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Outrage: the problem with tiny homes

Financially idiotic and environmentally reckless, tiny homes are a fantasy of the struggling middle classes



Toyo Ito’s Pao I, designed in 1985 for a ‘Tokyo nomad woman’, explored the relationship between house and furniture, and the contraction of private space for a dense urban setting, reducing it to minimal shelter with network connectivity

Tiny homes are a pathetic compromise, a poor trade-off between impossible cultural aspirations and pure economic desperation. They are reactionary products, manifestations of our fears about the future, and not any serious alternative to the status quo. The misguided masses who praise the minimalist lifestyle encouraged by tiny homes cannot see how these products fundamentally undermine their own class interests, cut off future social mobility, and curb our prospects for greater wealth equality.

A tiny home is a structure smaller than 30m2, typically mobile or impermanent. One of the most popular models in Britain provides 23m2 of living space and has been described by the Daily Mail as ‘the answer to Britain’s housing crisis’. The dubious benefits include smaller capital investment, reduced utility costs and frequent exemption from planning permission. They are promoted as facilitating a ‘carefree’ lifestyle, an idea conflated with romantic notions of self-reliance, going off-grid, and taking personal responsibility for your ecological footprint.

Resembling a transformer spliced with a Thatcherite wet dream, tiny homes are aesthetic monstrosities. Perfectly honest trailers are slapped about with vernacular domesticity’s worst and cheapest elements. Miniature porches, retractable gables, wood-effect panelboards, and wood-burning stovepipes. The materiality, colour and ornament are simulacra, signs of a ‘home’ without any meaning behind them.

‘Tiny homes won’t solve any housing crisis’

With the exception of the coffin-like bathrooms, all spaces are simultaneously, and perpetually, visible to each other. There is no internal privacy or escape. Because so many of the fixtures are multi-functional, strange juxtapositions easily occur, forcing a tight schedule of domestic life: a dining table becomes a double bed, right next to a sink, and under-bench storage cannot be accessed while the kitchen is in use. One weird quality of the tiny home is the abundance of storage, roughly 17 per cent of the total volume. Encouraging very little reduction in consumption beyond furniture, concealed stuff proliferates: full wardrobes, framed photos, potpourri and doilies on every surface, knick-knacks and rucksacks crowding into what remains of the mean air volume. Marie Kondo could hardly approve. Oddly compressed interiors condemn you to rely heavily on external amenities, but the tiny dream is to reject this urban interconnectedness.

Tiny homes won’t solve any housing crisis. The first problem is land: you need some. You could perhaps beg someone rich to let you squat on their property, like a 21st-century peasant, but that hardly seems tenable. The financials are abysmal. It is not an investment in any sense: a tiny home can’t be appraised, has no market value. The only way to finance it is through expensive personal loans, modified unsecuritised loans as you might have for a car (they own your tiny home until your final payment), or savings. You can’t get a mortgage but need homeowner’s insurance, and there is no evidence that you would consume less water and energy, or pay lower taxes. 

‘Tiny homes are potent signs of our inability to maintain a middle-class standard of living in the face of austerity’

A tiny home’s embodied energy per cubic metre is almost double that of standard construction, frequently containing toxic materials, including adhesives, insulation and finishes. They are almost totally unrecyclable and I won’t even bother discussing the petrol car needed to access and pull the thing around. Firmly out of reach of the working poor, a tiny home is intrinsically bourgeois, a fantasy of the struggling middle classes, specifically the young or retired, who mistake these depressingly saccharine sweatboxes for release valves to an inhuman housing market. This suggests problems with the supply and demand of decent housing, a lack of access to credit for expansion, or the impact of the intergenerational wealth gap on boomerang offspring. Tiny homes are placeholders for those who crave an ideal model of domesticity based on standards that expired half a century ago. They only make sense as habitable garden sheds for an over-occupied, owner-occupied property. 

Tiny homes are potent signs of our inability to maintain a 20th-century, middle-class standard of living in the face of austerity. What will the coming depression do to the rump of the bourgeoisie? Architects, famously over-educated, overworked and underpaid, have known what it means to live in this lumpen class for some time. With our university degrees, massive debt and diminishing returns, we already feel that we are slipping behind our parents’ generation. Any decision by governments not to stimulate macroeconomic growth through national programmes, or not to use the pandemic to kickstart a green revolution will be, much like the purchase of a tiny home, purely ideological, not practical. There is more than enough wealth in global society, it is just very poorly distributed. Against this backdrop of escalating class struggle, it is impossible to view tiny homes with anything other than derision and scorn. Tiny homes smack of hopeless nostalgia and an inability – or refusal – to face the brutal financial and ecological realities of our circumstances: they are a symptom of profound contradictions at the heart of contemporary society.

This piece is featured in the AR June 2020 issue on Inside – click here to buy your copy today