The disquieting rise of the tiny home

Minimalism has been touted as a lifestyle trend. But what if you’re just broke?

March 16, 2021
article header image

Michael Roper’s apartment in Melbourne is tiny, but you don’t notice that when you first walk in. The natural light is the first thing you notice. Wide windows let in filtered sun tinged with green by the shrubbery and trees outside. Coupled with the high, rounded ceiling, this is what gives the illusion of space in Roper’s 23-square-metre studio. The place is sparsely furnished—its size necessitates that—but it’s not austere: there is a single canvas butterfly chair, hanging plants and lamps, a walnut-coloured desk that could double as a dining table. According to Roper, an architect, “this makes it a bit more of a living space, rather than just my bedroom.”

I'm nowhere close to Roper's apartment—I'm watching someone explore it on YouTube. Over the past year, I’ve become addicted to these videos; house tours of “micro-apartments” and “tiny homes,” either uploaded by occupiers themselves, or by accounts dedicated to documenting them. I’m not alone in my obsession. Search “#tinyhouse” on Instagram, and the search will return over two million photos. On YouTube, the channel “Living Big in a Tiny House,” dedicated to off-grid small spaces, has nearly 3.9 million subscribers. “Never Too Small,” an urban equivalent, has 1.5 million. Lifestyle concept stores have recently begun selling art books titled Petite Places and Small Homes, Grand Living.

Micro-apartments are generally defined as any space which is below 400 square feet. They’re mostly found in cities, and primarily inhabited by young, urban professionals. In micro-homes, space-saving ingenuity has been realised through furniture that can be repurposed as storage units, or fold down at the click of a button. There’s a strange homogeneity in the homes on display: white walls, slatted wood, and mid-century-inspired furniture. Aesop-brand hand soap inevitably sits next to impossibly clean, unused, kitchen sinks.

Although “Never Too Small” was set up in 2017, its popularity sky-rocketed in the last year. Commercial director of “Never Too Small” James McPherson tells me “the increased demand coincides with a broader interest in minimalism, downsizing, and the increased demand to live where people want to live.” According to McPherson, “minimalism is the overriding, fundamental trend and focus, and the driving idea behind how we’re curating the spaces.” In his book The Longing for Less, writer Kyle Chayka charts the growing popularity of “minimalism” as a commercialised lifestyle choice for young, middle-class professionals since the 2008 financial crash, as the conspicuous consumption of the middle classes in previous decades became not only unattainable, but distasteful. Chayka writes that minimalism becomes an “aspirational austerity,” which involves owning fewer objects in smaller spaces, while also ensuring those objects and spaces are themselves luxury goods: “Just because something looks simple doesn’t mean it is; the aesthetics of simplicity cloak artifice or even unsustainable excess.” In “micro-houses,” tininess becomes a commodified luxury. One apartment featured on “Never Too Small"—a 27-square-metre space in an art-deco, heritage-listed site in Sydney—broke sales records in the summer of last year when it sold for $600,000AUD.  

So what is driving the rise of the tiny home? The urban housing crisis has made these residences seem like ideal answers to a difficult situation. Maybe it is in enclosing ourselves in as small a space as possible that young people can finally aspire to a space of their own. It is primarily millennials and Gen Zers who are watching this content; 66 per cent of “Never Too Small”’s audience are between the ages of 18 and 34. In 2018, a survey found that the number of people house sharing in their 30s and 40s has risen in the last five years by 186 per cent; in 2017, barely one-third of 25-34-year-olds in Britain owned their homes.

Behind the romance of the tiny home, then, lies brutal economic fact. In the UK, “micro-apartments” frequently look like cramped office conversions; some are as small as 15 square metres, far below the national minimum space standard of 37. The material demand for smaller spaces beyond YouTube is clear—Anthony Breach, a research analyst for think-tank Centre for Cities, told Prospect that “over the past 12-18 months we can see that there’s been a high demand for smaller, one-bedroom flats in the UK. Although the rental market is crashing due to the pandemic, rent for one-bedroom properties continues to rise.”

According to Breach, in the long-term, we can make living in well-designed small spaces a reality for a more sizable proportion of the population by constructing more housing overall—including smaller, single-person dwellings. In the meantime, the spaces and design gaining currency online are still serving as inspiration for many. Scrolling through countless videos in my own mould-encrusted flatshare makes the bright open quiet of the single-person micro apartment seem like heaven. Being invited into a tiny house online is like being invited into a dream; one in which I can finally pretend to have a home—just a tiny home—of my own.