Canal boats, shipping containers, bus conversions – the Tiny House movement is booming! Some see it as the ultimate freedom – freedom from a mortgage, freedom to roam, freedom to be outside. Some see it as a symptom of the housing crisis. Maybe it’s both? Whatever the catalyst, swathes of people are turning to tiny housing as a rejection of capitalist consumer culture – a chance to buy less and live more.
Perhaps it’s down to how much time we’ve all spent at home during the pandemic, but homes are a big trend on Netflix right now with shows about everything from organising to interior design to luxury real estate and, yes a whole series dedicated to the Tiny House movement! Simultaneously, there is a growing #VanLife trend online as people share their lives on the road in converted vans and buses.
As any budding environmentalist knows, there are many #littlegreensteps we can make our homes more friendly for the planet. To save water, we can take shorter showers and if we are feeling especially brave we can also save energy by opting for a cold shower. We can switch to an energy provider that invests in renewables rather than fossil fuels and we can look for zero-waste or plastic-free alternatives to the products we bring into our home. In the garden, we can grow our own vegetables and plant bee-friendly flowers. We are, however, limited to some degree in totally transforming our homes to be more energy-efficient and eco-friendly. A report by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) found that “emissions reductions from the UK’s 29 million homes have stalled, while energy use in homes – which accounts for 14% of total UK emissions – increased between 2016 and 2017.” Unless you are building from scratch, you are working with an existing structure and upgrading to more be more energy-efficient can exceptionally costly.
Time to go tiny?
The benefits of tiny living are many, there is no mortgage to worry about for starters. In the US, homeownership is becoming increasingly unattainable. The number of Americans renting grew between 2006 and 2016 by 23 million. In the UK, the number of people aged 18 – 34 living at home with their parents has risen as a consequence of high rental prices and difficulties getting on the property ladder. Mortgage lender, Santander, conducted a survey of would-be first-time buyers and discovered that “70% of potential first-time buyers believe the homeownership dream has died for young people” and that relying on family wealth is becoming the only option for many young people. 39% borrowed or were gifted money towards their deposit from friends and family and 10% used an inheritance. Opting for a micro dwelling is an enticing alternative.
Because your space is much smaller than a conventional home, energy usage and consequent bills decrease. With limited storage, there is less capacity to accumulate ‘stuff’ – tiny house dwellers embrace minimalism out of necessity. There is also less to clean, saving lots of time that can be better spent on activities that bring you joy. Tiny houses lend themselves to creativity and clever design with builders keen to make use of every available centimetre. And of course, one of the most celebrated benefits is more time basking in the great outdoors. If your tiny home is mobile, you have the added bonus of living a nomadic lifestyle and setting up a base in some of the most incredible locations the world has to offer before picking up and moving on to the next idyllic scene. Home is where you park it, as they say!
Well, they are tiny! If you felt boxed in or claustrophobic during lockdown, tiny house life may not be for you. Some of the most commonly described challenges or barriers include the inability to get a loan to get you started – you will have to pay for your build with cash – and inconsistent rules and regulations. Because this is uncharted territory for banks and municipalities, the system is just not set up for those wanting alternatives to bricks and mortar.
But don’t just take our word for it, we talked to some real-life tiny home dwellers to find out about their experiences. Fanny Moritz is an ‘eco-preuner’ in France who is just about to embark on her tiny house building project and Lesley Lee, lived in her beautiful container home for five years in New Zealand.
What inspired you to start this journey?
Fanny: My main motivation was to reduce carbon my footprint. I lived in Hong Kong for eight years and about four years in, I started to reduce my daily waste. I found it hard to find reusable or zero waste products in HK at the time. I have a background in website development so I started an e-commerce business selling zero waste products. Though I quickly realised that not everything can be solved by creating and buying more – we are still overconsuming, even when it’s zero waste products.
I began to connect with other conscious business owners and NGOs and this was when I came to learn the true scale of the climate crisis. I was confronted with my large carbon footprint due to all of the travelling I did for work. At that point, I knew I wanted to make some significant life changes to reduce that footprint. That’s when I decided to downsize and learn to live with less.
Lesley: Being single and only having one income I was priced out of the property market here in New Zealand. I had a good size deposit but I still couldn’t afford to buy a decent house. My mother had bought some land and told me I could put something on it if I wanted. It was a win-win as I could help her with the land and bills.
How did you get started?
Fanny: I moved from Hong Kong back to France in Nov 2019 with the plan to just live normally and catch up with friends and family after being in Asia for so long. I found I really struggled to rent a flat after being out of the country for eight years and because I was a freelancer and entrepreneur. After a few months, mom said ‘why don’t you just start the tiny house now?’’ and that’s exactly what I did.
