Living large ...thinking small

CATHERINE HARRIS
Last updated 05:00 23/03/2014
The interior of Auckland tiny house owner Brett Sutherland’s 15 square metre pride and joy.

ALL YOU NEED: The interior of Auckland tiny house owner Brett Sutherland’s 15 square metre pride and joy.

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Kiwis love their space, which may be why the average size of the New Zealand home has grown like topsy.

New homes today are averaging a floorplan of 220 square metres, far from the 90sqm "boxes" that many Kiwis grew up in, or even the 149sqm average for all Kiwis houses in 2011.

However, something of a backlash appears to be forming towards big houses. Call it a move away from consumerism or simply an affordability issue, developers and architects say Kiwis are starting to rethink their house sizes.

The smallest of these are "tiny houses", a movement that began in the United States after many people lost their houses in the global financial crisis.

As many Kiwis struggle to scrape up a mortgage deposit, Auckland architect and sustainable design expert Johann Bernhardt says there are real attractions in a house that costs just $20,000 to $30,000 and is commonly "off the grid".

"You're not paying rent and not paying for electricity or water. You can imagine there are many people out there who would find that attractive."

At just 15sqm, tiny houses avoid the usual building restrictions by putting themselves on trailers, although they must still obey the road rules with regard to maximum height and width.

However, they are real houses, insists Bernhardt, who is providing advice on one.

Most feature showers, fridges, self-composting toilets, a loft bedroom, a woodburner or gas stove, foldaway furniture - and a little room on their roofs for solar panels.

"People think, it's a tiny house, what could be so complicated? To my surprise, it was one of the most complicated things I've ever done."

Tiny houses have virtually become an art form overseas, but in New Zealand just a handful are known to have been built or are under construction.

Building his own tiny house is Auckland actor, environmentalist and musician Bryce Langston.

As he researches his house, he has been posting weekly blogs on his website, livingbiginatinyhouse. com.

When he has finalised his design, Langston intends to put his building plans on the web to help others. The website will also follow him and his videographer partner Melissa as they attempt to live in the house.

With sleepouts, boats, baches and caravans all being in some way the ancestors of tiny houses, Langston says he's not surprised that his tiny house blog is getting a following.

"I'm contacted every single day by more and more people. I would say there are hundreds of people in New Zealand who are seriously considering it as a viable option."

Langston explains to his blog viewers how his tiny house will be more sustainable.

For instance, the lack of a flushing loo will mean it uses a quarter of the 200 litres that the average Kiwi household uses daily.

The materials will be recycled or recyclable, as locally sourced as possible, and the house will catch rainwater, use solar energy and treat its own waste.

As a critic of fracking, Langston won't be using gas but he will have a woodburner with a wetback, which will double as a stove in the winter.

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He'll have surround sound, a projector screen - basically all the mod cons of life, just fewer of them.

"Everything has to be incredibly well thought out. Everything has to serve multiple purposes wherever possible.

"So that's why we really have worked with our design elements to make sure everything fits together in a way that's not just incredibly practical, but also really beautiful. Because whatever you put in, you have to look at it all the time. ‘'

In a world where people are used to plenty of storage, Langston admits living in a tiny house will take discipline.

"It's an environment that really makes you very conscious of everything you bring into your life. But that's also what I like about it.

"It doesn't mean you can't have any possessions, it just means you have to be conscious of the things that you're buying. They have to serve a purpose or a reason in your life, or you have to be really attached to them."

At a less extreme point on the smaller house scale is the home of Tineke and Rob Stewart in Belmont, Wellington.

Their new three-bedroom house, which won a design award, has a footprint of about 100sqm with 60sqm of garaging and storage underneath.

The design lifts the living areas over a stormwater drain that run right down the middle of the property.

Dan Heyworth, chief executive of Box Living, the house's designer and builder, says their brief was for a house that was both cost-effective and modular, so it could be added to if the household grew.

Heyworth says his firm promotes "quality over quantity" and enjoys showing people what they can do with less space.

"We're certainly getting a lot more interest in designing better and building smaller," he says.

"People are getting over the big mansion [idea]. Lots to maintain, lots to clean. And I think we're getting better educated ... understanding the value of decent design is not all about size."

Size is also becoming an issue in Christchurch, where many quake victims are rebuilding on a budget.

Stephen Pike, sales director of Horncastle Homes, says he is yet to see a trend towards "90sqm units" - "we've still got families wanting to live in these homes".

However, he says there's a greater awareness of what can be done with clever design. People still want their two bathrooms and two living areas but "gone are the days now of building the big four-bedroom, 300sqm homes".

"The average sized home is 180 to 200sqm, I suppose."

If smaller homes are to take off anywhere, it will likely be in Auckland. Until now, council restrictions and subdivision covenants on scarce subdivision have dictated how small a house can be.

But as the city's unitary plan swings heavily towards denser and terraced housing, public opinion might be changing.

"We're looking to build houses that are 100 to 120sqm," Bernhardt says.

"Not everyone wants a free standing, pavlova paradise. Young couples, they don't want to spend their time mowing the law and doing maintenance work, they want to spend their after-work hours in a bar in Ponsonby."

Tiny houses are all very well, but could you raise a family?

Bernhardt thinks not. "For families it's not realistic. But for a lot of people, singles and couples with no kids …

"There are people who have limited finances, maybe they're not into getting into heavy debt or who want to be independent, who would look at this as an option."

- Sunday Star Times

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