1. Built environment
November 30, 2015updated 04 Aug 2023 8:35am

I tried to build a self-sufficient "microhome" in rural Shropshire, only no one would pick up the phone

By Richard Wallace

 We all want to move to the country someday, right? I love London, but it is a cramped, dirty shitheap made exclusively of Prets and air pollution, and the last time I remember existing without permanent low-level anxiety was in the glorious Kentish countryside as a student.

So when I saw a chance to escape grubby Tower Hamlets, I got excited. In America there’s been something of a trend towards an innovative new way of living: the microhome.

Microhomes are ergonomic flat-pack houses that you build yourself, and which usually cost around the $10-25k mark. So for the price of a deposit on a flimsy two-bed new-build in a medium-sized market town, you could theoretically own a handsome and unique little place to yourself – albeit a tiny one. 

The UK is slowly catching on – since I first heard of microhomes, companies like TinyHomes.co.uk have gained traction here.

I remembered this recently after getting irretrievably lost in an internet hole and stumbling across a land auction. An idyllic acre of rural Shropshire was going for a guide price of £3k – a perfect place to pitch a prefab house. It had a lake and a small copse of trees, and though I didn’t have any savings, there were two paydays between me and the auction. I wanted that land. I coveted it like a Tudor monarch. I had nothing tying me down. What was stopping me from realizing my five minute-long dream of living on the fringes of society in a small, frequently rained-on box? Nothing, I hoped.

The benefits of such box-living are obvious: microhomes are relatively cheap, and are designed to be very low impact environmentally, with solar panels and composting toilets. They exist completely off-grid, meaning that they’re the ultimate in libertarian living, if you’re that way inclined.

And so, I made it my mission to find out if the American dream of total self-sufficiency ever could work in the UK.

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It can’t.

A two story Muji Hut. Image: Muji.

First, there’s the issue of tax. My impression from speaking to councils in the past was that nobody really knew what a microhome was, let alone how to tax one. Tinyhomes.co.uk maintains you rarely need planning permission, but the testimony of a man who has tried zero-impact living before – Mark Boyle, author of The Moneyless Man – is that you absolutely do.

The very best I could hope for would be a long, tedious bureaucratic battle about my right to live in a glorified shed. I called Shropshire council, psyching myself up to deliver a rousing appeal: “Microhomes, as they are IKEA-style self-assembly structures which require no permanent plumbing or power supply, are semi-portable; you could disassemble one and build it round the corner, if you really had nothing better to do.” But I couldn’t get anyone to speak to me about it.

So, there’s that.

Then came the practical problems. Where I was going to get water from? I hadn’t really thought about that at first, having assumed I could recycle rain or something.

I researched this and it turns out you can – but it’s expensive, unless you’re just going to collect it in a barrel, and even then it’s still only good for bathing. You can boil or chemically purify it – but it’s labour intensive, and what if it doesn’t rain? (Unlikely in Shropshire, granted.)

The only solution would be for me to bulk-buy bottled water from the nearest village, some five miles away from my plot, and carry it home. Unless, that is, I drilled my very own borehole. I didn’t know what a borehole was, but fuck it, it sounded cool, and I wanted one.

But it turned out boreholes cost at least £10,000. Tap water costs about 0.097p per litre, meaning I would need to drink 412,372 glasses before it started paying off. At a government-sanctioned rate of eight glasses per day, that would take 141 years. Suddenly a mortgage was looking pretty reasonable.

Then I started to consider the issues around actually living. Would solar power be enough for my dazzling array of electrical appliances? Could I grow food, and stockpile enough non-perishable goods to see me through the winter, given that I already consider Deliveroo a fifth emergency service? What job could I have in which I could work from a remote field?

I also realised that, since my patch of land was too far away from polite society for the police to be of much use, the defense of my cube would be my own responsibility. I may be the type of person who wouldn’t think twice about shooting a burglar, but only because in less than the time it would take me to think twice, I would have slipped on a wet leaf and shot off my own face.

All the same, I was disappointed. It was a beautiful dream – just my girlfriend, some rabbits and possibly livestock, my own personal brewery and me, living on some florid elbow of England’s green and pleasant land.

Micro-living isn’t for everyone, but it would be nice to think that the choice was there. Even opting for the most luxurious composting toilet money can buy, the cost of a microhome is very small compared to bricks and mortar, and while a mortgage deposit may be cheaper in the short term, you’ll own your microhome straight away. I’m not saying it’s a solution to our ecological and housing crises in the UK and beyond, but it would surely help relieve some pressure to let a few of us fuck off to a field somewhere and live off carrots.   

I didn’t go to the land auction – it turns out that I couldn’t really be bothered after all – but the point remains. Micro-living could be part of the solution to lots of issues, but right now the infrastructure can’t deal with people who want to drink rain and shit in a composter.

Organisations like Chapter 7 are campaigning to update this infrastructure to support low-impact living, which I think is very admirable. But until they do, only those most dedicated to microliving will be able to make a go of it. For now I still live in a crumbling macro-home in London, and the best I can hope for is moving to one that isn’t next to a plague-era municipal grave. Still – a man can dream.

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