Narrow houses and Tiny Houses

As I have mentioned previously humans have legs and are meant to be mobile, such mobility provides us with advantages over plants which are anchored to the ground. In the daily challenge posts, I indicated that maybe cities should be designed to allow 60% of the population to be mobile and identifying various dwellings which could contribute to this mobility: from rented buildings, to residential hotels to tents on camp sites. Now South Australia has this plan to increase population density, get more people into Adelaide, to reduce urban sprawl. I think this is a bad idea, I contend the reason for urban sprawl is a failure to break the dependency between Adelaide and the surrounds, and the retail sector in Adelaide and Adelaide city council has too much influence over the state government. It is why we have the monstrosity of a Hospital built in Adelaide, when there has been a long advertising campaign identifying just how far most health services are from the rural populations. Little status however for politicians opening small buildings servicing local communities.

Anycase I have recently been taking another look at the subdivision of land and needs for living space. I previously covered this on my personal blog: Housing and Living Space.

In the previous article I started out with minimum dimensions of a bedsit being 25 sq.m , this I got from New Metric Handbook Planning and Design Data by Tutt and Adler(1997) {I couldn’t find any South Australian limit}. I then arranged these on a block of land which is approximately 1/6th of an acre. I then discarded the 5m x 5m dwellings and replaced with 16ft long caravans (approx: 2.36m x 4.875m). Doing so it seems there is potential to fit either 6 single storey bedsits or 8 caravans, on a site typically used for a 4 bedroom home.

With such approach it is possible to significantly increase the density of housing in the vicinity of schools, hospitals and other community hubs. In such vicinities the houses or sites can be restricted and rent only. That is people are expected to move in whilst using the services and move out when finished with the service. So instead of building new schools and abandoning old schools as population moves out, we keep the population moving: actually moving.

People commuting,travelling from ‘A’ to ‘B’ and then back to ‘A’ are wasting time and fuel. It is better to be at ‘B’ and be able to walk. For another issue is that unemployment is caused by dormant sleeper suburbs: people need to be where the activity is to bump into the work available. Yet another issue is that family houses are too big and unsuitable for living, and more so since superannuation was introduced and the idea was to invest in bricks and mortar purely as a financial investment. So the houses are not overly livable and certainly not suitable for the retired, and who is going to buy these monstrosities? Also what benefit are they, as the owners to retain the value, oppose the construction of high density accommodation such as retirement villages. The result is that the limited available small units can cost more than the big houses the people already have. So the objective is not achieved. Monetary debt also isn’t the best way to get things done. Slow incremental and stable growth is likely more sustainable.

Small Mobile Modules

In the previous article, my final plan showed that unlikely to get more than 2 dwellings on the site, not 8, for that matter may only be able to get 1 dwelling, as the local council development plans have minimum block sizes and minimum width of blocks, as well as minimum boundary clearances and open space requirements. There is also also variation as to whether the access road is part of the hammer head block size or separate. Any case thus far seems minimum block size is 200 sq.m. Though I would contend that the way I laid the blocks out, it isn’t strictly a hammer head block, rather I’ve created a private street. Smaller block sizes are permitted if the dwellings are on shared land, that is no division of title, for example retirement villages. Only the requirements are still around 150 sq.m to 180 sq.m. The smallest I found so far is 81 sq.m for caravan sites in a caravan park: that is roughly a space 9m x 9m. Such space is still larger than I allowed for the caravans, and would overlap with the access road. Nonetheless I believe that the smaller blocks sizes should be permitted.

Looking at the original sketch, the block could be considered to be divided into two strips, each with 4 caravans or dwellings. A dwelling suitable for one person is typically also suitable for two persons. Further such dwellings are also suitable for two persons and a baby. As the family grows more space is required, to provide this space more modules can be added.

To consider the modules: the 5m x 5m single person bedsit, can be considered divided into two strips, each 2.5m wide and 5m long. One strip contains the wet areas: kitchen, bathroom and laundry. The other strip contains the living space: dining, lounge, and bedroom. Two people could share such bedsit without modification, but to consider extra space, they can just share the wet area module, and have two living area modules. So a one person dwelling comprises of two modules, and a two person module comprises of three modules. But a check of the internet shows that a 16ft caravan, can contain bathroom, and kitchen area. For that matter even a 10ft caravan (3.047m) can contain needed facilities. Therefore 2 shipping container sized modules (approx: 2.430 x 6.090) for one to two persons is more than enough space. Noting that current household occupancy averages 2.8 persons per dwelling, and significant percentage of 3 bedroom dwellings occupied by one person only. So there is potential to cut the cost of buildings, and cut the cost of energy to heat/cool such buildings.

