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In trying to learn more about container housing, I came across Alice Wilson, an activist and academic based in York whose work focuses on ‘tiny houses’.
You can see her TedX talk here.
AW: It’s a very sociological answer. So I apologize in advance. But there isn’t a standard definition of what a tiny house is.
I want you to imagine it more like a Venn diagram, right. So in one circle, there’s ‘off grid’.
In another circle, there’s ‘smaller than 50 meters square’ so that some tiny houses are quite big, actually. But the general sort of folk definition is 40 to 50 meters square.
Another circle would be like, something to do with a deliberate attitude, or something to do with a value driven lifestyle, summat like that. So there’s lots of overlap, say, with tiny house residents and veganism, they’re not the same thing.
Lots of people who are vegan don’t live in tiny house, blah, blah, vice versa. But tiny houses sort of are a mixture of different amounts of overlapping of these circles.
For the purposes of my own research, I include converted vans I include narrowboats I include shipping containers, people who live in horseboxes, like the extreme end of tiny houses.
I also include people who like secretly live in their artists’ studios, you know, where they like renting it for a few 100 quid and no one knows they live there, but they just got a little mattress on the floor. Yeah, kind of thing. But the more sort of conventional definition, like social media-wise would always be the trailer based model.
My focus is specifically on women.
Whenever you’re interested in power, you have to be interested in gender as well really, because it’s such a world-making system.
There is no area in England – none – that is affordable to a woman on a median salary.
So women need 12 times their average earnings to qualify for a mortgage, men need on average, eight, this is a bad situation for both groups, because banks tend to lend five times your earnings.
So this isn’t good for anyone, but it’s worse for women.
And of course, who is predominantly doing unpaid care work, raising children and so on? 67% of statutory homeless people are women. People think that that isn’t the case. Because when they think of homelessness, they think of rough sleepers.
Most rough sleepers are men because the streets are too dangerous for women to sleep rough on. So they’d rather take any any any other sofa, shelter or anything like that.
So the housing crisis is bad for most people, it’s especially aggressive to women.
Alice’s personal interest in the tiny house movement came in a roundabout way.
AW: When I’d finished my undergraduate degree, I got another full time job. I was working the whole time through my degree, and got a job because I wanted to buy a house with a partner and I needed to have so many payslips to prove that I could keep earning minimum wage for the foreseeable future.
And I thought this feels like a bit of a scam.
I don’t know about you, but this feels like a bit…bit of a racket. And it got me thinking about housing, and how that seems to be one of the centrifugal forces that catch and trap people into the places that they’re in.
So the single most powerful predictor of if you are going to be wealthy…it’s got nothing to do with how hard you work and where you live, and all that the most powerful predictor is if your parents are wealthy, that’s it. Most wealth is inherited.
There’s a slight economic and social conundrum when it comes to the demographics of tiny house residents that Alice has encountered in her research.
AW: People choose tiny houses overwhelmingly because of economic constraints. But of course, that choice is only available to people with a certain amount of financial and or social capital already, right?
Because the average house price in the UK now is something like £280,000, something like that, the average cost of a tiny house by comparison, microscopic about 40 grand, nothing in comparison with that, do you have 40 Grand? I don’t!
I couldn’t just rustle that up…it’s cheap in the context, but that’s just because the context is appalling. That doesn’t mean that tiny houses are actually affordable, you know, but they are more affordable.
So taking a pragmatic view, it’s gonna be more achievable to you to save up say 10 grand and get the rest on a personal loan than it is….if you saved up 10 grand, you wouldn’t be able to get a mortgage because of it’s not enough of a deposit.
And maybe you don’t earn enough that they’d feel comfortable to guarantee you a mortgage loan and that kind of thing. So it does offer more flexibility and welcomes more people in to the type of security that you can enjoy when you own the place that you live in.
This is counterbalanced by the fact that most tiny houses are illegal, they’re not given residential status, right? So people who are living in them are living in them in this liminal zone, like technically, it’s illegal.
But if nobody finds out, or if nobody complains, or you know, like, we just grow the bushes really high around the…which of course, means that people who have a grandma or their like dog walker’s cousin has got a massive house with a massive garden that’s completely private and not overlooked. They’re again protected.
So it just really highlights all the different ways in which these different forms of capital: financial, social, cultural, add layers, like a cocoon to protect certain people and, you know, conversely, expose others who don’t have those protections, to much, much more instability.
One of the big draws for people interested in tiny house living seems to be the flexibility to customise your space exactly how you want. And also the act itself of customising that space can be really beneficial.
AW: There’s a lot of evidence to show already that some of the reason that things like exercising or gaining a new skill, for example, how to use a drill, how to clad the outside of a tiny house, is good for your mental health, because it gives you evidence to show that you are effective at stuff.
