Imagine you’ve just bought a house. There’s two, den-like bedrooms, a kitchen fitted with Lisbon-style patterned tiles and a spacious shower that you can spin around in. It’s in a fancy postcode in a major city.
It also cost £50K.
No, we’re not taking you on a time trip back to 1952. This is a tiny house, one build in a small, but climbing movement of people ditching the traditional housing market and moving to low energy-use, low mortgage homes - that just so happen to be under 500 square feet.
As the housing crisis continues to crunch, deposits become nigh on impossible to accrue (the average first-time buyer put-down was £32,899 in the first six months of 2017, according to research from the Halifax bank) and the prospect of living a life that’s more agile becomes ever more alluring, these little dwellings are breaking out.
About for decades (the first tiny house building company was founded in California in 1999) uptake rose with the 2008 financial crash. Latterly, documentaries such as 2015′s Small is Beautiful: A Tiny House Documentary and 2012′s We The Tiny House People have sharpened the gaze on this lifestyle. While, like most trends, the movement began in the sun-drunk state, people here in the UK have, slowly, cottoned on.
“I first saw some that were in the US on YouTube and I wanted one for myself,” Chris March, founder and director of Northumberland-based tiny house builders Tiny Eco Homes UK tells HuffPost UK. “I was doing bespoke catering trailers and mobile bars, so I had experience with building work. I started building tiny homes in 2008 and I’ve never stopped.”
He used the first one, which was 128 square feet with one bedroom, a bathroom and a kitchen, himself, and as an example for other people who may be interested. It wasn’t his sole abode, instead, it was used as extra space at the bottom of his garden. “The beauty is, when you build from scratch, you can build exactly how you want,” he says. On average, Chris’ homes are between £45-50k. “They start from £25k, but by the time you’ve added all the extras you’ll want for something you’ll be happy with for over 30 years...”
Some tiny houses are static, like cabins, and some are on wheels, more like a souped-up caravan. They can be fully plumbed or use composting loos and can connect to the grid or be fully self sufficient, using solar power.
So. Potentially idyllic, for the whole ‘get away from the rush of modern life,’ dream. But what are they like to actually live in? Mark Burton, owner of Surrey-based tiny house builders Tiny House UK and Tiny House Cabins called a 20 square foot number ‘home’ for 12 months, about a year ago. Going from a traditional house, he tells HuffPost UK that he found it: “Compact. But I had everything I needed: a kitchen area, bathroom, a double bed. If you compare it to a room to rent, at least you have all of those things to yourself, rather than sharing.” He says that the experience taught him to be aware of things like how much energy he was using, as he was relying on solar, stored in battery packs, as well as of his water use. He learnt to be “ruthless” with how much stuff he had or bought - a worthwhile lesson in a hyped-on-buying-stuff culture. One downside? “I had a very small fridge, so I had to go to the shops every couple of days. I couldn’t do a big shop.”
Single people, couples: if you’re an aspiring minimalist, sure, these are feasible. But then there are those of us with families. It’s being done, granted, seemingly more so overseas than here. The Wilder family, based in Floria, live in a mobile tiny house, with a toddler and a baby, while creative director Whitney Leigh Morris lives with her husband, son and two beagles in a sub-400 square foot place in California.
Couple Shay and Cody, of blog 321 Explore, built a tiny house for themselves and their (then) baby son, Bo, in North Carolina in the US in 2016, before a move to Shay’s home country of South Africa in 2017.
“We found out I was pregnant a month into the build process and had to completely redesign the layout,” Shay says. “Making spaces that were more ‘changeable’ with no built in furniture - apart from the kitchen and bathroom.” They handled a family of three in their tiny house seamlessly. “We didn’t feel like there was any challenge with our newborn in the tiny house. This could be due to the fact that we planned so well and had a dedicated space for the baby. The tiny house was also parked in an amazing spot - a five minute walk from the beach, with a picnic table outside, a hammock close by and a fire pit. So, we spent a lot of time enjoying the outdoors as well.”
Chris says that some families in the UK are taking up the challenge. “Every single home that I’ve built is lived in full time,” he says. “I would love to pin point who I’m selling them to, but it’s impossible. It’s people from all walks of life: pensioners, single people, couples, families - there’s no demographic.”
People in the UK, however, tend to be less vocal about their tiny homes. Why? The law has a part to play. “Every inch of ground is accounted for in this country,” says Mark. Effectively, you can’t pitch up where you fancy, and regulations are far stricter than places like Australia, New Zealand and the US. Tiny houses can be parked at the bottom of gardens, (mobile homes up to 65 x 22 feet in size can be placed on your property without planning permission, so long as members of the household use them as additional living space) meaning that renting garden space from a homeowner could be an option, as could setting up at on a relative’s land, if that’s an option for you.
The alternative is to buy a plot of land. But, as Mark points out, it’s not unusual for this to end up costing four times the amount of the tiny house. As such, you’re more likely to have people flying under the official radar and perhaps living in places you’re not technically allowed to.
He’d like to see local councils grant permission for unused land to be used for ‘tiny house villages.’ “We know it’s not for everyone,” Mark adds, but says that, considering the cost of rent in major cities - in which people are often leasing a single room in a house with no living area - a tiny house could be a better option. He’s noticed some being bought to be granny flats in gardens, for multiple generation families, as well as people just using them for extra room.
An eco choice?
Naturally, the sheer size of the places means you’ll use less energy. Heating, power: you’ve got less space to warm, fewer appliances to keep going and a very clear sense of how much you’re using. There’s no hiding in 300 square feet. Plus, tiny houses lend themselves to more intentional living, as you can’t go mad in the sales and just stick any guilty excess under the bed.
As Mark notes, you can’t just use the hairdryer, plug your iPad in and get the TV going without thinking about it, if you are using solar, as, eventually, you might run out of what’s stored in your batteries. For those connected to main gas power, you’re acutely aware of how many things in such a dinky space are using power and this is likely going to motivate you to use it more respectfully.
Sure, living in a dramatically reduced space isn’t for everyone. There’s potential for feeling claustrophobic, for tensions to be created in relationships that need space and for frustrations with a lack of room to have people over. Or, just an unshakeable feeling that you’re living in a fancy shed.
“It takes a very specific kind of person for this kind of life,” says Shay. “You need to be extremely neat, organised, open-minded and not be overly materialistic. You also need to have rock solid relationships if you’re going to share the space.” She forecasts that any spike in this way of living will plateau.
“While more and more people are going down the tiny living route, we doubt it will ever become a majority. It might gain traction for a few more years, but we definitely think that it will level out and always be more of a niche situation.”
It would also be wrong to imply that the solution to a broken housing market is for everyone to just switch to tiny houses. And, just like the drop out vibe of the sixties, it’s easy to see how something like this is more suited to dreamy California, with its expansive skies and year-long summer, than our drizzle-prone isles.
But, for ideas for those of us who want to live a little more consciously, save energy or who do fancy a go at living in a different way, they’re tiny jolts of inspiration.
You don’t need a massive space to live it large.