Tiny houses, or Tiny living ?

Its becoming popular in the Netherlands: tiny new houses . They come in two variants. During Dutch Design week I literally hit the first type: called wikihouse: A kind of lego for “build your own” small house. Several standard building elements can be assembled in several space forms, and the beautiful thing is they are publicly available as downloadable drawings, open source as its is known nowadays, and everybody contributes with improvements. ( www.wikihouse.cc) . This is a interesting step towards building 2.0: Once in a lifetime you produce your panels, and the rest of your life you are done: when moving you disassemble and re-construct your house somewhere else in the desired composition. It could reduce material impacts significantly. And even investing a lot of labor, the most disregarded from of renewable energy . In a similar way I developed during my studies a modular wooden cabinet system , and decorated my whole student room with it: as cupboard, sideboard , or storage shelves. And those elements are still in use in changing combinations, as storage shelves in the cellar, or now in the student rooms of my children. It can last several generations.

The question is if this also counts for the second variant, a new movement for “ small new houses”, in the Netherlands popular under the English name: Tiny Houses. Which is mainly for fun of course, and driven by the fact that more people want to own their house, but cant get one in the regular market due to shortage and high prices. Which makes a tiny house a solution, even on a temporal location, if municipalities cooperate in allowing such developments. ( we already had our “Tiny floating houses” see picture)

Smaller houses are of course a way to contribute to reducing climate change: less volume , less heating, less stuff to collect. Of course, a tiny house has relative more materials per m2 floor, and more heat loss surface per m2 floor, but absolutely less per capita, and even that can be improved solved by stacking and combining rows of tiny houses.

But if tiny houses is a trend, one wonders, should the tiny houses be new constructed? Why not expand the concept to existing buildings? And create Tiny Apartments? There are several ways to implement that. Take for instance the elderly people that need some form of home care . They split their house, start living ground floor, and rent out the upper floors to a in-house care taker. It has many advantages: the largely empty houses of elderly people is heated anyway, the care taker has a free “tiny in-house” , and there is mutual support, which is what the Dutch government stimulates.

Its would be even more handy if some of these houses are grouped together, to create economies of scale: if one care taker is ill, another can take over.

Its sad to conclude that this kind of housing was common in The Netherlands, until current government decided that elder people should stay living at home as long as possible. So the opposite is happening: The former elderly homes are empty, and unlettable, while the elder live in large houses that need to be adapted to stay living longer in their house. My own mother, 95 , nearly blind, wants to live smaller, but has no option for a elderly home. Now she heats the whole house for 24 degrees ( she feels cold) , while there is a lot of commuting by care takers to visit her daily.

Everything would improve, if she could move to on of those empty elderly homes: less commuting, lees heated volume, and more existing large houses come available for the local market, avoiding new construction. Its a penny wise pound foolish policy by the government.

Sorry, had to say this….

But lets look to the younger and their Tiny house dreams: If its tiny they want, we start creating tiny existing houses , during a renovation of empty offices and high-rise apartments. Of course nice and hip designed living spaces. But then, the available housing space in the Netherlands doubles… Housing shortages are solved, and no need for new tiny houses… which reduces the resource and energy burden enormously.

But then, I hear you say, the nice thing about tiny houses was that you could relocate them? That can be solved as well in a modern way: we create a Airbnb or wimdu approach for tiny housing locations: Just move to another one when you feel like that. Moving stuff is pretty easy , with little living space: you pack in the morning and unpack in the evening. A lively market in tiny housing locations will evolve.

The main point I want to make here, is that constructing new tiny houses ,especially concerning sustainability, are not by definition a good solution. Sustainability should not be related to products, since then you are improving a product, not the system. And you get a improved product but not necessarily a more sustainable situation. As you can have a improved laundry machine, but using a local laundry shop in your neighborhood is by far the better solution. Concerning energy water and materials impact, but also from a social point of view ( and precisely: a elderly home run by care takers , in stead of commuting care takers visiting largely empty houses)

On short term we have to create a situation in which we live with a maximum of 1 ton CO2 emitted per capita per year ( and this is optimistic) , and everyone has to decide fro himself where he or she will allow that emissions to come from. Its not about a product. Thats why I prefer to speak of Tiny Living, in stead of Tiny houses: each person can chose, whether to heat their house, to live in a tiny existing house or built a new, or to go on holiday , or eat more or less meat . Its about the full package , ie the CO2 emissions and how they are distributed by your living choices. ( and most likely tiny living in existing tiny spaces will become the standard…)

A similar arguing relates to the current hype around circular economy: Its not about earning circular money, but about circular living: ( see previous blog) . To make that happen within a 1 ton CO2 budget, a lot of things have to become very “ tiny” , and circular at the same time. Its Tiny Circular Living, in fact , what we need.

Author: ronald rovers