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
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”.