Some call them small homes, while others prefer ‘tiny homes’ or ‘tiny houses’.
Whatever the terminology – which, like the homes themselves, is evolving – more and more people are getting their heads around the idea of creating living spaces that depart significantly from the consumption-oriented large-footprint model that has been considered the norm in recent decades.
With thousands worldwide building and living in their own ‘tiny homes’ – often off the grid, and usually off the radar of local authorities – the idea has transcended what some critics decried as a fad to become an international movement with both economic and ecological advantages.
At the same time, there are roadblocks to full acceptance of tiny homes – including a lack of formal recognition by governments on a local, national and regional level – that have made most tiny home dwellers virtually rebels by default.
But online videos, like those produced and hosted by New Zealand’s Bryce Langston (whose Living Big In A Tiny House has become a highly popular YouTube channel) have provided examples of enterprising tiny home-owners and DIY builders around the world, helping to accelerate interest at an exponential gallop.
On B.C.’s Lower Mainland, the highly successful Westcoast Small Home Expo, currently scheduled to return for a second year at the Abbotsford Tradex on the weekend of June 6-7 – again with Langston as one of the headline guest speakers – provides ample evidence of that interest on a local level.
Tiny home experts and professional builders provide one of the most attention-getting components of the show – including a construction zone feature, where a ‘live-build’ of a tiny home will take place through both days of the expo.
Exhibitors can also give attendees a good idea of what’s available in the way of fittings, appliances and accessories, kitchen, bathroom and storage ideas, and many others products and services geared to a pared-down lifestyle (for tickets and more information, visit smallhomeexpo.ca).
A tiny home is generally defined as a residence of no more than 400 square feet, usually built on a flat-bed base for relatively easy transportation when towed by a truck, with a maximum width of eight-feet six-inches (anything wider makes special moving permits mandatory).
Lower areas of the typical tiny home strike a balance between kitchen, living room and bathroom areas, while beds are usually located in low-ceiling lofts accessed by ladders or stairways.
Working within such limits, owners and manufacturers around the world are daily probing the outer limits of ingenuity in finding solutions for creating a sense of openness in spite of long and narrow envelopes, as well as maximizing storage, bathroom and utility space.
Depending on the site chosen, there’s potential for a tiny home to hook up to existing electrical and sewer/septic services, or, with the use of solar panels, propane-powered appliances and composting toilets, living ‘off the grid’ entirely, with a minimal ecological footprint.
But it’s not just a matter of ecology. Reducing the footprint has become increasingly attractive as people ponder the very real 21st century challenges of owning their own homes, particularly in inflated markets where even exceedingly average houses have become million-dollar properties.
Langston – who compares Auckland, New Zealand’s tough housing market with Vancouver’s – said following last year’s expo that it was a very real issue for him, as a young actor who had gone back to auditioning for roles after his character was written out of a major television series.
“I began to realize that a tiny home was one of the only chances a young person like me would have to own their own home,” he said.
It’s clear that many others feel the same way. The Living Big In A Tiny House channel has 2.9 million subscriptions, with untold further millions of unsubscribed viewers – while for Langston and his partner Rasa, shooting and editing segments around the world has turned into a full-time occupation.
Australian-born Ben Garratt of B.C.-based Healthy Homes – an expert builder and teacher of low-impact tiny homes and a senior advisor for the expo – agrees that economic factors are fueling the current wave of interest in this style of housing.
“The main driving force is affordability,” he said. “I think the idea of this being a fad or a trend is long past. Maybe it was at the start, a little, but now affordability is the big thing, and that’s not a trend – that’s reality for a lot of people.”
While Garratt says that interest in tiny homes seems to cross all age demographics, he calculates that some 70 per cent of the people investigating the concept are women – and many of those are approaching their retirement years.
“They don’t just want somewhere to live – they’re interested in creating a home,” he said.
On the Healthy Homes website Garratt – whose company provides assistance and advice for would-be tiny home owners and builders from providing plans, through courses and building workshops to the finished product – lists a rough rule-of-thumb cost for a tiny home built to professional standards of $60,000.
Prices can vary widely, however, with high-end manufactured homes coming in at considerably higher than that, while DIY enthusiasts have built for as little as $10,000 to $30,000 through enterprising sourcing of materials.
Langley resident Anette Atsma – who coincidentally fits Garratt’s profile of the tiny home-curious – did just that when she designed and built her own home in the Chilliwack area in 2016, with the help of a friend with building expertise who was also intrigued about the process.
The 240-sq. ft. home – which included two lofts – was built on an 18-foot commercially-rated flatbed trailer base.
“We built it from scratch and it cost me a total of $17,000, of which $4,000 was for the trailer base,” she said.
“There was less than $1,000 in used materials and the rest was all brand-new material.”
But Atsma, who has a working background in the RV industry and subcontracting out her own home renovation in the 1980s, said she benefited not only from that experience, but also by making friends with staff at a local Rona, who were able to advise her in choosing strong but flexible light-weight products and point her toward bonafide deals on materials.
“I bought the trailer on June 1, we prepped it and had it all ready for construction by July 1 and even with only working on it on weekends, it was ready for me to move in by Nov. 1,” she said.
