Tiny Houses with Kids

A photoessay on raising kids in small spaces.
Living room? Playroom? Bedroom for stuffed menagerie? It's all the same. Photo by Jennifer Langston

Living room? Playroom? Bedroom for stuffed menagerie? It's all the same. Photo by Jennifer Langston

When my husband and I bought our first house, its 800 square feet of living space was perfect for two. It was what we could afford, and it suited us. We fought rarely, lived within our means without too much trouble, loved living within easy walking distance of restaurants and parks, went away many weekends, divided up the two closets, and dumped all the extra stuff in the basement.

Then we had a kid.

Daycare bills made us broke, we argued 400% more often, and we spent more time inside. We moved our one living room chair to make way for the baby swing. We moved the desk into our bedroom, with one inch to spare. I invented a complicated system of labels and garbage bags headed to the consignment store, full of out-of-season clothes that were too big or too small, the acres of unwanted things that people give you, and toys that I could not stand to store in my living room. This Christmas, I provoked the familial equivalent of an international incident by limiting the presents that grandparents could send.

Tiny houses such as this portable Leaf House are ingeniously designed to maximize space, which isn't the case with my regular smallish house. Photo used with permission from Leaf House Small Space Design and Build.

Tiny houses such as this mobile Leaf House are ingeniously designed to maximize space, which isn’t always the case with “just smallish” houses. Photo used with permission from Leaf House Small Space Design and Build.

To be clear, my family does not live in a tiny house. People raising children in New York, or in apartments everywhere, will mock me. When our home was built a hundred years ago, it probably would have accommodated a family of seven. But by today’s US standards, it’s small, roughly 1/3 of the size of the average home. And the difference between living in it as a couple and a family of three has been palpable.

More often that not when I see stories about tiny houses, it’s a single person with not much more than a shelf full of books and a teapot. Sometimes it’s a couple with low personal space requirements. But my own situation has made me curious about families who have consciously chosen to live with a much smaller footprint. What happens when the chaos and wonder (and stuff!) that kids introduce explode all over your artfully arranged tiny house?

So I asked Hari Berzins, who writes the Tiny House Family blog and lives with her husband and two children, 8 and nearly 10, in a 168-square-foot home. They downsized, in several steps, from a 1500-square-foot home after losing their family’s restaurant business in the most recent economic recession. It has allowed them to squirrel away her monthly salary to finance a longterm plan to build a larger, mortgage-free home. But they’ve been in this tiny house for almost two years.

The Berzins' mortgage-free home has 168 square feet of floor space and 320 square feet of living space with lofts. Photo from Hari Berzins, used with permission.

The Berzins’ mortgage-free home, which they built themselves, has a footprint of 168 square feet. Photo from Hari Berzins, tinyhousefamily.com, used with permission.

 

With two sleeping lofts, the living space is about 360 square feet. Photo from Hari Berzins, used with permission.

The family’s living space also includes two sleeping lofts and an outdoor deck. Photo from Hari Berzins, tinyhousefamily.com, used with permission.

 

At dinner, the family shares "highs" and "lows" from their day as a way of checking in and sharing. Photo from Hari Berzins, used with permission

The family uses a folding table and chairs for dinner, when they share “highs” and “lows” from their day as a connecting ritual. Photo from Hari Berzins, tinyhousefamily.com, used with permission.

She’s often asked what is the hardest thing about living in the tiny house. It’s hard to answer, she says, because the biggest challenges can also turn out to be unexpected blessings. Berzins says that living in a smaller physical space magnifies whatever dynamics and issues already exist in a family. But with no place to hide from the people you live with, it forces more open communication. As she explains:

You’re still whoever you are when you move in. But I think a bigger house gives you the room to leave things and let them pass without having to face them like we do in the tiny house…What we’ve done, and it’s helped a lot, is focusing on communicating rather than expecting. You can’t really run from things. It feels like we’ve been in therapy, but the therapy is our house.

