Tiny is Beautiful
Mini Home Construction
Smaller homes are not exactly new – all across Canada, entire communities of bungalows sprung-up in the years following World War II. The construction companies behind what is sometimes called the ‘tiny house movement,’ specializing in dwellings which not only resemble their much-larger counterparts, but have numerous ingenious solutions to maximize functionality within a very tight space – often on a constrained budget.
While many consider our home to be our castle, the size of the kingdom is shrinking. Driven by factors from affordability to size requirements and pride of ownership over renting, the market for small home construction is booming worldwide.
Back in 2013, a home for sale in the east end of Toronto made news across the country when it sold for $165,000. Although the house went for less than the asking price of $229,000, it didn’t command headlines so much for its sale price as its size. With three rooms, the house – which most neighbourhood residents mistook for a garden shed – was a mere 189 square feet, just one-quarter the size of a modest Toronto condominium.
The Lilliputian dwelling was described as ‘unique’ in the real estate listing. The converted garage with no running water and without an occupancy permit from city hall, still sold in three weeks. Despite the hallmarks of being a quirky news item, the sale of the house triggered numerous other news stories and debates of ‘How small is small when it comes to home ownership?’
Over the decades, the once-quirky market for new small house construction has into a legitimate business. Reality television shows like Tiny House Nation, Tiny House Hunters, and Tiny House, Big Living celebrate the ingenious builders and craftsmen behind small-scale architecture. First airing in July of 2014, Tiny House Nation described the movement as follows: “There’s a trend in the U.S. housing market, albeit a very small one. Drawn to the prospect of financial freedom, a simpler lifestyle, and limiting one’s environmental footprint, more buyers are opting to downsize – in some cases, to spaces no larger than three hundred square feet – and this series celebrates the ‘tiny house’ movement.”
Also known as the ‘small house movement,’ there is no hard and fast rule governing the size of a tiny house, although less than five hundred square feet is usually considered the norm.
What small homes may lack in terms of square footage, they more than make up for in amenities found in larger houses, including cathedral ceilings, hardwood floors, luxurious kitchens and back splashes, modern fully outfitted washrooms, ceiling fans, air conditioning, and even fireplaces.
Across North America, Europe and Asia, numerous small home construction companies are able to provide buyers design/build solutions, all the way from initial concept to detailed drawings, building services, and project handover.
Tiny homes are built according to construction principles seen in regular houses, but have one distinct advantage: they can be easily moved from one location to another. While some have built-in wheels, others are transported on trailers, allowing them to be hooked up to gray and black water tanks, generators, and electricity in RV parks.
The homes are the subject of growing media scrutiny. Who lives in these types of mini homes, and do they miss the spaciousness of much-larger houses? Many residents claim they don’t, and it is not only singles and couples living in these small dwellings. Some people are raising families.
They often appeal to a certain demographic – usually people in their twenties and early thirties. Some of these individuals were raised in apartments and became accustomed to smaller spaces. Unlike their parents’ or great-grandparents generations before them, they grew up without space-hogging books, vinyl records, massive stereo systems, wired telephones, and large tube television sets. Today, with tablets, laptops, eBook readers like Kindle and Kobo, and smartphones, what would have occupied row upon row of shelving and storage can now fit in one electronic device, making large spaces unnecessary. Outside the home, large lawns and gardens require ongoing effort and cost and are fast becoming things of the past for small-space homeowners who would rather live and enjoy than spend every weekend cutting the lawn and pulling weeds.
Another consideration is convenience. In places like Vancouver, countless younger people have forsaken car ownership for public transit, bicycling, or ride-sharing programs. Instead of living in an immense suburban home and commuting an hour or more each way to work, they would rather reside in a small space in an urban setting and walk.
They are eschewing space for convenience and cost and going to clubs and restaurants instead of entertaining at home, which immediately lops large dining areas and homes off the list of necessities.
The rise of condominium living prepared future homeowners for living in limited spaces. And with soaring property taxes, high utility bills for heating and air-conditioning, and the need to clean large homes, smaller spaces make a lot of sense.
