Building a home by yourself offers a gazillion possibilities - a terrace house? A mansion? A freaking palace?? Or the exact opposite: a Tiny Home.
Once I abandoned the idea of buying a cookie-cutter house built by a big developer and became enamoured instead with the notion of designing and building my own home, I was able to give myself free reign to think up a structure specifically suited to me and all my quirkiness.
Just like land-buying, I had a list of criteria:
self-sustaining, as much as possible (energy, water and food-wise)
requires very little housework (am no domestic goddess)
simple & easy to build (am no construction worker either)
within my miniscule budget
All four pointed in the same direction: go small. Tiny, even.
The good news is, Tiny Houses are all the rage now. The bad news is, all that rage is happening in entirely different continents than the one I’m on (USA, Australia, New Zealand, Europe, but definitely not Malaysia).
What is the deal with Tiny Houses?
The term Tiny House is self-explanatory, but if you want to get technical about it, it refers to houses that range from 100 sq ft to 1000 sq ft, give or take a few sq ft. It is actually nothing new – people have been living in small spaces since the cavemen days (in caves, presumably), and still do (ever visited the home of a Maasai warrior?).
A Maasai's crib.
The reason why it’s interesting now is because it is going counter to the prevailing exhortation to build big, bigger and biggest. You’ve got to have two living rooms, a dry kitchen plus a wet kitchen, and of course, a pool, and don’t forget the game room and the movie room and the powder room… In the US, they call it the McMansion; in Malaysia we just call it “rumah besar gedabak”. While most people are building bigger and bigger homes for themselves, choosing to go small is certainly unconventional.
Why would anyone go small?
My primary reason is laziness in maintaining too large a space, but there are numerous reasons why other people do it:
1. Debt-free: Following the 2008 debacle in the US that saw millions of people lose their fancy houses after failing to make their mortgage payments, more and more people are choosing to opt out of the system entirely and are instead building houses they can afford without taking on loans. No monthly payments, no long-term relationships with banks, no risk of repossession.
2. Simplify life: Certain groups of people find themselves transitioning into a different lifestyle – a couple whose kids have flown the coop, for example, leaving them with a very large and very empty nest – and they no longer require all the space and possessions from their previous life. Others simplify for no other reason than to be zen and at peace with themselves, away from the chains of consumerism.
3. Mobility: Smaller homes, if small enough, can fit on a trailer and be lugged across the country using a pick-up truck. This extent of mobility suits certain groups of people, either those with a highly-mobile, fast-paced job or those who just can’t stay still in one place for too long. Some even travel this way, carrying not just a suitcase, but their entire house with them.
4. Environment: Larger spaces take up larger resources – more water, more heat / air-conditioning, more electricity, more waste, etc. Having a smaller house means less resources and lower (sometimes even nonexistent) bills, and therefore less negative impact to the world that we share with 7 billion other people, all fighting for their fair share of resources.
Whatever the reason, the essential idea is to customise your space to be just right for your needs and lifestyle, without the excess, the waste and the chains of debt and stationary living.
It’s not downsizing, it’s prioritising
Going small can sound like a sacrifice, a step-down, or a downgrade, especially if you’re used to living in sprawling homes. But it’s really not. It is merely the act of identifying and prioritising the parts of your life that do matter to you, that make you happy, and making just enough space for them, while discarding the superfluous rest.
I myself used to live in a 6,000 sq ft home, with my family of 6. It was way too big – when I brought in my pet cats for the first time, they went missing for 2 whole days within the bowels of the house before we finally discovered them (one was stuck hanging by a claw in the folds of a curtain). We lived there for a decade, and I noticed that entire rooms went unused, while the maintenance of so huge a place gave my father constant headaches (something was always breaking and needed fixing somewhere). We had to hire staff just to keep up with the house, and gave up some of our privacy. We didn’t own the house, it owned us.
I learned a huge lesson then: bigger isn’t always better, especially if it’s unutilised, unnecessary, wasteful and doesn’t even make you happier, after all that trouble. Better to take a moment to really reflect on your life, to make a list of things that make you happy, and to make enough room for them, and only them.
That being said...
Going small will definitely require a few adjustments and some getting used to. You need to:
really know yourself well (it sounds like a given, but you’d be surprised how many people never actually take the time to figure out what they really like, finding themselves following trends and peers instead),
learn to prioritise,
be ruthless about certain things like clutter,
develop certain new habits while discarding some old, entrenched ones.
Below are a few principles that I plan to keep in mind to make it easier for me, and for you too, if you're thinking of going down this road.
Declutter & donate frequently: Living in a small house means less space for all your crap, so an essential habit to develop is the habit of frequent decluttering and donating. Even at my best, I still find myself accumulating things over time, so every 3 months, I conduct a decluttering exercise, evaluating my possessions and going all Marie-Kondo on them. I then donate or recycle the items, trashing them only as a last resort. It’s a fun process!
Keep clean: Similar to the above, keeping your space generally clean really helps you to feel good being inside it. What becomes an eyesore is not the size of the room, but the mess and dirt in it. Luckily for you, because the space is small, there’s much less to clean, so the awful process is easier and faster!
Double duty & convertible furniture: You can only fit so much in a small space, and here is where you get creative. The internet is full of smart and innovative examples of furniture that perform multiple functions or that can transform into something else. Take advantage of them.
Light and proportionate furniture: Your furniture should be proportionate to your space, the same way your accessories should be proportionate to your body. I, for example, cannot wear chunky bracelets and necklaces without looking stupid. Similarly, Balinese teak wooden chests, or thick heavy sofas, will look out of place in a small space. Opt for skinny, airy, floaty, barely-there furniture (but sturdy ones too, so you don’t fall flat on your butt when you try to sit on them).
Let the light in: Design the space to allow a lot of light in, using bright paint for the walls, as well as the clever positioning of windows and mirrors. A bright space looks a lot bigger than it actually is, and mirrors add the illusion of extended space.
Shop like a European: I used to have a terrible habit of buying a lot of groceries and storing them in the fridge, thinking they would last forever. Not surprisingly, about half would expire before I even got around to using them, generating a lot of waste that hurt my soul. The solution is to buy less, but to buy more frequently. In other words, you buy and you cook, not you buy and you refrigerate. This results in fresher, more yummy food, and a lot less space that’s needed to keep things. This is especially important for a small house with a small kitchen, in which a massive, two-door refrigerator may not be a feasible option.
Spend time outside: During my broke college days, whenever I traveled, I would go for cheap accommodations without frills. To my mind, the point of traveling was to spend time out in the world, and sometimes I even made sure my lodgings weren’t too comfortable so I’d be motivated to be outside. My standards on accommodations have gone up a bit since then, but the principle remains the same. Hopefully, having a small house will encourage you to spend more time outside of it - after all, life happens out there, so go out!
Room for expansion: Life changes on you all the time, and you may find several surprises in the form of a life partner, ten babies or relatives who are moving in with you for an indefinite period of time. To prepare for such eventualities, try to design your house such that it can be inexpensively and easily expanded, either by changing the space layout, or by adding a wall or two, or by constructing additional rooms on the side. I call this the build-it-when-you-need-it principle.
Some people live in tiny spaces out of necessity, and some out of choice; some will hate it, and some will love it. While this is not suited for everyone, it is still worth your time to reflect on the amount of space your lifestyle needs, and the amount of space you actually take up, and whether they match.
Still, seeing how living spaces are getting smaller and smaller in step with rapid urbanisation (I mean, just look at Tokyo and Hong Kong), we may all find ourselves being forced into tinier homes, sooner or later, and having to adjust accordingly.