During the process of downsizing, they had many conversations with their kids about what things were most important to them. They had multiple yard sales and let the kids select, price and haggle over the things they wanted to sell. Occasionally, they’d pull things back that they weren’t ready to part with. In the tiny house, they each have a couple of crates for their personal things, and her children will passionately argue that they lack for nothing. For birthdays and holidays, they tend to ask for presents that they can use every day, like pocketknives or binoculars.

What really matters for them is their family and being close and not the things so much. I guess what you would imagine they’re learning is true. I think also there’s an acceptance of themselves and of us as family. They teach me a lot and don’t seem to care what other people think, which is so awesome.

Photo from Hari Berzins, used with permission.

Photo from Hari Berzins, tinyhousefamily.com, used with permission.

Berzins, who lives in rural Virginia, is the first to admit that living in such a small space would be tougher in an urban setting. Her kids will disappear into the woods for hours, and they tend a large garden. They spend a lot of time as a family outdoors, even in winter, when they bundle up and build large fires on their deck. Outdoor entertaining and living space definitely makes tiny living easier, as does having at least one person in your family who can build things (we have none).

Case in point: Interior designer Jessica Helgerson lives in this immaculate 540-square-foot home on Sauvie Island, just 15 minutes north of Portland with her husband and two children.

Jessica Halgerson opened up living spaces to the roof but left room for a sleeping loft. Photo used with permission.

Photo by Lincoln Barbour, used with permission from Jessica Helgerson Interior Design.

 

Photo by Lincoln Barbour, used with permission from Jessica Halgerson Interior Design.

Photo by Lincoln Barbour, used with permission from Jessica Helgerson Interior Design.

Photo by Jessica Halgerson, used by permission.

Photo by Lincoln Barbour, used with permission from Jessica Helgerson Interior Design.

She combined the living, dining, and kitchen spaces into one “great room” that’s open to the roofline, while leaving space for the parents’ sleeping loft. The built-in sofas double as guest beds, with drawers underneath for kids toys. And my favorite feature of all time is the cleverly designed sliding closet in the kids bedroom. (Because photos like these misguidedly lead me to believe that if only I built a sliding closet, my kid’s room would be this clean too! Paradise is always just one new storage solution away!)

 

Photo from Jessica Halgerson, used with permission.

Photo by Lincoln Barbour, used with permission from Jessica Helgerson Interior Design.

Debra Jordan, whose family of 3 lives in a mortgage-free 320-square-foot shotgun house, says one key to living small is focusing on all the things that you do have. Because she likes to cook and entertain guests, her tiny kitchen holds four cast iron skillets, two soup pots, two crock pots, two full sets of beautiful china, a juicer, assorted baking pans, and 30 pieces of tupperware to help keep things organized.

Photo from Debra Jordan, www.320squarefoothome.com

The living room in the home Debra Jordan shares with her husband, son, and guests. Photo used with permission from Debra Jordan, www.320squarefoothome.com

She made sure the kitchen cabinet was securely fastened to the wall. Photo used with permission from Debra Jordan, www.320squarefoothome.com

She made sure the kitchen cabinet was securely fastened to the wall. Photo used with permission from Debra Jordan, www.320squarefoothome.com

To accommodate overnight guests, she built an ingenious living room sofa bench that folds out into a guest bed. And there’s even a dishwasher hidden underneath.

The sofa bed. Photo used by permission from Debra Jordan, www.320squarefoothome.com.

The sofa folds out to a bed for overnight guests. Photo used by permission from Debra Jordan, www.320squarefoothome.com.

The dishwasher. Photo used with permission from Debra Jordan, www.320squarefoothome.com.

A tiny dishwasher is hidden below. Photo used with permission from Debra Jordan, www.320squarefoothome.com.

So how has downsizing from a 2500-square-foot home affected Jordan’s 13-year-old son? In this video below from www.faircompanies.com, which documents their tiny house renovation that turned his sleeping loft into a full-fledged bedroom, Jordan tells this story:

I remember one of the comments he made after his room was finished. I told him, “Max, you have a cool room now,” and he shook his head and said “No, mom. I had a cool room. I have an upgrade now.” And I felt very proud at that moment. That’s a lesson that you really hope to instill in your child — that of thankfulness and gratefulness.

