How Tiny Houses are hitting big in the UK
We’re in a peculiar situation, housing-wise. Fashion and lifestyles seem to be increasingly dictating larger and larger living spaces, yet escalating costs mean that this is becoming less and less attainable. Never is this more the case than in the urban environment, and in particular London, where the price of housing surpassed sensible parameters years ago and is now, frankly, ludicrous.
Last year Zoopla, the online property search engine, reported that a two-bedroom flat for less than £1000 per month was only a realistic proposition in two London boroughs — Havering and Bexley — both of which graze the borders of the Greater London area.
Not a month seems to go by when the news reports the latest massively overpriced property in our fair capital, our favourites being the tiny ex-council flat which went on the market for a cool £1.15 million back in May, or the £280k ‘detached’ that looks suspiciously like a garden shed.
50,000 new houses would have to be built in London each year to keep up with demand, and clearly this is problematic.
The Tiny House movement sprung up in America in 1997. As much philosophical as it is practical, Tiny Housers are masters at living in minimal square footage, in highly-thought-out and well-engineered spaces. By refining their living quarters to an area which is quite literally the size of a large shed on wheels (400 square feet), they are truly dispensing with the unnecessary. As Ross Beck at Tumbleweed Homes (whose founder is credited with spearheading the current movement) dryly notes, people who own Tiny Houses ‘want conversation and collaboration and contribution and participation. I have never met one that went to a mall or an Ikea store for fun.’
There’s a certain romanticism of attaching a house to the back of your car and wheeling it away to live in the semi-wilderness, and while this might be possible in the expansive landscape of America, it clearly isn’t viable on our more populated isle.
The main difficulty in a UK context is planning permission. Anyone who’s ever contemplated building works will be familiar with the often draconian rules, and — though it varies from council to council, area to area — the rule of thumb is you can’t just build a house where there’s space, even if you own the land you’re proposing to build on. The strictness of these rules may be infuriating, but if you’ve ever lived anywhere without a coherent zoning policy, you’ll understand why it is important: chaotic building makes for a frankly disjointed community.
All this said, there is a future for the Tiny House in the UK, and not in a rent-a-closet-for-2k-a-month kind of way. Any advocate of micro housing talks about it being a mental shift. It is about re-evaluating your stuff and your relationship to it and focusing more on experiences rather than possessions. Clearly this isn’t for everyone, but for a small percentage, smaller housing can be freeing. And, as Mark Burton from Tiny Houses UK points out, that small percentage is still quite a large number.
Burton, a builder by trade was, like many, hit hard by the credit crunch and found himself downsized — almost literally overnight — to a two-bed flat from a more capacious family home. It was a clarifying experience, and after two years he realised that a lot of his space was in fact being used to store things that he didn’t really need. Like many things borne of necessity, his idea has blossomed into a successful business and he’s now selling Tiny House kits and the tiny houses themselves. The phone, he says, seems to be constantly ringing.
‘Yes, yes!’ we hear you cry. ‘All this is fabulous, but it’s not very realistic for us city-dwellers, is it?’ Well, in a word, no. Not if you’re committed to city dwelling in a traditional sense. The problem with Tiny Houses is that in spite of their size, if you’ve nowhere to put one, you might as well be planning a mansion a minor royal would consider, and we’re pretty sure that you’re not going to be able to park up your own micro mansion in the grounds of Kensington Palace.
Consider this, though. What if you could use a Tiny House in the short term as a way of saving money in order to save up for that ever-elusive house deposit? What if — when you were a university student — you could have had the option to get a mortgage on a tiny house, pay it off over the course of your studies and graduate, debt-free (and possibly even with a bit of cash in your pocket with which you could use as a deposit on a real, live pile of bricks and mortar)? The idea has already been embraced in the States, with the case of several students living in tiny dwellings hitting the headlines, as well as students designing and building these tiny homes as part of university courses.
What we can all take from this movement is that in the race to keep up with the latest technologies and trends we can lose sight of ourselves in the midst of all the clutter it creates. What wisdom the Tiny House can impart is a more thoughtful approach to filling our living spaces: like all well-designed buildings, the space is considered and curated. Whatever the size of your dwelling, this is something anyone can do. As Ross notes: ‘Tiny House living isn’t about the physical sorting of how many things you have into a smaller space, it’s about clarifying your values and needs’. Can’t say fairer than that.
Originally published at boxman.co.uk on August 18, 2015.