In every culture, you find a counter culture. As a reaction to living in a debt-reliant, eco-unfriendly, consumer society, a few people across the US decided to re-evaluate the way they lived. So started the tiny house movement. Here, UK tiny house experts Jonathan Avery and Mark Griffiths talk about the possibilities and the challenges for downsizing.
“The need for a sustainable, small living option for people who cannot afford £100k plus for a house has to be a compelling argument in this era of housing shortages, not to mention the planet’s need for us all to want and need less of its resources,” says builder of tiny houses, Jonathan Avery. Jonathan designed the Nesthouse at Tiny House Scotland with the aim of addressing these issues for under £50,000.”
Tiny homes for a small island
“The Nesthouse is primarily for full-time microliving or homesteading and is ideal for singles or couples who want to live sustainably on their land or as an affordable starter home in urban or rural areas. It is ‘light’ on the land and doesn’t require tons of concrete for a foundation and it can be moved without leaving a trace!” says Jonathan. “This is true building sustainability and is ideal as part of an holistic approach to living on a smallholding or small farm with varying degrees of self sufficiency or, of course, just taking a conscious decision to live more simply and closer to nature whilst working from home. Depending on your circumstance, it may mean you could live debt-free or without a mortgage.
“Of course, the Nesthouse can also be used as a studio, home office or holiday let, but I do believe that there is a wider purpose here to provide affordable small housing units in certain circumstances; whether this be an affordable young person’s house on a Scottish island beset by the second home phenomenon or in a communal housing cooperative sense as a tiny house community,” he says.
There’s an upsurge in interest in tiny homes, but it’s actually nothing new – although the first mini home dwellers did so out of necessity rather than choice. Performing the ultimate exercise in de-cluttering, those first tiny householders simplified their lives so that everything they needed could fit into a space the size of an average bedroom.
Tiny house pioneers of the 21st century
These days, tiny houses range in size from around 100 to 500 square feet, and their builders draw inspiration from early American timber-framed buildings. Using traditional construction methods and details, these simple, yet solid, little homes are an echo of original dwellings built by the country’s early pioneers. These settlers put up cabins, often home to more than one family, across the vast American wilderness. And it’s this spirit of independence along with a desire to reconnect with the environment that has drawn so many to the idea of tiny house living.
Rustic or hyper-modern
Mark Griffiths was asked by his publishers to look into the possibility of writing a book on the subject of tiny houses. It was a new concept for him and he was astonished by the amount of interest and information out there, and the passion of those involved. Mixing great design with ingenious use of space, these houses are lovingly put together. Some are quirky and rustic, others have hot water and space-age looks.
More and more tiny houses are aiming for carbon-neutral self-sufficiency. Have a look at the amazing (but VERY expensive) Wohnwagon from Austria, for example.
The online movement, led by sites such as the smallhousesociety.net and the Reforesting Scotland Thousand Huts campaign, are there to inform, educate and support anybody looking to build a tiny house. There are even conventions in several states across the US so that people can come together to share their tiny house stories.
“Fired with enthusiasm, I set about building my own house on a farm near my workshops,” says Mark. “Before it was even finished, friends who had been taking a keen interest in its progress were asking to borrow it for a weekend. Word soon got around until it was hard for us to get a weekend for ourselves.
“I like the idea of a family having an opportunity to experience low-impact, off-grid living, as well as having a great time,” he adds. “Whether you’re under canvas, touring in a campervan or spending a weekend in a tiny house, it’s all an eye-opener about how little stuff we actually need to get by and enjoy ourselves.”
The media has certainly picked up on the growing fascination for living in small spaces. It’s hard to turn on the TV without seeing somebody converting an ice-cream van or a horsebox into a family holiday home.
“Is it that as our lives today feel more and more complicated that the idea of escaping to a small space and living simply, with no distractions and with nature around you, holds such an appeal?” asks Mark.
The best tiny houses follow the principles set down by those US pioneers of microhomes, using similar techniques and materials to make them tough and long-lasting. Moisture barriers inside and out, and lots of insulation, should mean they’re warm and snug whatever the weather outside.
Jonathan’s Nesthouse is built with many Passivhaus principles and – being small – allows thorough attention to detail during the construction process. Definitely NOT a caravan, hut or shed, stresses Jonathan, but a proper small house weighing five to 10 tonnes depending on size and specification.
Oh no…planning permission
The photos of people’s imaginative tiny houses are instantly tempting, but things are rather different in the UK than they are in the Appalachian mountains or the Great Plains of North Dakota. And strangely enough, tiny houses are sometimes just too tiny in the US, where some authorities stipulate a minimum size for a new-build home. It may seem as if you can’t win, but the lesson is just to check very carefully and assume nothing.
The planning advantages of the Nesthouse and others like it are that they’re moveable and may be classified as a caravan and also within permitted development parameters, although these factors depend ultimately on the land use of the site and the presence of any existing buildings. One thing is certain: if this is to be your primary residence, you will need planning permission in the UK.
In the States, to get around the US planning laws and really cut loose, most tiny houses were grafted onto redundant trailer beds. This way, they could be hitched up and towed behind a pick-up. Unfortunately, as a result of our slightly tighter UK highway laws, this is not always an option in this country.
In the UK, it’s vital to check with local planning officers about the location and the size of your tiny house to ensure they comply with permitted development or will be granted planning consent. Houses that can be moved – on wheels, a chassis or even galvanised skis are often easier to manoeuvre around planning requirements, but perhaps not a Cornish lane.
“Personally, it’s something in the way a tiny house makes the outside space as important as the inside that appeals,” says Mark. “You’re grateful for the warmth and comfort when you turn in at night after a long hike, knowing that come the morning you’ll be cooking and eating breakfast outside, surrounded by nature. Not just observing but truly living in the landscape, and living lightly.”
And Jonathan adds: “I believe there is considerable cause for optimism in Scotland at least. The Thousand Huts Campaign has already made huge progress with the Scottish Government. It must be pointed however, that a hut is for leisure use only, but they have succeeded in squeezing it into the Planning Directive and are now working on building standards. Whilst ‘leisure use only’ is is not what most of us are aiming for in terms of full-time living, I personally feel that this is a foot in the door in terms of the next stage of getting tiny houses accepted when they could address some fundamental issues.”