tiny homes

In an era of soar­ing prop­erty prices and eco panic, the tiny house move­ment has plenty to rec­om­mend it, and for those want­ing to sam­ple the ex­pe­ri­ence, ru­ral ex­am­ples have popped up all over the coun­try. Laura Wal­ters and Katie Kenny stay in one for two n

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As we draw the blinds, fold up the kitchen ta­ble, and un­fold the sofa bed af­ter our first day in the tiny house, we come across a hard­cover book in the of­fice nook, above the bar fridge: Hide­aways: Where New Zealan­ders Es­cape.

On the cover is the colo­nial-themed cot­tage we’re sit­ting in. The pages, writ­ten by Hi­lary Ngan Kee and il­lus­trated by Sam Stuch­bury, pro­vide a glimpse into quin­tes­sen­tial Kiwi es­capes: moun­tain huts, coastal baches, river­side cribs, and con­verted si­los.

“The book ex­plores what a hide­away is and what it means to dif­fer­ent peo­ple who stay there, and those who own them,” Stuch­bury says. “We chose a wide range of places across New Zealand, and we found they all had a very Kiwi sense of prac­ti­cal­ity about them. They all had their own flavour, and styling.

“One, called Fos­sick­ers’ Hut, had a gold min­ing theme. An­other in the hills above Ti­maru was more like a hun­ters’ hut.”

The sur­round­ing scenery was a big fac­tor in the con­struc­tion and de­sign of the huts, he says. “They were in­flu­enced by our Kiwi land­scape and en­vi­ron­ment. A lot used lo­cal tim­ber and other ma­te­ri­als. And, purely down to how much the own­ers put them­selves into the build­ing process, their Ki­wi­ness re­ally comes through.

“In Fos­sick­ers’ Hut, for ex­am­ple, the cur­tains were held back by bent forks.”

For the busy, city-dwelling cou­ple, the year-long project “re­in­forced we don’t want to be liv­ing in the city for­ever,” Stuch­bury says. “You feel calmer and more hu­man out of the city, or I do, any­way.”

Cramped liv­ing spa­ces are part of Kiwi her­itage; from those 19th-cen­tury gold­min­ing huts, to shear­ers’ quar­ters, and hun­ters’ huts. There’s our fond­ness for baches, which were tra­di­tion­ally small (what’s a bach with­out bunk beds?) and made from re­cy­cled ma­te­ri­als.

Then there’s Ki­wis’ love of car­a­vans, which re­mains alive and well. Last month, al­most 19,000 peo­ple flocked to a mo­torhome expo in Auck­land, where more than 280 mo­torhomes and car­a­vans were sold in three days. The event’s or­gan­iser de­scribed the RV (recre­ational ve­hi­cle) life­style as “boom­ing”.

Per­haps this is also why the tiny house move­ment is so pop­u­lar in New Zealand – it’s a nat­u­ral fit. But open­ing the door of a cabin to acres of green­ery is quite dif­fer­ent from open­ing the same door in the mid­dle of a city. Those who live in in­ner-city apart­ments are likely to dream about hav­ing more space, rather than less.

Al­though there are no set di­men­sions, the tiny house la­bel is some­times ap­plied to homes smaller than 48 square me­tres. Keith Love­lock, who built and owns the tiny house we stayed in, says a tiny house is “about car­a­van size”.

Fans have linked the move­ment’s ori­gins in the United States to the “orig­i­nal de­clut­terer”, Henry David Thoreau, and his cabin at Walden Pond where he wrote Walden – his guide to happy liv­ing – pub­lished in 1854.

In 1987, Lester Walker pub­lished the book Tiny Houses: Or How to Get Away From It All, fea­tur­ing pho­to­graphs and draw­ings of projects like an 18sqm pre­fab house and a 5sqm shack built on a raft.

The 2008 global fi­nan­cial cri­sis gave the move­ment an­other boost, and since then it’s re­mained rel­e­vant as an af­ford­able means of home­own­er­ship, and for sig­nalling eco-friend­li­ness and re­strained con­sumerism.

Colleen Hawkes, a jour­nal­ist with Stuff’s Homed web­site, writes: “The tiny house move­ment is a byprod­uct of hip­piedom. Painted car­a­vans, com­mu­nal liv­ing and a tem­po­rar­ily opt­ing out of the main­stream were all very well in the 60s and 70s, but this move­ment goes a whole lot fur­ther – the devo­tees are spend­ing up big time.” But it’s a fad, she con­tin­ues. “It is not a so­lu­tion to our cur­rent hous­ing cri­sis.”

But James Innes, who lives in a con­verted 23sqm ship­ping con­tainer in East­bourne, Welling­ton, with his wife Kim­berly An­drews, would dis­agree. “We’re twoand-a half years in and still re­ally happy,” Innes says.

