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Tiny houses should be a design (more than a lifestyle) issue

From books to TV series, tiny houses are a dream for many, stirred by the desire for urban nomadism and a “less is more” lifestyle. But life in an XXS home is not everyone’s cup of tea. And here is why (and the answer has got to do with design)

«Small is not nice ». The statement sounds heretical in the era in which the Danish hygge (topic trend on social media of 2017) and the recommendations of the reorganization guru Marie Kondo are so popular. But American writer Gene Tempest has had enough. Of hygge, of Kondo. And of books like Small Houses, Big Time or series like Tiny House, Big Living on HGTV. «The new little American dream is a mistake», she concludes.

This article was originally published on DCasa la Repubblica 1085, download here PDF

Small is not beautiful

And not by hearsay: for 10 years she has been living with her husband in a house of 45 square meters. Gene’s choice was imposed by the crisis but embraced with enthusiasm, riding the wave of the then rising Tiny Houses Movement. Living in XXS houses with little, in a sustainable way, in the name of an essentiality that is good for body and spirit. After a decade of Less Is More, however, their verdict is merciless. «In tiny spaces, bad things become tyrannical. The laundry basket and the washing machine have the physical presence of design icons», wrote Gene in an open letter to the New York Times.

Small spaces, great inconveniences

«Sofas, cushions and fabrics get older quicker, worn out by the lack of alternatives. The smells of the kitchen remain attached to the walls, clothes, sheets. It is impossible to escape this taste of failure, which creeps everywhere. For some time, I have ceased to be ashamed of my politically incorrect dreams, like those of the generations that have preceded us. Dreams to which we no longer have the right: island kitchens, gigantic armchairs in which to sink with a book, rooms where to walk in a straight line».

A tiny house by DNC Architects

Tiny houses: choice or obligation?

The considerations of this educated and progressive lady, albeit not very rich, tell the other side of the phenomenon of tiny houses. That is mini-housing without foundations and sometimes transportable, cheaply built and often independent from an energy point of view. Which, in the last three years, has literally exploded. Just see the dots that are added every day on the opensource census Tiny House Map. Some choose such accommodations for ethical reasons. They abhor consumerism, and believe in the ruralist principles of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. But many more, now, live in xxs houses to avoid dizzying mortgages. It’s the new poor.

A home xs to avoid the mortgage

Or those who do not want a life full of debts. The Tiny Life, the blog that gives pragmatic information for those who choose a minimal existence, says so clearly. In the United States, 68% of those living in a tiny house do not have a mortgage or credit card debt (65%). And it has savings of up to 10 thousand dollars in the bank (55%). It is thanks to this change of perspective that builders such as Dan George Dobrowolski of Escape Tiny Homes are doing great business. «It used to be just ecologists. Then came those who lost their homes due to the financial crisis. Now there are lots of people who prefer to spend money on something else than a debt. And there are many: in 2016 and 2017 my business grew by 200% per year».

For many but not for everyone

But a tiny house is not for everyone. And it is a pity that the star-and-stripes exaltation has given it an idyllic interpretation. Considerations like those of Gene Tempest are also understandable by those who live in a tiny house by choice (after lovingly designed and built in Italy). Like Leonardo Di Chiara, 27, an architect from Pesaro. His aVOID mini-dwelling granted him the Berlin Award 2017, which allowed him to work for six months in the German capital. And be part of the Tiny House University (an association no -profit born in 2016 by the architect-activist Van Bo Le-Mentzel.

XS houses should not be positioned as a dream

«This lady’s cries for help show that tiny houses are a possibility but not a solution», says Di Chiara. «It is a mistake to entrust a small space to those who request social housing because it requires adherence to minimalist principles. Few objects, little water consumption, limitation in activities: it is not for everyone». Instead of being elevated to the status of “dream”, tiny houses should be studied because they are potentially useful for providing answers to the challenges of contemporary cities. Such as migration, cultural and religious integration, gentrification, economic inequality and unemployment. This is indeed the purpose of TinyHouse University (TinyU), which brings together designers, activists, carpenters, architects, sociologists (some of whom are refugees).

From tiny houses to solutions for the city

It was by analyzing the most intelligent tiny houses and developing new ones that in just two years of activity TinyU has created ad hoc solutions for refugees and homeless people. Tiny canopies to be used on the road to protect from the elements, temporary mini-shelters and an open-source project for a micro-dwelling on wheels. And now it is active in a project on a larger scale. A five-floor experimental condominium in the center of Berlin where the cheapest unit (6.4 square meters) will be rented for 100 euros per month and will be joined to traditional units of high class.

The interior of aVOID, Leonardo Di Chiara’s tiny house

A tiny house for freelancers?

There is therefore a fundamental difference between the overseas approach to the tiny houses and the European one. In the United States they are synonymous with evasion or individual economic empowerment. While in the Old Continent they represent a potentially collegial response to the challenges of a changing society. At the working and sociological level above all. Between 2004 and 2013, the number of freelancers in Europe increased by 45%, from 6.2 to 8.9 million (IPAG Business School and Sole24Ore data). In Italy there are 3.6 million self-employed and non-employed workers (Eurostat data).

A Dutch way

For example a first experiment was made in Holland by the construction giant Heijmans. In 2015 he created together with architect Tim van der Grinten a mini-prefabricated solid wood home that is built in 24 hours. Each unit, of 45 square meters and two floors, has a loft bedroom, bathroom, living room, kitchen and terrace. The roof is covered with solar panels to guarantee energy self-sufficiency. And the glass walls are positioned on the front and back to allow one side to the other. The idea is to provide rental housing, temporary and mobile solutions for a specific target group. «In 2050 young freelancers will be more than 700,000 in the Netherlands, more than the current inhabitants of Rotterdam», they say.

Tiny houses as a freelance package

«The ONE houses were designed for young professionals between 25 and 35 years old, at their first job, single. People who do not have a high enough income to enter the buying circuit but who earn too much to gain access to social housing. Mobile people, who follow their work, freelance often by choice ». Having been designed by a real estate giant, these tiny houses are safe and self-sufficient in terms of energy, and therefore can be placed anywhere. The idea is to exploit, in harmony with the municipalities, the territories often abandoned and adjacent to large cities. After the presentation of the concept, in 2016 the ONE went into production and 135 were leased last year. Above all by big companies», explains Heijmans. «They are the ones who offer them in the freelance recruitment package».

Mobile neighborhoods

Di Chiara’s dream, on the other hand, is to build a Migratory Neighborhood, «a neighborhood model that moves around the city, in agreement with the administration, recovering unused seasonal spaces. For example, the parking of a school in the summer, or a park in winter. The tiny houses in fact allow a process of “sweet” densification. Since everything is built as reversible, everything exists as a self-sufficient unit, without weighing on the context».

The key role of design

Design should not be improvised but sartorial, designed together with the inhabitants. «A tiny house works when it is custom-designed», Di Chiara continues. «And here emerges the contradiction and the difficulty. Because mass-production of a tiny house serves to reduce costs, but is lost in personalization». This is why Di Chiara is offering the possibility of living in aVOID to people of all kinds, in Germany, France, Switzerland and Italy. «Test-living helps me to understand how different people live space and its functionality. The aim is to move from the design of my personal tiny house to the realization of a model that can tend towards standardization ».

To experience the thrill of minimal life, just contact Leonardo Di Chiara and ask him to spend a night in his aVOID. And then check if, when you wake up, you will have thoughts at Gene Tempest or a zen smile on your lips.

Cover photo: Leonardo di Chiara in his aVOID tiny house

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