Lightness and durability of construction was a must for Atsma, who said her natural wanderlust inspired a home plan intended for frequent moves from community to community.
“You have to stay under 10,000 lbs. so that it is able to be pulled by a regular truck,” she said.
While Atsma remains enthusiastic about the tiny home concept, she’s less enthused by the haphazard building techniques and highly individual, but less than pragmatic, materials that she sees in a lot of current projects.
“I look at some of these units and I cringe,” she said. “If you plan on travelling anywhere with it, you don’t use drywall, you don’t use tile – you don’t use anything that will crack or break. You hit a pothole and you know what’s going to happen.
Garratt – whose long-time career emphasis on safety and healthy building techniques stems from early experiences with toxic products in the mainstream construction industry that compromised his health – also suggests that investing in some professional advice can help the unskilled and unwary DIY builder avoid costly-to-rectify mistakes.
These can range from dangerous construction flaws and wiring errors to serious condensation and mould issues as a result of choosing the wrong kinds of materials and not providing adequate ventilation to the structure, he said.
Even if one is not yet ready to take the plunge into a tiny home, Peggy Richardson, marketing manager for the upcoming expo, said it aims to provide a wide range of ideas for those interested in occupying a smaller footprint.
“We’re all about small homes of all types: condominiums, townhouses, laneway homes, tiny houses, “Granny” suites, and those downsizing from larger homes,” she said.
Richardson noted that tiny home designs have also become far more individual over the last few years even though a typical long box/one-way tilted roof look has tended to dominate.
“(The tiny home) used to be seen as very homogenized,” she said. “But it’s become very regionalized, depending on where you are in the world, incorporating traditional ideas and materials. Europe is putting a different spin on it than Asia, and Canada is putting a different spin on what the U.S. is doing.”
Part of the appeal of a tiny home is that provides an opportunity to assert individuality and have a space which, while small, is truly reflective of the owner’s personality.
At the same time, it must be noted, most tiny homes currently occupy a grey legal area – local governments have generally not kept pace with the trend or been able to modify zoning regulations to allow the homes legally-recognized sites.
And financing, while available in Canada, tends to hinge on the tiny homes being built on a flat-bed trailer base and CSA certified as an RV – which, officially at least, precludes them being lived in year-round.
Garratt said he believes the majority of tiny homes in B.C. are technically sited outside the law – not unlike the situation with illegal suites.
“(Enforcement) is a complaint-driven process – if you are on a property that’s a little out of the way, and you get on well with the neighbours, you don’t have a problem.”
In the worst-case scenario, a municipality can demand a non-conforming tiny home either be removed or demolished, which is why it’s desirable to build on a wheeled base to protect your investment, Garratt said.
“I think with tiny homes, we’re in the same place that lane-way homes were in in the early 2000s, when a lot of people had built out their garages as extra units. There had to be a lot of advocacy done for them to be permitted in Vancouver. Tiny houses are in the same early stages and there are a few different groups working on advocacy including the BC Tiny House Coalition.”
But Garratt said the key for advocates is not demanding changes on a municipality or regional level, but lobbying for tiny homes to receive a new CSA certified RV category – one that recognizes them as suitable for habitation year-round – which would give municipalities flexibility to allow them in already RV-approved zones.
There are some indications on the local front that tiny homes could be accommodated.
White Rock housing advisory committee chair Coun. Anthony Manning said the committee would be prepared to look into tiny homes as one potential strategy for providing affordable housing.
City of Surrey general manager of planning and development Jean Lamontagne said it’s technically possible for someone to buy a property in the city and apply for a permit to build a tiny home. It just hasn’t happened to this point, he said, since most property owners are focused on building a home “near or to the maximum allowed by the zoning bylaw.”
“A tiny home on wheels would fall within the mobile homes category and Surrey has properties where the zoning allows for mobile homes,” he added.
Garratt and Atsma agree that there are some lingering prejudices when it comes to tiny homes – partly based in resistance to change, but also in fears that allowing them might result in a proliferation of casually-constructed eyesores and shantytowns.
Atsma ended up selling her tiny home for $35,000 – more than doubling her money, it should be noted – because she could not find enough RV parks in B.C. that were willing to set a precedent by accommodating it, even for an overnight stay.
“I loved it and I would live in another one again if people wouldn’t be so pig-headedly obstinate,” she said. “But very few parks will take them because they don’t look like other RVs.
“The people I sold my home to happen to be sitting on an acreage overlooking a lake near Kamloops, which is a perfect spot for it – they’re in a non-conforming area where they don’t have to worry about rules and regulations.”
But Garratt said he remains optimistic that tiny homes will soon have the seal of legitimacy as a viable affordable housing option.
“We’re poised and waiting for the cities and municipalities to catch up,” Garratt said. “It will happen – it’s just a matter of time.
“One of the great things about the tiny house movement is that most of the kinks about building them have already been ironed out,” he said.
“It’s always going to be trending up,” he added.
“It’s plateau-ing a little at the moment because of a lot of these legislative and regulatory issues, but as soon as those are sorted out it’s going to spike. If this is the most affordable way for people to get into a house, then that’s what people are going to do.”