Why size no longer matters when it comes to your home.
Size no longer matters
There’s an ancillary TV game in our home called ‘Bathroom Bingo’ for viewing house building and renovation programmes like The Block, House Rules and Grand Designs. Before the inevitable walk-through of the plans, you have to shout out the number of bathrooms you think the aspiring homeowner will incorporate into their build. Points given for the correct answer, extra points if that answer is unfeasibly high. Because it seems that a large percentage of modern Western living aspires to enlarge the footprint of everyday homes to palazzo proportions, without heed to true need nor sustainability implications. So when a family of three builds a home with an ensuite in every room plus one extra for guests, that’s seen as the new norm.
Yet a pull in the opposing direction has been building over the past 20 years, in answer to population growth, housing shortages, economic instability, increasing concerns for sustainability, and the “stuffocation” of our consumerist lifestyles.
Originating in the USA, the tiny house movement takes in aspects of architecture, sustainability and social change, and refers to small-footprint homes that are no greater than 37m2 (400 square feet), sometimes off-grid (self-generating power and water supplies), and either on wheels or fixed on a foundation. Appealing to anti-establishment types and regular homeowners looking for a lifestyle change, tiny homes can now be found around the world, as can support organisations like the American Tiny House Association (americantinyhouseassociation.org). Costs range vastly depending on build materials, but according to local blog and information portal weemakechange.co.nz, set up by a Napier-based mechanical design engineer, a basic build comes in at around $20,000.
Similar to the tiny house movement, the small house movement refers to homes that are usually fixed, and are somewhat larger, ranging up to 90m2, often presenting flexible work and income or shared housing options.
Compared to traditional home sizes, both tiny and small house options equate to approximately 18-44 per cent of the typical new New Zealand home. According to Catherine Foster, author of new book Small House
Living: Design- Conscious New Zealand Homes Of 90m2 Or Less (Penguin Random House), the average new-build home in this country is the third largest in the world at 205m2, just behind Australia and the US at 241m2. The growing tiny house and small house movements, however, seek to turn these figures on their head.
“It’s a zeitgeist movement driven by a number of factors coming together, the increasing cost of land values underpinning it all,” says Foster. “Home ownership has gone out of the realm of most buyers. Meanwhile, you have baby boomers downsizing or looking for ways to help the younger generations of the family to build financial and emotional security around a home.”
Little and large
In her book, Foster presents examples that range from compact apartments and homes to baches, studios and modules. “They are all incredibly good examples of addressing different problems or solutions,” says Foster. Stand-outs include Nine Tsubo House in Wellington, an open-plan, two-storey home created by Wiredog Architecture that, despite its diminutive 50m2 size, contains an open-plan living area, kitchen, double bedroom and study, plus closed-off bathroom/laundry, through the use of well-placed windows and clever storage options built into walls and stairs to maximise space from a small footprint.
Similarly, Bachelor Pad in Christchurch, created by CoLab, displays flexible use of space in a narrow 62m2 build. It includes a multifunctional garage that connects to the main living area with intersecting sliding doors for additional entertaining space when needed, and a second bedroom that materialises with concealed sliding doors.
Foster herself recently downsized from her big family house into a very small apartment, so understands the challenges with not just a change in space, but also building constraints. “Not all banks will loan on small houses, and not all councils will allow them within their planning structure,” she advises. “If the banks see a 60m2 home on a 100m2 site as something they don’t want to lend on, then people are stuck.”
Rewriting the rules
These common constraints are something that building designer Malcolm Halley of The Drawing Box and his wife Pauline Mann understand. For most of their homeowner lives, the couple have jointly-owned houses and land with others, as a way of making it financially possible.
“We’re quite relaxed about owning things with other people,” says Halley. “If you can’t borrow a lot of money to build a house, it’s a way for people to get a start and have a bit of an adventure.”
For the past 35 years, Halley and Mann have co-owned a 3.7 hectare piece of land in Northland, on which a kind of village has evolved over time, in which their own 90m2 home sits at the top of a three-apartment building. “We are modelling a more relaxed way of living that translates into a more affordable and richer way of living,” Halley says.
Co-purchased as a way of being able to afford a nice piece of land with beach access, the property is occupied by friends, all of whom have built their own houses there. “The main reason we’re all here is because this way we could afford to do it. When we went to council and said we’d like to get more houses on the land, it seemed like we had to float some label on what we were here, and we didn’t want to be a ‘community’ or an ‘eco village’ as they seem to be set up to be divisive through the sometimes loaded political or ecological contexts people bring to such self-styled ventures. We didn't want that, so we thought ‘art village’ was the truest thing we could say, because some of us have been involved with art practise involving the local community here over the years. We came to understand it was quite a magic term, because artists are sanctioned to live on the edge and break the rules.”
On the property there is also a tiny house called Jandal Cottage that’s currently being used as a therapy room by an occupant, but could eventually become accommodation. “Living in very small spaces, it’s probably a pendulum swing against the kind of conspicuous consumption society has right now,” says Halley.
This is something echoed in recent book Stuffocation, written by British author and futurist James Wallman (Penguin). The thinking, as he explains, is this: “We face a problem in the world today. The runaway success of our throwaway, materialistic culture has led to a situation where millions of us have so much stuff – and record levels of stress and status anxiety – that we are questioning capitalism, concerned about the environment, and feeling stuffocation.” The solution Wallman proposes is to make a cultural switch from materialism to experientialism, “To discard our throwaway culture, and replace it with a new way of living that’s based on the simple truth that the best place to find happiness, identity, status and meaning is not in material goods, but in experiences instead.”
According to a recent Washington Post article, Americans are increasingly choosing to spend on experiences over goods, with sales on travel and restaurants up, as retail sales experience a period of continual decline.
“Living in small spaces, it's probably a pendulum swing against the kind of conspicuous consumptioin society has right now." Malcolm Halley
Small living solutions
Along with offering an antidote to such cultural stuffocation, the tiny house and small house movements also provide emerging urban generations that are already frozen out of the property market, with an alternate living option in popular cities.
Increasingly, large global home brands like Ikea and Muji have begun to explore economical compact living solutions. Swedish flatpack furniture expert Ikea has produced a number of concept prototypes for small living spaces, and has partnered with architectural firms in Sweden and the US to create small kitset house projects with minimal footprints of around 70m2.
Compact living is already popular in Japan’s large cities, so it’s little surprise that local clothing and homeware brand Muji recently invited three of the world’s leading designers to envision small houses. The Cork Hut (01) by Jasper Morrison, the Aluminium Hut
(02) by Konstantin Grcic, and the Wooden Hut (03) by Naoto Fukasawa are simple open-plan concept structures that are expected to inform the company’s launch of prefabricated compact homes in the future.
“There’s a new demographic of people who’re asset rich but cash poor, everything they earn goes into propping it all up,” concludes Halley. “A tiny house says that you are not really into owning things but more into experiences.”