Small but Perfectly Formed: Tiny Houses at the Ready

By Philippa Hadlow

Reading time: 16 minutes

When Malvina Reynolds penned her 1962 song ‘Little Boxes’ she would’ve had no idea how a musical protest against social reform would herald the way for a revolutionary style of housing in time to come: tiny houses – now a 21st-century necessity and desire for many.

Reynolds’ song was a political satire targeting the 1940s suburban architecture movement towards ‘tract housing’ – the development of multiple, similar houses on very small sections. From the ‘40s to the ‘70s, demand for these homes went through the roof – for good reason. Their very conformity meant they were quick to build, and as each was built to a standard blueprint, labour could be relatively unskilled. Many components such as stairwells and plumbing features were pre-fabricated off-site and installed in one fell swoop, and logistically, with limited scope for time and cost-consuming points of difference, the economies of scale were brilliant.

By Philippa Hadlow

Reading time: 16 minutes

When Malvina Reynolds penned her 1962 song ‘Little Boxes’ she would’ve had no idea how a musical protest against social reform would herald the way for a revolutionary style of housing in time to come: tiny houses – now a 21st-century necessity and desire for many.

Reynolds’ song was a political satire targeting the 1940s suburban architecture movement towards ‘tract housing’ – the development of multiple, similar houses on very small sections. From the ‘40s to the ‘70s, demand for these homes went through the roof – for good reason. Their very conformity meant they were quick to build, and as each was built to a standard blueprint, labour could be relatively unskilled. Many components such as stairwells and plumbing features were pre-fabricated off-site and installed in one fell swoop, and logistically, with limited scope for time and cost-consuming points of difference, the economies of scale were brilliant.

They were a no-brainer property purchase for post-war homeowners, and they took off – much to the chagrin of social activists like Reynolds and free-spirited architects. Criticism at the shortened foresight of developers (who enjoyed the ease of construction and quick buyer uptake) ran rampant. The houses were built in bulk lots, isolated from amenities and devoid of any sense of community. Yet, aside from fulfilling a housing shortage, the benefits of living in a smaller sized, cheaper-to-build home appealed to many. Tract (state) housing is still being built today; the need to house a massive human population forms the plinth of our most basic requirements. But over time, it has transited, morphed, and divided into a niche possie of its own genre: tiny homes.

Callum Barnett, Senior Architectural Graduate, BOON

BOON Senior Architectural Graduate Callum Barnett says the idea of simple, minimalist living, using clever fittings and camouflaged storage has become a highly viable option triggering new thought on how domesticity can realistically revolve around a much more compact smaller space than expected. International influences – mainly from Japan – have been one precursor to the concept. “The cultural, urban and environmental conditions are significantly different in Japan than New Zealand due to higher ratio of people to land, therefore less space available per person.

“In dense cities like Tokyo, designers had to look for small, constrained plots of land for opportunities to develop. These spaces were seen in driveways and accessways being transformed into three-story homes, with no windows on either side and only skylights and street windows. More people equals more demand for amenities – laundromats, food, cleaning services – which means there are activities that people in Japan do in the city rather than in their homes. It’s part of the culture of how they live,” says Callum.

“Other factors encouraging the tiny house movement in Japan were restrictions and planning rules unique to Japan. These included high inheritance taxes and land prices, which, in turn, encouraged the demolishing of older buildings and selling the land into very small plots. The planning rules also placed far fewer restrictions on the appearance and aesthetic of the building than what we typically have in Western countries.”

In New Zealand, we have an affordable housing stock shortage. And our urban sprawl and ever-increasing infrastructure costs just keep spreading.

“Fundamental town planning principles teach us that the denser a housing area is, the more cost-effective and sustainable it is to supply with service infrastructure – like water, electricity, and wastewater disposal,” says Barnett. He sees communal style tiny home village living as a practical and attractive solution to infrastructure and shortage dilemmas.

Palmerston North City Council Papaioea Social Housing Complex
Image source: BOON team architects ltd

Colleague Krystal Cudmore recently worked on one such development in Palmerston North. “The City Council embarked on a $7.3 million social housing revitalisation at Papaioea to meet huge local demand. The way to achieve this on the existing piece of land available was with tiny homes. A large development comprising 78, soon to be 85, small, attached houses of 50 square metres each, universally designed to Lifemark-rated 4 stars,” Barnett says. (Lifemark ratings demonstrate the home is safe and usable for all ages and stages, including elderly with accessible entries).

“Communal style village living needs to cater to a diverse range of housing typologies, and tiny houses will accommodate both economic need and smaller family types. The architecture is simplistic and identical to reduce construction costs and improve affordability. It uses simple medians as bright colours to differentiate between units, creating a sense of ownership and identity.

“It is important in village developments that there is emphasis on creating this identity and community, and ensuring the design of the space between and around each house is thought through well. This space is just as important as the building itself. It’s here that people interact, have privacy, yet also observe others. If these things are done poorly, then communal developments quickly deteriorate into slums,” asserts Barnett.

Social housing such as this is tracking slowly to fulfil a desperate shortage for healthy, low-cost shelter, and a sense of community for many.

Other private home buyers have taken the ‘little boxes’ theory, blown the perceived space negativities to bits and embraced the real-time possibility of calling a tiny home their own.

For New Plymouth couple Natalie Kennaugh and Zara Losch, building a couple of homes – at 18 square metres each – was a practical solution to their lifestyle needs at the time. Newcomers to Taranaki and wanting to establish new careers and a fresh social scene, they bought a steep section overlooking the Huatoki Valley and set about designing two houses that would dovetail into a tree-filled environment.

