designed | Architecture
New Frontier Design
Just as minimalism found its moment, now it's the turn of the tiny house movement. Beverley D'Silva explores why, when it comes to dwellings, small is beautiful.
In the world of home design, a revolution is taking place – and its future is tiny. The buzz around the tiny house trend – an architectural and social movement that advocates for downsizing living spaces – is increasing. Witness the nearly 2.5 million Instagram posts with a "tinyhouse" hashtag; a massive internet following and burgeoning number of documentaries and TV series, such as the Netflix show Tiny House Nation, and a series on the subject by UK architect and TV presenter George Clarke.
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One of the most high-profile of the movement's many champions must be Elon Musk, the multibillionaire Tesla chief. Musk upped the tiny-house ante when he rented one in Boca Chica, Texas, while working on his SpaceX venture. "Feels more homey to live in a small house," he tweeted.
In the same way that minimalism and decluttering captured the zeitgeist as a counterpoint to conspicuous consumerism, so too has the tiny house movement found its moment. The idea – that having less space and stuff can create room in our lives for more important things – is an appealing one.
The roots of the tiny house movement can be traced to 19th-Century US naturalist and essayist Henry David Thoreau, whose book Walden (1854) is an inspiring meditation on simple living in natural surroundings. Jay Shafer, the "godfather of tiny houses", spearheaded the modern movement when he built a tiny house on wheels and wrote The Small House Book in 1999. Shafer founded the Tumbleweed Tiny House company, before leaving to focus on social justice and housing rights.
The idea – that having less space and stuff can create room in our lives for more important things – is an appealing one
Tiny house fans champion the dwellings' green credentials: they require less material to build, and are energy-considerate – using around 20 to 30% of the energy of most average UK homes, according to the Tiny Housing Co, a UK firm. They can be fitted with solar panels or wind power, so the owner can live off-grid. Being designed for mobility, they can more easily be sited close to nature. Economical, portable, eco-friendly, community-minded, mortgage-free – what's not to like?
Chris March is the founder of Tiny Eco Homes, in Northumberland in the UK, and has lived for three years in one of his own designs, with pine cladding inside and a cedar porch. At 7m x 2.5m, it has two bedrooms, two storeys and ceilings high enough so that you can walk around upstairs. It's fitted with "everything my son and I need," he says.
The Netflix series Tiny House Nation, which explores the small-home lifestyle, has been a huge hit (Credit: Netflix)
March's company produces around 15 tiny houses a year. Clients include David and Becky Westwood, and son Joss, who bought a standard £50,000 model. Even though a video they made showed Joss's head touching his bedroom ceiling when he stood up, they're delighted with their tiny house, claiming it's "exactly like living in a conventional house". They initially sited it on a campsite, where monthly rent was more than £500, and have since moved it to one of their parents' gardens to live rent-free.
The cost of land can be a key consideration (or stumbling block) in owning a tiny house. March owns the land his one is sited on; he has planning permission for a permanent residence there but says: "I have no intention of ever building a 'normal' house. That could cost me £200,000, but I can spend £60,000 on a tiny house, and have a brand-new home for a third of the cost, so it's a no-brainer."
The cost of a building plot as well as a tiny house can make it prohibitive. Some get around it by siting their house on land owned by family or friends, while others rent land, from a farmer, for example – all also bypassing the need for planning permission. Another way around it is to buy land and change its use to glamping or a small farm. However, March says: "It's virtually impossible [in the UK] to get full planning permission to live in [a tiny house] full-time and site it on a permanent basis."
In the US, the tiny house industry is growing fast (Credit: New Frontier Design)
Lifestyle and values are the main driving forces here: the tiny house territory goes with rethinking what's important, such as strengthening local communities, or preserving the environment; or the desire to spend more time with family or on activities that downsizing allows. Some just love the diminutive, sleek design of their small house. Still, we're talking about a minuscule minority in the UK, where it's estimated only 200 people are living in tiny houses – despite all the interest in them. "Everybody's talking about living in tiny houses," admits March, "but very few are doing it."
Small but perfectly formed
In other countries, it seems the tiny-house industry is moving faster. In the US, it's estimated 10,000 people live in tiny dwellings. "The tiny house movement is growing," Amy Turnbull, director of the American Tiny House, told The Spruce: "As more people advocate their acceptance, more areas will allow them".
David Latimer is CEO and founder of New Frontier Design, which was voted best luxury tiny home builder in The Spruce 2020 awards. David talked to BBC Culture from his studio in Venice Beach, California – restfully minimal in design, with plenty of blond wood and a vista of green plants.