And at the end of the video, Jordan offers this bit of wisdom about family living in a tiny home:

I don’t know if everybody could make this decision. I highly recommend it. I sleep every night really, really good. We never discuss money. It’s not a topic that comes up. Our life is much more peaceful now. I have learned to cultivate contentment. I’m not thinking about what I want to buy next or how I can increase my earnings. I’m content. I’m very happy and there’s a lot to be said for that.

So when my family had our day of reckoning about whether we would stay put or move, what did we do? We refinanced into a smaller mortgage payment and started counting the days until our four-year-old would be coordinated enough not to fall out of a loft bed. Why?

Because like many people who’ve opted to live in smaller spaces, it gives us flexibility to do other things with our time and money. I wish I could say it has redefined our relationship with stuff, but our basement allows for a lot of overflow. I also wish I could say it has entirely rightsized our budget, but we still have that heinous daycare payment.

We've pared down the pile of toys in our living room to these favorites. Photo by Jennifer Langston

These toys in our living room have won the war of attrition. Photo by Jennifer Langston

It has, most certainly, made me more organized. On the question of whether to pitch or save kids’ artwork, I am an unapologetic tosser. But I’m also sure it has made me a more engaged parent. The lower overhead has allowed me to work a flexible schedule while our daughter was little. Plus, most of her play happens in the middle of our living room. And when my husband and I do argue, we resolve things pretty fast. It’s no fun to be ten feet away from someone you’re really mad at.

For sure, there are minor inconveniences, like the rented scuba regulator that lived on our dining room table for two weeks because there was no other obvious place to put it. Or the lack of a workspace that’s even remotely ergonomical. But here’s the thing: I still like coming home to our little house. I like my family. I want to see them at the end of the day. It’s nice to have them close, in our familiar tight orbit. And it’s weirdly satisfying to survey most of the things you use on a daily basis just by turning in a circle.

So, for now, we’re going to work with what we have, and aspire to have less. And my daughter will continue to wonder how so many oversized toys could go missing in such a small house.

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Comments

  1. Matt the Engineer says:

    I’ve wondered about families in small homes as well. I’d think it wouldn’t be that bad in an urban environment – we may not have the woods to wander in but I find with swim classes, full day preschool, and a social life my family is rarely home anyway.

    I have a tip for art projects: snap pictures of them. Then you can toss them without guilt, and it doesn’t take up a drop of space (except on your hard drive).

    • nicole says:

      Both of my daughters have their own rooms. The 13 year old is now to old for toys, so she has her bed, desk, book case and closet with clothes (she only wears about a 1/4 of that clothing and only two pairs of shoes out of the 10 she has) my 7 year old, never ever ever plays in her room and is always outside on her swing set. In fact, I told her recently, that whatever she didn’t play with by the end of September was being donated. So far…. its just about every single toy she owns. We could totally do the tiny house thing.

  2. Erin says:

    Yurt-living family of four here, with kids 4 and 2 years old. So one 450 square foot room for all of us, plus maybe 80 square feet in a detached washhouse. Chaotic at times, but we love it, and also cook, entertain, and have 2 parents working at home. So we’re all 4 here, nearly all the time. But we do live rural, so can take advantage of a huge outdoor space, garden, unheated storage in sheds and under the yurt for tools and bikes and things.
    It’s not as bad or hard as you think!

  3. Jennifer Langston says:

    I had never thought about taking pictures of artwork. Brilliant!

    • Meg Chadsey says:

      I had the same idea a few years ago, and bought a digital photo frame off of Craigslist, so we could still see the artwork after digitizing it. Of course, that was two years ago, and we still haven’t scanned all the art, but it’s getting near the top of my list! (and the photo frame hasn’t been taking up much space in the meantime…..)

  4. Shannon Tracey says:

    We live in a 814 sq ft house and the biggest challenge isn’t stuff – it’s sound. As our 20-month-old naps less and stays up later in the years to come, it won’t be as much of an issue, but right now we need to be relatively quiet after 8pm so the munchkin can get a good night’s rest. This is easy with just two of us, but makes it a little difficult to entertain friends past bedtime – it’s not as fun to play noise police when socializing, though the other demands of being a working parent mean this is not a huge deal either (ie, we’re tired at night!).

