The Tiny House: A rustic solution to Britain’s Housing Crisis?

Rustic red Tiny House in Valley.

If living in my one-bedroom flat in Bracknell taught me anything, it is that I don’t actually need a lot of space to be content.  Admittedly, when I’m at someone else’s house I often think about how many of the rooms I won’t use, and indeed, what kind of model railway can I stuff into them.  It’s almost a reflex reaction at this point, albeit a rather fanciful and materialistic one.  But the simple fact is that all I really need is a Bedroom, Living Room, Kitchen and Bathroom, and I’m a happy bunny.  But there was one spectre I simply could not escape from:  Living Costs.

The British Housing Situation

It’s no secret that Britain’s housing system is under strain.  Her Majesty’s Government released a white paper back in February 2017 whose figures make for some startling reading:

  • Britain may be a small country compared to it’s land mass, but it’s not like Japan; Only 11 percent of land in the whole country has been built on, and unlike Japan, there isn’t an annoying abundance of mountains, or a need for scarce arable land, to inhibit housebuilding and drive habitation towards the coasts.  I have seen this fact for myself as an avid train-traveller all over the country.
  • An interesting financial phenomenon has emerged in the 21st Century; as house prices keep going up, it has become commonplace for houses to earn more for their owners than the national average wage:  2015 saw house prices in the South-East rise by £29,000 on average, while wages averaged out at £24,542.
  • By 2020, the Council of Mortgage Lenders predicts that only a quarter of people in their 30s will be homeowners, in stark contrast to more than 50% of retirees.

Given that my income of just shy of £20K can only just afford me a £500/month bedsit (the flat was a temporary arrangement between family, and cost me about the same), whilst still allowing me the disposable income to run the shenanigans detailed on this blog and on Flickr, it’s hard to argue with the report’s grasp on reality.  To make matters worse, mortgage lenders are currently bearish, with the end result being that the very most I could secure from them was ~£83,000; this is even considering that the mortgage repayments, even at the beginning, were only half my rent!

Just recently, though, that did get me thinking:  Could a cozy, two-bedroomed tiny house be built for that kind of budget?  And if so, would it be worth the bother?

Just before we begin, have you heard of Help-to-Buy?

Yes, I have heard of this scheme from the Government, which does seem to be made for the hour, and with hearts in the right place.  Essentially, it is a range of financial options designed to ease the burden of the rising cost of home ownership.

I’ll be using the Equity Loan as an example, as I assume this will be the standard way for homeowners to approach the prospect of buying a house.  You take out a mortgage for 75% of the value of the home, so for a £200k property this will be £150k, with a 5% deposit of £10k; the Government will step in and provide a £40k loan for the house, making up the remaining 20% of the value.

The main idea behind the concept is to allow you to present a 25% initial deposit to the mortgage lender, as opposed to a mere 5%, giving homebuyers access to more competitive interest rates.  The Government loan is also Interest-Free for the first five years, which is just as well since that is the time when the greatest amount of principal is owed, leading to the highest interest payments.  Money Saving Expert has a page which cuts through the legalese provided by official government documents and gives a layman’s explanation; find it here.

While this is a decent attempt to put housing within reach of those of more modest means, it is still only a bandage solution to the wound:  The fact that there isn’t enough houses to meet demand, which causes the high prices in the first place.  If things carry on as they are, house prices will continue to rise on account of scarcity, pleasing homeowners and house-flippers, but leaving many first-time buyers out in the cold; isn’t it time we took matters into our own hands?  Petitioning the Government to end the housebuilding drought is a good long-term solution, but for those who are willing to brave the splinters and red tape, read on.

Why build a Tiny House?

The name Tiny House may imply a downgrade to some people, particularly those set on living in Chelsea, as though they are “settling” for an inferior product.  While square-footage is an obvious compromise, I’d like to present you some more subtle reasons for taking on a Tiny House project, based upon a little preliminary research on the subject:

Incorporate cutting-edge energy-saving technologies into your property

Houses are built to last.  Those words sounded more than a little brain-dead coming out of my mouth, but it’s true.  With this in mind, it should become obvious that adding modern developments to older properties is difficult, often impractical, and possibly illegal if it is a listed building.

