One of the many problems with being deeply engaged in a niche subject such as architecture is that you can easily lose sight of what a "normal" person's perspective is on a topic. Through experience, we often assume that a rising trend that we notice on a daily basis has passed completely unnoticed by the general populace, and it's usually difficult to see when a topic has reached the critical mass to become a genuine social phenomenon. So imagine my surprise when I saw a joke about an architectural trend on a popular webcomic. Two months ago, Toothpaste For Dinner published an image of a character smugly telling his friend "that's cool... my Tiny House is a lot smaller, of course" as they tower over a comically small abode. Suddenly it became clear to me that the Tiny House movement was not just a curiosity for architects.
This realization leads to a number of questions: why are Tiny Houses such a big deal? What promise do they hold for society? And is there anything the movement is failing to address? These questions led me to conclude that, for better or worse, the Tiny House movement might just be the closest thing we have right now to a utopian housing solution - and if that's true, then the movement has a big task on its hands.
The Tiny House movement is, of course, a grass-roots solution to large scale economic forces: with huge swathes of the western world facing some sort of housing crisis, owning your own home is becoming increasingly expensive and increasingly unlikely. The Tiny House movement was born off the back of thousands of individuals who have decided that it is worth giving up some of their living space and possessions in return for the stability of home-ownership.
Ironically, the defining characteristic of Tiny Houses may not be their size; save for a handful of holier-than-thou ascetics (the likes of the cartoon character mentioned above), the driving influence behind these homes' small size is in fact simply cost. Cost is also the factor behind the movement's other main trait, the DIY culture surrounding the movement. For these prospective homeowners, building small and building it themselves is the only way forward.
When looked at in this way, the Tiny House movement actually exists on a spectrum of innovations, from minuscule anti-architect, anti-builder constructions on one end, to ideas such as the WikiHouse, an architect-designed system that proposes to bring DIY home construction in a range of sizes to people all over the world. What they all have in common is an attempt to bypass the normal systems of development, putting control into the hands of individuals rather than volume housebuilders and governments.
The challenge facing any kind of housing movement these days is a gargantuan one. Parts of the UK, for example, are said to be facing the worst housing crisis since the end of the second world war. In response, key thought-leaders have described the need for a "post-war spirit" in tackling the crisis, but what they've got instead is the lowest number of new homes constructed in any peacetime period for over a century. In the US, Wall Street investments are pushing up the price of both purchasing and renting homes, leading to "the worst rental affordability crisis that this country has ever known."
Considering these post-war-style conditions, it's no surprise that the spectrum of tiny/DIY house ideas has precedents from the post-war period. Jean Prouvé's Demountable House, for example, was an attempt to create small, cheap, prefabricated homes in the wake of France's devastation during the war. In the UK, Walter Segal developed a simple and inexpensive method for constructing homes that could largely be built by people with no previous experience. And in the US, the phenomenon of mail-order houses answered the call for housing shortages in the inter-war years, reaching their peak in the 1920s.
However, in the decades after the war all of these precedents were overshadowed - or entirely killed off - by a completely different model of housing. Inspired by the utopian ideas of architects such as Le Corbusier, housing shifted away from small structures initiated by individual demand, and towards mass housing spurred on by a government response to societal need.
Today, this history is unlikely to repeat itself. Firstly, the utopian housing developments of the postwar decades have gained such a poor reputation that they are widely reviled by the public, and no longer seem an appropriate solution to the majority of housing demand. Secondly, in the US and UK, as well as a number of other Western states, direct government intervention in the housing market is increasingly unlikely, as governments have shifted towards economically right-wing policies which privilege the market over state intervention. Finally, many postwar developments required almost wholesale destruction of their city's historic fabric, a move which would be met with widespread disapproval in the 21st century. All three of these conditions mean that this time around, Tiny Houses and DIY Houses are the most utopian housing strategy around today.
With that in mind, what can the Tiny House movement do to fulfill its apparent destiny? Despite the overwhelming differences in approach, what can postwar housing teach our current crop of housing visionaries?
For the most part, the Tiny House movement has so far been led by brave individuals, who have designed and constructed their own home from scratch, often using little more than trial and error as a guide. On one hand, this has allowed homeowners the opportunity to build the pleasing neo-colonial pastiche of their dreams, but on the other hand it serves as a deterrent to many others who don't have the courage to take that leap of faith.
For governments, the appeal of postwar housing largely lay in the fact that it was systematic: it required that you take certain elements and combine them in a certain way, and individuals are no different. They want detailed instructions, and preferably previous examples to follow. Attempts by projects such as WikiHouse to turn DIY construction into a simple system are welcome, but for DIY building to make a difference, they need to be more prevalent.
2. Make it customizable
With all that can be said for systematic design, it's important not to forget about people's need for individuality and appropriation. One of the most common complaints about postwar architecture is that it's "soulless" or "faceless." For designers of any DIY housebuilding system, it's important to offer the opportunity to add that neo-colonial pastiche, or anything else the owner desires, over the basic design.
3. Don't build to last
If there's one thing that postwar housing has shown us it's that once a crisis is over, the solution to that crisis may no longer be needed - and it's inconvenient if you built that solution out of millions of tons of reinforced concrete. We have no way of knowing whether there will be a future market for today's radical DIY constructions; it's also almost guaranteed that unless current housing crises persist, once the owners of Tiny Houses have children and move to a larger home, there will be noone looking to buy their old place.
4. Get governments onside
Even though governments won't be directly involved in constructing the next wave of utopian housing, prospective homeowners will still need their blessing, as governments can have just as much influence on the construction of DIY homes as they did on the construction of postwar superblocks. Legislation can either encourage or prevent homes of a certain size or construction type, and it can enable or outlaw construction by inexperienced builders. It can also either allow or forbid the use of certain plots of land for new homes, and it makes little sense to build a Tiny House on a plot of land big enough for a regular home.
One proposal by Finnish architecture student Olli Enne tackles the issue of land use head on. He describes how, in spite of the housing shortage in Helsinki there is still three million square meters of unused land tucked away in the residential areas of the city, between and behind the existing homes. To rectify this problem, with his proposal for a small DIY home he "wanted to create solution that would be tempting for land owners to activate that land." Which leads on to our final point:
5. Get NIMBYs on side
With current urban planning theory pointing towards a need for dense, diverse communities, the opportunity to fill in the gaps of existing neighborhoods - as with Enne's proposal - seems much more appealing than the prospect of monocultural Tiny House neighborhoods. Neighborhood integration, however, will require community integration on the part of the incoming residents. While postwar housing could afford to be obviously radical, DIY and Tiny Houses will require at least a veneer of conservatism. Again, this is apparent in Enne's housing proposal, with a pitched roof and timber facade that conceals the unconventional plywood staircase and a slatted upper floor that allows extra light through to the ground level. The design is also prefabricated in just four parts, meaning that construction requires almost no disruption to surrounding residents.
Currently, advocates of Tiny Houses and DIY Houses have not managed to fulfill all of these requirements. But with more and more architects getting involved in these increasingly popular movements, new and innovative proposals - from the WikiHouse, to the HiveHaus, to Olli Enne's small prototype - we could be getting ever closer to a radical solution that finally makes a noticeable difference to the world's many housing crises.