Tiny Homes, Wiki Houses and Co-Living: The Future of Housing Isn’t More of the Same
In 2003 a Chilean architecture company called Elemental were given an almost impossible housing challenge. Build properties for an available budget of $7,500 a home, including the cost of the land.
They all agreed that they could build a house for that budget — but it would be a very bad one. So rather than build poor housing and damage their reputation they came up with a unique alternative.
What if they built ‘Half of a Good House’ instead?
Build the difficult bits — giving basic plumbing and shelter — then allow the residents to complete the work themselves later. This would then unleash the residents creativity and give them a stake in their new home. They were building their own skills and playing a more active role in raising their standard of living.
In its first two years, the 100 families had made an average of $750 in improvements per home, doubling the size and raising their value by an estimated $20,000 each.
All over the developing world designers and innovators are working alongside communities to reimagine participatory design-build processes.
Could it happen here? And should it?
It would be very easy to look at examples like this and dismiss them given our strict building codes and planning regulations. However many of these were formed in an age of abundance — when grant was plentiful and housing benefit covered pretty much anything.
When I started my career in housing I was letting brand new build 2 and 3 bed properties to young families — many would have all the rent covered by benefit. The world has changed for those people — and like it or not our product range has to change with it.
It’s some way off yet — but we are on a road leading to low cost 3D printing and self-manufacture:
A road where homes need to be endlessly adapted and customised for individual need.
A road where underutilised spaces will need to be repurposed for a sharing economy.
A road where the cars themselves may be driverless.
Many of the ways we do things have a legacy in another age. And it’s time we challenged our preconceptions — about the cost of building a home , about what constitutes acceptable space and even the nature of what a home is.
Attitudes to physical space are shifting in the digital age and a smaller, connected home is the preference for some — as typified by the Tiny Home movement. Tiny houses come in all shapes, sizes, and forms, but they enable simpler living in a smaller, more efficient space. People are joining this movement for many reasons — environmental, financial, and the desire for more time and freedom. In an era of constrained income — one solution might be to just live smaller.
Exploring product offerings like these requires careful market testing — and understanding of user need. It’s important though not to adopt a paternalistic approach of ‘housing professionals know best’. I’ve heard people describe Tiny Homes as a step towards trailer parks — although that’s never something you hear from the people actually living in them.
That’s why it’s good to see organisations like South Yorkshire Housing Association testing out the concept of the WikiHouse. WikiHouse is an open source building system which can reduce build costs by up to two-thirds. South Yorkshire Housing Association are one of the first to take it forward with a plan to build a pilot home to a design by Alastair Parvin. Whether the model scales isn’t as important as the fact that associations are beginning to show willingness in testing more radical models.
Another under explored area is the use of co-living and shared spaces. It’s nothing new — cavemen pioneered it — but has seen a revival in the housing crisis. Young people have always needed housemates, but now entrepreneurs are turning the problem into an opportunity with co-living platforms like Common, Open Door and Pure House. These are currently marketed towards a young professional demographic , but it’s surely not beyond the creativity of the sector to re-imagine how these could work in a general needs setting. Indeed it’s not dissimilar to the tried and tested supported housing model.
Reduced income can be a springboard to innovation. Elemental simply wouldn’t have come up with the “Half a Good House” concept if they’d been handed generous grant to build what they wanted. Frugality drives creativity in ways that abundance does not.
As we are faced with new housing challenges, we need to identify the most cost-effective way to deliver new homes. Innovations in construction and technology challenge our conventional methods of costing and financing. Changed tastes and a more sharing economy give us unprecedented opportunity to experiment — creating models that maximise social impact as as well as realising efficiencies. We must grasp it.
This post was originally published in Inside Housing