Tiny homes are small scale homes that usually cater for a single person or a couple. These homes are typically found in densely populated metropolitan areas such as New York City, San Francisco, Tokyo or places with limited real estate such as Hong Kong.
Tiny homes first came into existence as an art concept, with contemporary artists and interior designers teaming up to create a micro-apartment or a loft.
Their popularity led to micro-apartments being adapted as a viable solution for the increase in housing demand. Since then, the concept has led to the creation of tiny homes, a tiny home with all the amenities that of a traditional home.
Composition of a Tiny House
A micro-apartment sometimes referred to as a micro flat, is usually one room, self-contained living space that is often purpose-built. A typical micro apartment has a built-up area between 150 sq ft to 350 sq ft (14 sq m – 32 sq m).
However, this size can vary depending on the locality, overall built-up area of the building, local council restrictions, and practicality, to name a few. Micro apartments often tend to feature a higher than usual ceiling, some up to 3m, to allow for a double-decker layout. Micro apartments usually come with: –
A sitting space
A bedroom that doubles as a living space in specific designs
Moreover, residents of a micro-apartment would at times have access to a communal kitchen, a communal shower, patios, and rooftop gardens.
A double-decker micro-apartment in New York City
Increase in Popularity of Micro Housing
Increase in Urban Population
As the urban population increases daily, the demand for affordable housing is also on the rise. This becomes an issue in densely populated cities with limited real-estate such as New York City, San Francisco, Tokyo, London and Hong Kong. Micro housing affords a small yet comfortable and decent place to live. This solution prevents homelessness and prevents people from living in deplorable conditions.
Smaller space equals lower rents, and this is evident when it comes to micro-housing. Take New York City, for example. The average rent for an average apartment, measuring 700 sq ft, is US$3,653. Compared with an average micro-apartment, the average rent is $1,500 to $2,000. This average can go lower depending on the borough as prices in Manhattan are a notch higher than in Brooklyn or Queens.
The considerable difference will surely be helpful to those living in New York City as the city is one of the most expensive places in the world to reside. Another benefit of renting a micro-apartment in New York City is rent control. This system prevents owners from increasing their rent at will by imposing a maximum rental rate, which varies throughout the city.
DBKL’s Micro Apartment Initiative
DBKL Micro home prototype (Bernama picture)
In 2019, Dewan Bandaraya Kuala Lumpur (DBKL) came up with a micro-housing initiative that would allow B40 youths to rent a micro-apartment for just RM100. The initiative is part of DBKL’s plan to convert Kuala Lumpur into a low carbon city by 2040, tackle homelessness, and provide affordable housing to youngsters earning less than RM1,500 per month.
The first phase of the initiative was converting two seven-storey shop lots along Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman and was initially scheduled for completion in 2020 but has since been delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The units offered will measure 7 sq m (75 sq ft) and will have separate blocks for men and women. DBKL also highlighted that the apartments would feature pantries, suraus, reading corners, and laundrettes, with guards and wardens to ensure the safety of the tenants. The initiative received mixed criticisms from public and non-government organisations alike.
Maximising Space in a Tiny House
The biggest challenge in micro-apartments and tiny houses is the lack of space. This predicament has led to some ingenious ways being used to maximise space in small areas. The core idea of living in small spaces is a minimalistic and ‘less is more’ approach, similar to Marie Kondo’s philosophy.
Multipurpose furniture is common in Malaysia, especially in high-rise living, where every inch of space matters. They include sofa beds, beds with side storage, beds with a hollow frame, and cupboards with pull out racks, to name a few. This furniture makes micro-apartments efficient, practical and most of all, provide more space.
A ‘Swiss Army’ Bed with many storages
A Murphy bed or a pull-down bed is an ingenious design created by William Lawrence Murphy in the 20th century in San Francisco. The idea caught on and is now heavily utilised in micro-apartments worldwide. This type of bed can be pushed into its frame attached to a wall when not in use, and at times Murphy beds have a sofa that can be used when the bed is in its structure.
A Murphy Bed with a sofa and a rack
Knobless kitchen cabinets are a great way to make a small space appear larger than it is. The lack of knobs and handles helps create a seamless design and makes mobility more manageable and safer in the kitchen without constantly pushing into a knob or handle. Today’s technology allows for many different ways to open a knobless door, such as pull-outs, push-to-open and even electronic opening. The knobless kitchen concept is made more accessible when using modular kitchen fittings.
Choose lighter paint tones
Lighter paint tones allow more sunlight to flood the house and reduce the usage of artificial lighting. This factor is vital as most micro-apartments would only feature 1 or 2 windows. This can significantly vary according to the location of the micro-apartment and surrounding buildings, as tall buildings can block out most sunlight.
Glass all around
This solution is only practical for tiny houses that are built from the ground up. Fitting more glass replacing walls, especially at corners, allows more sunlight to enter the building and make the small space look bigger.
Advantages of Tiny Houses
Tiny houses afford flexibility in many areas. There are many options for potential tenants to rent or buy in markets such as New York City and San Francisco. In Malaysia, tiny houses tend to be constructed on demand. This affords owners to customise their tiny house according to their taste, budget, and personal interests.
As mentioned above, a smaller space equals lower rent. It is rather challenging to estimate the average rent for a tiny house in Malaysia because the concept is still in its infancy. The recent initiative by DBKL is proof that tiny houses and micro-apartments can be offered at a significantly lower rate.