In some ways, North Americans have come full circle in the past seventy years. Buying what they could afford in the 1940s and 1950s, growing affluence saw the construction of much larger houses in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Repeated economic downturns, the most recent being the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) of 2008, made many younger homebuyers realize: why extend ourselves financially for a huge, unaffordable house we don’t need when we can live comfortably in a house of a few hundred square feet? At the time of the GFC, the Canadian Home Builders Association reported that the size of new houses was declining from a peak about a decade earlier of 2,300 square feet to 1,900 square feet.
Over the years, smaller and smaller living spaces emerged. Some construction companies began converting garages into small, stand-alone homes accessible through laneways behind existing houses. Children of homeowners have constructed miniature residences in the backyards of their parents’ houses.
When notoriously high-priced Vancouver approved laneway houses back in 2009, the city was immediately slammed with five hundred applications, validating the desire and need for smaller homes in urban areas. Additionally, ‘micro housing’ is being increasingly viewed by governments as a means of addressing the lack of affordable housing in cities like Victoria.
Depending on the construction company, prices for tiny homes vary from between $200 and $400 U.S. per square foot. And while there is no true average price, complete homes vary from as low as $20,000 on the do-it-yourself end, to $125,000 and more for a professionally designed and built dwelling. While the price per square foot may seem high compared to a regular home, it is critical to remember that small houses, despite their size, still require all the mechanicals of their much-larger counterparts, including plumbing, heating and air conditioning, water heaters, all electrical, sinks, appliances and insulation.
Like larger homes, miniature versions are designed and built in a variety of styles, ranging from ultra-modern to quaint Cape Cod beachside dwellings. From a design and building perspective, small homes are often made with large windows to create a sense of spaciousness. Additionally, builders can create cathedral ceilings to bring in even more light and add another dimension with greater verticality.
And with small homes it is still possible, depending on the overall budget, to splurge on luxurious finishes such as high-end tiling and floors, lighting, shower and tub handles, kitchen and bathroom faucets and even marble and granite kitchen countertops and bathroom vanities. Just because a house is small doesn’t mean it cannot boast high-end features.
For construction companies specializing in small homes, there is always the need to balance available space with pleasant design and tremendous functionality. Unlike larger homes, there simply isn’t room for ‘dead’ spaces such as hallways, and every square inch needs to be maximized. Often, this incorporates movable elements over fixed ones, such as cabinets on wheels, doors on tracks, sliding partitions, and built-in furniture such as tables that fold into walls when not in use. Even fold-down Murphy beds are making a comeback in smaller houses. For families, this often means that sleeping areas during the evening disappear and become playrooms for kids during the day. Other design considerations, such as open stairs to second-floor loft areas, contribute to a sense of spaciousness.
To further make small homes seem larger than they are, light, bright colours are often used both inside and out. Seeing increasing demand, manufacturers are making smaller scale furniture such as chairs, couches and tables, sized to fit these houses. To create a sense that the indoors and outdoors are one, transom windows and skylights bring light in. Wicker furniture – primarily used outdoors – can be incorporated inside.
Built onsite, off-site, or pre-assembled and transported in a shipping container, micro homes have existed for decades in countries where land prices and available space are at a premium, such as Japan, Spain, Germany, England, and Russia. These structures can be as simple or complex as desired. Small houses are not for everyone – but then again, they were never meant to be. For individuals unable to spend thousands of dollars every month on a mortgage and unwilling to perform or pay for the maintenance required of larger homes, tiny houses are a viable alternative.
Seeking an uncluttered lifestyle, many today do not want to own more house than they need. Smaller houses use far fewer resources for heating and cooling; they are not only cheaper to maintain but appeal to those with an environmentally friendly mindset. Since many mini houses are affordably priced, they can often be purchased outright; owners are able to live simply, free from sleepless nights worrying about house payments.
Gigantic, multi-million-dollar suburban homes totalling thousands of square feet may have their place but if economic forces and an overwhelming desire for home ownership on a small budget continue, the tiny house trend will be here to stay.