The co-own­ers of Tum­ble­weed Tees – a T-shirt de­sign and screen-print­ing com­pany with con­ser­va­tion part­ner­ships – work from an­other ship­ping con­tainer on the same site.

At a time when the pop­u­la­tion is grow­ing in the main cen­tres, and the av­er­age house price in Auck­land

“Painted car­a­vans and tem­po­rar­ily opt­ing out of the main­stream were all very well in the 60s and 70s, but this move­ment goes a whole lot fur­ther – the devo­tees are spend­ing up big time.”

and Welling­ton is $1.06 mil­lion and $644,567 re­spec­tively, young, mid­dle-class pro­fes­sion­als are des­per­ately look­ing for a way to get a foot onto the prop­erty ladder.

Tiny houses take smart de­sign, high-grade ma­te­ri­als, and are of­ten more ex­pen­sive per square me­tre than other dwellings, but over­all they’re sig­nif­i­cantly cheaper than the tra­di­tional Kiwi home.

Innes and An­drews – whose to­tal bud­get, from earth­works to engi­neer­ing to trans­port, was less than $100,000 – were mo­ti­vated by a de­sire to live more sus­tain­ably. “You’ve got more of an en­vi­ron­men­tally small foot­print just be­ing in a small space,” Innes ex­plains. “It’s less to heat and fewer ma­te­ri­als go into mak­ing it.”

As renters, they also wanted a struc­ture that was semi-re­mov­able. “So if we do get kicked off this land, we could pick up our house and move it.”

Innes sees “mod­u­lar” build­ing as a way of hav­ing a home tai­lored to their cur­rent life-stage, so they can avoid the trap of buy­ing some­thing too big sim­ply for its po­ten­tial re­sale value. When they have chil­dren, he says, he plans to add an­other con­tainer, or “mod­ule”, to their home. “Even if we were to sell this and start again some­where else, I think we would def­i­nitely be into build­ing small.”

Tucked away in the back­blocks of the Ran­git kei re­gion, is the colo­nial-themed tiny house we called home for two nights ear­lier this month. The small wooden shed-turned-tiny-re­treat sits on a trailer atop a hill on the fam­ily’s 40 hectare farm.

A quick flick through the guest­book shows peo­ple come for all kinds of rea­sons: to learn more about build­ing tiny houses, to ex­pe­ri­ence the coun­try­side, but mostly for an off-the-grid get­away.

Some of the vis­i­tors to the tiny house, which mea­sures just 3 me­tres by 5m, have come from as far away as China, France and the UK; oth­ers have trav­elled 10 min­utes from Mar­ton.

Love­lock says many of his guests are “the bolt­hole, let’s-get-away-out-of-Welling­ton types”.

“Peo­ple from the dig­i­tal world come here and they re­alise there’s no wi-fi and no TV and their cell phones don’t work. And they have to drop all that stuff, re­lax, and step out of the mod­ern world.”

Vis­i­tors tell him the place “sort of en­velops you, it’s like the tiny house is giv­ing you a big hug”.

He also sees the move­ment as a way of re­liev­ing the hous­ing cri­sis: rather than build­ing one house on a quar­ter acre, de­vel­op­ers and the Govern­ment should be build­ing up to a dozen tiny houses on a quar­ter-acre, in what would be­come a “tiny com­mu­nity”.

Na­tional Party hous­ing spokesper­son Ju­dith Collins isn’t con­vinced. The 59-year-old Auck­lan­der says she couldn’t fit all her clothes in a tiny house, let alone live in one, but un­der­stands the at­trac­tion for younger peo­ple, or those look­ing for an af­ford­able or easy-toman­age space.

Small spa­ces will suit cer­tain peo­ple, with cer­tain life­styles, at cer­tain stages, she says, and while there should be the choice to live in a very small house, the size of a house should not be dic­tated by pol­icy.

Many Ki­wis to­day are used to grow­ing up with their own bed­room, and plenty of per­sonal space, as well as gen­er­ous sec­tions. Collins says New Zealand will have to come to terms with the idea of hav­ing less space, and less pri­vacy, if it moves to­wards higher-den­sity hous­ing.

Hous­ing Min­is­ter Phil Twyford de­clined to be in­ter­viewed for this ar­ti­cle.

A 2017 study, pub­lished in the Jour­nal of Cross-cul­tural Psy­chol­ogy, found peo­ple from dif­fer­ent coun­tries have dif­fer­ent sized “per­sonal bub­bles” and a vary­ing need for pri­vacy. Those from Ro­ma­nia pre­fer strangers to keep the most dis­tance, but are com­fort­able hav­ing friends get close, while those from Ar­gentina have the small­est bub­bles. Peo­ple from coun­tries like Rus­sia, which have a his­tory of com­mu­nal liv­ing, have less need for per­sonal pri­vacy, and are com­fort­able be­ing close to those they know.

