Friday, 5 July 2019

What should we ask about Tiny Homes - Part 3

The final part in a series looking at issues in the Tiny House movement. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

After exploring the issues of classism and financial accessibility as well as the difference between a small home and a Tiny Home, in this final chapter in the series, we will take a look at accessibility. 

Are Tiny Homes really for all?

Of course on this blog I will consider accessibility, how could I not? On first appearances, Tiny Homes may be a good accessible alternative and for some they certainly are: the small space puts everything close to hand and the home owner doesn’t need to worry about maintaining and looking after a large residence. Additionally the portable nature of the traditional Tiny Home means that they can be located in a place that is convenient and beneficial to the owner – close to relatives or amenities for example, or even in the back garden of a relative. We are also used to the concept of disabled people or those with particular adaptations living in smaller units - whether for their own benefit or somebody else’s – as in the case of retirement units and sheltered accommodation so the idea of “putting” disabled people in affordable Tiny Homes may not be that alien. The reality however is that Tiny Homes are often far from accessible and worse, the Tiny Home Movement can have a latent thread of disableism running through it’s rhetoric.

Though not at the core of it, the Tiny House Movement is very much about aspirational lifestyle and reflects aspects of health and well-being trends which can includes things such as “healthy” eating, being active and the firm belief (divorced from any spiritual roots) that yoga can cure all. A common feature of Tiny Homes is that the sleeping area is in an elevated loft space that must be accessed by some step or ladder arrangement. This itself presents an obvious accessibility hurdle but this is further exaggerated by those living in tiny homes who often talk of it as a way of keeping fit or staying lithe into old age. As is common in many other areas of our society the idea that we may become ill or disabled at any point is one people simply don’t contemplate. There are, thankfully, an increasing number of designs which have ground level beds or beds that fold or slide out of craftily hidden nooks. Certainly the opportunity for customisation and bespoke building does mean that there is room for innovation and the opportunity for accessible small space beds, but it isn’t currently the norm.
Pauline Sugarman's clever design with a slide away bed.

When pulled out the bed blocks access to other features
That need for space saving and clever storage is wonderful and from a design point of view something I love. However in terms of accessibility it’s not always great. While from a design point of view I love beds which magically appear out from under a sofa or fold down from a wall, the reality is that you can only use the space for one thing at a time: it is either bedroom or living room (or office or whatever the designated usage is). If you want to move from the bedroom to a sitting room or a craft space you have to get out of bed, tidy all your bedding away and physically move the bed to access your other space. The reverse may be even more difficult: imagine being somebody with a chronic illness who needs to lie down after being sat working for a short while. They need to tidy their office/craft/leisure activity away safely and securely, possibly move a piece of furniture or two and then assemble/reveal/lower the bed and adjust or add bedding before being able to get into it. That’s an awful lot to ask of somebody with limited capability. 

From my own point of view there would be a couple of unexpected challenges to living in a Tiny House, and they are both to do with laundry. Many Tiny Houses are designed without space for a washing machine or any drying space. For many this is a reasonable decision - they have access to laundry facilities on their parking site or are able to take their laundry to a launderette (or in one case were able and content to wash their clothes in a pot over an open fire outside). This is absolutely fine if it is something you can do. But it's not something I can do, I need a washing machine in easy reach and I need the space to be able to dry things or an efficient washer-dryer combo that can operate off of whatever electrical power supply I have. Additionally though, I need a lot of clothes. No this isn't just me justifying owning a lot of clothes it's actually a great adaptation for disabled people. If you don't have the energy to do a load of laundry you still need to have clean clothes to wear. So you need enough options to have stuff waiting to be washed and ready to wear. But that takes up space and means the common Tiny House lifestyle hack of downsizing a wardrobe or utilising a "capsule wardrobe" just isn't feasible. With these extra space needs a Tiny House may just not suite some disabled people. 

Think also of getting in to a Tiny Home – most are raised on trailers or on a temporary foundation and require a set of steps to get in to. Obviously there is an accessibility issue right away. Foldable stowable or temporary ramps do of course exist and there are a smattering of ramped homes out there, even some with pneumatic platforms, but they come at a premium price and are difficult design elements to add. We don’t just have to consider their suitability for use but also how durable they are, how much space they take up and if they can easily be removed or stowed for travel (or to comply with “temporary dwelling” regulations). How inclusive are Tiny Houses when people simply can’t get into them and how revolutionary is that compared to the standard and inaccessible housing model. Once inside how do you move around. Small spaces are difficult for people with wheelchairs (manual or electric) as well as for those with crutches or canes and visibility issues – how do you navigate your own tiny home. The plus side of course is that you don’t have to go very far to get to anything and it would be plausible to fit in easy to reach grab rails throughout!

Not strictly a Tiny House this "outbuilding" features a rare ramp. Bungalito by John Hindman

We need more creativity

It’s not that some solutions don’t exist and of course not all disabilities and their needs are the same, but the prevailing thinking in Tiny Home design isn’t one that has yet embraces accessibility needs or the full potential of bespoke home design.

And that really is at the crux of the issues I see in the Tiny Homes movement. We have something that could potentially be revolutionary in a number of ways but, as long as the prevailing thinking stays influenced by current housing standards and trends, it will never reach it’s potential. In order to actually serve as a revolutionary, accessible and truly inclusive form of housing it has to break free of the systemic forms of oppression and discrimination that foster our current housing inequality.

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