Housing

Tiny houses: A small solution to a big housing crisis

Living in tiny houses could offer people the best chance of getting on to the property ladder - and provide a solution to a social crisis

The housing crisis is a very big issue but the solution could be tiny.

Welcome to the iKozie. This compact abode has all the mod cons – fully fitted kitchen, toilet, shower, lounge area, a bed with plenty of built-in storage, and a flat-screen TV – all slotted neatly into a 17.25-square metre space.

“It’s an individual micro-home,” says Kieran O’Donnell from Worcester-based charity The Homeless Foundation, explaining where the ‘i’ in ‘iKozie’ comes from. “We thought people would euphemistically say it’s cosy because it’s small – we’re aware of that. But because it’s so well designed, there’s a flow to it and it actually works better than a larger flat.”

The iKozie was created as an innovative way to address the chronic shortage of move-on places for homeless people, and has just been approved by the local council.

“In hostels you become institutionalised,” O’Donnell explains. “That can be a good thing in some respects – it gets you off the streets and you don’t have to worry about where food is coming from. But our ethos is to help people become independent. In a hostel you tend to get fed by somebody else – you don’t buy the food, though you do pay for it – you’re not responsible for utility bills, you’re told when to get up in the morning and what you can do during the day. What we’re trying to do is to give people total independence but with external support.”

Inside the iKozie

An iKozie resident will have to do their own cooking, laundry and pay their bills. There will be the support of a resettlement worker to help them budget and, as O’Donnell puts it, “get them through the bureaucracy of life” until they become fully independent.

The iKozie was designed in conjunction with Eastabrook Architects and planning consultants Planning Prospects, which drew inspiration from the layouts of luxury yachts and first class airline compartments, such as Etihad’s ‘Residence suite’ on their newest fleet of Airbus A380s.

What we’re trying to do is to give people total independence but with external support

Last month Etihad announced that a return fare from London to Melbourne would cost £55,000. The iKozie only costs £40,000, cheaper than a luxurious trip to Australia and less than half the price of a studio flat in Worcester. It will be constructed offsite and craned into position. The first will be placed in the garden of a property owned by The Homeless Foundation but O’Donnell hopes others can be placed on land donated by the council or on brownfield sites that are less attractive to developers.

An aerial view of inside the iKozie

“It has its own structural integrity with the steel frame that is within it, so needs only shallow foundations,” O’Donnell says. “That helps with potential contamination on brownfield sites. You are not digging up the entire plot, you are selectively picking spots for your corner foundations.

“They can be stacked, you can do a little block of four or a much bigger development of 40 or 60. You could create a community of students and young professionals, as well as getting homeless people in there, because you wouldn’t want to create a ghetto. We’re hoping we can mortgage these units, which means we can finance them more easily and they can become a long-term social asset and not just a short-term depreciating shed.”

The iKozie is not the only pioneering example of social architecture. Y:Cube in Mitcham, south London, is a 36-module apartment block that was opened by the YWCA in September.

“We’d been looking for a decent solution to the dearth of good-quality accommodation for single people in London for four or five years,” says Simon Tanner, who was the development consultant for Y:Cube. “We came into contact with architects from Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners who had been doing work on micro-homes. Their solution and our need created a perfect storm.”

The apartments are being rented out at around 65 per cent of the market rate in the area, allowing residents to study or save for a deposit. “Y:Cube provides good-quality, affordable, sustainable housing for them to move on,” Tanner adds. “Everyone should expect and want their own front door and to live independently.”

Y-CUBE-LAUNCH_2
Unveiling the first Y:Cube site at YMCA Mitcham.

What makes the iKozie and Y:Cube stand out is they are not simply cheap ways of warehousing the homeless, they are using smart design to find a real solution to a social problem. The average house price in the UK is £211,000 and rising at £16,000 per year according to the ONS. This traps people in the rental sector, which brings its own problems. A report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation last week found that the number of people living in poverty in the private rental sector has doubled to 4.3 million in the past 10 years. Tiny houses, which make the most of space, could offer people the best chance of getting on the property ladder, or at least the property footstool.

People have started to think, if we had one of these we could live without a mortgage

The tiny house movement started to gather momentum in the United States after the international banking crisis in 2008 saw many having their homes repossessed, and it is beginning to spread to the UK.