Zara and Natalie enjoying the space and land around their tiny home, 2016

Natalie’s retired architect father advised on the plans, and the couple spent “hours and hours trying things out to see if they would work”. Making every centimetre count meant everything needed to be bespoke, and all was constructed off-site. According to Natalie, living in one home (and Airbnb’ing the other) panned out to be “80% awesome, 20% not so. The summers were great; the winters were tricky. It was beautiful, though, located on a great site – we felt so connected to nature,” she says.

“Living there was an amazing boost. It seems insane to have a big mortgage if you can avoid it. So we got on track financially, had time for our hobbies, and loved not wasting, or consuming, excess energy. It felt different, too – we were creating a whole new step on the homeownership ladder.”

Their house was flatteringly featured in Catherine Foster’s Big Ideas for Small Houses, and Natalie and Zara lived there happily for two years; rented it out, then in 2020, their first tiny home was shifted in readiness for the next one, this time slightly more spacious at 80 square metres – about the size of a fairly well-appointed holiday home.

“We spent a long time on the layout of the house, creating a double-height void in the dining area, incorporated hatches, a large mezzanine, playroom, and bedroom and different styles of storage … the views are amazing,” enthuses Natalie. “It’s playful, magical, and interesting – and super-fun for our little boy!”

In New Zealand, early advocates like Natalie and Zara were radical for their time. Although there are now tiny home franchises popping up throughout New Zealand, the industry here is very much in its infancy. Space is on our side and home dwellers continue to hanker after a house that fills it.

“New Zealanders have historically grown up with the desire to live on our own quarter-acre land complete with the vernacular three bedrooms, bathroom and garage. It is our way of living and investing for our future. It is a concept that we fundamentally struggle to think of not having,” states Callum Barnett.

Even current council planning is predominantly geared toward favouring individual plots of land with sufficient space to build ‘standard’ (larger) sized houses, with setbacks from boundaries and requirements for garages and accessways.

But though New Zealand doesn’t suffer the same land shortages as other countries, the luxury of large-scale living is perhaps a dream never to come true. Property prices have raced up the scale at such momentum that, in Taranaki alone, the median is now nudging $600,000 compared to $300,000 in 2015 (REINZ, 2022).

Barnett sees the tiny home industry as a strong solution for price issues: “Tiny homes are becoming more discussed as the country is impacted by rising inflation, and exponential land and construction costs. Within urban environments, this has eventuated into compact townhouses and apartments, which are really only renting options to a lot of younger people trying to get into the market.

“Affordability is fundamental – the cost of building correlates to the size of the house, and construction in New Zealand has continued to rise dramatically in the past 24 months. I know of friends who have purchased a dream piece of land yet cannot afford to build the house they would typically like. Therefore, they build a small transportable home to live in, until such a time whereas they can afford the larger. This option then gives them a small sleepout, and in the long-term, that can be utilised for guest stays and generate further income,” says Barnett.

It makes good sense. And affordability coupled with eco-friendliness, a small footprint, and minimalistic living means the idea of a tiny home is very attractive indeed.

“People desire to use fewer resources and live a more environmentally conscious lifestyle. Some like to live more decluttered; have fewer things to reduce maintenance and stress and live more minimally,” maintains Barnett.

Similar worthy inclinations were explored by American transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau in his book Walden; or, Life in the Woods, published in 1854. Thoreau’s two-year stay in a 14-square-metre cottage was considered a social experiment in living self-sufficiently and meditatively in a natural environment deprived of luxuries. He proved that it could be done, and Thoreau’s theory of ‘getting away from it all’ to pursue peace and simplicity has perhaps transposed into our modern-day love of the cabin, campervan, transportable home, or bach.

It’s a lifestyle that’s evolved rapidly and diversely. Nowadays, the motivation isn’t so reflective and romantic as it is practical, ethical, and economical. And it’s stuck with many consumers – like Natalie and Zara – as a fast-resurging solution for today’s straitened housing market.

“If people want to own and create their own space and not rent, they can with a smaller footprint. This achieves the balance between reduced mortgage costs and potentially a better lifestyle with more disposable income or not having to work longer hours to service their debt. There is a small but growing group who are very passionate about eco-friendliness and environmental impact. Yet it is still a more expensive option than a typical design.

“But as technology improves the automation of electrical devices, sensors, temperature controllers, PV (photovoltaic) solar panels, and battery development (assisting in saving electricity and therefore reducing impact on the environment), those costs will become more feasible. However, smart technology is not entirely necessary, as the effectiveness of a tiny home lies in the virtue of its size,” says Barnett.

That virtue receives plenty of high profile celebrity promotion, too. New Zealander Bryce Langston travels the world in his Living Big in a Tiny House YouTube series (with four million subscribers and over 550 million views across the channel). In the US, multibillionaire Tesla chief Elon Musk has sold up much of his property portfolio and is reportedlyliving in a 35-square metre Boxabl home while focusing on his mission to Mars. UK Amazing Spaces and NZ Mitre 10 On Demand’s Tiny House series presenter and London architect George Clarke has long espoused the benefits of tiny living.

Think tiny homes, and you might be on your way to reassessing your life to create one that’s more viable, sustainable, economical, and several steps beyond quirky. Tiny homes reflect a new zeitgeist of homeownership now and for the future.

Little Boxes
Little boxes on the hillside
Little boxes made of ticky-tacky
Little boxes on the hillside
Little boxes all the same
There’s a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one
And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky
And they all look just the same.

– Malvina Reynolds, 1963

Photo: Andrea Davis, Unsplash

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