A small group of people is gathered around a campfire in a Victorian State Forest. Members of the Tiny Houses Australia community, they’re attending a Spring Camp to talk about how to build a tiny house, and compare notes on how to address common barriers, like local government planning schemes.
The group is diverse, from students to professionals and retirees. One has been living temporarily in caravans. Others were forced to move into shared accommodation or board with family. Most have given up on the idea of buying their own home, put off by the high price tag or the size of the mortgage, or the downside of living far from family or employment.
Most of the group are also fierce promoters of a more sustainable, minimalist way of life who want their new houses to reflect this. You won’t find many en suites or walk-in wardrobes in their floor plans.
Is bigger really better?
Something is wrong when a professional earning AUS$170,000 cannot afford to live close to work; or a doctor needs a parental loan to buy a house. All 25 major urban housing markets in Australia are ranked as severely unaffordable; and Australia has the second most unaffordable housing market among member nations of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
Australian houses are also among the largest in the OECD. In 2008, the average new house was 214 square metres, double the size of an average 1950s house. Very large houses are not only more expensive, but environmentally unsustainable. For example, the major factors that determine a house’s greenhouse gas emissions are its size and location; the bigger and more isolated the house, the larger its emissions.
For many, particularly young people entering the market and older people leaving the workforce, the “great Australian dream” of a big house on a quarter-acre block is a distant fantasy. And even for those who are living the dream, a sudden interest-rate rise, job loss or chronic illness could rapidly turn it into a nightmare.
Finding sanctuary in a tiny house
From this backdrop has emerged a trend towards building much smaller houses. The tiny house movement originated in the United States in the late 1990s, largely in response to problems with housing affordability, although it has also been spurred on by the global financial crisis and a widespread desire to live more sustainably. The movement has now spread to New Zealand, Australia and Canada.
Room to manoeuvre: some tiny houses have wheels – just don’t call them caravans. Image: The Tiny Abode Co.
The benefits of tiny houses include overall sustainability, reduced energy and water use (tiny houses are often “off the grid”) and, of course, affordability. Some tiny houses can cost less than AUS$10,000. Moreover, they use significantly less resources to build, and are often constructed from salvaged materials or sustainably sourced products.
Mobile tiny houses could even help their inhabitants adapt to climate change; a house on wheels can be moved out of danger from floods or storm surges. They can allow adult children or aged parents to live independently, yet maintain access to family, employment and public transport.
Tiny houses can even address aspects of homelessness. In the United States, some local governments are donating land for homeless people to build their own tiny homes.
The biggest issues with a tiny house
Although information is plentiful on building techniques, plans and design, it is not very easy to build a tiny house. However, as attendees at the Spring Camp agreed, perhaps the biggest problem with building a tiny house is finding a place to put it.
Tiny houses do not conform to many local government planning schemes or building codes, which mandate minimum house sizes, maximum number of houses per plot, connection to utilities, parking provisions, and restrictions on temporary occupation.
It might also be argued that allowing tiny houses will reduce land values and lead to health and safety concerns, such as overcrowding. But people currently live in crowded conditions or illegally in sheds or caravans.
Some states, such as New South Wales, allow property owners to build granny flats. In other states, the regulations differ between and within each local government, although almost almost all have restrictions on the duration of temporary occupation.
For non property-owners, particularly those who don’t want to take any legal risks, the options are fewer. And of course, local governments can and should impose planning restrictions on tiny houses, and ensure that they comply with building codes and standards.
Tiny houses are not for everyone. They will probably always remain a niche market, more suited to people with no children, or retirees.
Niche, yes, but for some people tiny houses could be a lifeline. Being unable to afford to buy property, fulfil mortgage commitments, or even rent a home can lead to mental and physical illness. In a sustainable city, everyone should be able to access affordable housing, and a tiny house is certainly better than no house at all.
Heather Shearer is a Research Fellow in the Urban Research Program at Griffith University.