How it’s revolutionising the housing market and the concept of home ownership.
Brief history of living tiny – The North American story
The tiny house movement is a broad and colourful phenomenon that is as integral to the European cultures as it is to the American psyche. However, like with many innovations, trends and cultural shifts, the tiny house living philosophy has been envisioned and popularised by North American pioneers such as Henry David Thoreau – author and proponent of simple living who lived in a tiny house he built in the woods. The 70’s and 80’s saw several books written about small living though it wasn’t till the late 90’s when English architect Sarah Susanka published together with Kira Obolensky, “The Not So Big House: A Blueprint for the Way We Live”, which has become an authoritative guide for everyone interested in the idea of living big in a smaller space. In her book and its sequels, Susanka popularised residential architectural and design ideas in a new, personalised way that gave people resources and an easy language to express their needs for quality, minimalism, maximisation of space and sustainability in home design when dealing with professionals. These ideas, that built on past architectural principles of human-friendly, healthy and sustainable design to name the work of Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction, became a cultural catalyst in response to a growing disillusionment with America’s McMansion model, growing property prices and the general disconnect from sustainability and pragmatism of smaller and greener building alternatives that future home owners could tap into. The ideas engaged the popular imagination and a formal tiny house movement was born with many homeowners among its followers, including groups such as “Cultural Creatives.” In recent years tiny house has arguably become one of the best American exports to Europe with many American and Canadian companies bringing the latest innovation in tiny house design to the market.
The European nomads and their traveling ‘tiny homes’ on wheels
The recent tiny house movement coming from North America has touched Europe around 10 years ago but tiny houses on wheels have been intrinsic to the landscapes of Europe even before the Romani caravans (pictured on the left) with their horse-pulled wagons hit the dirt roads before settling in every country in Europe.
In the words of Greek scholars, much earlier Eurasian travelling tribes such as Scythians who came out of what today is Iran and moved through the Black Sea region, carried their dwellings on four or six wheels. Their small homes had objects designed for mobile living complete with small tables with legs that came apart for convenient transport.
They were probably the world’s first examples of multi-use furniture that so many present day tiny house aficionados are equipping their homes with. This is a truly astonishing part of mobile tiny house history repeating itself, as if moving our home and its furniture has always resided in our collective psyche. The French ‘Manouches’ Roma or the Spanish ‘Cale’ Roma and the British Roma travellers (see image on the right) whom Latvian-born Russian-Roma poet Leksa Manush calls the “lost Indian tribe” are said to have arrived in the Balkans in the 6th century and were the true masters of the art of living small on the road.
Today the movement has grown to encompass every type of small living; from statics to homes on wheels, from humble DIY homes through to designer tiny houses with state-of-the art mod cons to even tiny house hotels and dedicated tiny house residential sites. So there is something for everyone. The first European settlers going to North American territories were also using similar wagons and we can see that the tiny homes concept has been exported to the US from Europe to be later re-exported as a modern phenomenon back to Europe.
Tiny house living – a big promise for the humanity and the planet from European perspectives
Small home building and living trend is slowly but surely evolving, but it is a long way off before moving into the mainstream. There are still some land use and legal barriers not to mention cultural education that needs to follow for the society as a whole to be wholeheartedly embracing this innovative housing solution. Tiny houses are good economically and socially. How? They can be one of the ways to help bring about the regeneration that is much talked about in Europe in terms of creating new affordable housing models, new more creative jobs and even industries while at the same time addressing homelessness and other social ills. Architecturally and environmentally tiny houses offer us a useful gauge to see where the land lies in terms of what people want from a house. So design, personal and planet health as well as community living dynamics are main concerns relating to tiny houses. For they are, by default, built more efficiently and ecologically than conventional non-eco houses just by having much lower footprint than your average one bedroom house.
The popularity enjoyed by this type of design, which is evident in leisure and tourism sectors, also indicates that this novel house option is here to stay. The leisure industry has registered a steep upward trend in glamping-style, back-to-nature holidays where people can taste a surprising luxury, offered by a holistically designed tiny living space albeit in a wooden pod, tiny house on wheels or a tiny hut floated on a raft in the middle of a lake.
