The fourth industrial revolution is bringing massive economic booms to cities all across America. But even then in the boomi-est cities, the n’est plus ultra of the American Dream -- putting a roof over your head -- means more and more young Americans have to move further to the periphery of where the action is.
Case in point: the median home price in Cupertino, CA is pushing $2.5 million. $2.5 million is nigh on impossible for young person (and most non-young people too). And for most, so is $500,000. (With apologies to George Bailey: “Do you know how long it takes a working person to save $500,000?”)
But $50,000 is in the realm of the do-able – which is the price range for materials to craft a Tiny Home.
With that as a backdrop, it’s no wonder that younger Americans are looking to flip the script of the American dream. In trend with forces you’re seeing everywhere, it’s clear that an animating force of the 21st century is that during a time of unprecedented abundance, a (possible) path to happiness and joy is found on a route where less is actually “more”. (In fact, we recently envisioned the ability to facilitate it as one of “21 More Jobs of the Future”, coming in the form of the Joy Adjutant). Look all around you: #vanlife. #nomad. #tinyhomes.
The Tiny Homes movement is tapping these ascendant forces and more, and are totally tied to the Future of Work. Some years ago, we mused that in the Little House on the Prairie series, Mr. Ingalls didn’t have a “job” in agriculture – he was in essence a subsistence food producer/house carpenter and contents maker/do-it-yourselfer for everything, and to boot a trader of his output for other people’s output (a barterer). And it was from little homesteaded A-frames that the American miracle sprouted. And although fictional, it’s arguable that Michael Landon’s Charles Ingalls character imbued the best aspects of the American character this side of George Bailey.
Everything from the little house was in the wagon except the beds and tables and chairs. They did not need to take these, because Pa could always make new ones.
― Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House on the Prairie
So what would it take to strike out on your own? To be a “Pa Ingalls equivalent" in the 21st century? But unlike Pa Ingalls, who harvested crops and wrangled cattle, maybe you’ll want to be a Twitter data wrangler? Or a VR-enabled Store Sherpa? Or a Fitness Commitment counselor? Or a Subscription Management Specialist? (All of which we’ve envisioned being done in the not-too-distant future with a simple WiFi connection).
I sat down with Sean Ticknor, executive director of the non-profit Big Skills, Tiny Homes to go through the list of big-ticket expense line items involved in a Tiny Home build-out (full disclosure: addition to my “day job” at the Center for the Future of Work, I am also a BSTH board member).
If the future of work in the Internet age allows full work, gig work, or pieces of work from anywhere, let’s assume that all you’d need for the American dream was some land (maybe a big, wide-open patch of acreage in the Prairies, which for decades have been emptying out) into which you could stretch out a bit. And then a simple quality roof over your head, and those of your loved ones. And, like Pa Ingalls, bonus points for building it yourself. Then electricity, WiFi, proper waste disposal, and a way to provide heat. And cold storage for food. And, like the Ingallses - lots of love. (If I keep going, I’ll sound like a crocheted wall decoration…).
Knowing it would take (a bit) more than Henry David Thoreau’s $28.12 (or, about $934 in 2018 money), and assuming you had the carpentry knowledge to actually build your own (tiny) home, following are the biggest line items of cost to actually do it –
1) Land – the regulatory status of where you can “park” a Tiny Home is ambiguous. Their biggest corollary is akin to being treated as an RV. So, if you’re lucky enough to have a friend with space – go for it. But since we’re treating this on the “Ingalls Principal”, let’s say a piece of beautiful, prime Prairie is going to run north of $50,000. To scrape up the 20% down payment, if you averaged about $18 an hour as a Lyft driver, you could earn $10,000 after 556 hours of driving (or, 8 hours a day for about 3 months).
2) Solar – why pay for energy, when Mother Nature’s pumping it in your direction for 12 hours a day, gratis? That’s right: the shining day star that gives us life is there for the taking, for free. But converting that goodness takes solar panels, which aren’t … So a set of quality solar panels, with an electrical converter box will be your biggest expense, after land: $10k
3) Windows – With apologies to Peter Gabriel and Genesis, “You gotta get in to see out”. One of the bigger expenses for a Tiny Home are windows, believe it or not. And if you’re on the Prairie, grandma’s charming and pretty true-divided-light, single-pane variety of yesteryear just won’t do. You’ll need double-glazed, and you’ll be looking at $6k.
4) Trailer – For a Tiny Homw that rolls on wheels (again, thinking of the RV as a kindred cousin), its undergirding “superstructure” is, in fact, a 500-800 square foot trailer upon which the build out can happen. Think of this as “the foundation”, and it’ll set you back $5k.
5) Refrigeration – If you can get ahold of a solidly-made deep freezer, according to Ticknor, those can easily be converted into a highly energy-efficient refrigerator. You’ll just need some strapping friends to help you hoist it, and like a good puzzle, it’ll need to be cleverly tucked away (you’re in a Tiny Home, after all).
Once those expenses have been accounted for, the remaining costs are in reach. Minus land-acquisition costs, Ticknor estimates that all-in (including the aforementioned trailer, windows, solar, etc.), house building expenses will generally run less than $35,000.
There’s an element of agency to all this. Along with pride, know-how, and self-sufficiency, it’s a crucial, constituent part of a social compact that seems to have slipped from the grasp of a seemingly-growing number of young people today. We’ve entered a period when having space, and roof over your head for yourself, your spouse, and a little kid (or two) without being beholden to a bank (or a multi-hour commute) means real freedom and liberty.
You can’t get more American than that.