Modules Moved in and Out

Now consider the use of caravans, or tiny mobile houses, and the land division as previously described. The block of land is a family block, it supports upto 4 independent dwellings. A couple moves onto the land each bringing their own self contained dwelling. One dwelling is now surplus to requirements. This surplus dwelling could be exchanged for a wet area module, which is attached to the occupied dwelling. A baby comes along, and the modules are rearranged and a two bedroom module is moved in. As the  children get older they may want more independence and privacy so, the bedroom module is replaced by two independent dwelling modules. When the children leave home to go to university or to a new place to work they take their dwelling with them. So the parents dwelling is automatically downsized as their children move out. Furthermore if the children visit they can get their old room back because they bring it with them. Depending on individual circumstances the children may or may not pay their parents back for the mobile dwelling.

Small mobile reusable modules creates for increased flexibility, and provides for incremental growth. Heritage is useful if it provides a foundation on which to build the future, it is not useful if it hinders survival. Our current heritage has stuck us with a lot of oversized dwellings. Consequently people have to take out  a mortgage to pay for more land and building than they actually need at any given time. If they lose their job, they cannot pay the mortgage, and so also lose their house, and typically cannot find lower cost rental accommodation. I remember when I was at school in the 70’s that the current affairs shows had stories of people with mortgages on houses in Adelaide, who were working and living interstate. There was no work in Adelaide, and they couldn’t sell nor rent their house out. If their houses were mobile then they could have taken their houses with them. As far as I know there’s no real benefit to owning land, and its questionable as to whether land is owned by any individual when it is land which defines a country and nation.

Transportable houses, are in the main not very mobile because they are wider than road lanes, and typically would require special permits to be transported. Transportable homes are problematic, since houses from abandoned mining towns and military bases are often sold at low prices, but there is a lack of information available concerning their construction. It is thus difficult to assess whether the house can be relocated to the purchasers new location. A mobile dwelling does not have this problem, because you shouldn’t design the building for the environmental conditions of one location. Such dwelling should be designed for the most extreme conditions it is going to experience. This should not make it more expensive, because good design is not about picking large structural loads and crossing fingers and hoping the load is not exceeded (which is the basis of the building codes). Good design is based on expecting that the design load can and will be exceeded, and designing for appropriate response to the overload condition: which isn’t overly easy. Though if the building can be moved then loading requirements is simplified: note that tropical cyclones are seasonal and typically tracked for 48 hours before they hit land, so don’t have to be there when they arrive. As for earthquakes, either stay away or make the structure robust, so that if cannot absorb the vibration through its suspension it can otherwise survive being tossed and rolled around (with/without occupants designed to suit).

Also with mobile houses we can resurrect traditional market spaces. Why build multi-story offices and carparks to support, when can just build the carparks and work from the vehicles. Why build the carparks when can stay at ground level? Vehicles can either park in marked out bays, or as the circumstances favour.

It should be noted that mobilising the population as indicated should cut fuel costs and decrease movement, not increase it. The use of mobile dwellings and workspaces, should place facilities closer together and in walking distance, commuting by vehicles should diminish not increase. At any time the city can rearrange and become more compact, or disperse and become more open. Don’t need to protest the new airport or noisy factory, just shift your dwelling. With structural and geographical unemployment the population just moves out, taking their dwellings with them, and mostly leaving the land clear.

To be Mobile

As far as I am aware the tiny house movement stems from local regulations which limit the minimum size of house which can be built. If the house is on wheels, then it is not permanent and therefore potentially does not have to comply. Here in South Australia development approval comprises of:

  1. Development Plan, or Planning Consent
  2. Building Rules Consent

Planning mostly concerns appearance and land usage and the impact on the neighbourhood. Building rules concerns the suitability of the building for its intended purpose: which largely concerns the habitability of the enclosed space. People enclose verandahs and turn them into bedrooms typically without approval, whilst people may inhabit such space, it typically does not comply with the Building Code of Australia (BCA/NCC).

Thus far I cannot find any limits on building size, other than those which relate to types of fire rated construction, and some amenity requirements. That is there is no simple house size limit, it is something which is determined by meeting other performance criteria. Planning however as indicated in the above commentary, does set limits on the minimum size block of land.

Other council regulations may also apply. Typically not allowed to live in a caravan  in residential zones. A tiny house being on wheels is likely to be considered a caravan: it certainly needs to comply with the road rule requirements with respect to caravans. In the past it was common to build sheds and live in the shed whilst built a house on rural property, but this is now restricted: not necessarily directly but mostly by time limits for construction and empty blocks of land.

In the past there were guides such that construction maybe possible without approval if less than 10 sq.m and less than 2.4m high, and no span greater than 3m: but it depends on what is being constructed. The new South Australian residential code as extended the conditions under which this applies and also increased the sizes. But this concerns planning consent not building rules consent. A dwelling of 10 sq.m, could be 2m x 5m or 2.360m x 4.237m.

