italics mine)

For non-hermits, full-time residency in a tiny house clearly can be torture. Most of us like company. Obtaining bank financing to build tiny homes or finding cities that allow owners to occupy them legally is part of the difficulty, but so is being crammed into a shoebox with a partner and maybe children. Watching Tiny House, Big Living, I wince at the couples with a baby or two as they plan their new homes, installing Murphy cribs and collapsible dining tables that double as cutting boards, crouching as they ascend stairs with built-in storage to reach their unprivate loft beds. The episodes always end with the family newly settled. If it were a horror movie, this would be exactly when the teenagers break out the bongs and have sex. Doom seems right around the corner…

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The longing for simplicity, economy, self-sufficiency, and oneness with the natural world; a sense that life on the margins is required to reorder one’s priorities—all of these hermit traits are typical of the contemporary tiny-house enthusiast, too…

The tiny house as regressive fantasy shelter has antecedents that go beyond Marie Antoinette and her courtiers dressing as peasants in their faux farm cottages—or, for that matter, beyond the modern man cave. One of the oddest moments in design history came in the 18th century, when British aristocrats commissioned elaborate landscapes for their estates on which ornamental follies had been built as … hermitages. Some of these little dwellings suggested a resident hermit through the arrangement of props; visitors would peek in to find a book and half-eaten loaf left on a table. Others were furnished with stuffed facsimiles of hermits, posed in a contemplative way. Yet others were occupied by real men who pretended to be hermits with scraggy beards and uncut nails. Sometimes the estate’s owner filled that job, but there were notorious cases in which the “hermits” were hired through newspaper ads or posted notices…

Is the building type popular because it is economical and sustainable, fostering noble values and family cooperation, or is it immature?

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Meng-hu, the pseudonymous editor of a website for hermits called Hermitary, recently wrote about what might seem like a promising trend: millennials paring down their possessions. In fact, Meng-hu noted, it is not that millennials are deaccessioning so much as that they benefit from the shrinking and transparency of consumer products, especially features on smartphones and tablets. “The application of new technologies to everything from automobiles to banking to shopping to learning foster the illusion of simplicity even while increasing dependence on larger infrastructure, corporate control, and easier surveillance.”

When millennials insist on limiting their books, clothing, and furniture, Meng-hu goes on, they are not necessarily embracing a simpler way of life. They know they can—if they are among the subset of millennials who have the financial resources—replace such objects easily through digital marketplaces and two-day delivery. “In this case, minimalism is resistance to the temptation to buy too much because of minimal living space rather than the virtue of abstinence.”

Living small, in other words, has grown more convenient, and convenience is not the way of the hermit. But to what extent is simplicity really a virtue? Meng-hu refers to the stranglehold of post-industrial commercial culture with its noisy demands, lapses in conscience and incursions on privacy. There is an urge to disentangle oneself from the weeds and live in peaceful self-sufficiency. But to do that one has to have much mettle and shed many passions…

An extract from Julie Lasky “Hermits and Tiny Houses. The Surprising Origins of the Tiny House Phenomenon. Why ancient hermits are the key to understanding our tiny home obsession”. Full text available on-line at: http://www.curbed.com/2016/7/13/12162832/tiny-house-history-hermits

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