In many parts of the world bigger is often seen as better. Big is synonymous with success, which in turn, equates to bigger cars and obviously, bigger houses and thus the big – upwards cycle continues. Absolutely fundamental to the development of consumer societies has been acquisition, the need for more, the enhancement of financial value and the colonisation or ownership of spaces
“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex… It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction”. Albert Einstein
“And of course now everything is bigger. And we have more stuff. I’m in a 50s house and have fewer people than it was designed to house so why are we so cramped? I do like a smaller kitchen though, as long as it holds all my crap. I also like small bathrooms. But like a modern American, everything else MUST BE BIGGER!”
“I think it’s gross how much bigger Americans “Have” to have our houses than most of the rest of the world! It kills me when the non-designed McMansions keep popping up in suburbs all over, and they have 2 living rooms, a den, a kitchen big enough for a hotel restaurant, and 18 bathrooms…really?!?!?!?”
“We have two people in 1800 square feet. It’s a challenge to use every room every day, though they do all see action throughout the week… Sometimes I miss my 425 sf apartment, but there was no room for my chair collection there…”
“I love having lots of space. One of the strengths of this country is that you don’t get forced into living in a shoe box”
The trend has been toward larger houses and smaller households. Why do we need all this room? What is it for, and how do some people manage to live with less? What is this ideological and psychological predilection for big, bigger, biggest when one of the cliches of modern life is our desire to find a tiny space of our own. It seems this public private tension makes no sense at all until we consider the value-barren and spiritually arid framework and milieu we live in.
The trends towards the ownership of space are readily visible. In the US for instance, though the size of the average family has steadily decreased since the end of the Second World War, the size of the family home has increased in volume. More space for fewer people?
Average House Size By Country
Australia – 214.6 sq m (2310 sq ft), 2.56 people per household (pph)
USA – 201.5 (2170), 2.6 pph
New Zealand – 196.2 (2112), 2.6 pph
Canada – 181 (1950), 2.5 pph
Japan – 132 (1420), this year the pph in Tokyo dropped below 2 for the first time (1.99)
UK – 76 (818), 2.1 pph
The largest households are found in Iraq with 7.7 people. India has 5.4 people per household, and the world average was 3.8 in 2002. The UK is notable for having the smallest houses on the list, and in all of Europe. Six UK homes could be built on one Australian lot.
Likewise the desperate scramble for home ownership in general led many to believe that ownership was not just a right but a status confirmation. Of course banks were only too happy to lend, regardless of abilities to repay. And so the vicious cycle of foreclosure and home loss begins. Its seems logical to go two ways; larger households or smaller houses. Larger households are more efficient because many people are sharing space and resources, maximising on both. This is why students, and other people looking to maximise resources, often choose to share living space. It saves money, and resources.
A solution to this and wider environmental concerns might be found in the small house movement. Although the origins are unclear, the movement is thought to have started in the US by Sarah Susanka. The basic philosophy of quality over quantity, or “build better, not bigger,” is described in great detail in Susanka’s first book, The Not So Big House, which discloses her conceptual principles, developed in later essays. She expands on her philosophy into how we live our lives in her seventh book, The Not So Big Life, focusing on “quality, not quantity” of time and life experience.
The Small House Society is part of what has been called the Small House Movement. The Small House Society set up in the US are what they call advocates for less. They say there has always been an interest in small houses. However this interest is rapidly growing today as a result of various factors such as: economic conditions, concern about the environment, and a desire for simple more effective living. People who are able to make smaller living spaces work often end up having more time and money for other areas of life such as marriage, family, education, fitness, and career. This helps create a more balanced and enjoyable life. Their mission they say is the desire to support the research, development, and use of smaller living spaces that foster sustainable living for individuals, families, and communities worldwide.
So, is this simply the glorification of the shed, a phenomenon which has taken off significantly in the UK in the last decade or so? Popular cultural references to ‘the shed’ have made them synonymous with men’s space, tinker rooms, space away from family and demanding wives. Generating a range of comic references and published spin-offs, this glorification of the shed space spawned a variety of man-sized spaces with dart boards, jukeboxes and the ubiquitous mini bar.
