Forced to choose between paying student loans or their mortgage, the financially strapped Kasl family chose to kick the mortgage. With her husband and two children, Kim Kasl says she relied on “a ridiculous prayer” for a house they wouldn’t have to make payments on. Instead, more realistically, the family’s heart shifted toward minimalism. They discovered the idea of living in a tiny house. “This was before it was mainstream,” Kim says.
You’ve probably heard about it: families across the country embracing the recent trend of living in miniature homes. The Kasls are among many to gravitate toward the dramatic downsize. Television shows detailing the tiny lifestyle include 2014’s Tiny House Hunters and Tiny House, Big Living. Over the past five years, more and more people have gone small, often for the same reasons: getting rid of unnecessary possessions, saving money, and reducing their carbon footprint.
Three years ago, the crew of another TV series, Tiny House Nation, built a tiny house in a southern Minnesota city for the Kasl family. The Kasls transitioned from 2,000 square feet down to 207. They had to give away their collection of funky retro couches (they live on in photos), and the family dynamics changed. “You are physically right in each other’s face all the time,” Kim says, “so you have to address things and take care of them pretty quickly.” People commented on how close her children became. Her marriage, Kim says, became better than ever. “We’re not only making it work,” she says, “we’re thriving.”
It turns out St. Paul likes the tiny house idea, too. The city is putting the trend to the test here in Minnesota in the Payne–Maryland area, developed in collaboration with St. Paul-based Alchemy Architects—the firm that launched the weeHouse in 2003. The set-up, still in the works as the city deals with zoning rules and finalizes land acquisition, will be a village of weeHouses.
Although based on the same minimalist philosophy espoused by the Kasls, weeHouses are not your typical tiny homes. Betsy Gabler, part of the Alchemy team working on the St. Paul village, says the two are similar but serve different purposes. Tiny houses, she says, are “300–400 square feet, on wheels, that you can move around.” The weeHouses, in contrast, are around 1,500 square feet. Prefabricated, they’re placed on a site after they’re built. They aren’t designed to move, but they can be stacked atop one another.
In the St. Paul space designated for the village, workers are still adding driveways, parking access, and surrounding green space. The village is part of a larger economic development plan for the Payne–Maryland area that also includes a library, a community center, and infrastructure changes. The village will help make St. Paul more eco-friendly, since weeHouses have a smaller impact on the environment.
Aside from the environment, affordability is a major consideration. Tiny houses were originally popular on the East and West coasts, where the high cost of living made less square footage and little to no mortgage appealing. But post-recession Minnesotans such as the Kasls have felt the pressure, too. Ryan Ott, of tiny house–building company Midwest Tiny Living, predicts the tiny-house interest explored by St. Paul will continue growing across the state.
After all, there are some unique Minnesota perks to tiny living. Tiny homes can serve as weekend getaways—think small, mobile lakeside cabins. For Minnesotans who share a love of urban areas and the outdoors, that’s huge.
The Kasls, for instance, found a beautiful lakeside lot in southern Minnesota. It was too small for a regular-sized house but perfect for their little residence. Now, their entire outdoor property feels like their house. “We say we live outside,” Kim says. “We refer to ‘upstairs’ as up the hill to our car, and ‘downstairs’ as down by the dock.”
Although they love their tiny house, the Kasls are not sure they will stay there forever. “We don’t have to be die-hard tiny housers—if we really need to, we can bust out,” says Kim. “I don’t want to put a limit on it or define our future.”
Whether you want to admire from afar or take the plunge into tiny living for yourself, the Kasls’ social media is available for inspiration. “Family-style minimalism is about abundance,” Kim says. “It’s not about little and small; it’s about good, big, and awesome.”
By Justine Perez