Away with the fairies, or a seriously good idea?14th Mar 2021
Unless you’ve been living under a rock with no internet or cell reception, you will have been bombarded with cute, adorable, clever tiny house ideas. But is there any place for the tiny house movement here in South Africa, where most of the population live in ‘houses’ that would make a tiny house seem uber-luxurious? Perhaps the most important thing the tiny house movement can do is to get people to rethink what is necessary, and what is possible. And that’s just what any smart developer should be doing.
The tiny house movement is about people who chose to scale down, who find solace in stepping off the work-earn-accumulate-die treadmill. Of course, in South Africa, many people live in ‘houses’ that happen to be tiny, but they are not tiny houses. A tiny house is a smart house, it’s a stylish house, it’s a house with panache. It’s a house of which the occupier, owner, builder and developer can be proud. Perhaps it’s time to really interrogate the possibilities of tiny houses.
Could tiny houses nudge us towards housing equity?
We know that we live in one of the most unequal countries in the world, and nowhere is that more obvious than in our homes. Now it’s obviously not possible for every South African to live in the equivalent of a house in Parkhurst or Rondebosch, but it is also definitely not desirable for every (any) South African to live in a shack with no access to safe and effective infrastructure. So, perhaps there is a place for tiny houses – for beautiful, well-designed, liveable tiny houses with style. Especially if they have off-grid capability. Perhaps even tiny house estates, or tiny house villages?
Not exactly reinventing the wheel
The knee-jerk reaction: ‘RDP houses are tiny houses and they’re awful’ is not unreasonable. But it’s also not accurate. RDP houses are small, but it is obvious that most of them were built without love and care, while the defining feature of a tiny house is that it is designed to create a dignified and positive living space by maximising available resources through clever design.
There are elements of tiny house communities in many townships and in some of the rural areas, where people have created dwellings of style and substance at very little cost. While working on the books Shack Chic and Mud Chic, Craig Fraser visited and photographed some extraordinary homes. ‘With access to very little in the way of resources, some people have created homes with heart and soul,’ he says, ‘from vibrant colours to the clever utilisation of space, or a novel way to implement unusual materials. Upcycling is not a new fad – ordinary South Africans have been doing it for years.’
That’s all very well, but does this really entail an actual opportunity for developers? Well, it’s not a risk-free no-brainer, but embracing the tiny house ethos, and combining it with existing ingenuity, may be a way to ameliorate the endemic inequity that plagues South Africa – a way to align corporate social investigation with your core business in a synergistic way that may, in the long term, create a more sustainable business environment.
It seems like a daunting task – and it is – but there are quite a few international examples of conscious tiny house settlements, some of which have evolved to solve issues of homelessness, and some of which have been created because they reflect the way more and more people are wanting to live. Both of these routes illustrate what is possible if we just think outside the box (and are prepared to live ‘in the box’).
Some of the more impressive – and certainly more important – examples of tiny houses in other parts of the world evolved out of necessity. The Quixote Village in Olympia, Washington, USA, grew out of a somewhat scruffy and disorganised tent community of homeless people. There are a surprising number of these transitional communities in the USA, some of which – for example, Occupy Madison in Wisconsin, Community First village in Texas, Opportunity Village and Dignity Village, the latter two both in Oregon – are particularly aptly named.
Less is more
But tiny houses are not just about housing the destitute, the homeless and the displaced. Oh no! Tiny houses are cool, tiny houses are hip and tiny houses are the way of the future. Some tiny house communities are made up of people who are gainfully employed and/or relatively affluent, but who choose to live more simply – and that does not mean living boringly or without style or comfort. Some almost luxurious tiny house communities in the USA include a gorgeous lakeside retreat, and a tiny house community near the skiing mecca of Aspen.
A question of balance
So what is the difference between a tiny house village and an informal settlement? Perhaps just recognition and security. Perhaps, with some stability and some input, existing informal settlements can evolve into more stable communities, which is what most forward-thinking urban planners are suggesting – in situ redevelopment, rather than ‘slum removal’. Possibly even more importantly, making tiny houses desirable is a powerful way of narrowing the gap of lived experience between rich and poor.
Tiny start for tiny houses in SA
Tiny houses are not yet big in South Africa, but many people have built some lovely innovative ones, and there are some great ready-made ones on the market. Cape Town-based Bungalo produces stylish wooden modular homes from spruce, and will deliver anywhere in the country, and Pangopod – also Cape Town-based – manufactures an off-grid ‘mobile’ pod that can be classified as a caravan for purposes of transport and parking off. But that’s the easy part. Buying – or building – a tiny house is just the beginning. The tricky part is finding somewhere to park it.
That’s where Wanderlust Co differs from the rest. They manufacture and sell a small range of tiny houses, which you can tow if you have a big enough vehicle, or which they will deliver, but they’ve gone one step further. ‘What we’re trying to do,’ says co-founder, Matt Bower, ‘is disrupt the property market by creating micro estates – preferably within existing residential estates.’ They’ve built a small mini-estate in Ballito with – so far – two houses, and Matt and his wife have been living in one for 18 months. The plan is to have four homes on 4,500 square metres, so it’s not crowded at all.
The plan, he says, is to have micro estates all over the country. So you can live in one for a month or two, and then ‘move house’ (literally). Wow. I can imagine living in the Lowveld or KZN in winter, Namaqualand in spring, somewhere on the coast in summer, and Cape Town in autumn.
The big deal about tiny homes is making home ownership more accessible but, as Matt points out, access to finance is a big barrier. At the moment, most banks do not recognise tiny homes as bondable assets, so potential buyers would need to take out a personal loan to buy one. But this is likely to change as the movement gathers momentum.
Tiny houses – big ideas
Tiny houses are gorgeous – and having a part of an estate devoted to tiny homes would add diversity, and make the estate more accessible, without compromising on style. There may even be a market with existing home owners who might like to have a second home on another part of the estate – a home they can, literally, pack up and take off with for a month or two at the coast, or in the bush.