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Tiny Cabins and the Joy of Existing with Less

Photos By : Jonathan LaFerrara

The small living movement is capturing hearts across the world.
The Creative Cabin has low maintenance weathered “corten” steel, which eliminates the need for painting and if exposed to the elements, develops a rusted appearance. Photo credit: Mitch Allen.

Jessica Welter sinks back into her muted blue, mid-century modern loveseat that backs up against a full floor-to-ceiling glass wall. She can see every inch of her entire cabin from where she’s sitting — an indoor/outdoor 300-square-foot living space that is designed to capture as much natural light as possible. The cabin’s style is warm and rustic with modern accents — a thoughtfully designed space — and unabashedly tiny.

Jessica is one of the many who have decided to go really small, a big trend around the world, especially in the Nordic countries. The craze has garnered unprecedented attention thanks to tiny home television shows like Tiny House Hunters on Discovery+, or Tiny House Nation on Netflix, among over a dozen more programs focused on this topic. Domestically, these residences are popping up across the country, captivating people with their novel approach not only to housing, but also to life. Once considered little more than a charming oddity, tiny cabins continue to gain momentum among those who thirst for a simpler, “greener,” more meaningful life in the face of society’s” more is better” mindset.

One of Getaway’s one-bedroom tiny cabins.

So what is the difference between a tiny home, and a tiny cabin? Tiny homes most often have wheels, and are legally considered a recreational vehicle; tiny cabins are on a foundation, and are legally considered an accessory dwelling unit, or ADU.  Typically, both styles are labeled tiny if the living area is less than 400 square feet, as determined by The International Building Code. The average tiny residence size is just 186 square feet.

“I have a 2,000-square-foot house in Monterey County that is close to work,” Jessica says. “It’s the house that I would consider my main home but since COVID hit I’ve been staying here in my tiny cabin overlooking the woods and it feels like my primary residence now. It used to be a quick retreat for me, one that I would escape to once or twice a year if I was lucky. More often than not I found myself too busy to get away from Monterey. The rest of the time I Airbnb and VRBO-ed it out to guests. Over the past two years though I’ve spent many more months here than I have in my Monterey home. I just love it and this cozy space is all I need.”

Tiny cabins like Jessica’s are less expensive to build and then maintain compared to the upkeep of a 2,301-square-foot home — the average size of a single-family dwelling in the U.S. — due to its reduced size and resources needed, and significantly reduced carbon footprint. The downside though, is that it still isn’t easy to legally build tiny cabins for full-time use. Zoning laws and building codes require a minimum square footage for new-construction homes that is greater than the maximum tiny cabin size, and progress to reduce that square footage is slow.

For Mark Turner, Owner of design build firm GreenSpur in Falls Church, Virginia, and his team, they get approached to design tiny cabins on a weekly basis. “We have always been interested in smaller structures. The reduced scale means less maintenance, costs, energy use, the benefits go on and on,” he says. “But what I really love is that small structures allow you to focus on the experience outside the home, in nature, and also provide a human-scaled refuge when needed.”

According to Mark the appetite for these structures was already there pre-COVID, but demand has increased significantly since 2019. Much of what GreenSpur is building now are detached structures in suburban backyards, or smaller retreats in nature further outside the city. Prefabricated Structural Insulated Panels (or SIPS) that are certified by the Sustainable Forestry initiative can make up the “shell” of the structure, which means a cabin can be assembled in a matter of hours, reducing time onsite and saving the owner money.

Small cabins can be equipped with the comforts of home with room for kitchens and dining areas.

For those who want to skip all of the responsibilities of building and owning a tiny cabin, then companies like Getaway offer guests an opportunity to hunker down in one and recharge for just a few days. Getaway’s cabins are located less than two hours outside of major cities and can be reserved by the night.

Getaway’s million-dollar idea: build tiny cabins, place them in nature and make them easily accessible to stressed-out people looking to escape and rejuvenate. The first Getaway cabin, the Ovida, was built in the summer of 2015 and arrived in southern New Hampshire outside of Boston shortly after. Since then it has rarely had a vacant night. The Getaway idea resonated immediately.

One of Getaway’s one-bedroom tiny cabins.

Today the company offers escapes to these tiny cabins where guests may unplug and enjoy some solitude and peace in nature at its various outposts outside of Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Charlotte, Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, Nashville, New York, Pittsburgh, Portland, Raleigh, San Antonio and Washington, D.C.

The custom-built tiny cabins range from 140–200 square feet and come with most of what’s needed for a simple retreat: heat and air conditioning, a queen-sized bed or queen bunks, a two-burner stove, mini-fridge, sink, toilet, hot shower, outdoor fire pit, mini-library and a mobile phone lockbox to encourage disconnection. The cabins have limited cell phone reception and no WiFi for that same reason, though a landline is provided in the cabin in case of emergencies. The Getaway team is also available 24/7 by text, calls or email throughout the stay.

A Getaway cabin. The big window allows for a feeling of sleeping in nature.

It’s a great option for anyone looking for refuge, as Jessica has found. “The effects of the pandemic on my company’s working structure has allowed me to work remotely,” she says. “It’s a situation that most people, at least at first glance, would jump on in a heartbeat. But working from my kitchen table didn’t provide me with the mental separation I needed, or ability to completely focus on my work. Having the tiny cabin to escape to established a work/life peace within me, with very little of the upkeep needed on a ‘second home.’ It’s been a lifesaver.”

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