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Adventures in space - tiny homes in the UK

Tiny homes

‘Obsession’ may not be too strong a word when it comes to Britons and property. Stories of spiralling house prices run daily in British newspapers and programmes about houses – sharing a house, finding a house, building a house, changing a house, the list goes on – have long been a cornerstone of UK television schedules.

It’s not just about somewhere to live, either. In most other European countries, it’s not particularly unusual to rent your home from cradle to grave. But the great 
British house fixation has traditionally been very much about ownership - at least until very recently. Unless you’ve been in a coma at the bottom of the sea for the past 25 years, you’ll probably have noticed that houses have become very, very expensive. Perhaps even beyond the reach of many people.

So maybe it’s not a total surprise that a number of people in the US and more recently the UK have opted for a fairly radical solution: they live in tiny homes.

What’s a tiny home?

Tiny homes are – wait for it - very small houses, sometimes referred to as ‘micro-houses’. They vary in size, but anything smaller than 50 square metres probably qualifies. You wouldn’t be too far off if you pictured something the size of your average garden shed.

While not exactly new to Britain, the current trend for smaller dwellings seems to have originated in the US in the 90s. It’s sometimes traced back to architect Sarah Susanka, who wrote a series of books arguing that the quality of a home was more important than its size. Other contributors to the movement included Shay Solomon, whose website suggests people can “increase their happiness by living in much less space.”

The movement does seem to have struck a chord with Britons considering a simpler life – like the family who spent a summer in a campervan and found a scaled-down life had a lot to offer. And we all probably cast a despairing glance around the living room and fantasise about “decluttering” from time to time. (Though perhaps not to the extreme degree one British artist famously went to in 2001.) In recent years, tiny homes have even featured in programmes such as Grand Designs, Gadget Man and The One Show.

Why would you live in a Barbie house? 

Well, for a start, tiny houses mean tiny bills. In a time when domestic energy bills continue to rise, the appeal of lighting and heating a 46m sq space is pretty clear. And there’s quite a few ways to do it.

Others take the view that tiny homes could be a tentative first step onto Britain’s perilous property ladder. Mark Burton, of tinyhouses.co.uk, sells 135 sq ft cabins that he hopes might be ideal for students. Rather than spend thousands on rent and have nothing to show for it when you graduate, the argument goes, why not spend the same amount on a tiny home which you can then sell on to another student?

Meanwhile, tiny homes could be the way things are heading anyway. British homes are already a bit on the small side: research by Cambridge University in 2014 found that newly built homes in the UK were the smallest of any European country. Early in 2017, the British government said it might reconsider the legal minimum size of houses, currently at  37 square metres.

Will we all live in tiny homes one day?

Maybe, maybe not. Tiny houses won't appeal to everyone. The main disadvantage is – to be fair - fairly much contained in the term itself. A lot of people like their elbow room and just won’t fancy living in cramped conditions if they don’t have to.  Another significant drawback is planning permission. UK planning regulations are famously exacting and vary from council to council, meaning you can’t build whatever you like because you own the land. Even if your dream home is pocket-sized. So whatever about the distant future, it’s unlikely that Britain will be plastered in tiny homes anytime soon.

In any event, as a wise man once wrote, a house is not a home. Different things will suit different people, and most of us will probably have to just do the best with what we can afford anyway. And as tiny homes pioneer Sarah Susanka points out, it isn’t the amount of space we have, but what we do with it that makes us feel at home.

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