With future developments such as DC home circuitry, thin and lightweight insulation materials and efficient, cheap solar energy set to become commonplace, future-proofing the design of your house is a lot simpler when the wires are being installed in the first place, as opposed to already buried in the walls.

More space in your house for the things you love

Most homes are designed for separate furniture units to provide the bulk of the storage, presumably to allow for maximum flexibility in configuring rooms.  But ask yourself this:  When have you ever encountered someone who switched out all the furniture of one room into another, and vice-versa?  I myself have never seen that happen.  On the few occasions that I’ve seen people move bedrooms, the furniture usually stays where it is with the stuff being moved between storage solutions, because it’s such an abject arse to shift all those heavy, wooden constructions across the house.

With this in mind, building a Tiny House gives many opportunities to build storage into the walls, specialized furniture and, for the creative, even the ceiling and floors.  It educates the builder in economizing and inventing to make the most out of spaces that most others would consider unworkable.

 

You’ll be able to live in comparable comfort for significantly less money, and reduce your impact on Mother Earth

Tiny House living is chiefly about eliminating waste, and getting back to the essence of what comfortable living is about.

Leaving aside the costs of your chosen site, many companies offer fully-built, habitable homes on wheels for around £25,000, and about half of that for a barebones shell.  That’s a far cry from the ~£185,000 average cost of a house in 2016, and it’s even less than the average amount of student debt!  A little look at Rightmove reveals that a small parcel of land to live ‘off-the-grid’ on can be had for as little as £10,000 but realistically, we can probably expect to pay ~£25,000.  Even so, the mortgage figure of £83,000 that I got still leaves a contingency of £33,000 for legal and logistical costs.

As for the environment, Tiny Houses are small spaces, which in turn require smaller heating devices which heat that space up quicker, saving energy.  In addition, the emergence of water-efficient washing facilities, as well as composting toilets, enable water to be supplied via a 40-gallon tank like those used in caravans, which can be made to last a day or two especially if the showers can recirculate their water supply.  Waste water, known as ‘Grey Water’, can either be piped into a Septic Tank or drained into a suitable patch of ground.  Gas bottles are typically used for the appropriate appliances, but with efficient electric heating of both the home and water supply the use of fossil fuels can be dispensed with entirely.

Potential Planning Issues

Attention:  This is not Legal Advice in any way, shape or form.  Seek a qualified professional for concrete legal counsel if you plan to build or buy a Tiny House yourself.

This is where the red tape rears it’s ugly head.  Not being a legal professional, I’ll do my best to dredge up solutions which apply across the UK at the time of writing.  This is by no means an exhaustive list and if anyone has an additional solution I would love to hear about it in the comments below.

When wouldn’t you need Planning Permission?

Tiny ECO Homes UK, a company which specialises in constructing custom mobile tiny houses, states these conditions for doing without planning permission on it’s website:

  • Locationas long as the tiny home on wheels is within the ‘curtilage’ of a house – this means the driveway or garden, for example.
  • Type: the tiny house must conform to the legal definition of a ‘caravan’ under the Caravans Sites and Control of Development Acts 1960 and other associated regulations.  Three tests are applied to the home: 1) construction test, 2) mobility test, 3) size test.

Essentially, as long as the building functions as a caravan (durable enough to withstand the stresses of the road, can fit under bridges, etc.), and is parked upon an existing residence or caravan park, you should be okay.

The Four/Ten Year Rules

This is an odd one, and not one for those of us with a nervous disposition.  Apparently there are these rules regarding what is effectively tactical Squatting.

If you park a caravan, or build a house, in an unnoticed part of the woods, and no complaints reach the local council for a certain period of time (four years for buildings, ten years for caravans), the dwelling attains a legal status and a ‘certificate of lawfulness’ can be sought.  I’d assume woodland would be the ideal place to do this, given the visual concealment as well as attenuation of sounds through the trees.

I’d say that nervous people should stay away from this gambit, mostly because even if at 1 minute to midnight someone filed a complaint, that would see you turned out onto the streets, with your lovely new home demolished.  Good relations with your neighbours are a must.

Design Ideas

And now we leave the dry practicality stuff behind, and move onto the fun part!  What kind of tweaks and techniques can you apply to create more space within less square footage?