Small spaces that are detailed in ergonomic and purposeful eco design that comes also with much cheaper cost to homeowners speak to many, not just converted enthusiasts. This is mainly because the ethos underlying all of this is greater self-sufficiency and thus independence, fun of making things with our own hands and putting our own mark on our tiny space. All of this tends to attract ever more dextrous and adventurous buyers.
Is the WOOD you use to build a tiny house sustainable?
The staple material used in construction of tiny houses is wood, which in addition to its enduring appeal to our senses and soul, it embodies the qualities that today’s home owners seek out such as comfort and wellbeing. The ease of working with this natural material and responsible harvesting allows buyers to also align themselves with the environmental concerns and go back to Arcadian simplicity of living. As tiny home is made up almost entirely of wood and, as the EU and UK are said to harvest only around 50-60% of the annual growth in their forests, which means they are net-importers of wood and many timber products, it is essential to make sure that these forest products you or your builders source were sustainably harvested. The way to know this is to ask your supplier for an industry-specific certification that proves that the wood was sustainably harvested so as not to contribute to illegal deforestation and climate change.
The production of many common wood species such as spruce, pine and red cedar is largely regulated and certified and should come with these labels: Forest Stewardship Council’s certification – FSC or PEFC which stands for Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification. Nevertheless, there are still wood and timber products including Siberian larch that have come from Euro-Asian forests that may not be certified. So it’s in our best interest to look out for the FSC and PEFC Certified labels or PEFC Recycled labels. These labels mean that there are many principles and criteria for forest management that companies are assessed against in order to comply before they can join the schemes. Both labels should display a serial code assigned to the company or product displaying it that you as a customer can verify on FSC and PEFC sites. Find links & embed There is another industry tool that can help us to choose sustainable forest products. If, for instance, you want to buy a new piece of furniture and want to know if the whole product is made from 100% certified wood, you can look out for the so called Chain of Custody (CoC) – tracking tool, designed to monitor the supply and production path of wood, from the source all the way down the chain through to the final product. Whilst the first is a voluntary scheme that companies involved in forest products’ supply chain can participate in, the FSC label assures us that not only the forest rights, but also the rights of indigenous people and international workers are upheld. In comparison, the PEFC is made up of 30 national forest certification programmes and covers PEFC Certified or PEFC Recycled labels that can only be displayed on products by companies that hold a valid PEFC CoC certificate.
Is a tiny house a viable alternative for people who aren’t able to buy their first home?
Over that last decade Europe’s few tiny house start-ups have been steadily releasing tiny house models on to the market that aims to fill the gaps the property squeeze has created. These are mainly carpenters turned business owners who have capitalised on this new niche in the market. Today, visibly, we have French, British, Romanian, Polish, Lithuanian, Estonian manufacturers and a sprinkle of other small players gradually shaping this tiny segment of the house market at the moment.
It is clear to me, based on talks I have had with tiny house builders, owners and architects that the market is likely to grow as more people learn about tiny house owning advantages and long-term benefits. The much complicated housing situation across Europe where owning a first home is beyond reach for most people, especially first time buyers, only reinforces the social and economic viability of this emerging innovative housing sector. It is not surprising then that greater number of people try to figure out how to afford and own the roof over their heads. The tiny house movement, as it is uniquely taking its first shy steps in Europe, may be the answer for many Europeans looking to other, more affordable alternatives.
The recent figures released by the French Institute of Statistics (INSEE) speak for themselves: only 23% of under 30s in France own their own home. For an age group of 30-39 the number goes up to 55% and it’s at 60,8% for the 40-49 years old. A low 38% of all home owners in France don’t have a mortgage to pay back. The Institute also compiled data of tenancy totals pooled for each EU member state in 2016 with Germany at the helm with 48,3%, Austria taking second place with 45% and 31% for Netherlands. The figures for the UK and France were 36,6% and 35,1% respectively so we can see that most people are locked in renting for years. There are three reasons behind this: affordability, general shortage of housing and wrong location in relation to ever-changing, transient nature of job market that pushes people towards overpriced cities and into renting. Also even if it’s possible to get on the housing ladder through going into debt, people need to be increasingly more mobile and go where the jobs are. This is where a tiny house comes in as a perfect answer. Tiny houses on wheels are a great choice for anyone wanting to downsize, with more disposable income and resources they can enjoy as the pressure to pay long-term mortgage or steep utility bills is gone. The bills are still there but with a coherent energy strategy that a well sourced and equipped tiny house comes with, these can be largely offset, reducing the running costs, almost to zero, especially when water and energy efficient systems are installed.