    On the stuff front, though, we also have only two closets and the aesthetics of a 1922 bungalow are not super compatible with floor-to-ceiling wall organizers a la the “my 322 sq ft home” demos at IKEA. Our place was remodeled, not restored, so there are no cute built-in cabinets and it will be some time before we have the free time and money to search for salvage components.

    We love our little “cabin” as we call it, and it’s refreshing to hear that other families find that small spaces support the values and communications styles we aspire to. Since homeownership was never a big dream for me, I’m plenty overwhelmed with the maintenance required for our little place as it is, and I have no interest in paying any more for housing than we do now. Every home has its pros and cons and I think there’s an assumption that everyone would like more space if it were affordable…at least for the next several years I would prefer to afford other things even if more money came our way. We’ll see how we feel when we hit teenagerhood!

    • Jennifer Langston says:

      Have you tried a white noise machine? My 4-year-old still sleeps with one in her room, which opens directly to our living room,and falls asleep to a babbling brook every night. It seems to cut the noise just enough, though sometimes she still comes out and tells us to be quiet. Ours is a Marsona – some of the cheaper baby ones weren’t actually loud enough!

      • Karin says:

        Or try an air purifier, I find that it creates the same amount of “just enough noise” as a baby noise machine. I’ve even become so use to it that when it’s turned off I don’t like the stale quiet. Our kids sleep great with it, and it keeps the air in our tiny place clean!

      • Shannon Tracey says:

        Yes, we have a fan in her room that does work pretty well – I can use my coffee grinder in the morning without waking her up (usually). Just reflecting on my Saturday night, where I met up with a couple of girlfriends (whose kids are also close to 2) and ended up at one of their houses laughing loudly in the front living room, far far away from a sleeping baby in the back bedroom. Right before my husband sent me this article I had been thinking about how we probably couldn’t have ended up at our house – of course we could have but just would have needed to be a tad bit quieter – and I really love that she comes out and tells you to be quiet! Not the end of the world. =)

  5. Sussanne Maleki says:

    would love to hear about living in small spaces with teenagers!

    • holly says:

      if that is all they know, then teenagers will be more fine with it hatn you think, and much more fine with it than plucking one from a few thousand sq ft home to adjusting to that at that age.

    • Shalyn says:

      I had three teenagers, my hubby, and myself in our 1700 sf home. Like Shannon Tracey said, the biggest issue isn’t space, it’s sound. Our house had an open floor plan so all the public spaces are just that-public. We cannot separately entertain-any guests are everyone’s guests and my sons (the teens still living home) do not invite guests because 1. “our house is too small” and 2. “There is not privacy”. Now, I tend to agree BUT-the boys ea have their own (very small) rooms and I would argue that if we had more enclosed “public” rooms, they wouldn’t be so hesitant. So, we do have enough space, although the storage is terrible. 1700 sf is not small but when the public space is just one big room, the bedrooms are only 10×10, and there is very little enclosed storage, then it FEELS small. I wish a person could live in a house for 3-6 months before deciding to buy in order to gauge if the layout, etc would actually work for them .If I could afford it, I know exactly the things I would do to fix this house up to make it more private with better storage but that is not in our budget and won’t be for a long time.
      So, that’s my story with living with teens in a “small”ish house.

  6. Chris Newton says:

    Great topic … smaller houses are seriously under-rated.
    We are a family of five (2 adults, 2girls and 1 boy) and we lived in 600 sqft for five years … we just finished building our new home and moved out this Christmas. Our old house (jokingly referred to by extended family as Newton’s Nutshell) was actually two old, renovated office trailers placed side by side.
    Living in a small space can be challenging but also has its benefits … its very easy to clean! We found it harder as the kids got older (the kids are now 14, 13 and 12) as they all shared a bedroom (10′ x 10′) and privacy became an issue. Also, our 28″x43″ kitchen table which seemed okay five years ago, was getting pretty small to squeeze the family around for meals. We lived in a smaller home because it allowed us to build our current home without a mortgage at a pace that worked for us … it was definitely worth it.
    We just moved into our 1700 sqft home and sometimes do not know what to do with all the space …

