Planning for tiny houses

Image courtesy of The Tiny House Company.
Image courtesy of The Tiny House Company.

The interest and appetite for tiny houses is infectious. It’s a much talked about topic. Popular lifestyle TV shows and magazines have featured them. Stories about local examples make their way into the mainstream news and they’re a regular feed on social media.

So what’s all the fuss about? Are tiny houses simply a crowd pleaser? Cute, funky and a little bit novel? Or do they really offer a legitimate alternative to what’s currently on offer?

You might be wondering at this point, why, if tiny houses are so popular, we don’t see more of them popping up around the place?

Well it turns out tiny houses present a bit of a challenge to the status quo. We’re just not really quite sure yet what to do with them. If it’s a fixed tiny house, well that’s not so problematic – you can explore a granny flat option. But you’ll need to own the land and you’ll need to make sure that your design complies with current building regulations. There’s also a lot of variation from state to state and locality to locality on the planning parameters for granny flats.

And if you’re considering the option of a tiny house on wheels … well, let’s just say it’s a minefield. Are they a caravan? Are they a house? Do you need a planning permit? Do you need a building permit? Where can you park your tiny house on wheels?

Every local council has their own by-laws on how they regulate moveable dwellings. On the Gold Coast you’re simply not allowed to live in a caravan in your backyard; in Brisbane it’s permissible as long as you aren’t causing a public nuisance and have appropriate access to waste disposal and toilet amenities. In other councils there are time limits (from a couple of weeks to a few months) or you can live in one temporarily while completing a house build.

Who would have thought that “tiny” could be so complicated?

Despite the uncertainties and inconsistencies, we see real potential for tiny houses (either fixed or on wheels) to play an important role in creating greater housing choice and diversity.

Tiny houses, compact housing, micro housing or whatever term you use tick the boxes on so many levels. Flexibility. Low impact living. Affordability. Adaptability.

Image courtesy of The Tiny House Company.

When you consider how tiny houses could fit within our cities and regions, you start to think about things in a different way – design and density, the way we use space, quality versus quantity, social cohesion and equity, the interplay between transition and permanence and our perceptions around families, households and the cycles they go through.

Over the past 18 months we’ve spent a fair bit of time exploring different typologies and scenarios where tiny houses could fill a niche within our communities – granny flat revisited, tiny lots, tiny house villages, tiny backyard leases and tiny house parks. These options are captured in the Tiny Housing Planning Resource, a document that provides a basis for planners and regulators to consider the introduction of tiny houses within appropriately zoned areas.

It seems we aren’t the only ones thinking along these lines. Eighty per cent of the entries in the 2017 Queensland Government’s Density and Diversity Done Well open ideas competition provided design solutions for the 1-3 storeys (low-rise) category and many of these were premised on compact dwelling infill of existing housing stock.

Keen to keep the dialogue going and tap into a broader network, we teamed up with Q Shelter late last year to facilitate a Tiny House Deep Dive. We selected three typologies, wrapped a human story around them and threw them at groups of mixed professionals (planners, architects, local and state government reps, community housing providers, academics and people with lived experience) to see what implementation solutions they could come up with. The groups looked at key opportunities and barriers across all three scenarios, including planning regulations and definitions, financing and ownership transfer.

Image courtesy of the Deep Dive.

The Deep Dive session yielded suggestions such as a one-stop-shop service to support and enable the growth and development of tiny houses responsive to various needs. The participants saw potential in tiny houses responding to homelessness and the needs of older women. They also considered ways of better utilising existing residential blocks in higher density environments where land costs are relatively high.

The Workshop Report is out and provides a great snapshot of the day and the recommendations that came out of it. You can also view the group presentations here.

The next steps will involve convening people with the capacity and skills to advance one or a few good ideas. Perhaps it is through enabling real projects, that the policy and regulatory issues are further highlighted and can be solved or mitigated through purposeful action with on-the-ground results.

All of these resources are free so please feel free to share amongst your networks and let’s keep talking tiny.

Rikki Pieters and Valerie Bares are directors of ESC Consulting, a boutique consultancy providing environmental, sustainability and communities services.

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4 Responses to “Planning for tiny houses”

  • Mary Ann Jackson says:

    From an accessibility point of view, Tiny Houses are very unsatisfactory. They are invariably elevated, and well, tiny! And there are usually many space-saving features that require constant (fiddly) operation. What Australia needs to develop is a culture of apartment living. Well designed apartments in convenient locations will address both affordability and accessibility.
    Mary Ann Jackson
    Architect, Planner and Access Consultant

    • Andrew Carter says:

      True, but Australia’s housing stock has many voids to fill and surely a range of options to suit people’s varied circumstances (certainly including more appropriately designed apartments) is what’s needed.

      One of these big voids is housing stock that is suitable for lower impact infill development, especially given how much resistance there often is from local residents to the construction of new apartments.

  • Peter O'Meagher says:

    I completed a very challenging tiny house project on rock ledge on northern beaches recently.
    I’d be happy to share the experience and learnings.

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