I’ve lived in a tiny space (a bus, not a Tiny House) for three years now and it’s fundamentally changed my perspective on most of my life. I’m going to quickly take you through some of these changes because it was this experience which has bought me to instigating The Tiny House Collaborative.
The first and most obvious change was getting rid of most of my stuff. This was difficult for me but I think as it might happen for most people - the more I got rid of, the easier it got. The reason it gets easier is you start to feel lighter, more freedom; and if you’ve never experienced this then my honest recommendation is: you should, it’s addictive. Having less stuff also in a curious way starts to sharpen your own sense of self, it’s like you get more comfortable inside your own skin as if in some way the stuff you own subconsciously has a hand in defining you.
The second and more important change is the realisation that there is no point in buying anything because you have nowhere to put it. If you do buy something it becomes a big deal because you either have to lose something else or you have to sacrifice some space which is quite a big deal.
You will likely as a result of this, buy really good food instead and eat that. This is my favourite part.
The third change is you find there’s a lot going on outside because it’s right there (and often quieter than parenting four boys in a mobile tin can). This means more exercise, more fresh air and a much busier social life.
The fourth change isn’t related to the space but rather the technology. It used to be that to fully engage in the society around you, you needed a telephone number and a street address. Nowadays the mobile has replaced the need for a land line and email has *almost* (I'm looking at you local democracy) replaced the need for a street address. This ability to fully function while of no fixed abode is possibly the most overlooked advantage that technology has gifted us. If you intend to move a lot in your tiny house then, this is quite important. It's also important to note, the designs and technology exist to make these spaces very liveable, warm and healthy. Healthy homes is an especially important issue right now in New Zealand.
Finally an experience. I remember when I was a councillor on a local NZ district council and a certain rather highly paid council staff member dropped me home in his fancy vehicle. As we pulled up he actually made quite distinct disapproval noises at the sight of my inner city character house (which admittedly I was painting at the time). This has remained both humorous and bewildering to me, humorous that people take these buildings as status symbols so seriously and bewildering that people take these buildings as status symbols so seriously.
The summation of these changes and experiences is what made me personally sit up and take notice of the Tiny house movement. Suddenly a house wasn’t the life mission, it could be a pocket knife for life - it could be precisely all you needed it to be with just the technology that you required. It was the ability to change location because of work or lifestyle without having to fund lawyers just to sell your house and buy a new one, you didn’t even really need to pack. This is how I came to appreciate Tiny Houses.
Being mobile for three years around New Zealand you often find yourself parked on the outsides of society. The places where councillors like myself wisely decided those generally irksome freedom campers would be most out of view of our beloved rate payers. What I’ve found is it’s in those same places where you often find those without the glamorous luxury of an 11m bus, or van and with no house to go to. It was after a sad incident in Tauranga when we unwittingly stole a visibly stressed woman's park for the night that a sense of conviction set in. I could see that the combination of my council experience with my belief in Tiny Houses put me in a fairly unique position to help the two (councils and tiny houses) get along better and that if the two did get along better it’d mean a lot more happiness and safety for many people.
Which brings me to the problem.
Tiny Houses are currently seen as a way to get around council rules. But they actually don’t quite. Yes they quite cleanly (or so it appears) get around building consents by being on trailers. But from the data I have already, in most of New Zealand they'll end up requiring resource consents. So yes while your Tiny House is (simplistically) “legal” it’s often only the case if you don’t live in it for more than three months on any piece of land. To make things more complicated this is potentially quite varied all around the country as it’s governed by the 60-70 odd councils we have and their district plans. Being a non complying activity (by virtue of the fact their concept doesn’t exist in the planning documents) leaves the Tiny House owner at the mercy of their neighbours and/or a comparatively large resource consent fee.
This isn’t much of a solution.
Overseas there are councils that are changing their plans to make Tiny Houses a permitted activity (this means no resource consent required if certain conditions are met - just like building a compliant house in a residential zone). The reasons they are doing this is there are a number of compelling reasons why the Tiny House concept is quite a useful construct in helping Councils fulfil their role.
The Tiny House represents a flexibility that Councils can add into their planning that no other option gives them. It gives them added flexibility around population growth and housing shortages. It gives them flexibility around temporary land use and population density and it allows them to get better utilisation of their infrastructure and support local businesses by increasing the numbers of people able to live in proximity to those businesses.
For council’s communities it allows people to respond to life events in a much more flexible and healthy manner.
Families have more options in caring for their elderly. Friends have fun ways to organise their houses together without crazy financial risks and single parents can help each other out by living in proximity. Anecdotes from overseas have retired couples building Tiny Houses on their property, moving into them and renting their main house out.
It’s of course important with any planning decisions to take the long view on the viability of any change but it would be remit to not also mention that the IMF at the time of writing states that we have the least affordable houses in the world. This is a massively frustrating issue for our young families that don’t have rich parents to help them into their first home. It’s also widely recognised that we have a housing shortage and it’s estimated by our academics that one in 100 people in New Zealand are homeless. Tiny houses aren’t the only solution to this puzzle but they can certainly play a sustainable and large part with minimal relative effort by councils.
So the goal of The Tiny House Collaborative is to help local communities adapt their planning documents in a way that would make Tiny houses a permitted activity.
The methodology is to provide a collaborative environment whereby we can exactly determine the solutions to the council planning issues Tiny Houses currently face and then just as importantly, what the processes are to reach those solutions. Once these processes have been determined the Collaborative will work on a (web based) dataset that follows all the councils and their zones and what stage they are at in respects to this process.
The purpose of the dataset is to INFORM local communities where their councils sit in relation to progress on the issue and what is both; the results they need to aim for and the best processes to achieve those. If there are members of those local communities who want to see Tiny Houses as a permitted activity within their jurisdiction, this will be hugely valuable to them. It is envisaged that once one or two councils have done the hard work on this, most others will likely largely duplicate that work if they proceed down the same path. Identifying early adopter councils and planning departments wanting to take the lead on this is definitely a part of the process.
The dataset will be hosted at tinyhouse.nz (not yet live) but we have a slack team set up for those who have wanted to get involved. If you would like an invite - please contact me at hamish [at] verb.co.nz to let me know the email address you want an invite sent to.