IN 1912, Arthur Weeden, an Englishman who had migrated to Canada in 1902, built a tiny house with less than 300 sq ft of living space in Toronto. Weeden, who later became one of the pioneer builders in Toronto's west end, lived in the house for 26 years - 20 of them with his wife and another six on his own after her death.
A hundred years later, the house is still standing and has sheltered a few families in its lifetime. Fondly called "The Little House", it gained fame after it was put up for sale in March 2010. The house, like any standard home, comes with a living room, kitchen, bedroom and bathroom. It was sold to the current owners a month after it was listed on the market.
It was rumoured that daytime talk show host Ellen DeGeneres had expressed interest in owning The Little House one day. The house even inspired a song - Come Back To Me by Maria Lee Carta.
Living in an abode like The Little House is not something many Malaysians will consider, not when we have ample large homes around.
However, living spaces are getting smaller around the globe, particularly in developed countries with crowded inner cities. Homes like The Little House may one day become the norm in most major cities. In fact, this is already the case in some of them - the median size of Hong Kong apartments, for example, is 500 sq ft.
In Malaysia in recent years, we have seen more apartments measuring less than 700 sq ft come on the market, especially in the Klang Valley, but micro homes of less than 300 sq ft are still a rarity.
There are a few reasons for the emergence of micro homes - scarcity of land, growing population and affordability, among others. Then, there are those who choose to live in a small space to reduce their carbon footprint or simply because they prefer a life free of clutter.
One such person is American Jay Shafer. Concerned about the environmental impact of a large house, Shafer has been living in an 89 sq ft residence since 1997. In an interview with greenaerie.blogspot.com, Shafer said his first tiny home was the cab of a truck in the backyard of his parents' place. At the time, his parents were building a house so Shafer was without a room to sleep in. He then lived for 10 years with his folks in the large house, which he strongly disliked.
His next small living space was even more significant. On a trip to Tokyo, Shafer rented a 16 sq ft room to save money. Amazed by how much could be comfortably squeezed into the tiny space - a bed, bathtub, shower, toilet and a sink - he spent the next five days studying the layout. Shafer soon began building small houses as a business and Tumbleweed Tiny House Company was born.
Today, Tumbleweed is a thriving business that offers portable ready-made houses and stationary cottages with sizes ranging from a mere 65 to 777 sq ft. The company also offers DIY books, building plans and workshops.
Living in a 65 sq ft house does not mean you have to forgo basic necessities. Each Tumbleweed home has a designer look and comes with a stainless steel desk, shelving, composite toilets, a fireplace, an oven, a kitchen, shower, water heater, refrigerator and, in some models, a porch and sleeping loft.
Shafer is not the only one who sees the ecological and economical benefits of small homes.
Eco-friendly compact homes
In the UK, Dr Mike Page, engineer and reader in cognitive psychology at the University of Hertfordshire, conceived and designed The Cube, a 27 cu m home. Measuring no more than 3m by 3m by 3m on the inside, it is comfortable for a single occupant.
The zero-carbon house is made from sustainable materials and designed in a way that the techniques and technologies can also be applied to larger homes. The house has a lounge, custom-made chairs, a 120cm wide bed, a full-size shower, kitchen, washing machine and a composting toilet.
The Cube uses an Ecodan air-source heat pump with heat being recovered from extracted air, generates energy through solar photovoltaic panels and has energy-efficient LED lights. Waste is either composted or processed on site by a small reed-bed, eliminating the need for main drainage. It does, however, require a connection to the electrical grid and cold water supply.
The first prototype, QB1, was unveiled on April 9, 2011, at the Edinburgh Science Festival. Page tells City & Country that he and his team are working on a second version, QB2, which will be 1m longer and much improved in its features. Page intends to sell QB2 in the UK and eventually optimise it for mass production.
In terms of sales, German company Micro Compact Home Ltd is ahead with its 2.66m cube dwelling, m-ch. The m-ch is the result of a research project at the Technical University Munich in 2001, and was inspired by Japanese tea-house architecture. It utilises advanced European and Japanese prefabrication methods and concepts.
The first production of m-ch units was for a student village in Munich. The project was commissioned by Studentenwerk Muenchen and sponsored by telecommunications company O2 Germany. The village, launched in November 2005, was originally intended to house six selected students for a term but proved to be so popular that the students extended their stay to a full year.
The m-ch units are sold in Europe for an estimated €38,000 (RM150,000), which includes all interior fittings.
Also taking the approach of less is more is famed Finnish architect Sami Rintala, who unveiled his 204 sq ft house, Boxhome, in 2007. Noting the increasing size of Scandinavian houses and the emergence of second homes, Rintala wanted to create a residence that was economically and ecologically beneficial.
Boxhome has four rooms covering basic living functions - kitchen with dining, bathroom, living room and bedroom. The project focuses on quality of space, material and natural light and tries to reduce unnecessary floor areas. Based on these elements, Boxhome cuts down the price to only a quarter of any same sized apartment in the city.