While New Zealand wasn’t in­cluded in the study, peo­ple from com­pa­ra­ble cul­tures, such as those from the UK and Canada, fall some­where in the mid­dle.

Lin­coln Univer­sity se­nior lec­turer of en­vi­ron­men­tal and so­cial psy­chol­ogy Dr Gary Steel says Ki­wis are used to hav­ing space inside their house and out­side their back door.

“Not only have [Ki­wis] got a larger bub­ble space, but you have this abil­ity to move out – to go out into the big­ger ru­ral space. Ki­wis haven’t nec­es­sar­ily de­vel­oped a set of tools for what hap­pens when you’re not just rid­ing in an el­e­va­tor, but liv­ing in one.”

Crowd­ing is a per­cep­tual con­struct – it’s not some­thing you mea­sure by the num­ber of peo­ple per space, Steel says. Cou­ples and fam­i­lies liv­ing in tiny houses can face the detri­men­tal psy­cho­log­i­cal ef­fects of feel­ing crowded,

“Not only have Ki­wis got a larger bub­ble space, but you have this abil­ity to move out – to go out into the big­ger ru­ral space. Ki­wis haven’t nec­es­sar­ily de­vel­oped a set of tools for what hap­pens when you’re not just rid­ing in an el­e­va­tor, but liv­ing in one.”

which can lead to higher lev­els of stress, and there is some ev­i­dence for higher lev­els of ag­gres­sion.

Steel, whose area of ex­per­tise is the psy­chol­ogy of peo­ple liv­ing in cap­sules like po­lar sta­tions or space sta­tions, of­ten refers to a pres­sure-cooker anal­ogy.

“The same things hap­pen in a pres­sure-cooker as hap­pen in a nor­mal en­vi­ron­ment, ex­cept they hap­pen faster. So things are bump­ing to­gether a lit­tle bit more of­ten; you no­tice things about the other per­son that much quicker; that much more of­ten.”

These is­sues with crowd­ing and pri­vacy are ex­ac­er­bated when the peo­ple liv­ing to­gether aren’t com­pat­i­ble – if they have dif­fer­ent sleep­ing pat­terns, lev­els of clean­li­ness, or tidi­ness.

But there are ways of de­sign­ing tiny houses to help limit the feel­ing of crowd­ing or claus­tro­pho­bia, he says, such as in­clud­ing light colours and clean lines to make the space seem less clut­tered, and us­ing cur­tains and blan­kets to dampen sounds and re­duce echo­ing. Adding as many win­dows as pos­si­ble also stops the poky lit­tle cup­board ef­fect.

“That also gives us views to the out­side, which is great, as long as those views to the out­side are worth look­ing at. If your view is of the neigh­bour’s fence, or the neigh­bour them­selves, then that’s not such a good thing,” he says.

We are lucky, then, that for the du­ra­tion of our stay in Love­lock’s tiny house, the weather is clear and sunny. Ev­ery morn­ing, wo­ken by bird­song, we haul open the win­dows, hook back the front door, and take our break­fast out onto the deck. We could live like this, we tell each other, as we read on the couch or sway gen­tly in the ham­mock. Our phones, wher­ever they are, are dead, fol­low­ing their long and fruit­less search for sig­nal.

For Ki­wis who can af­ford to live or stay in a tiny house with a beau­ti­ful back­drop, a spa­cious sec­tion, or a nearby greenspace – as we have for gen­er­a­tions – this move­ment makes sense. But there are warn­ings of a dystopian ur­ban­i­sa­tion, where those with less are forced to live in small spa­ces, with­out the abil­ity to es­cape the view of a con­crete wall, or get away into na­ture.

“What we com­monly see with the tiny houses in these glossy mag­a­zines, is they are parked out in the mid­dle of nowhere, with this gor­geous moun­tain vista, and a lake in the dis­tance, on the edge of the ocean,” Steel says. “And the rea­son they are there is be­cause then peo­ple can look out, and they can get out.”

There are ways of de­sign­ing tiny houses to help limit the feel­ing of crowd­ing, such as in­clud­ing light colours and clean lines to make the space seem less clut­tered.

Na­tional Party’s hous­ing spokesper­son Ju­dith Collins says tiny houses might suit some peo­ple’s life­styles, but she has far too many clothes to down­size that much.

Au­thor of Hide­aways Sam Stuch­bury says tiny houses are like dogs, in that they of­ten re­sem­ble their own­ers.

To record an episode of their Su­per­fad pod­cast, re­porters Laura Wal­ters and Katie Kenny re­lo­cated to a tiny house in Mar­ton, north of Welling­ton.

Lit­tle Port Cooper Ole School House in Banks Penin­sula dates back to 1883. It proudly boasts “no mod cons”.

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