Jonathan Avery lives on a smallholding near Linlithgow in Scotland. Inspired by the architectural challenges of building a tiny house, he formed the company Tiny House Scotland and created The Nesthouse. It is only 3.4 metres wide but acts like a TARDIS. Inside, believe it or not, you would describe it as being spacious. It even has an upstairs.

“There is a lot of cleverly hidden storage,” Avery points out. “A lot of optional furniture that goes away under the stairs. It’s very adaptable. It’s light and a pleasure to be in.”

Although it is built on wheels – to “get around certain aspects of planning” – Avery repeatedly clarifies the fact that The Nesthouse is not a caravan.

The NestHouse

“Caravans do fulfill a need for certain people but they’re not built very well,” he says. “They are not constructed the way you’d construct a house, they are poor in terms of insulation. I’ve built this in the way you would build a house, it’s framed like you would frame a house, which means you can insulate it really well and is absolutely solid. It will last a long time, it’s not a flimsy caravan.”

That is true. Tiny houses are not holiday cabins, pimped-up sheds or dare I mention the C word again – but real homes. They bring the concept of being a homeowner back into the realm of possibility for a large percentage of the population.

“And we’re not talking about slumming it here,” Avery continues. “It is compact but comes with potentially a lot higher standard of living. There is an area in the market where it could solve some housing problems for certain people, whether that is as an affordable starter home for a single person or a couple; to be used on infill sites or for students. I’ve had a lot of interest from older women who are empty nesters, widowed or divorced and don’t want to rattle around in big houses any more.

“This is something people could live in for less than £50,000. People have started to think, if we had one of these we could live without a mortgage. We wouldn’t have to have a millstone around our neck in terms of debt and have to work the rest of your life. That chimes with a lot of people. I wouldn’t suggest it’s a panacea – it’s not for everybody – most people will probably look at it and go no way, that’s the size of my kitchen/living room/toilet. But if it’s well designed it can be absolutely beautiful. If I could transport you to sit in the one I’ve built, I guarantee you’d be wowed by it.”

While Avery sees tiny houses as providing a temporary solution for students or people needing an extra rung attached to the bottom of the property ladder, the structures themselves are permanent. In Amsterdam, The Wenckehof was built as a temporary housing experiment for students, out of 1000 recycled shipping containers. It proved so popular that it has since been made permanent. Shipping containers are cheap and portable so it is no surprise they are being adapted to provide alternative housing. What is a surprise is that the idea has been around in the UK since the 1970s. Paul Goodman of MAC Container Co Ltd, based at an aerodrome in Epping, is apprehensive about speaking with The Big Issue.

“Our order books are full for the next seven years,” he says. “The last thing we need is additional publicity.”

Inside a container tiny house.

MAC Container Co Ltd do not use old shipping containers but manufacture purpose-built units that can be fully customised. “We are the manufacturer of these secure container-type accommodation,” Goodman says, going on to describe the dramatic increase in interest over recent years as people seek cheaper places to live.

“There is nothing you can get – nothing – in southern England for two bedrooms for less than, say, £350,000 and these are a tenth of the price. The advantage is twofold. One, obviously the cost, and two, they’re transportable. They can be moved from brownfield site to brownfield site, which is what a lot of councils do. They give us a five or 10-year planning permission and when that’s up, five or 10 years somewhere else. All we do is come along and move the things. It’s not rocket science.”

The company’s client list includes 33 councils across the UK, mostly in southern England because they have the most intense demand for housing and are realising these kinds of structures can be used on brownfield sites. The planning issue can still be a stumbling block for customers, though.

“The government have said to us, ‘If we relax our planning applications, will you do the Calais site?’” Goodman says. “We’re still in negotiations with that because we don’t want to do it. And the reason we don’t want to do it is because we currently have a 12-week lead time, I don’t want to have a 12-year lead time. The Calais thing is huge. We would rather supply the UK economy because every one we supply kick-starts something else. We supply councils with 10 of these for the same price as one ordinary unit. It means they can house more people, there is cheaper social housing and more money available for the economy.

“We’re not only here to make a profit,” Goodman adds. Has the housing crisis been created by developers prioritising profit over people?

“Of course. But that means the problems that cause the housing crisis are not impossible to solve. They can be solved very easily.”

Top picture: the launch of the first Y:Cube site. Courtesy of YMCA Mitcham.

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