There is no doubt that the UK faces a housing crisis. But, at the same time, we are also confronted with an environmental crisis and one of homelessness. Here, Nick Cowley, Managing Director of PVCu windows and doors manufacturer Euramax, explains how the Tiny Homes Movement could be part of the response to all three problems.
Surely, solving the housing and homelessness crises is simple? We just build more homes. And the construction industry’s answer to the climate crisis is simple as well; we just build fewer homes.
Of course, it is not that simple, and it still would not be if those two solutions were not diametrically opposed. Building more homes comes with problems of its own; planning permission, local opposition to building projects and the shortage of affordable and available land.
There are also the skills and materials shortages to consider, as well as the relative lack of small builders in the UK, compared to fifteen years ago before the financial crisis of the late noughties, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Furthermore, we must address the fundamental economics of housebuilding; it has to represent a worthwhile business model and, if you build and release for sale a lot of houses at once, the value of each one decreases, making the project less economically sustainable.
Tiny houses: UK viable?
The Tiny Homes Movement has existed for some time, with early estimates dating it as far back as 1997, when the British-born, and America-based architect Sarah Susanka published her book The Not So Big House. In it, she argues that cosy, intimate, warm and, crucially, small spaces can be more pleasant to live in than expansive, spacious, and rambling ones.
There is a very clear and strong argument here, which could help create a counter thesis to the idea that it is not possible to solve the housing shortage and homelessness issues while also creating a cleaner, more environmentally viable construction industry.
Tiny houses are easy to build and, while they are currently the domain of highly specialist eco-builders, they could use modular, mass manufacturing techniques to deliver sustainable homes at a very low price.
They are also simple to plan and deliver, easy to move if there is a change in geographical requirement and use less energy to manufacture, build, maintain and live in than contemporary affordable housing. It’s a win-win, right?
Tiny changes, big results
There is one potential catch. It is essential that tiny homes are presented as exactly that; they cannot simply be an excuse to make affordable homes on existing plots untenably small.
In 2019, the Government proposed mandatory design regulations on storage space to help counter this problem.
Speaking at the Chartered Institute of Housing’s conference, Theresa May, the then Prime Minister, said, “I cannot accept a system in which owners and tenants are forced to accept tiny homes with inadequate storage.
“Where developers feel the need to fill show homes with deceptively small furniture and where the lack of universal standards encourages a race to the bottom.”
Her concerns are valid, and the proposed regulations have been welcomed by most of the property developers, architects, and home builders that I work with at Euramax. Furthermore, they have not dimmed the nascent sense of excitement around the tiny homes movement’s problem-solving potential.
Tiny house windows
However, May’s concerns do raise a number of technical points; not only that of storage but also the ways of ensuring that every part of a tiny home can deliver on the potential it has to offer to the market, the economy, the people of the UK and the environment.
While I am not qualified to comment on storage, I can advise on choosing windows for a tiny house and there are several things to consider that examplify the specific requirements of this particular model.
Picture windows are the cheapest option, but when the occupants of your home get to summer, they will appreciate your forethought in specifying single hung or casement windows instead.
There are other temperature and weather factors that are essential to address. Naturally, you should always opt for double glazed units and, if the plan is to take advantage of the mobility a tiny house offers, the glass should be tempered, and shutters should also be specified.
Most modern windows are reinforced anyway, but if the tiny home is to be mobile in the long term, composite supports can be lighter than galvanised steel, while the latter option will be cheaper.
PVCu or composite materials will provide the longer lasting choice for the frame, which in context is probably the most sustainable option as well.
High specification does not have to add to building cost because the entire window unit can be built off site, using a factory-thinking approach, and delivered ready-made within a just-in-time construction schedule.
A tiny home also presents an architect with unusual window specification challenges that a traditional building does not. Two opening windows positioned opposite each other could create a strong cross draft. As a result, trickle ventilation, to allow air to circulate even when the windows are shut is good practice.
There is also a strong likelihood that you will want either dormer or awning windows in your second story or loft. However, when they, or other windows are left open, the wind forces more air into the building, making the door slam as the rush of air happens, pulling the door shut behind it. In a normal house, this can make you jump. In a tiny house, just like a caravan or regular mobile home, it can make the pictures come crashing down off the walls!
Finally, frame colour and handle choice are key considerations.
As much as tiny homes could be a political option, allowing the UK the tackle the housing shortage and homelessness in a sustainable way, they can also be a style choice.
For many, they represent an alternative way of living, just as a canal barge or eco home would. If you are designing for this market, aesthetic considerations come into play even more strongly.
The future of tiny homes
Tiny homes are not only faster and more cost effective to build, they are also, well… tiny. As a result, the footprint they occupy is ideal for inner city environments, where a small plot, that would normally only deliver three or four affordable homes, could instead provide nine to twelve, or perhaps just six with substantial outside space.
I doubt whether, in ten years’ time, we will all be living in 1000 square foot homes, but wouldn’t it be great if, by 2030, everyone had affordable access to a comfortable place to live and our nation had achieved that in a sustainable way?
Talking about her 1997 book, recently, Susanka said, “Not So Big doesn’t necessarily mean small. It means not as big as you thought you needed”.
I think this nicely summarises the tiny home’s potential for the UK housing market; the crisis might not be as big as we thought, if we consider solving part of it with smaller solutions.