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Living Large in Small Spaces

-By Jaime Mckee

Australians, like many in the Western World, have reached a unique point in our history. Our family sizes, by and large, are getting smaller; our cities are growing ever more jam-packed. Owning a home is considered an achievement, a goal worth striding for, yet for many of us the option remains out of reach, untenable either in economic or ecological terms. The average Australian household has two and a half people living within its walls, yet a glance at the New Homes section of the newspaper reveals an odd assortment to serve such a population. There is an array of options typically citing four spacious bedrooms, a home theatre, a study, perhaps even a pool house. Neighbourhood and block sizes, spurred by a shift in urban design thinking, are getting smaller, yet houses, on average, are getting bigger. Yards are shrinking, often leaving little space for a garden, while Aussies spend more and more time cleaning and maintaining our abundant square footage rather than enjoying it.

All of this begs the question: how much space do we really need? There are a number of advantages that come with downsizing our living space; lower initial building costs, reduced property taxes, less time sunk into cleaning and maintenance, and perhaps most significantly, a reduced carbon footprint. Smaller homes typically use less energy than larger ones, and innovative modern designs may even be more efficient per square foot than their more standard brethren. While it is certainly easy to appreciate the space – and privacy – that goes along with a larger home, many Australians are making the shift to significantly smaller spaces, often taking on the construction themselves or looking to clever, integrated designs to help them make the most of their new mini-digs.

The switch to a smaller home may take any number of forms. Certainly, apartment- and condo-dwellers have long recognized the advantages of smaller and denser housing, and high-rise construction has provided cities with an efficient method of combating urban sprawl. But for those of us seeking to snag our own little plot of land, perhaps in a remote area, while still enjoying the benefits of a downsized life, a great many options are now coming to the forefront.

Pre-fabricated homes or out-of-the-box “kits” (think IKEA for houses) are one option that has proven popular in the United States and is starting to make inroads into Australia. Often small and light enough to be towed by a family vehicle and lowered into place onsite, this option allows for quick purchase and installation, the ability to view plans and examples in advance, and the opportunity to customize or upgrade as required. Jay Shafer’s California-based Tumbleweed Tiny Homes has become a leader in this approach, with available offerings ranging from comprehensive plans to “how-to-build” workshops to full installation of the company’s various models, several of which meet International Building Codes.

Refurbished shipping containers are another option, a niche market that is expanding into the mainstream. Australian architectural firm Fulton and Salomon has produced a range of “Small is Smart” houses out of recycled shipping containers, intended to prove that “living in a shipping container can be stylish, luxurious and green”. Like Tumbleweed, Fulton and Salomon offers a series of models ranging from a $30,000 “First Pack” to a $100,000 “Max Pack” option. The company’s designs are created to work off-grid with solar panels, composting toilets and hydroponic “green walls”, and are highly customizable; multiple containers can be joined or even stacked together as modules, or combined with existing structures to increase available living space. In terms of design, shipping container homes needn’t look out of place amongst other modern-industrial designs; their clean lines and metallic surfaces are well suited to a contemporary aesthetic and can blend well into nearly any landscape.

Custom design and construction, of course, is another option for those looking to downsize. Many people choose to create their own one-of-a-kind mini-home from scratch, while others look to pioneering designers such as Casey Brown Architecture, who designed a unique 3 x 3m house in Mudgee for a client looking for a peaceful retreat. The two-storey building is sheathed in copper, with panels which can entirely enclose the house in case of a brushfire or heavy rains. The structure employs a rainwater collection system, a recycled ironbark interior, and a wood-fired slow combustion stove, and is heavily insulated to protect from both cold winds and soaring temperatures.

It would be easy to believe that those who move into such tiny homes would be sacrificing amenities and conveniences, as well as space; in fact, it needn’t always be so. New mini-structures invariably utilize clever innovations to maximize comfort and utility, such as loft beds, floor-to-ceiling shelving and other built-in storage, hideaway dining tables and work desks, modular, multi-purpose furniture, and abundant outdoor living space, including porches, verandahs, outdoor sleeping hammocks and solar showers. Some owners maintain a separate storage shed or garage; many choose to use their mini-home as a vacation property, guest cottage, rental or in-law suite, or interim home during construction, and so familiarize themselves with the concept without necessarily living in it full-time.

One of the primary advantages to mini-home dwelling, of course, is its cost; Australian mini-home owner David Bell cites his tiny house as an exercise in both creativity and frugality, costing him about $20,000 – including the land – to build from the ground up. (This when a parcel of land alone in an urban centre costs closer to $100,000.) But another less obvious advantage to the mini-home concept is its use as emergency response or disaster relief housing. In 2009, Melbourne-based 1:1 Architects began working with Ecotec Building Solutions on a prototype for temporary replacements for the homes destroyed in the February fires. The designers were after a strong pre-fabricated concrete structure, one which could be quickly assembled and which would be fully equipped with a bathroom, kitchen, living and sleeping space. Their solution was The Pod, a modular mini-home which could be produced, transported and installed in a very quick turnaround time. While intended as temporary relief housing, The Pod could easily serve as a permanent tiny home, or provide the starting point for a full-size dwelling. As an emergency relief concept, The Pod’s design could be exported and applied virtually anywhere, providing victims of fire, flood, or hurricane a starting point from which to get back on their feet.

Few concepts in housing design are quite as versatile as a much-smaller-than-average home. While they may take many forms, all make efficient use of space and materials; some are even portable, yet sturdy and beautiful at the same time, while others can be added to or altered at a moment’s notice. Moving beyond the trailer park or apartment into a whole new concept of small home ownership, mini-homes allow us, at comparatively little cost to either the environment or our pocketbooks, to have our own little piece of something permanent.

Making Sense of Management

Management is the art, or science, of getting things done through people. Sounds fairly straightforward – except for the fact that people are not robots waiting to do our bidding. People have their own minds, motivations, and goals. So how do managers keep operations – and the people behind them – running as planned?

November 21, 2018, 3:43 AM AEDT