Cheaper, sustainable and with the potential to radically overhaul our broken housing market: it's time to talk about the Tiny House Movement.
At a time when the average first-time buyer needs a mortgage deposit higher than their yearly salary, it's clear there are no signs the housing crisis I've grown up with is going to end anytime soon. Housing – especially for under 35s working in cities, who can't rely on family money to help set them up – has become more than a problem. It's a disaster.
Proposed solutions for creating genuinely affordable homes, which come with a level of security lacking in the current climate, are lacking. Factor in that we need places to live that support a shift to sustainable living (more urgent in the time of Trump and his desire to pull the world's second largest producer of carbon emissions out of the Paris Climate Agreement than ever) and Tiny Houses feel like increasingly viable alternatives.
In the US, the movement is gaining traction. Tiny Houses here are typically between 60 and 400 square feet, quick to heat and often mobile, allowing freedom of where to live. While the average American home generates around 28,000 pounds of CO2 each year, the average Tiny House generates around 2,000 pounds. They run on less water, are easy to install with solar panels and encourage owners to live in a more intentional way. (When space is so limited, the lure of another trinket is pretty much removed.)
Promoted by people like Lloyd Khan in the 70s, Lester Walker in the 80s, and Sarah Susanka in the 90s, the early 2000s saw the fresh way of living – less burdened by debt, more free to move and living with less clutter – begin to truly take hold. The 20,000-strong Small House Society was set up in 2002, and Marianne Cusato's development of Tiny Houses in New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina (as an alternative to the less comfortable FEMA trailers) received widespread media attention.
In the years since, reality TV shows like Tiny House Hunters have propelled the movement firmly into the public eye. According the IMDB description: "drawn to the prospect of financial freedom, a simpler lifestyle, and limiting one's environmental footprint, more buyers are opting to downsize... [and] find perfect compact kingdoms." Now Tiny Homes are found on wheels and in back gardens, on roadsides and in forests.
My own fascination with Tiny Houses came courtesy of a previous obsession with huge, newly built homes. I grew up in an inner-city London flat I was desperate to move out of, and so US reality TV shows like Extreme Makeover: Home Edition– where homes are literally knocked down and built from scratch to obscenely excessive levels – have always blown my mind. But after learning about Tiny Houses, they've had an appeal I've struggled to shake off. I'm not the only one.
While Tiny Houses are by far more popular in the US, (where land is less expensive and building laws more lax) they do exist in the UK, albeit with a difference. Here, Tiny Houses tend to be basements, attics or attachment to a larger house that has been split, as opposed to American archetypical newly built wooded structures on wheels.
Naturally, the desire to explore this new way of living is driven by finances.
As homes that are ecologically friendly, cheap to run, and crucially, even cheaper to buy, Tiny Houses are seen as a 21st century reversion to a time when our housing didn't rule everything around us – a trendy, minimalist way of sidestepping the status quo. Mair Bosworth, a 33-year-old radio producer, moved into her 7ft-wide Bristol home after "a horrible break up" left her suddenly looking for a home alone. She tells me "I was buying a normal sized house with my ex, then [had to] start my house hunt afresh with half the budget. When I found my little house it was love at first sight and I knew I had to live there."
Alice Hutton, a 31-year-old BBC News journalist who lives in South London, chose her Tiny House after "coming to the end of wanting to live with housemates". While she accepts that living in such a small space with another person can be difficult, she considers it a "trade-off" in exchange for not needing to live on the fringes of London, or needing to leave the city altogether. However, Alice feels like "even calling this 'The Tiny House Movement' suggests there is an option to not live in a tiny place, [and] that some people are intentionally opting to live a knees-to-chest existence for aesthetic reasons.
My mother-in-law moved to the UK in the 1970s for work and, quite reasonably, can't understand why having fewer belongings is a lifestyle choice – not a sign of poverty. Perhaps it's a case [that] what started as a 'let's make the best of an unfair situation foisted upon the young and underpaid by economic circumstances, a stagnant job market and soaring house prices' has changed to become a middle-class trend – where those who can afford it create expensive, minimalist pods and compete to post the best Instagram photos of their highly-edited lives. The Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle is a good example of this; 3,000 residents were forced out of their homes as part of the 'regeneration' of the area by Southwark Council, it was demolished, and [has been] replaced with a private development where studio flats costs £500,000. The ultimate Tiny House?"
Regardless of aesthetics, and whether they're saving you from homelessness or simply a second home, one thing everyone I spoke to agreed on was that Tiny Houses should be an option for those who want and need them. "I think people look at them and laugh, or they think they're silly, but, to some people, they're an absolute godsend" says Mark Burton of Tiny Houses UK. "It could be a solution to a lot of peoples' problems, but the laws and the government and the councils are preventing people from doing so. Not so long so there was a minimum size for properties, but now you can't just buy a Tiny House or even buy a plot of land – land that will be a lot more than the tiny house itself – and build, because of the rules and regulations. [There are] lots of people are doing things under the radar, of course. Councils are in ownership of acres and acres of unused land, which a lot of the time is just overgrown. Surely we can put that land to good use?"
The UK is obsessed with bricks and mortar. Traditional home ownership has for so long been a perceived tenet of success, and perhaps it's time for things to change. The reality, though, may be that choice doesn't come into it. People are hemmed into smaller spaces as a result of the scramble for room – not as a lifestyle choice.
We might not be living in Tiny Houses, but our houses are getting tinier. If we're going to need to live minimally anyway, why shouldn't we attempt to make this as cheap as possible? Mark continues: "Tiny Houses are a short term solution. But those five or ten years give you a chance to be able to build, [or] put a deposit down, because at the moment it's savings that's the problem. Young people can't physically save."
With Mark selling his Tiny Houses for less than half the price of a standard mortgage deposit, perhaps we should all hope the Tiny House movement takes off amongst the people who matter the most: government officials and councils who make the rules and regulations about where and how we can live.