When 28-year-old artist Harrison Marshall returned to London after a spell abroad, he couldn’t find anywhere to live in his price range. So in March 2023 he moved into a converted caisson. He’d parked the yellow container on a patch of land in Bermondsey and fitted it out with a tiny eat-in kitchen and a raised bed under a curved wooden roof.
Amid the affordable housing crisis, tiny homes have emerged as a last resort for those struggling to afford traditional homes. For many, they offer a semblance of security and stability in an increasingly punishing housing and labor market.
At the same time, the high-end luxury tiny custom homes so popular on social media appeal to a largely ambitious middle-class audience. My research shows that the costs of building these homes, let alone finding where to put them, can be high. At the heart of this movement is a complex interplay between privilege and insecurity.
A creative solution
Marshall explained that converting a caisson was the only way he could afford to live in London. Skip House reportedly cost £4,000 to build and pays £50 a month to an arts charity in rent for the land.
It has a portaleo on site, but no running water, so you shower at the gym or at work. This isn’t many people’s idea of luxury, but it’s a creative solution.
Many see the idea of a tiny house as a countercultural statement against consumerism and the housing market – and the culture of overwork needed to finance those two things. Tiny homes can act as a beacon highlighting a simpler, more sustainable lifestyle.
That said, life in a tiny house isn’t entirely off-grid. Because it still requires connection to many networked neighborhood resources – plumbing water, garbage collection – it fuses this anti-consumerist stance with new forms of commodified housing. The tiny houses thus make a political statement, without taking direct action.
Marshall himself acknowledged this. This type of project straddles the lines between aspiration and necessity. Skip House doesn’t prove a way through the housing crisis and cost of living crisis, but neither do tiny houses claim to be a silver bullet to our multiple crises.
High points and obstacles
The women I interviewed talk about the serious challenge of finding cash upfront or managing private bank loans to finance their tiny homes. The average small self-built house costs around £25,000 with standard options ranging up to £75,000.
The next challenge is finding a place to put them. Marshall’s ability to find and strike a deal with the arts charity that owns the land he’s leasing is made possible, in part, by what sociologists call his “social and cultural capital,” as a man white and educated.
This is further made visible by the other factors that make Skip House possible: the fact that he can shower at the gym for which he pays a membership; who has access to and can pay for a laundromat; that it can find a sort of agreement with the municipal administration on the collection of special waste and on the use of the portaleo.
Financially or socially privileged people benefit from access to resources, land and networks. This makes it easier to consider a tiny house as an alternative way of life.
Conversely, those with limited means may find themselves turning to tiny houses out of sheer necessity. They could pool resources and support to build their own little houses and live in fear of getting caught.
One person I spoke to was forced to live first in her car and then in a converted van to escape a domestic violence situation. If she had the money to do something more comfortable and safer, like staying in a hotel or renting a house of her own, he would have done it. But that wasn’t an option. Despite this, she says she now loves his converted van and wouldn’t want to live any other way.
My recent research explores how many of the people who live in tiny homes experience tremendous amounts of satisfaction and time and money savings. They signal a sense of reconnection with nature and community.
Another respondent, Amy, was 37 when we spoke in 2020. At the time, she lived in a tiny house in Colorado. She said:
It aligned all my values, I wanted a small carbon footprint. I wanted to spend my life doing rather than having. I wanted an aesthetically beautiful space, that I felt I could be in control of; as if the cleaning wasn’t out of control the repair wouldn’t have bankrupted me.
A broader question is what we can do to make this kind of life possible outside the context of tiny houses. Access to land is a significant barrier. Community land trusts are a great step in this direction. Their numbers have grown in recent years, with 587 active projects in England and Wales and a further 7,100 related homes due to be delivered in the next few years.
The tiny house movement embodies a complex blend of countercultural ideals, economic pragmatism, and entrenched advocacy of privilege. They are not a solution for everything, but neither should they be dismissed out of hand. Cooperatives and community approaches to land take have a long and successful history of creating affordable, high-quality homes. Maybe the tiny houses will become a big part of their successes in the future.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
Alice Elizabeth Wilson receives funding from the ESRC 1+3 PhD Scholarship.