For those engaged in project-based work especially digital nomads and creatives who want to take their house with them when relocating, this new alternative lifestyle in the form of a tiny house on wheels or a static tiny house on a rented or shared land is a highly attractive and obvious choice for many reasons. Owning and living in a tiny home gives clear and tangible financial advantages, but apart from that there is also a social upside to this lifestyle: a more simplistic and at the same time more fulfilling way of living, more free time, the freedom of movement and ability to choose one’s own neighbours.
Tiny home owners can also re-engage meaningfully with their community through collaboration and living together on sites created through innovative zoning. Some American town halls including Fresno city in California are ahead of the game. They are piloting such schemes already to address the growing interest and demand for tiny home sites. In France, tiny house development efforts revolve around the idea of self-building, which is gaining traction among DIY-ers skilled in carpentry who are also ecologically minded and sometimes construct their tiny home with salvaged second-hand timber. Overall self-building aspect is especially popular in some regions of Western Europe where the land use regulations are more relaxed and easier to navigate and there is a greater acceptance among residents to welcome tiny house owners in their neighbourhoods.
Right now the only people that have a good grasp of the issues concerning tiny houses and can give an overview of the situation while attempting to make some predictions with tiny houses in Europe are tiny house professional and DIY makers and bloggers. As I said earlier, the development is in its early days and I believe that it can go from strength to strength and become as vibrant as its North American counterpart.
The tiny house lifestyle – a perfect synergy of human needs and eco-design
In a tiny home space is at premium. This presents some challenges, however it can equally be an opportunity to be innovative in how we design every precious inch of space that we have. Having owned a couple of campervans, I am especially aware of this aspect of tiny living and, like other travellers, I appreciate stunning and ergonomically smart design when I see it. And as a popular saying has it necessity is the mother of invention, this has never been truer in the case of tiny house design with ingenious multi-functional and often modular design solutions continuously improving the quality of living. As a designer with a couple of renovation projects to my name, I drew plenty of inspiration from a philosophy and highly personalised eco-designs innovated by Hundertwasser, Gaudi and Buckminister Fuller and have used many natural building techniques including adobe, hempcrete and straw. I learned early on that a house should be looked at as an integrated system. A dwelling that seamlessly incorporates the use of ecological materials in its fabric but also integrates low-to-high tech solutions that are ecological and energy-efficient, as this will impact the cost of running your house and your life directly. Designing an interior, especially in a tiny space, and furnishing it with necessary appliances and furniture shouldn’t be an afterthought but a cornerstone of such design.
To guide us through the process there are countless books and magazines and the Internet specifying intelligent and often holistic design solutions that can help us meet our physical and ecological needs. So it is rather easy to find inspiration when equipping our tiny house or just re-thinking the use of space in our home and there is more to come as the tiny house living continues to reveal its full potential.
Natural-built tiny house with biophilic design and a green roof: https://www.livingbiginatinyhouse.com/natural-built-tiny-house-incorporates-biophilic-design-and-a-living-roof/#more-11229
Christopher Alexander A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction. Oxford University Press, 1977.
The National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies. Online source https://www.insee.fr/fr/statistiques/3303465?sommaire=3353488
‘The traditional horse-drawn wagon used by British Romani people as their home’ image. Online source: thevintagenews.com
“Forgotten Indian Diaspora In Europe – 1000 years ago.” Online source: https://2ndlook.wordpress.com/2007/12/07/forgotten-abandoned-enslaved-indians-in-europe/#comment-7063
“Gypsies arrived in Europe 1,500 years ago, genetic study says.” Online source: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/dec/07/gypsies-arrived-europe-1500-genetic
“Herodotus and the Scythians.” Expedition Magazine. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/herodotus-and-the-scythians
PEFC image https://www.pefc.co.uk/
Space-saving folding chairs image, https://www.pinterest.co.uk/ArchiDesiign/
Folding table image, http://www.moderntinyhouse.org/tiny-house-extras/folding-dining-set/
Floating hut in Pressac, France https://www.village-flottant-pressac.com/cabanes/
The Romani caravans image, Mariusz Batura on pinterest