With zero experience of DIY, I had never even changed a lightbulb or built flatpack furniture I decided, of course, to build my own. There are two big Facebook groups for those interested in tiny houses in France so I joined those to research and connect with others. In France, the most popular type of tiny house is a mobile home. Rather than just being moveable, mobile homes are designed to move around freely and frequently. When designing a mobile home, there are two key factors that determine everything – height and weight. In order to meet vehicle restrictions and actually be able to use the roads, you have to keep it under a certain size.
Lesley: I started looking at tiny houses here and the traditional ones that you see on TV were really expensive. I started looking into shipping container homes and found one I liked that was a reasonable price. I can be quite impetuous so I went to look at it and bought it on the spot!
Could you tell us about some of the challenges your experiences? How did COVID affect things?
Fanny: Luckily for me, COVID didn’t change my plans. I work from a laptop anyway so I was fortunate to continue working throughout and it gave me time to really get to work on my design plans. In fact, I felt even more motivated to become as self-sufficient as possible. In the future, I would love to buy some land to permanently set up my tiny house and start a vegetable garden.
The biggest challenge for me so far has been managing the weight of my home. I have an excel spreadsheet right now where I am recording the weight of the actual structure and everything I want to put in to ensure that I keep it within the range. Every item will add weight- clothes, shoes, decorations, books, utensils so I have to be ruthless with the selection! It’s been such an interesting process and I celebrate every 1kg I can save. For example, with the inside cabinets, I chose bamboo instead of heavier wood. I think you really need to enjoy the process and find it fun or it could become very stressful.
Lesley: I didn’t really have to adjust to the size of the home after living in small city apartments for years. I did decide early on to add a shed to put with the bigger appliances – fridge, washer and dryer in and that was very helpful. I also found I preferred cooking outside due to the smells. Being in my area in New Zealand we only had lockdown for 7 weeks in 2020 and it was March-May so the weather was beautiful. I felt very fortunate to be where I was and still be able to get out, ride a bike, walk the dog.
The negative thing was that where I live I was surrounded by lifestyle blocks and everyone was out with their power tools every day. With tiny living, you spend a lot of times outdoors and like you’re really ‘in’ the environment so it was a bit noisy which I wasn’t used to. I felt like there was a lot of unnecessary cutting down of trees (by one particular neighbour) and when that happens birds have to reestablish themselves. The bird song in the evening would be full of squabbles as they found new places to settle. It was quite disruptive.
Something I’d never really thought if before going tiny was gifts. People would gift me something and I’d think, sh*t this is great but where am I going to put it? Something will have to go to make room for it. You need less and you prioritise what is important.
And, were there any unexpected joys?
Fanny: As part of my research, I have visited a *lot* of tiny homes – probably around 20. I’ve found that tiny house people are open and easy to talk to. I think that people with an eco mindset are open. So far. everyone I’ve met online or in real life has been so welcoming and helpful.
Lesley: I loved tiny living. I did it for five years and have no regrets. Living in the tiny house on a bit of land I felt more in tune with my environment and closer to it, which I loved. Whatever was going on outside I could hear, see and feel it. If a storm was coming I felt part of it. I loved the aspect of it as I love nature.
I have moved into a bigger home just recently as I bought some land and have built a house as an investment. If I was to go back to tiny living, which I would have no problem with, I would probably make it just a little bigger. My last place was 18 square meters, and as you get older you are less agile so I would want more space to move.
What would you say is your favourite thing about tiny living?
Fanny: I am still in the building process so it’s too early to tell but I am already trying to live with much less to prepare myself for the transition and it feels so freeing to have less. I’ve set the challenge to live without a microwave or a fridge and so far so good.
Lesley: Being able to afford my own space and being in the environment and part of nature.
What is the plan long term?
Fanny: I would love to eventually buy some land in France. I want to find a nice region to build a place for returning ex-pats with yurts, tiny houses, tents in a community or a village. In addition to growing my own vegetables, I would love to support the local businesses and economy.
Lesley: Be happy so I can contribute to the universe’s positive vibration and get out amongst our beautiful world and enjoy it.
Fanny, can you tell us about the tour you are planning?
Fanny: Yes! Once my Tiny House will be finished and all set up, I’m taking it on tour. I want to continue to promote sustainable lifestyle choices. I plan to organise talks and workshops on zero waste living or how to create home and beauty products. I’ll invite people to come and see the house and learn about the design. I am on a mission to make my tiny house as eco-friendly as possible and I’m excited to share some special features like a compost toilet, rainwater tank, solar panels, dry pantry, wood stove and more! The goal is to inspire people to make small changes in their homes, tiny or not.
We can’t wait to hear more about it!
FEATURED IMAGE: via deavita.net | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: tiny house with floor to ceiling glass windows. A table and chairs are visible through the window. The house is situated on a white-sand beach with a turquoise ocean view in front of it.
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