While most micro-apartments come with partial furnishing, it is possible to find a micro-apartment fully furnished. With regards to tiny houses, it is up to the owners to include whichever furniture they desire, either fully furnished, partially furnished or minimalistic approach.
The reason being is that every person’s need for furniture varies greatly, after eliminating basic furniture such as bed, sofa, washing machine, and dinner table. Hence, you get what you want and greatly reduces expenditure.
Smaller space calls for lower maintenance and a more straightforward cleaning process. Owners of tiny houses would not even have to hire professional cleaners to clean their homes as basic cleaning can be completed within minutes.
A small house would require less electricity to operate as their number of electrical equipment will be lower, including lighting and ventilation. For example, a living hall that would typically require four separate lights to illuminate would only need two in a tiny house.
The same living room can be cooled using a less powerful air-conditioner than a living room in a regular home. Another benefit is that taxes imposed on the property would be lower as taxes are often based on the built-up area of a building. Hence, a smaller built-up area results in lesser taxes.
When we think of eco-friendly, our immediate guesses will be less electricity usage, less light pollution or less water consumption. While the outcomes are valid, the eco-friendliness of tiny houses can also include zero-waste, carbon-neutral and possibly off-grid.
In 2017, Matthias Gelber from Germany, who currently resides in Malaysia, created the Greeman’s Tiny Home measuring 120 sq ft in built-up area. The entire house was built using reclaimed construction waste, and a sustainable water conservation and waste management system was incorporated into the house.
Portable relief structures
Since most tiny houses are small, they can be transported with ease. This manoeuvrability makes a tiny house ideal as a relief structure for natural disasters, refugee crises and temporary housing for war victims, a step up from conventional solutions available.
Renting a tiny house or a micro-apartment may be an economical solution, but building one could potentially rake a high cost. In 2018, thestar.com published an article about Atiqah Nadia Zailani, one of the first Malaysians who built her own tiny house. Her house measuring 520 sq ft, cost an astonishing RM200,000.
The price point can be compared with low-cost high-rise development throughout Malaysia, which averages RM200,000 with more space. To put into another perspective, RM200,000 could be used as a down-payment for a landed or high-rise property, reduce the bank loan and interest paid on loan. So, small is not always cheap.
Shared basic amenities
This disadvantage is most applicable towards micro-apartments, and tiny houses often come with their own basic amenities. Micro apartments would sometimes require the tenants to utilise communal kitchens and bathrooms, which can be a problem during peak hours. The more units of the micro-apartment are in a building, the higher the tenant’s chances of facing such dilemmas.
Living in a tiny space usually means living in close quarters with many others, and sometimes that would pose a problem with privacy. Matters become worse if the walls between the micro-apartments are not adequately insulated and can result in private conversation being heard by our next-door neighbour.
Furniture designed for small spaces often demands a premium and can result in higher expenditure compared when buying traditional furniture. Take the Murphy Bed, for example. An average Murphy Bed can cost between US$2,000 to US$4,000. All this can contribute towards owners of tiny houses forking out more money on furniture.
Just how small is small?
Micro apartments and tiny housing may seem like a viable solution, but frequently the concept is wrongly used and has led to the creation of ultra-micro apartments. The Independent UK in 2012 reported that landlords in Rome, Italy, were flooding the streets of Rome with ultra-micro apartments, some measuring a measly 4 sq m (43 sq ft).
To put it into perspective, a standard parking lot should be at least 210 sq ft, according to Professor Dato’ Sri Ar. Dr. Asiah Abdul Rahman, from the Department of Architecture, Kulliyyah of Architecture and Environmental Design at the International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM).
Ultra-micro housing has been taken to the extreme in Hong Kong, the world’s least affordable real estate. More than 200,000 Hong Kongers live in ‘coffin homes’, a space so small that it feels like living in a coffin. These ‘coffin homes’ measure only 20 sq ft on average but can cost up to HK$2000 (RM1,070) per month to rent.
Some of these homes are so ridiculously small that an average adult would not be able to stretch out their legs fully. Most of these ‘coffin homes’ are stacked on top of each other, and some examples do not have proper ‘walls.’
A typical ‘coffin home’ in Hong Kong
What is even worse is that slightly larger homes averaging 100 sq ft can be shared by up to 4 people. The situation got worse when ‘coffin homes’ were considered too big and expensive, and many people resorted to living in ‘cage homes.’
If micro-apartments are not properly regulated, what is currently happening in Hong Kong may be a reality in other cities soon.
‘Cage homes’ in Hong Kong
Public Backlash on Micro Apartments
The Treehugger and The Seattle Times published articles that some residents in Seattle complained that high-density micro-housing changed the character of the neighbourhood, a sudden increase in demand for parking space, and an increase in demand for amenities.
The articles also revealed that some residents consider micro-housing as harming the community by providing inhumane living conditions. This led the city of Seattle to pass a regulation that effectively outlawed micro-apartments.
Should You Consider Micro Living?
It all depends on individual needs and wants. Not everyone would want to live in a micro-apartment for an extended period of time, as micro-apartments are often temporary solutions.
Another factor is that people who choose micro-housing are usually part of the micro-housing movement, and the movement is not particularly popular in Asia. The concept is still very much in its infancy in Malaysia,micro-apartments, and it is unsure if this trend will attract the interest of Malaysians.