Tiny house revolution: honey, I shrunk the house
Forget stately piles and super-sized pads; tiny houses are trendy and a natural final step in the quest for minimalism
It was having a moment even before Japanese organiser extraordinaire Marie Kondo published her bestseller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (Penguin Random House), which made us all aware of our tendencies to hoard. But minimalism has now truly turned into a movement.
It’s all about simplifying — reducing all the superfluous stuff that surrounds us — in pursuit of clean-counter bliss. The buzzwords are "capsule wardrobe", "packaging-free" and "multifunctional".
All of these things seem to be reasonable ways to live a less-is-more life. One way that seems rather more extreme is downsizing on a mega-scale, to a tiny home. And I do mean tiny: about 15m²-30m², to be exact.
In the US, the tiny house movement has been gaining ground for a number of years. Amazon is even selling a DIY Tiny House kit. Netflix’s hit US series Tiny House Nation travels America to find mini-abodes, and South Africans who follow it know that it even has its own petite spot on our screens at the moment.
But what makes such a home different from a very small apartment? A tiny house is exactly that — a house which is small. It’s not a portion of a larger structure. Tiny houses can be built on foundations, just like traditional homes, and be wired to government utilities, or they can be completely mobile and off-grid. These homes may have small floor spaces, but most designers keep the fittings inside at normal size to ensure that residents don’t feel they are living in a doll’s house.
In SA, design duo Dokter and Misses, along with architect Clara da Cruz Almeida, created a tiny house in 2014, called the POD-iDladla. This modular, prefabricated nanohome is now on show at the Nirox Sculpture Park just outside Joburg.
"I prefer the term micro-or nanoliving," says Da Cruz Almeida. "The concept is not about how much space you have, it’s about simplicity and mobility. A simpler life will allow you to concentrate on what matters: the experience of living. The house takes five minutes to clean, and even the daily task of cooking involves less effort and time because everything can be reached while you are standing on the same spot.
"And if you move, to another city or just from Soweto to Blairgowrie in Johannesburg, you just move the house with you, which saves you the time you would otherwise spend on house hunting."
KwaZulu-Natal-based firm Wanderlust Co caused a buzz at this year’s East Coast Radio House & Garden Show in Durban with its tiny home. "Our tiny house is a purpose-built, moveable home on a flatbed trailer that promotes energy-efficient, sustainable living," says co-director Megan Jeanes. The house is customisable and the interiors can be designed to suit buyers’ needs and décor style. The board and batten exterior and charcoal roof is contemporary and stylish, with a minimalist interior. Timber-topped cabinetry and wooden floors add warmth to the monochrome finishes.
The layout is spacious. It has two double beds, one cleverly housed in a loft. Wall-mounted lights eliminate the need for a bedside table. High clerestory windows let in plenty of light without encroaching on valuable wall space. It’s the type of clever design decisions that maximise space without compromising on necessities.
Walking through the house induces equal parts desire and dread. How would you declutter to this extent? It looks as if even the marvellous Ms Kondo might struggle.
Architect Tracy Levinson of LevEco Architects, who has an interest in sustainable design, notes that design is paramount when it comes to comfortable living. "The key is that no redundant spaces or duplication exist, and that there are multifunctional elements," she says.
To prove it’s possible to live in such a small space, co-directors of Wanderlust Co, Matt Bower and Kendal McGlashan, are moving into a tiny home themselves.
McGlashan says: "It’s the no-restraints kind of lifestyle that appeals to us. So many people are consumed with what is perceived to be ultimate signs of success in the form of mansions and excess. For us, the ultimate form of success is to have freedom, and in ‘moving tiny’ you have the freedom that, if you do not enjoy the area where you live, you can just pick up [your house] and move. It’s simple."
She says: "It’s actually been quite liberating to cull all the unnecessary items that take up space and money. We’ve adopted a one-in-one-out concept, which we’ve found also frees some finances that you can use on experiences instead of things."
Da Cruz Almeida’s design for the POD-iDladla is flexible regarding the materials that can be used for its construction. "Sustainability is a key element of microliving, and the core of sustainability is about keeping things local. A flexible design that is adaptable to different environmental conditions and the availability of local materials is essential," she says. Her POD is designed as a lightweight structure that can be anywhere there is 24m² of open land. It can be installed as an on-grid structure connected to existing services or as a stand-alone off-grid POD in more remote areas. Simplicity and sustainability are the focus for Wanderlust Co too, and finishes and fittings are as ecofriendly as possible. The house can be completely off-grid, with solar power, a purpose-designed water tank and a composting toilet.
"We have tried to stick to materials like glass, wood and ceramics rather than plastic, to be true to our mission of being kinder to the environment," says McGlashan.
You could park your tiny home at a caravan park or in the garden of a family member or friend — an interesting alternative to a bricks-and-mortar granny flat. The goal would be to create communities of tiny homes that share other amenities, such as swimming pools.
"For many people the convenience of dry-construction — erecting a prefabricated microhome quickly without destroying a garden during building — is a big drawcard," says Da Cruz Almeida.
Wanderlust’s prices range from R350,000 depending on size and the level of customisation. The POD-iDladla starts at R320,000 for living, eating and ablution spaces. But there’s the rub for many people – over R300,000 is no small sum, and a personal loan would be the only way to finance it, as the banks are not offering bonds for this kind of dwelling at the moment.
Da Cruz Almeida points out that a microhome is an asset. "It will retain its value if well-made," she says. "It’s intended for permanent living and not as an upmarket caravan."
The demand is certainly there. "People want homes that look like houses rather than a converted container," says Levinson. "The key to success is to create something that is affordable for the average South African."
Insuring a microhome is another consideration, but insurance companies view them in the same category as caravans or campervans, and would insure them accordingly.
There are still logistics to be worked out before microhomes will go mainstream, but for people who are interested in downsizing, nomadic living or a minimalist lifestyle, having the option of stylish tiny homes available is an exciting little prospect.