Lifestyle or fad? Sinead Keating explores the rising tiny house movement
Yet to become mainstream in Ireland, the tiny house movement is catapulting across the United States and Australia, convincing young people that it is an alternative to renting, older couples that downsizing is viable, and the travellers at heart to change their lifestyle and take their home on the road.
Generally, a tiny house is under 37 square metres or 400 square ft. It can be built on foundations or on a trailer. A tiny house on wheels must be road worthy, as a trailer pulled by a jeep, so height, width and weight restrictions apply. Larger tiny houses are built on lorry trailers and so are less restrictive. Internally there is typically a main space used for living and kitchen downstairs, as well as a separate bathroom. The bedroom is a loft above half the space, often accessed by ladder or a steep flight of stairs. Imagine a painted garden shed with a normal house roof and some wheels under it, and you have a tiny house. In many ways they are a caravan dressed in nicer clothes.
Conversations around tiny living exist in several texts, the earliest being Henry David Thoreau's book Walden. He explores historically tiny residences like labourers' cottages, not unlike the whitewashed cabins which housed Ireland for centuries. Although they had far fewer appliances and less personal space, these dwellings provided everything required. The concept of a tiny house on wheels was popularized in the US by Jay Shafer. He first designed and lived in a tiny house in 1999 at eighteen years old, to avoid the costs of rent or a mortgage. He went on to establish two companies that manufacture tiny houses on wheels. Like Thorreau, his philosophy is that the core needs of housing are shelter, safety and storage, which can all be provided to a satisfactory extent by a tiny house.
Contrary to the construction industry, the movement was boosted by the financial crash of 2007. Across the US, people who could no longer afford their rent or mortgage repayments, and those who had lost their homes, turned to tiny house living due to its affordability. Another positive cited by tiny house owners is the ability to build a small space tailored to specific lifestyles and tastes. This provides the freedom of home ownership, without the mortgage.
If the limited space is not a deterrent, the biggest barrier to tiny house living is their legality. Planning authorities in most countries specify the minimum size of a dwelling built on a foundation. For tiny houses on wheels it is more difficult to understand which laws actually apply. In the UK, they are classed as caravans, and if they comply with weight and size restrictions, they are fine for permanent residence. More restrictions apply in Northern Ireland and the Republic so planning applications are decided on a case-by-case basis. Changing the legality of tiny living in Ireland has the potential to allow developers to create tiny apartments like those of Tokyo or Shanghai, where space is at a premium. However one could argue that the housing crisis in Dublin is bad enough without more tiny two-room studios being built.
Lower cost of living is a big draw to the movement. A smaller living space leads to lower heating and electricity costs. Early in the movement people built their tiny house out of recycled and secondhand materials, further reducing costs. However, with the rise of companies providing fully fitted out tiny houses, the cost for a tiny home on wheels ready to live in comes to an average of $90,000 (€77,000). While this is certainly an easier and quicker way to go tiny, it loses the environmental and cost-effective factors at the heart of the movement.
Central to the movement is environmental impact. Tiny houses have much lower consumption rates and therefore gather resources through rainwater collection and solar panels. Having no connections to public services makes it easier to pack up a tiny house and travel. Even a sewage connection is typically avoided, with a composting toilet being by far the most common option. It involves a sealed unit for breaking down waste in an odour and water free process. European law does not allow composting toilets due to human waste management restrictions. For those averse to composting toilets, a costly yet effective alternative is the incinerating toilet. This is one of many technological innovations specific to tiny living to maximise the limited space and resources.
A large downside to tiny house living for many is the difficulty of raising children. Many young couples move into a regular home with the arrival of their first child due to added space and privacy requirements. The lack of space also makes accommodating visiting friends or family difficult.
The question needs to be asked; why is the movement not as popular in Ireland? It would seem that Irish people have an expectation of home being a house with a garden. Apartment living has been slow on the uptake here, outside of social housing. In turn, stigma in relation to social housing or the travelling-community lifestyle has hindered the movement. In Australia and the US, many people build large decks around their parked tiny houses that offer an extension to living space. The colder and wetter Irish climate renders these decks useless for most of the year, negating the surplus space benefit. After spending so much of this year confined to our homes in lockdown, it is difficult to imagine it being the motivating factor for many Irish to downsize.