We have seen an explosion in demand [for tiny houses] from people who want to reconnect to nature after being trapped in cities – David Latimer
Latimer launched his company – whose mantra is "live intentionally" – in 2015, at a time when interest in small dwellings was, he says, "going viral". He sells around 12 to 16 tiny houses per year, and his five models start with the Alpha, with a large glass door to let in natural light, and double vanity sinks – "an ideal couple's home". Then there is the luxury Escher, which can sleep six, and has a 10-person dining table and a full-size jacuzzi. His designs are created with an architect, and include appliances that are full-size wherever possible. Space-saving furniture – a vital component in any tiny house – is his speciality.
Compact, space-saving design is important for a small dwelling to be functional (Credit: New Frontier Design)
In 2017, Latimer was selected to build a home for victims of the California wildfires, which was presented to a delighted family on the TV show Good Morning America. Superb coverage for a start-up, but he remains aware of the hurdles he continues to face in this nascent market. "One obstacle is the fact there's no official legal government regulated body… and no credit facility for tiny homes," he says. "And as we know, it's also very prohibitive where you can place them legally."
Latimer's clients are "all ages, and a lot of empty nesters, retiring or downsizing – but the majority are young professionals… they want to get out of the city or at the very least have a place to retreat to". Around half plan to live in their tiny house full-time; others use them as holiday homes or let them. "It's a lifestyle choice. The tiny house moment is a value-driven world." Sustainability is high on many people's values list – "tiny houses have a very small carbon footprint" – boosted by the use of solar and wind power or composting toilets, for example.
And the pandemic has had a marked effect on the market, he says. "We have seen an explosion in demand [for tiny houses] from people who want to reconnect to nature after being trapped in cities." They want the personal and physical, he says, to feel liberated after the confinement of an impersonal, online existence. "This way of living can be so intimate and cosy, comfortable and warm." However, adds Latimer: "Tiny homes are definitely not for everybody. They can demand sacrifices and lifestyle changes to make them work. But most of my clients have done a lot of research before they commit."
A simple life in natural surroundings is more achievable with a small dwelling (Credit: Getty Images)
In spite of potential drawbacks, the movement is moving on apace as small local projects are publicised and shared globally. Such as that of Alan Dall, originally from Scotland, who had been locked in a dispute with his council in Canterbury, New Zealand, over his self-built tiny house – the only home he could now afford to own in his late 50s, he says; after a high-profile case the judge ruled in his favour, which could set a precedent for other owners in the country.
In the UK, exciting initiatives are forging ahead too. The Tiny House Community Bristol, a non-profit community-benefit housing project in the Sea Mills area, has succeeded in getting support from the city's mayor, and the council have collaborated on writing planning law to make the project happen Rachel Butler, founder and director of the organisation, says there are plans for a zero-waste local produce shop, an eco-launderette, plus a workshop space for repairing and making things and a community dining hall.
"The plan is to build between 12 and 15 homes, and significant communal spaces, including kitchen, dining hall, eco-laundrette, workshop etc," says Butler. "We have a commitment to sourcing as much of our resources and labour from our bio-region as possible. Only local tradespeople will be employed."
Meanwhile, Tiny House Scotland is the brainchild of architect Jonathan Avery, who designs and builds micro architecture. Avery's tiny house designs are central to a "village" for the homeless in Scotland, Tiny House Village Edinburgh, launched in Granton, Edinburgh, in May 2018. The Social Bite village provides a low-cost, safe-living environment for up to 20 people for around 12 to 18 months, with support to transition into permanent housing afterward.
Many small-house dwellers enjoy the sense of peace and simplicity afforded by the lifestyle (Credit: New Frontier Design)
Avery's early inspiration came from Japanese architecture, "where tiny apartments exhibited style and practicality in a small footprint". Design-wise, his first consideration is "the finite size, obviously. If it's a THOW (tiny house on wheels) – a weight limit of 3,500kg (550 stone) and maximum length of 7m (23ft) – for it to remain towable and road-legal rather than having to go on a low-loader."
His designs – with green performance central to their concept – have proven so popular that building slots by his company are fully booked up to 2024. Avery is helping to create The Social Bite Village Project in Edinburgh was boosted further when film star Leonardo DiCaprio became involved in the fundraising. A small victory in the scheme of things, maybe, but a giant leap for devotees of the tiny house movement.
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