OPINION: Tiny houses are so hot right now. With Tiny House Nation now onto season four, and festivals in Quebec and the US attracting many thousands of visitors, tiny houses are big. Far exceeding the constraints of the Katrina Cottage, standard models now include the swanky Diogene created by starchitect Renzo Piano for high end design company Vitra.
While a number of issues need to be resolved for the movement to grow in Australia, the experience overseas suggests that this is certainly feasible. Planning barriers, particularly minimum lot and dwelling sizes, are increasingly being overcome in North America. The Tiny House Community has developed guidelines to encourage safe construction, and zoning changes are being made to facilitate tiny houses. In Walsenburg, Colorado, a community of 28 tiny homes has been approved, and in Lantier, Quebec, approval has been granted for over 100 tiny homes. While there remains some way to go, the incorporation of tiny houses into planning frameworks appears increasingly feasible.
There is much to be celebrated in this normalisation of tiny houses. Might their abnormality give cause for celebration too?
The economic and environmental advantages of tiny houses are clear, and particularly valuable as issues of housing affordability and urban sustainability become increasingly pressing. But tiny houses are much more than small.
One particularly exciting aspect is the portability of tiny houses. Let’s think of them as pop-ups.
Despite the popularity of Australia’s more dense and mixed-use areas, proposals for the infill housing that we know is needed to make our cities more affordable and more sustainable often generate heated opposition. The way in which planning laws provide for public participation tends to encourage conservatism, with an emphasis on alerting neighbours and inviting them to identify potential problems. Proposals for medium density and affordable housing regularly generate fears of crime and anti-social behaviour, and in turn unhelpful derision of those raising such fears as NIMBYs.
Tiny houses provide opportunities for a different approach. Unlike a conventional house – or, more dramatically, a block of flats – a tiny house can be moved along if it doesn’t work out. This means that permission need not be granted indefinitely, and consultation could also be undertaken in a more open-ended way. Rather than trying to imagine all potential consequences up front, neighbours could be invited to comment partly before, and partly after tiny houses are installed. That chance to experience tiny houses in practice may prove crucial, as opposition to affordable housing decreases significantly once people have experience of it.
The abstract and technical nature of planning make it hard for many people to engage in any meaningful way. Being real but also removable, tiny houses could help to bridge this gap.
In much the same way that pop-up shops, temporary events and short-term installations – from the Eiffel Tower to the pedestrianisation of Times Square to ‘parklets’ on inner city streets around Australia – have paved the way for the unlikely to become well-loved, tiny houses present valuable tools for experimentation in planning. With tiny houses in place, their pros and cons can be debated in an informed way. Should they stay? Change? Evolve into something more permanent? Or move somewhere else?
There are many large sites in well-located areas that go unused for long periods: reserves along rail corridors and other public infrastructure, private sites awaiting redevelopment. These – particularly public sites, which often come with more favourable planning rules – provide ideal spaces in which tiny houses might be located for a few years.
Once in place, locals might discover that tiny house residents are not bad neighbours. Tiny houses might even boost local trade or attract new services to the area – perhaps a tiny café or start-up business.
As the increasingly numerous companies specialising in tiny construction proclaim, tiny houses are about more than affordability.
Tiny houses offer a way for residents to focus on what matters most to them. A way to live a more simple, sustainable life in community. Relief from debt and long work hours, a lifetime of renting or even homelessness. For neighbours too, tiny houses offer a way to examine what might – or might not – make a positive addition to the local community. For everyone, tiny houses offer a valuable way to rethink the way we plan and build our cities.
Amelia Thorpe is a Senior Lecturer in UNSW Law, where she teaches and researches in the areas of planning, property and environmental law. Her work centres on the governance of cities.
This article first appeared in Australian Design Review.