Bedroom
  • Many Tiny Houses install their beds in a loft area above the main living space.  This raises some privacy issues should a spouse and/or children come along, but it’s a workable compromise.
  • Murphy Beds – A brand name for a folding bed, which is a piece of furniture which only sees use for perhaps 10-12 hours out of a 24 hour day, so why not retake that space for the active half of the day?
  • Combine the functions of the Living Room with the Bedroom.  This can be done either way, either by sleeping in a convertible bed in the Living Room, or by moving the TV and entertainment near the bed.
Living Room
  • Seating can be built around windows – a combination of natural light and comfortable seating make for an ideal reading space.
  • Place plenty of storage options in seats – the space underneath chairs can readily be used even if the chair moves around often, provided that the drawer underneath is secure enough.
  • Build shallow drawers into shelving – Ideal for small items such as car keys, jewellery and journals.
Kitchen
  • Mini Oven with Hob – The size of a standard microwave, these units can comfortably cook enough food for one person, and with the addition of the hob units on top, they can take care of a family, with the oven cooking the meat and the hobs preparing the vegetables.  They can also run off of standard 13A 240V sockets, unlike many regular-sized ovens which require their own fuse.
  • Use folding dining furniture – How many of us are content to eat at the TV, the PC, or just on the sofa?  Collapse the additional furniture until guests come along.
  • Build the kitchen prep storage, utensils and surfaces into a roll-out unit that retracts under a dining surface when not in use.
Bathroom
  • Commode Chair – Commonly associated with incontinence in this day and age, but the combination of toilet and seat could prove handy whilst brushing your teeth, drying off, and can also have a sink built in for further space efficiency.  Franklin D. Roosevelt had one in his armoured railway carriage, the ‘Ferdinand Magellan’.
  • Install a Composting Toilet – Exactly what it says on the tin, breaks down excrements into a fraction of it’s original volume by creating the ideal conditions for the right micro-organisms to thrive.  Provided that these units are offered adequate airflow, and that the solid waste is kept reasonably dry (not mixed with urine), these toilets are quite liveable and require no mains water supply.  Composting Toilets are doubly handy when used in conjunction with a vegetable patch.
  • Bathtub built into the floor – This is more of an option for those permanent Tiny Builds, and needs no introduction.
  • Bathtub built into a Sofa – A brilliant idea I saw mentioned in this article on GoDownsize, and could probably solve the above issue for a tiny house on wheels!
Miscellaneous ideas
  • Build atop a basement – this is obviously for the more permanent Tiny House, but if there are height restrictions that measure from ground level, a basement could be a desirable American import; it doubles the available space inside the house without adding to it’s external bulk, and it contributes to stability.
  • Take advantage of natural energy sources through design of the house – One such way is to place a wall of bricks where sunlight will warm them during the day, and then the bricks will release the heat throughout the night, reducing workload on the heating system.
  • Model Railway around the bed – okay, this is a personal one, but indulge me here 😉 Just make sure buildings and scenery are protected from stray feet!

In summation

In terms of history, it seems that the Tiny House Movement was inevitable.  Post-war prosperity in the United States fuelled the drive for bigger, more prestigious houses and greater amounts of material goods, as the country suffered very little wartime damage and was until recently making a mint off of the loans helping the Europeans get back on their feet; and with America being at the top of the world, this soon became the template for the aspirations of cultures all over Western Europe and many places besides.  As such, it is fitting that such a counter-cultural movement would originate from the United States.

You can probably tell that I’m quite enthusiastic about the prospects of the Tiny House Movement.  I’m no Communist or Anarchist by any stretch of those words, but I, like many others, can see the writing on the wall:  We cannot keep clamouring for more without consequences.  For too long Western Culture has been buoyed by easy credit, used to create unsustainable appearances of prestige which do nothing for society but pass debt onto your next-of-kin.  The cultural issues behind all of this are far too extensive for this post, but the point is that the Tiny House Movement signals a positive change in direction, towards living within your means and caring for your surroundings.

I would highly recommend looking into Tiny Houses, even if you already own a home; there is a phenomenal amount of creativity in extracting the maximum amount of use out of the minimum amount of space, and beyond that, there is a highly positive message of how less really can mean more.