  7. Beverly Hall says:

    My husband and I live with our 4 kiddios (age 7 months through 5 years old) in a 650 sq. foot, 2 bedroom quadplex. We have a mortgage payment worth of student loans every month and we always tell friends who ask when we’re going to buy that just as soon as we can afford 2 mortgages we’ll get right on that. We love our tiny apartment. Living close has forced our kids to learn cooperation and sharing from the get go. It does take patience and creativity (I equate it to life-sized Jenga), but honestly I don’t think we would have it any other way. But then I grew up in tiny ranch homes with three adults and two siblings, so it wasn’t a big adjustment for me. When we are ready to buy a house, I don’t foresee getting anything much bigger than what we currently live in. The dream isn’t really more space, just the freedom to do with that space whatever we want and maximize the space we have in a way you just aren’t allowed in a rental space!

    • Beverly Hall says:

      Wow, too much use of the word space. Maybe the dream of ownership should include a thesaurus?

      • Bunnie says:

        And maybe your dream of ownership would include some manners which, ironically, take up less space than a thesaurus.

      • Christopher says:

        It appears to me that she was critiquing herself, not anyone else.

    • Jennifer Langston says:

      I love the “life-sized Jenga” analogy. I know exactly what you mean.

  8. Judy Dailey says:

    My husband and I created a studio apartment (650 sq. ft.) inside our regular-size house last fall to test the idea of living smaller. We love it. We halved our energy costs, spend more quality time together, and still entertain. We live in the city and use the local library, coffee shop, and our urban farm when we need space to spread out. What was planned as a short-term experiment has turned into a great lifestyle.

  9. Adam K. K. Figueira says:

    There’s lots of good ideas here. Thanks!

    My wife and I have lived with six daughters in suburban Utah for almost five years. Our home is about 1100 sq. ft. with 3 bedrooms and one bathroom. It’s not as compact as a lot of the homes out there, but we have eight people trying not to step on each other. We struggled with dining/work space for a long time, especially when I was freelancing from home. Now that I teach high school that’s gotten easier.

    We had to get rid of a beautiful wooden dining table we were given in favor of a folding plastic one. Recently, we traded that in for two side-by-side breakfast nooks that fill one end of our living space. The bench seating against the walls avoids the clutter of chairs, and having two separate tables provides some much-needed separation when the kids are doing homework, coloring, or doing other indoor activities. We actually have more space with the two nooks than we did with the folding table, and less hassle. Plus the benches open for extra storage.

    The only other furniture in the living area is a small futon, two hollow ottomans that we also use for storage, and bookshelves. We have a large shed in the backyard that holds the seasonal stuff.

    The other issue we have with a family our size is laundry, and lots of it. We found we couldn’t put both beds and clothing in the bedrooms, since we have limited closet space, and under the beds goes for toys. We’re still working on this issue, but our current solution is to create a laundry room in the small nook off the kitchen with tupperware bins and drawers for the children’s things. When we have company, we hide the easily-moved tupperware in a bedroom, bring out the folding table and chairs, and we have plenty of room, even for family gatherings with more than 20 people.

    My wife makes her own laundry soap, using a recipe that has cost us around $10/year. Our kitchen features hanging pots and pans to save cupboard space, and wall-mounted dispensers for popular food items like ramen noodles.

    • heidi says:

      Thanks for this. We live in a house that has 1400 sq, 3 bedrooms and 1 bath. We have 4 kids and 2 adults. Often people think we should move to have more space, but we want to teach our kids the value of relationships and proper relation to stuff. Plus we cannot afford anything bigger.

      It is nice to be able to afford a house:-)

      • Leavesheal says:

        Love hearing about families in the Tiny House movement.
        We’re 6 of us, in 950 sq. ft. Bunk beds, floor-to-ceiling shelves in place of dressers, and the flour barrel has a table cloth over the top, to double as end tables.
        Only 7 1/2-foot ceilings, but we make use of it in vertical shelving space.
        I agree that the more attractive prospect is the capacity to alter the home to make it work as the home-owner, debt-free, more than adding square footage. Freedom is more valuable than more space and more stuff. Children who have that wisdom ingrained in them will benefit from it down the road.