And one of the core things that we can do to make ourselves feel great or terrible is to feel in control or not in control of our lives, which is part of the reason why contemporary working practices can be so harmful because most people are not given control over what they do in their day, who they report to, the content of their work life.
And of course, the content of their work life is really the content of their life, because they spend a majority of their waking hours there, right?
So building a tiny house, especially for women, because construction is such a masculinized industry, loads of the women I’ve spoken to, didn’t even know what a drill was, how to differentiate it between, you know, a monkey wrench or spanner, any of that stuff.
And proving to themselves how much they can do, has been transformative in their self esteem.
I don’t know specifically what it is about tiny houses that might encourage women to take more control over their space. Perhaps it’s the lower stakes in terms of how much the property is worth compared to traditional housing. Or perhaps it’s a product of this slightly counter cultural aspect of living that Alice has touched on.
She’s encountered some real rethinking of traditional domestic roles and identities.
AW: I spoke to one woman we’ll call her Sarah, she’s early 30s living in South Africa. They live in their tiny house with three kids.
A big part of what we were talking about was how the design of her house helps her to parent in a much more stress free way.
So this is in the design component in that she can wash the dishes whilst the kids are in the bath, and she can see what’s going on at all times, they’re like so close to each other, you could never do that in a traditional home, completely separate rooms and downstairs miles away from each other.
She can wash the dishes and feed her kids whilst she’s cooking. It’s all in like a contained area.
When the Frankfurt Kitchens, and other similar separate kitchen designs across Europe, were installed in the 1920s and 30s, it’s reported that one of the difficulties women had with this new design was looking after their babies and children while cooking, as the separate, fitted kitchen design meant there was no extra room for a table or play area.
And this design still persists in homes across the UK. Even though I’m not a parent, I totally get the appeal of what Alice is relaying here. If you can multitask supervising your kids in the bath while you cook dinner or do laundry, that’s definitely freeing up time for you to do much more enjoyable things.
AW: They moved into this tiny house because it would be so much cheaper and allow them both to work part time so they could equally parent their kids.
That was a real priority for them, you know that the parenting would be totally shared.
And that wouldn’t have been possible in a traditional home because it would have been too expensive. And the higher earner who is usually the male would have feel a logical obligation to work, to provide money for the family. And that just perpetuates that gender, you know archetype.
So I think tiny houses are likely to be correlated with heterosexual couples, sharing more and being more…the whole thing about tiny houses that that you kind of picking a bit more what’s really important to you rather than just recycling what you’ve inherited is normal, right?
And gender norms are what we inherit.
So it makes sense to me logically that if you’re critically interrogating, how do we live? then your relationship norms would also fall into that bucket of stuff that you’re critically engaging with, right?
Another aspect of tiny house living that I was really keen to talk to Alice about was the fridge.
There’s been such a move towards towards bigger and bigger fridges. Go back even a couple of decades int eh UK and the majority of people would have a fridge that fitted under their kitchen counter.
I guess we would now call it a half size fridge. But now more and more people have a fridge that is tall, it might combine a freezer, or it might be an American style one with double doors. In a piece for the site Treehugger, the writer Lloyd Alter muses on the changing role – and proportions – of the fridge over the past few decades.
He writes: “The big fridge, the big car, and the big grocery store were all part of one economic machine; in a sense, you cannot have one without the other two.”
But for most tiny house residents, the nature of their home means that a big fridge – or even an average size fridge – is impossible. Although there are exceptions
AW: So say for example, one one woman, she’s in her early 20s, she bought and moved into a tiny house next to her sister, it’s quite cool, they live together as neighbors now.
But she really loves to cook, she loves it.
She loves to entertain, she loves food, she spends a lot of time in the kitchen. And it’s quite unusual for tiny houses to have a full full full size fridge. But she designed the whole house around the full size fridge, like how to get it in through the door, how to make it so that you could open the double doors…like a big American style fridge, right?
And be able to have everything else all around it. This isn’t the usual way to do it. But that’s one of the great things that tiny houses can offer is that level of bespoke-ness.
And most tiny houses have the kind of fridge that’s sort of like a 50 litre one, you know, so it’s not like a camper van, little one. It’s like a half size one. The thing that people complain about the most is that a fridge that small, there’s no freezer space ice cream for nobody! Zero.
But that it does encourage them to buy more often and a smaller amount of produce. Yeah, you can’t save loads of leftovers and stuff like that. So you you’re eating what you’re making, like as you go.
And people do a lot of batch cooking, it seems like so they’ll do one big pan of like pasta, quinoa, potatoes, whatever and have that as the base and then put a bit of salad one day a bit chickpeas, a bit of chicken the next day or whatever and like make the meals like that, because it’s really easy to make a mess in a small space.
Anyone who’s been in a small if you’ve ever been camping, you know that everything just looks a state all the time. Everywhere you go, you’re hit with the decision that you made three minutes ago.
