This research piece about tiny houses on wheels provides a snapshot into the movement, which presents viable solutions to housing, environmental and social issues. It was inspired by an interview with an amazing woman called Mikhara Ramsing who has recently built one with her partner, and whose story features in the next edition of Feathersome Journal.
Tiny houses on wheels are comparable to RV’s but built with traditional building materials and techniques to mirror the longevity and aesthetic of larger homes. They are defined by a size less than 400 square feet, a width less than 2.5 meters, a length less than 12.5 meters, a height less than 4.3 meters, and a weight less than 4.5 tonnes for towing purposes. They are a smaller, more mobile relative of small houses, which are typically between 400 and 1000 square feet. The small and tiny house movements gained momentum in the United States after Hurricane Katrina and the Global Financial Crisis, representing a financially viable alternative to traditional houses. They have since gained prominence in countries around the world including Australia. Tiny houses typically range between $25 000 to $90 000 depending on factors such as materials, size, optional features including decks and solar panels, and whether the house is a DIY project or purchased as a ready-made home. For context, in Melbourne, the average tiny home costs less than one-fifth of the average home, making it perfect for first home buyers or those struggling to afford a house and mortgage. They also require less ongoing costs associated with heating, maintenance, and repairs compared to regular houses.
There are many different ways that a tiny house can be utilised; from being a permanent home for a couple or family, to a temporary home, a retirement or holiday home, a home office, a guest house, a self-contained space for ageing relatives and teenagers, as well as a rentable space on platforms such as Airbnb. In addition to providing opportunities for home relocation, extra income and/or space, tiny houses provide an easier option for people to build their own home, to live off the grid, and have less of an environmental footprint. The reduced space encourages clever design including vertical space optimisation, dual-purpose features/appliances, multi-functional furniture and simply less consumption.
There are however concerns about the safety of tiny homes by industry and government, as the relative ease of construction sees more people attempt to design and build their own homes without professional help or expertise. There has also been pushback from communities which argue tiny homes devalue the surrounding houses and neighbourhood. One of the biggest obstacles to building a tiny home is where to put it once it is built. Buying land can still be very expensive, and in some states, local councils prohibit parking a tiny house on an empty piece of land or require people to have a permit to live in it in excess of a stated period of time. As for small houses and tiny houses without wheels, zoning regulations and building codes typically specify minimum square footage for new construction, as well as connection to the grid. In parts of Australia, they also need to build to BCA standards, require an engineering certificate, and include smoke alarms among other things.
As the tiny and small house movements grow, zoning laws and coding regulations concerning tiny homes are beginning to shift. However, this change is slow and the uncertainty is still a barrier to many. In states where people aren’t able to buy land and park their tiny houses, they have negotiated agreements with people who live on large properties, to park there for a renting cost. There has also the formation of tiny house associations and bodies, which seek to work with community, industry, and government to better understand zoning implications, safety, and the potential for tiny homes to contribute to greater choice in housing supply and diversity.
Whilst in Australia tiny and small houses are a stark contrast to traditional large-style homes, in an age of changing housing needs, inflated housing prices and increasing population density in urban areas, they represent a viable solution and alternative to high-density apartment living. The benefits of tiny and small homes are also highlighted in the current social and environmental context of an aging population and global warming. Action at both an individual and government level is required. Finally, another exciting application of tiny homes which is being trialed and advocated for in parts of the US is housing homeless communities. This is particularly relevant in Australia for single women over the age of 50, who are the fasted growing demographic for homelessness in the country.