  10. Mary says:

    Absolutely wonderful article and it is great to read about people who are happy and can manage in small houses with their kids. And I have to say it makes me wonder why I am so much different.

    I grew up in small apartment with my parents and for many years I had my own bedroom. As times changed and I got two younger siblings I had to give up on my personal space but don’t seem to remember any problems surrounding the subject. Countryside was always ours to explore and I used to do that a lot on my own or with friends. Later we moved into huge house and I loved that even more. Even though big it was very cosy log cabin type house.

    Years have passed and I married and moved to another country. I had son from previous relationship so immediately there was three of us in one bedroom 600sq ft house in suburban area with tiny garden and houses all around us. Moving was not an option as recession hit us hard and we have now no hope for mortgage. still we decided to have a baby…

    We tried to adapt and arrange our lives and living so that we can accommodate family of four into 1 bedroom. As this did not work we decided to give up on the whole bedroom idea for parents and bought a sofa-bed for downstairs lounge/kitchen/dining area. That way kids have their own playing area and we have area what we can cool OUR bedroom even if it that only at night time. Everything seemed ok…

    My husband works shifts what are in constant change and about once a month does night work for 6 days in row. So that means he needs to get some sleep in the morning. But as kids wake up approx the same time as he arrives home, it is inevitable that any sleep is next to impossible when kiddies start playing, banging on the floor just above our bed. Boys are 8 and 2 years old. I have tried to talk them through it that dad needs his sleep but it does not work more often than it does. Now I feel like we are in breaking point as I just don’t know what to do anymore.

    However good or bad the family relationship is or was…everyone needs to have restful sleep and in our case small home just don’t allow for it.

    • Leslie says:

      Try having your husband sleep in the kids’ room once they are up and he comes home from work (just on those days when he needs to). Then the kids can be in the larger space and he can sleep in a quiet room.

      • Christopher says:

        That is exactly what I do when I have to go to work at 0400. My youngest still sleeps in our bed from time to time and I find it nearly impossible to get any sembelance of sleep when that happens, so the moment he jumps in our bed, I kiss him goodnight and we trade beds while my poor wife contends with the tossing-turning-no-body-control 5yr old. :) (and I don’t have to wake her up when I go to work.)

  11. Libby Jones says:

    I live in a 700sq ft home with my husband and two kids (ages 7 and 5). I grew up in a small house in a family of 5 and actually feel much more comfortable in a smaller living space. While it does take some creativity to manage the piles of things that simply accrue as a part of life, it does actually create an environment that forces you (or at least, me) to live a little more mindfully, creatively, and with a better sense of humor. I’m glad to have resources out there to share strategies for small house living with a family and to know we’re not the only ones “shoe-boxing it” (as my friend says).

  12. Laura Porter says:

    It’s my dream to own my own property & home. I’m seriously considering converting a portable cabin(700 sq ft) into a livable space for me& my 2 children. I’m paying the same amount of money in rent that I would be paying for a few acres& the cabin monthly & it would be paid for in less than 5 years& I would OWN it. We currently have 3 nice sized bedrooms& a diningroom in addition to the kitchen, livingroom& bathroom… We spend 90% of our time in the living room. The other rooms are truly a waste of space. Not to mention the cooling/ heating costs of the ” wasted” space! I’m anxious to put my plans into action& I enjoyed reading this article… It’s really encouraging to see other family’s doing the same.

  13. Kenyada says:

    Need some help for my kids have a new homes for Christmas

  14. K23 says:

    Love all the ideas!! I need advice. My husband and i have three kids 5,2, and 8months. We live in a 2 bedroom mobile home and its a tight fit. I was thinking about making the smallest room a guest or private room, and making the living room the kids bedroom.our electric bill wont get out of range with the bedroom blocked off. But wont cps say something or disagree?

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