The cooling industry, which includes air conditioning, as these units use similar refrigerants to those found in fridges, accounts for around 10% of CO2 emissions worldwide.
That’s more than aviation and shipping combined.
The conscious choice to live…smaller makes sense in the context of what Alice said earlier about many tiny house residents leading a value driven lifestyle. Alice says that the tiny house residents she’s spoken to as a general rule think a lot about the environment and their relationship with it.
AW: We all have this insane idea that when we put things in the bin, we’re throwing them away, as if there is an away that we can throw it to…the earth is one place, one ecosystem that…there isn’t an away, you might as well chuck it in your back garden.
It’s a fantasy.
But that fantasy enables us to keep consuming and throwing away, which is vital to sustain the type of economic setup that we have.
And tiny houses…that isn’t so much the case, you know, you’re more aware of, of what you create, and what you waste because many of them are off grid, or at least partially off grid.
And because so many of them don’t have, like legal residential status. They don’t have rubbish collection, you know, there’s no bin people come in to get so they have to sort out all their own waste all the time. And you can only have a small bin right.
So you’re constantly confronted with your food, your waste, your mess, your everything.
A lot of the women say that they end up tidying up and cleaning up a lot more often, like multiple times a day, but that the overall amount of time in their lives that they spend cleaning is significantly less.
Like prefabs, tiny houses aren’t a permanent, perfect solution to a broken housing system.
But they are a solution that some people have embraced, with extremely positive results for those involved. This isn’t the cramped unsanitary housing that resulted in legal minimum space standards being enforced in the early to mid 20th century, this is a relatively affordable flexible way of living that allows people to take control of the space they exit in.
And I think – like prefabs- – there’s a lot to be learned from how people approach kitchen design from within these constraints. It forces you to consider what is really important to you – and what you can afford to leave behind.
AW: So one example that comes to my mind straightaway is a woman in 60s, who is disabled, she periodically needs to use a wheelchair and like walking aids and stuff like that.
And so her whole house is like longer, wider and shorter. So she’s got more space to move around in her kitchen, everything is accessible from when she’s sitting down, she doesn’t always need to be sat down.
But so her fridge is like a drawer system, rather than an opening one. It’s two drawers. One is a fridge one is freezer, the whole thing completely customized, really good. It’s perfect for her.
She started crying when she told me moving into her house. She was like I never ever thought that I would be able to cook the way I want to and live the way I want to and move around a house that didn’t constantly remind me that I’m disabled, and now she doesn’t even think about it any more.
AW: At the moment, we’re looking at retrofitting a decommissioned commercial property into units of self finish, one and two bedroom, tiny house flats.
Alice is actually in the process of building her own tiny house community in the increasingly expensive city of York where she lives.
AW: So well, we’ll provide the shell and really awesome community spaces, we’ve got a big kitchen, co-working spaces, a sauna on the go, a cafe where we can do like blues nights and open mic nights and stuff like really, really awesome.
Big gardens and that, And then you decide you want to come and live with us. So you come in and you finish off the walls, the kitchen, the bathroom, the fitting, like where things are partitioned as to where your bedroom wants to be, if it’s open plan or like as much autonomy as we can conceivably give you within the parameters of the planning permission that we have to get legally in order to carry the project through sure you know that there’s lots of like juggling going on with trying to keep everyone happy and still keep the heart of the project true.
Her and her co-directors Rebecca and Helen want to offer genuinely affordable housing to people shut out of the current property market.
AW: The most important thing is that it’s radically affordable, like more affordable than any, any anything else being offered. So we are willing to make compromises in order to provide that thing, that’s the most important thing.
A community of people who can really afford – properly afford not just nominally afford, you know.
The definition of affordable housing is 80% of market rent prices. But market rent prices are not attached to anything. They’re not linked to income, they’re not linked to anything. So to say that 80% of that is affordable is a nonsense.
So we’re working on a model of affordability that’s directly related to the local housing benefit amount.
The OpHouse project is in its early days, but Alice is incredibly positive about where it has the potential to end up.
LD: What do you envisage it to be like in that community?
AW: Really, really good.
Really friendly, really dignified and very beautiful.
It’s such an untruth, it’s such a robbery that you know, working class and poor people have no aesthetic sensibilities, that they don’t care what stuff looks like that they’re not also infatuated with beauty and design like the rest of us are, that’s not something that should just belong to people with money.
So what I imagine it’s like to be there is really beautiful, and a happy, happy mixture of individual private space and shared community space, where you can have whatever wacky designs you feel like inside and that people participate in a shared life there together.
That seems to be what a lot of people are asking us for, you know, unlike our list of people who want to live on the project.
It kind of speaks to what everyone fundamentally is looking for, right, which is meaningful connection to other human beings essentially. That’s why we do all the stuff we do. So I hope that that’s what it provides.