Friday 21 June 2019

Home truths: 'Great big lessons from the Tiny House Movement'


Stock: PA
Stock: PA
Stock image
Big lessons from small packages: A 'small house' typical of those being built in the USA by people embracing the Tiny/Small House Movement
Mark Keenan

Mark Keenan

IT bugs me that my favourite TV programme blurts my least favourite word the most. Since 2012 George Clarke's Amazing Spaces on Channel 4 has seen the Geordie architect discovering tiny houses and small space projects which guest punters convert, craft and make their own; whether to live in, holiday in or just relax in. We've seen loving and artful conversions over the years - of tiny shepherd's huts on wheels, restorations of canal barges (which were once home to canal hauliers and their families), tree houses, camper vans, vintage caravans and even a beach house that floats.

But just like an Irish estate agent, George loudly proclaims every newly completed space he walks into to be "stunning!" And homes don't 'stun' Georgie, no matter how cool they are. With the Geordie accent it gets ground into: "studdingnk!" "Totally studdingnk! Completely studdingnk! Truly studdingnk!" And "Oohhhh that's just studdingnk!"

But I'll forgive George for it. Because while other tv architects like the oft sniffy Kevin McCloud and our own Dermot Bannon tend to gush and gnash around the upper crusts, George's market is as cheap as pie and chips, and his slip-on trainers are firmly on the ground. Scheme budgets are usually a few grand all in. If they go over, it's by 50 quid. So if Grand Designs is champagne and Changing Rooms is gin and tonic, then Amazing Spaces is proper home-brewed craft ale. And the craft is key to its appeal.

George is a decent skin and a capable architect. He's good with his own hands and he's not afraid to get stuck in. The materials are usually cheap but honest. Wood, crafted and cajoled into a million forms, is usually the basis.

Amazing Spaces was partly inspired by the Tiny/Small House Movement fast developing in the United States since the 1990s. While some Americans have been dropping off grid to remote locations, others have remained faithful to the cities but have instead designed themselves tiny/small homes, and ditched closets full of belongings to live in them. Most live mortgage- and rent-free. Ironically, small living spaces, so long seen as a yoke of repression and poverty, have now become symbolic of financial freedom and independence.

If you have Netflix, you can now watch Tiny House Nation, which sees renovation professionals John Weisbarth and Zach Giffin on the road, stopping off to help people design and build their dream tiny homes. Couples and singles who have been priced out or want to break out, end up living in the most wonderful tiny homes, if only to give them the financial space to save towards a regular abode. Empowering certainly.

Although the schtick is cheesier, the homes built for a few hundred dollars or a few thousand are also truly beautiful. Most come in at around 300 sq ft, or the size of a small one-bedroom apartment. Often on wheels, they tend to have a gallery bedroom, a small kitchen, a comfortable seating /living area and a wet shower room/WC. And there are endless pop-out, swing-out, pull-out, swivel-around and pop-up storage solutions and multi-functional furniture.

In the United States, Britain and Ireland, the average size of a family home had been increasing all through the 20th century and right up to the financial crisis. In the USA the average moved up from 1,800 sq ft in 1978 to 2,479 sq ft in 2007. Here, in 1978, the average was 1,184 sq ft. That went to 1,327 sq ft in 1994 and to 1,741 sq ft in 2007. The latest figure from Q4 2018 is still 1,741 sq ft.

Meantime, family sizes in Ireland have been falling and we now have 1.38 children on average. In the '70s, 10-year mortgages were usual, then in the '90s we had 20-year terms while today 35 years is not unusual. Twenty-five years ago a Dublin family could purchase a starter home for three times the average salary. Now that's closer to 10 times.

A Dublin studio apartment could be rented for one 10th of a starting salary but today that's closer to 100pc.

So fewer people in bigger spaces that cost 10 times more relatively, which cripple us more financially, and for more of our lives than ever before. Mortgage debt and rent burdens have surged to the point where they are now altogether untenable for younger city dwellers.

This has been happening all over the Western world in cities from London to Toronto to Sydney. It's down to states stepping back from social housing and to the commoditisation of all housing types as global corporations step into the void to build smaller spaces to rent which aren't so amazing. They're expecting to cash in on the future by charging priced-out families more for less, in lifelong rental. Logic suggests that if we want to live lives which are financially tenable, particularly in our cities; we'll have to get used to living in smaller spaces once again. And if we don't want to pay high prices to multinational fund landlords to rent these smaller spaces, we'll have to start thinking outside the box real fast.

While the 300 sq ft tiny houses we see on TV are not the solution for city families, we can learn much from them about what is, and what is not essential. They teach us about quality affordable materials and build methods and ultra-clever design - that we truly don't actually need three bathrooms, a double bedroom per person and endless wardrobe storage for a mountain of useless stuff we have collected and accumulated over a lifetime.

There's no reason why we can't build quality ultra-affordable homes here from those same 'tiny home' materials. Irish architect Dominic Stevens did exactly this when he built his own house in Leitrim, a 600 sq ft abode (equivalent to a two-up two-down terrace) for €25,000. He proved that it is wholly possible for an Irish family to live mortgage- and rent-free in a house they own, and for the price of a mid-range family car. Add €125,000 for a small Dublin house site and that's a three-bed city house of 600 sq ft for €150,000. That's €200,000 cheaper than a new city starter today. And it really is 100pc possible.

With 'regular build' city housing unaffordable for most and a Government abetting corporations to channel us into smaller, more expensive rented spaces; we need to cut our expectations in order to become empowered - if we do want to own those inevitably smaller spaces.

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