There are other restrictions, such as granny flats typically cannot have bathrooms or kitchens, they have to be dependent on the may residence. This depends on local council area, and it may be possible to have a ensuite to the bedroom, as long as does not contain a bath. Likewise may be possible to have a kitchen sink and wet area, where can brew hot drinks, as long as not a fully fledged kitchen. Basically the zoning provides for a single dwelling on the block of land, and therefore have to avoid placing two independent dwellings on the land.

For example one client had a large block of land and was proposing to build independent strawbale homes for the family, whilst it was a large semi-rural block, such was not allowed. So the buildings were brought closer together, connected by corridors and provided with shared facilities.

Planning wise likely not able to live in a house on wheels unless it’s in a caravan park. Another planning issue is home based business, where a restriction of 30 sq.m is typically imposed. This could be provided by a 5m x 6m building, or 2.360m x 12.712m building. Or from another perspective either two 6m shipping container modules, or one 12m shiping container module. In an urban or suburban environment 12m shipping modules are likely inconvenient to transport in and around the streets.

For the broadest possible mobility, the modules should be kept to the dimensions of shipping containers (2.43m x 2.43m cross-section) or to the dimensions of caravans which seem to commonly be 2.36m wide. Noting that the height of a shipping container is limited by the height of the typical flatbed trailer it is loaded on and the height limit for transport which can vary between 4.1m and 4.3m measured from the ground. Some localities have higher limits for double decker buses and certain trucks, but this is largely due to the use of the vehicles in limited districts and along certain corridors. The BCA typically sets minimum ceiling height of 2.4m, with some industrial applications permitting 2m height. So a shipping container is a slightly too low when measured internally, however will find that construction site cabins are typically constructed from over height or high cube containers (approx: 2.6m to 2.8m high). With a greater container height need a trailer with a lower deck, which may not be readily available. {NB: A typical flat bed truck can be loaded and unloaded from an elevated loading dock into a warehouse.}

Width wise 2.5m as indicated for the bedsit, is a bit too narrow, as is the dimensions internal dimensions of a shipping container (<2.43m) and those of a caravan (<2.36m). Checking out dimensions of site cabins for camping sites, suppliers typically have  dimensions from 3.6m to 6m widths. {NB: Broadloom carpet is typically 3.6m wide, so it’s a useful limit for room width}

Rechecking my blocks I allowed 3m widths, for caravan, and two vehicles. It seems a carpark bay only needs to be 2.8m wide, so could increase dwelling space to 3.4m. Further checking found recommendations for width of bay for motorcycle to be 1.4m, so could have one car and one motorcycle space, pushing dwelling width to 4.8m. Though some checking for motor trikes suggests a width of 1.8m would be better, this would drop dwelling down to 4.4m. Further checking however would suggest that for a motorcycle and side car that a parking space of 2.8m should be kept. So the dwelling width can be increased.

For transport the width still needs to be around 2.4m, but this can be extended once arrive on site. For example a 2.4m shipping container could split in the middle and be pushed apart, with infill plates slide out. Or rather than shift heavy segments of the container, the sides can simply drop down to form a floor, or pull out to create walls. It should be easy enough to extend a 2.4m container to a width of 3.6m to 4.8m: with rigid walls not the canvas type walls used by caravan extensions.

Not Just Land but also on Water

In previous posts I have also commented on the possibility of factory and residential ships. That the population can be mobile at sea. They can also be mobile on canals. Beside the tiny house movement there is the narrow boat movement. A canal narrow boat has a width of around 2.13m, smaller still than the caravans. The following diagram shows comparison of select vehicles and dwellings.

Dimensions of Vehicles and Dwellings
Dimensions of Vehicles and Dwellings

The following sketch shows, dimensions of narrow boat, and also dimensions of block of land, typical 1/6th acre block, and also my block size for industrial city state (Population 10 million, 100km diameter, 2/3rd area for infrastructure).

Bedsits, Narrow Boats and Land Dimensions
Bedsits, Narrow Boats and Land Dimensions

For still further comparison here are the dimensions of a Panamax ship and the largest ship.

Ship Dimensions
Ship Dimensions

I recently read issue that tiny houses were getting bigger: Are we losing the Soul of the Tiny House Movement? I suggest that it isn’t the area of the house that matters, but its modularity and its mobility. The houses are not so much tiny, but narrow and mobile: like narrow boats which have a much longer tradition. So maybe narrow house is a better name. Long houses may be suitable but that already has a more specific usage, so could be confusing. Since tiny houses retain their wheels they are not transportable houses as transportables are removed from the wheeled trailer and are anchored to the site.

