Tiny houses: new ideas for informal housing?

Tiny houses are the new kid on the block when it comes to housing. Citing environmental sustainability and preservation of resources and space, tiny house proponents started the movement in the United States in the late ‘90s. These little homes – often less than 15 square meters in size – are a lot cheaper to build than their standard counterparts.

In many societies living in small structures has a long history. For instance, the Moroccan Berber people built small clay dwellings that have been cited as historical examples of tiny houses. Today, South African designers are at the forefront of high-end, high-tech tiny house development, and the Johannesburg-born POD-Indawo impresses with glass, steel and a low carbon footprint.

Who really stands to benefit from the micro-sized innovations that characterise the tiny house enterprise? Whoever can afford a beautiful designer pod (with a typical price tag ranging anywhere from R200,000 to R700,000 in the case of the POD-Indawo) probably will enjoy the pleasures of living differently, and possibly the lifestyle change the reduction in storage space brings with it. Tiny houses are also more energy efficient in many cases, and – according to some – will encourage resource sharing (because each unit offers less space for personal belongings). But what about those living in very constrained conditions by necessity? Can developments from the tiny house movement be transferred to building better homes for residents of informal settlements?

In South Africa’s townships, a combination of high housing demand and scarce means has led millions of citizens to live in improvised shacks, built with whatever material can be obtained cheaply: typically wood, metal and plastic. The weak enforcement of any type of building regulation in informal settlements means that those structures can be quite hastily erected and are dangerous. Fires caused by kerosene stoves paired with flammable building materials and extremely dense neighborhoods are common.

Examples for resourceful use of found and recycled materials for home-building can be seen in this photo taken in the Imizamo Yethu township in Cape Town.

Shack dwellers  use found and recycled materials for home-building as seen in Imizamo Yethu township in Cape Town.

There are a number of factors to consider for this type of construction: the price of high-quality building materials is high, experienced builders are expensive, and the time to construct houses is scarce. That makes the situation very unlike that of tiny-house-enthusiasts, who are typically able to invest significant amounts of time and money into their projects. All this is paired with often precarious land tenure: residents of informal settlements may not know when they will get cleared out of their residence, disincentivizing long-term investment. Not to speak of the fact that many of these tiny shacks are not tiny by choice, but by exigency. Yet, often the interiors of outwardly shaky-looking shacks are lovingly decorated, and despite uncertain land rights clearly treated as long-term homes by their residents. Maybe there are some parallels between shacks and pods after all, in manifestation if not in motivation.

Some NGOs have picked up on the idea of improving housing under constrained conditions, investing in improved shacks manufactured abroad. These may come in handy in disaster situations, but will do little to empower residents to take charge of the situation themselves, since they are simply shipped in and set up. Other ideas seem much more participatory and rooted in local action, such as a Nigerian house built from recycled water bottles, but none of them seem to have reached the point where they have been widely rolled out.

When resources are scarce, and there is lack of financial support, experimenting with new and uncertain building methods is often not feasible. And this is where the tiny house wave might have some positive spillover effects. The development of tiny houses might spark better low-cost housing, by developing cheap, easy construction methods that would carry over to solving informal housing challenges. New medications are often developed by big pharma manufacturers and sold at a premium to those who can afford them — but society eventually does reap the benefits when generics become available. Similarly, wealthy and enthusiastic tiny house builders might just stumble upon methods and designs that work reliably with minimal resources. And until the bigger systemic issues surrounding townships and informal settlements are addressed shack dwellers would benefit from new, affordable ideas for home improvement.


Maitagorri Schade is an editorial intern with UrbanAfrica.Net. She is an urban traveler and scholar who is working toward her master’s degree at UC Berkeley and has a passion for informal transportation and community development in the global South.

Main image: The POD-Indawo, a tiny house made in South Africa.





Read older posts from this section

Leave a Reply