Rintala's goal was to make a peaceful small home, a kind of urban cave where a person could withdraw to in order to forget the intensity of the surrounding city for a while.
Housing in the city
As any city dweller will attest to, living in a metropolis can be costly, especially when it comes to housing. Even in Malaysia, more and more people are buying or renting homes further away from the city centre due to rising costs.
In China, the millions of migrants from rural parts to the cities are finding it difficult to find affordable housing, no thanks to ever-increasing real estate prices and rental rates.
According to a Reuters report, in 2010, Huang Rixin, a 78-year-old retired engineer built eight units of what he calls, Capsule Apartments, in the Haidian district in Beijing to cater for low-income migrants. Measuring about 21 sq ft, each unit comes with a bed and a desk.
Huang was inspired by the capsule hotels in Japan, which provide a block of space that measures about 2m by 1m by 1.25m for guests to sleep. He said his motive was not to make money, but to help young people during their transitional period.
One of his first tenants was 22-year-old Wen Jiao, an aspiring musician. Wen, who was unemployed at the time, told Reuters that because of the cost of housing, the capsule apartment was all she could afford at 200 to 250 yuan a month. She noted that even if she had a job, she would make only 3,000 yuan (RM1,464) a month. Of that, she estimated one-third would go to paying the rent should she seek a more conventional dwelling.
Capsule apartments appear to have caught on in China. This year, entrepreneur Wan Jia converted a 6-storey building in Wuhan into 55 apartments. Each apartment measures 48 sq ft and has a bathroom, bedroom and kitchenette.
The US is also tackling the issue of housing affordability in the cities. In November, San Francisco's Board of Supervisors voted to allow the construction of apartments as tiny as 220 sq ft, down from the previous minimum of 290 sq ft. However, the number of apartments is capped at 375 for now.
According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the micro units are expected to be tenanted at US$1,300 to US$1,500 a month. An average studio apartment in the city commands a rent of US$2,075 a month.
New York mayor Michael Bloomberg approved a trial 60-unit development of micro apartments measuring 275 to 300 sq ft in mid-2012. As of now, the jury is still out on the effectiveness and impact of micro housing in the US.
A healthy dose of ingenuity
Living in a small space does not need to be confining. Hong Kong architect Gary Chang certainly did not let the lack of space stop him from creating his personal haven.
Chang grew up with five family members in a 344 sq ft apartment tucked away in a typically densely inhabited nondescript Hong Kong tenement. He bought the apartment for US$45,000 when his family moved into a bigger place in 1988. While the apartment has undergone several facelifts over the years, it was not until 2009 that Chang put in US$218,000 to transform his home into an apartment with 24 configurations.
Dubbed the "Domestic Transformer", Chang uses a system of sliding walls and panels to morph the apartment according to his needs. A slide here and a push there and the apartment becomes, among other things, a bedroom, laundry room, dressing room, steam room, kitchen, bathtub, a bed for a guest, wall to ceiling shelves and even a home theatre with a pull-down projector screen, which he watches from his hammock. When everything is tucked away, the apartment looks like an open loft.
Chang told Reuters in 2010 that he plans to work with property developers to replicate his flat in other cramped and costly cities in Asia and Europe.
Necessity is the mother of invention. Such is the case of 26-year-old Dai Haifei. Two years ago, he moved to Beijing from his hometown in Hunan province to take up a job with an architectural design company and, like many others, found that he could not afford the city's high rents.
Initially, he rented a room for about 900 yuan but the financial burden soon became too much for him to bear. So, he decided to build his own house.
Dai spent less than US$1,000 on building a 6ft tall egg-shaped mobile home made of bamboo strips, sacks filled with fermented wood chips and grass seeds, a layer of heat preservation, steel bars and waterproof materials. For power, Dai installed one solar-cell panel. The interior was sparsely furnished with a small bed, lamp and water tank.
The inspiration for the house came from a project called "Egg of the City" that Dai had worked on while he was still an intern. He placed his egg house a few steps from his workplace and used a nearby gym, where he had membership, and the office for his sanitary needs.
Inevitably, his egg house drew the attention of the public and media. Unfortunately, the media attention alerted the Haidian District Urban Management Division and caused the authorities to take action. As the egg house had been built without a permit, it was considered unauthorised construction and, in early December 2010, Dai was evicted and his home towed away.
According to China's People Daily, the company that Dai works for got hold of the egg house and is working on improving it to include waste disposal and better heat preservation and hopes to eventually market it commercially. Dai told the newspaper that he is living with friends and hopes to rent a place near the company.
Whether the reason is economic or ecological, there is no denying that micro homes are a growing trend across major cities around the world. Only time will tell if the trend one day reaches our shores.
This story first appeared in The Edge weekly edition of Dec 24-31, 2012.