Narrow, Mobile, Modular and Dockable

Dwellings need to be narrow and have permanent wheels to remain mobile. However to provide for flexibility and growth in required living space, they also need to be modular and dockable. As I described above, the the surplus full dwelling was replaced by an attached laundry module, and then further extended by an attached bedroom module.

Most caravans only have one door. So an attached module needs to connect at that door assuming need to get from one module  to another without going outside. So can produce L-shaped, or T-shaped structures, or larger rectangles. The attached modules can have additional doors as required. To keep the connection at the doors weather tight some kind of docking mechanism would be desirable. With a docking mechanism caravans can attach to more permanent structures. For example developed sites, fencing would have water, sanitary drainage (sewage disposal), electricity and data/communications and possibly mains gas. Further development of a site could include permanent wet area facilities, such as kitchen, laundry and bathroom. A caravan, motorhome or camper van, can back up to the docking port and connect up. Occupants of the mobile dwelling can then move easily from the mobile to the permanent without stepping outside.

A dwelling becomes an extension of self and remains human scale.

Protect Diversity not Competition

Whilst looking for dimensions of parking spaces for motorcycles and motor trikes, it became apparent just how versatile people around the world are in terms of using two and three wheeled vehicles: whether they are hand carts, pedal cycles, or motorcycles. the number and types of businesses which can be operated from such vehicles is almost unlimited. Which made me think about our competition laws again.

In general it seems when the competition watchdog checks some complaint out, the large national is typically seen as doing no wrong. The objective seems to protect efficiency as seen through economy of scale. As I have argued in the past it does not protect diversity. More recently I argued that political parties should be restricted so that they cannot have more than 20% of the vote, so that they can not have a majority and cannot hijack parliament, so that proper debate and representation of the people is provided. I suggest we abolish the competition watch dog or change its task to protect diversity, and do something similar with a business, such as not permitted to have more than 20% share of the market (with some special case exceptions based on geography and product).

When I was a kid there were lots of road side stalls, most have disappeared, one because the market gardens have disappeared under warehouses and housing, and two because retailers in big shopping centres cried hazard on the roads, though real reason was they needed to steal the trade to cover the rent of store space in these big buildings. See the problem: bigger isn’t better, it is just problematic, unable to adapt and evolve rapidly enough. Tea Tree Plaza for example has to fill the stores in the buildings, empty shops doesn’t look good, but few can afford the rents. The traditional open space market place doesn’t have such problem: it shrinks and expands as needed.

A large covered market place can expand and shrink as needed if the internal shops are mobile structures, in other words its a covered parking space. Once again as a kid in England I remember the open markets where customers were walking around in the rain, whilst the store owners were under shelter of canvas covered scaffolding. With the indoor market the stalls were still constructed from scaffolding but the customers were now also protected from the rain.

So not only do we mobile the housing but also the businesses. Currently if want to improve the efficiency of a factory, then typically buy new land and build a new factory usually closer to developing markets, once built the old factory is closed. The result is unemployment in the area of the old factory, and the factory is redundant. People who may have walked to work now have to travel some distance to new work if they can find it.

People in transport, fishing and farming tend to own or lease expensive equipment. So when designing a factory, the worker could own the lathe or other machine tools. These tools could be operated from inside mobile structures. Workshops could be moved closer to construction sites. Factories can be moved closer to markets. Factories can be moved closer to raw materials. Factories can move as required. Factories are just an assembly of smaller workspaces into integrated and coordinated work processes. Sheet metal maybe cheap to enclose large spaces, but do we really need to enclose large spaces? How much is too much production capacity? How much is too little production capacity?

Does a person in a large retail store sell more than would fit on a large hand cart? Are those providing large facilities stealing a larger share of the limited monetary resource than is acceptable to the population at large? Some things require large stores and showrooms, but most items are small. Do we really get the benefit of economy of scale and lower unit cost, or do we actually get held to ransom? The retailers paying the minimum they can to producers and charging the maximum they can to consumers. The savings due to economy of scale is lost due to desire for maximum profits: profits not for any future purpose. No! The profits are just to show they can generate such profit, to retain shareholders. Do they need shareholders? Who should the shareholders be? Maybe shareholders should be the local community, with greater control over the land and its usage.

The 20% limit on market share shouldn’t be a major problem as few businesses seem to get above 30% market share. However by setting the limit, the businesses themselves, know when they need to break up a growing enterprise, or know when to enter the market and stop growth of existing players.

For a town of 1000 people a roaming population of tourists is important for its survival and development. Large buildings however are potentially too expensive to maintain and keep operational without the tourists. Place emphasis on mobile business and open markets however, then business can grow and the township and community can develop.

We need the fairgrounds back. Historically we had a significant mobile population. Its important for development, we need to get it back.