We explore why tiny houses are so popular in New Zealand and learn that more personal freedom and reduced material and energy use go hand-in-hand.

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“I built this house myself”, Eva Pomeroy proudly tells us outside her house in Nelson, in the north of New Zealand’s South Island. We follow her inside and look around. Kitchen, living room, bathroom, and a sleeping area. There is even room for overnight guests: they can sleep in a loft that is reached by ladder. Everything is close together. We don’t know what impresses us more; the fact that she built all of this herself or that she managed to fit an entire house on a trailer. For Eva and her partner live in a tiny house measuring a mere 6.2m by 2.4m. It makes for a peculiar appearance and particular lifestyle, that’s for sure. Yet we wonder: are tiny houses sustainable, too?

Recycling Saves Resources

From the outside, Eva’s home looks fairly new, so her admission that she used only recycled materials comes as a surprise. Eva explains: “Nothing is new, everything has been given a second life. The sky light in my bedroom, for example, was an escape hatch in an old bus. Printing plates from a newspaper now serve as kitchen tiles. The wood-burning stove has been refurbished, my solar panels are second-hand, and so on. I saved a lot of money that way” Eva grins. Ivar is quick to add: “And you saved raw materials and energy!” It’s a fair point to make, as constructing a new, regular-sized house would have required a lot of new building materials and energy to source those materials and put the house together. A tiny house by its very nature needs fewer materials and energy and those savings can be amplified when recycled materials are used, as Eva did.

Less Space Means Less Stuff

Despite the limited size of her house, Eva has everything she needs. “I didn’t want a house in which you spend all day converting everything. So no bed that you have to pull up in the morning to have breakfast.” Still, her house is full of space-saving features. She has made storage compartments under the staircase, with the space under the top step serving as a wardrobe. The ladder leads to a loft with the bed. The design not only increases floor space but also creates a homely atmosphere.

“I think people always fill the space they have with stuff, no matter how big it is. I don’t have a lot of space, so I don’t have a lot of stuff either,” Eva says. “I have carefully chosen the things I own and therefore cherish them.” Her choice of living in a tiny house has made her a minimalist of sorts; she only buys what she really needs. Again, she is saving resources and energy.

Fewer Burdens Mean More Pleasure

“What about the costs?” we ask. “The construction took a lot of time. I worked really hard for three years. By using only recycled materials and doing a lot myself, I have been able to keep costs very low. All in all, the house cost me NZ$25,000 (almost €15,000). Almost half of it was for the trailer. I also spent a lot of money on food and drinks to thank people for their help. One of the advantages of keeping costs low is that I now live debt-free. As a result, I can afford to work part-time and spend more time on things that make me really happy”, Eva beams.

She explains that her tiny house has another advantage. “As my house is on a trailer and can be moved, I could build it and live in it without having to comply with all kinds of building regulations. All I had to do was look for a place to build and later park my tiny house.” A benevolent resident in Nelson permitted Eva to set up camp on his property. In a country where many people have a large plot of land around their house that may not be all that unusual.

Escape from the Property Rat Race

In New Zealand, Eva is one of many people who have chosen to live in a tiny house. It’s such a phenomenon that there is an association to promote and support the interests of tiny house dwellers. Tiny houses are also a digital hit. Bryce Langston’s YouTube channel, for example, has millions of subscribers. He showcases the many advantages and different versions of tiny houses all over New Zealand and beyond. Bryce explains in his videos that there is a group of people who consciously choose a lifestyle without debt and with less stuff. At the same time New Zealand’s overheated housing market contributes to the popularity of tiny houses. In fact, some see it as a way to escape the ever-increasing prices of urban real estate in New Zealand.

The amount of interest in tiny houses has given rise to entire expositions dedicated to tiny houses. We visit one in Motueka, not far from Nelson. All kinds of suppliers show their merchandise at an open-air fair. From compost toilets, wood stoves, and solar panels to complete model homes: aspiring tiny house residents can find everything they need here. They can picture their new lifestyle, which makes the step from a regular house to living in a tiny house easier. What strikes us is that there are many smart solutions specifically tailored to off-grid living. That’s because many tiny houses are not connected to the national grid, water lines, or sewerage. It means that electricity, heating, water supply, and waste have to be dealt with. Often, tiny house owners generate their own electricity, collect rainwater, and use composting toilets. As a result, residents become very conscious users of electricity and water. Not using communal resources like the national grid, and using only what they generate themselves, has obvious sustainability benefits.

Plug and Play

For those who don’t have the time or desire to do things themselves, there is another option. They can purchase a tailor-made tiny house and have it delivered to a designated spot. “We have a full year’s worth of orders in the pipeline”, Rebecca Bartlett tells us. She is the co-founder of family-owned Tiny House Builders in Katikati. “Every month we deliver a completely new tiny house, fully furnished according to the customer’s wishes”, she says, proudly. Her father Peter shows us two model homes, a fully furnished one and the other almost completed. We note that they are both bigger than Eva’s home in Nelson. Peter explains: “Our standard size is 8 meters long, 3 meters wide and 4.2 meters high. That is the maximum size that we can transport on a truck. Within these dimensions, several layouts are possible. An important choice for future residents is how many bedrooms they need. We have even built one for a family with children.”

In the workshop we get a glimpse of how different models are taking shape. To save time and costs, standardized construction methods and materials are used. All of their tiny houses are high-spec, with luxurious kitchens and bathrooms, double-glazed windows, and good insulation. Naturally, we wonder what they cost. “The standard version is NZ$160,000 (about €95,000 )”, Peter says. Although that’s a hefty amount, for those selling their property, particularly in Auckland, it means that they can move into a ready-made tiny house and have cash to spare. They don’t need the time, knowledge or ambition to put together a tiny house themselves, and can still reduce their living costs and ecological footprint.

Less is More

“Whichever form you choose, the great thing about a tiny house is that it offers an alternative to a large mortgage or rent in an overheated housing market”, Floris concludes. “And consciously living smaller – with less stuff –provides more financial space, and therefore freedom”, he adds. “Even though many tiny house residents seem to opt for more freedom and personal well-being, the sustainability benefits are obvious. Even if you do not reuse materials or generate your own renewable energy, you still save a lot of raw materials and energy. After all, you need less of everything”, Ivar adds. “As an additional benefit, you will automatically reduce your consumption, because you simply have less space for stuff.”

It will come as no surprise to loyal readers that we are fans of the Tiny House Movement. “I once made a similar living choice”, Ivar realises. “In Amsterdam I found a berth for Lucipara 2, which allowed me to live there without having to buy an expensive house. With the money I saved, I was able to renovate the boat faster.” “You are not alone. All around-the-world sailors live in floating tiny houses”, Floris adds. While the big benefits of tiny houses are well known in the sailing community, we are happy to see that it is also taking root on land.

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