Encouraging Development of Smaller Homes

Small and micro homes help keep housing prices affordable, require fewer materials to build and lower utilities to live comfortably, and encourage living with less “stuff.”

The movement towards smaller housing choices help to increase equity and potentially lower the ecological footprint of residents by offering a wider variety of housing options including small homes, very small homes, and micro-housing. The average size of newly built American and Canadian homes is now 2,600 ft2 and 1,950 ft2, respectively.

Small houses are defined as homes below the average square footage and larger than 1,150  ft2. These homes are generally standard homes with front and backyards. Very small houses range between 300 ft2 and 1,150ft2 and include standard homes, cluster cottages, courtyard housing, and yurts. Micro-housing is defined as homes smaller than 300 ft2 and includes the styles listed above as well as micro-apartment buildings, mobile tiny houses, and container homes. Micro-housing units may have their own bathroom or kitchen or have access to communal bathroom and kitchen facilities.

Smaller homes are enhanced when clustered to enable shared space and amenities, and also when they offer connection to the outdoors, such as shared gardens, patios, courtyards and parks. Further, micro-housing works best in areas where transit service is robust enough that residents don’t need cars, since parking is a major concern in areas with significant density increases.

Value Proposition for Sustainable Consumption

Like other small housing options, micro-housing and smaller homes specifically promote sustainable consumption in several ways:

  • Smaller-sized units require fewer materials to build and lower consumption of public utilities like water, gas, and electricity than traditional single-family homes or condominiums;
  • Similarly,  “very small homes” (<1,150 sq.ft.) produce 36% less lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions than “standard homes”[1] (2,262 sq. ft.);
  • Smaller-sized units create a cap on the amount of material goods that residents can fit into their homes, encouraging them to acquire fewer possessions and share tools, equipment and other material goods.
  • Small homes and micro-housing can help cities meet the growing demand for affordable housing while also keeping housing prices low.

Potential City Roles

  • Adjust Policies—Offer subsidies and accessible financing, density bonuses and fee waivers; waive burdensome development standards such as minimum parking, square footage and lot size requirements. Consider creating a zoning use designation specifically for micro-housing, yurts, and other forms of smaller housing.
  • Support & Educate—Provide information and technical assistance regarding small homes and micro-housing to developers and the public.
  • Incentivize—Offer subsidies and accessible financing, density bonuses, and fee waivers for micro-housing and small home development.

Implementation Challenges and Potential Solutions

  • Parking requirements[2] may restrict homeowners or developers from building if their site lacks the square footage needed to accommodate required parking spaces. Updating the City code with exemptions for off-street parking for smaller homes or micro-housing or eliminating minimum parking requirements completely are potential solutions for this issue.
  • Minimum square footage requirements or minimum lot size requirements—Many cities require either a minimum square footage per resident or a minimum square footage for at least one room in a dwelling unit. Likewise, some cities may require minimum lot sizes per unit. The intention is to prevent overcrowding; however, it also severely restricts the possibilities for smaller homes and micro-housing. To mitigate this barrier, perform a code scan and advocate to reduce minimum square footage (per unit) and minimum lot size requirements for buildings.
  • Infill development—Portland, Oregon is addressing both housing size and affordability through its proposed Residential Infill Development Project. The proposal would allow more housing units to be built in residential neighborhoods, but only if they follow new limits on the size of new buildings. New rules are proposed for 1) scale of houses: smaller houses that better fit existing neighborhoods, 2) housing options: more housing options for people’s changing needs, and 3) narrow lots: clear and fair rules for narrow lot development.


In 2014, the City of Seattle[3] found that rent costs in micro-housing were 48% of the cost of traditional studio apartments. In the early 2010’s Seattle experienced a boom in micro-apartment construction, which sparked concerns including loss of parking and fire safety from some neighbors, while others expressed support for higher density’s contribution to vibrant neighborhoods and lower housing costs.

Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality’s Green Building Program has performed research that shows small residential buildings have 36% lower lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions than standard sized homes. See the slideshow below for more details.

Small Homes: Environmental Benefits and Trends from Oregon Department of Environmental Quality

Further Resources

  1. Smaller Homes: Benefits, Trends and Policies. Oregon DEQ
  2. ADUs and Don’t’s. Sightline Institute
  3. Proposed micro-housing & congregate residences legislation. City of Seattle, Department of Planning and Development. May 15, 2014.