Having said this, the demeaned concept of the shed-space has been challenged by recent trends. Channel Four recently ran a series called George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces, which trailed with…’George Clarke explores the extraordinary world of small builds, where people turn tiny spaces into the most incredible places to live, work and play. He even tries making one of his own‘
Across Britain there is a small space revolution under way. From sheds to camper vans and even shipping containers, people are finding inventive ways of creating beautiful spaces in the most unlikely places. Similarly, a movement towards mobile home and canal boat living has increased in the UK, suggesting that some people are able and willing to try living in different ways and smaller spaces. A growing number of people now think that way, as more of us look for a simpler, cheaper lifestyle, closer to nature. In fact, the Residential Boat Owners’ Association estimates that there may be as many as 15,000 houseboats in the UK, with between 30,000 and 50,000 people living on board.
The Small house movement has the distinct advantage of not only design and style, but also an ideological underpinning, which makes us think a little differently about where and how we might live. One is reminded of the work of E.F. Schumacher who wrote,
“Man is small, and, therefore, small is beautiful…Infinite growth of material consumption in a finite world is an impossibility…The way in which we experience and interpret the world obviously depends very much indeed on the kind of ideas that fill our minds. If they are mainly small, weak, superficial, and incoherent, life will appear insipid, uninteresting, petty, and chaotic”. E.F. Schumacher Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered
Taking Schumacher’s notion of small being beautiful to logical conclusions, the decision to nano-fy ones living spaces can be seen as a conscious effort to make a lifestyle choice, to privilege quality over quantity and, simplicity over the complex acquire and consume lifestyles of western society. If we can drive smaller cars, reduce our communicative experiences to the size of a smart phone or do all our shopping and daily organising through the tv screen, why can’t we live in smaller houses? Admittedly, not everyone would want to live in such a confined space, those with small children spring to mind, but there are those who might. It seems that the small house movement has some way to go and has quite a wide spectrum of observers. Some see it as a solution to a room shortage, somewhere to put the children, store the bike or house grandparents when they visit. At the other end of the spectrum is something far more serious and thought provoking. Living off grid for example might be seen as a practical alternative for some, whilst reducing outgoings and freeing up income might be attractive to others.
Besides giving you the opportunity to learn to live with less and be content, small homes offer a wide array of other environmental and cost benefits. Because they are small, they use fewer materials and therefore cost less to build, maintain, or replace when needed. And they use a lot less energy, which is good for both your wallet and the planet. In fact, small houses can even effectively incorporate passive house principles for the ultimate in energy savings. So do you have to live without luxuries when you live small? “The key to living small is not to go without what you need, but provide for what you do need as efficiently as possible. There are elements you leave out (huge master baths, three car garages/storage units) but I don’t think you miss out on anything by not having those. It’s back to that simpler lifestyle of living with less and being content. I think the ideal resident in one of these tiny houses would be a person or family that understands the concept of living with less and being content. Hard for many but not impossible?
Take for example the amazing work of TinyhouseUK.co.uk who are one of the few UK based construction businesses in this growing movement. We think they are unique in the UK for creating tiny houses on wheels which are fully mobile and easy to park, insulated and very cheap to heat. These tiny spaces can be fitted with shower, WC and kitchen, even have double bed sized sleeping areas. In no sense does this feel like sleeping in the shed. As they say,
‘…tiny houses are a huge hit in the United States, Canada and Australia and is gradually catching on here in the UK. People are looking at small living for a couple of reasons. a) to be able to live a greener life and help the environment and b) Live cheaply which gives them more income to save for a deposit on a property bricks and mortar property. Tiny Houses are very cheap to run. They are fully insulated, can have everything you would expect in a small property and use very little energy to heat them. The compact design creates an ideal mix of space and functionality giving you everything you need to live economically’.
There are lots of sites which deal with and discuss the tiny house or small house movement. If you want to know more about small houses see http://www.tumbleweedhouses.com/ and the building possibilities you can visit www.tinyhouseuk.co.uk.
TinyHouseUK will be at the Grand Design Live at Excel London in May 2013. Also, in their pipeline is a plan to create a showroom location where prospective buyers or the intrigued can stay and sleep and try the TinyhouseUK experience. Watch this space or TinyhouseUK.co.uk for further updates.