Small, but beautiful

In a time when space is at a premium and populations continue to grow, traditional housing models no longer seem fit for purpose. Could smaller, better homes be the way forward? Meet the companies designing the homes of tomorrow, today.

When it comes to living well, much is made of the fewer, better principle: instead of following fast fashion, we are encouraged to buy timeless, well-made pieces; instead of spreading ourselves too thinly socially, we should concentrate on having a smaller circle of closer friends; and instead of eating a cheap steak every day, we should enjoy the very finest fillet we can afford once a month. When it comes to our homes, though, the general consensus is still that bigger is better. But in a time when space is at a premium and populations continue to grow, is it time to reconsider our housing models and take a radically different approach to the place we call home?

“The housing system is broken,” says Jeff Wilson, a former environmental science professor and the founder of award-winning microhousing company Kasita. A few years back, Wilson conducted an experiment: he decided to move into a space one per cent of the size of the average American home, use one per cent of the energy, and create just one per cent of the waste. The space he chose was a dumpster, roughly four square metres in size, earning him the nickname ‘Professor Dumpster’. “About nine months into that experiment I realised that going smaller had a lot of benefits,” explains Wilson,

when you compress your environment radically it causes things to come into very sharp focus.

He realised that the current problems with housing – lack of space for new builds, people being priced out of competitive urban markets, unsustainable financing models, a lack of technological integration – would not be solved by modular, prefab, or high-rise developments alone, but rather by completely rethinking our approach to construction. “We should think of a home as one product. Products are designed for iteration, they are designed for user experience not interior design, they integrate technology, and they are designed for true mass production such that costs can come down,” says Wilson. “So rather than hiring an architect and a bunch of plumbers and electricians and engineers, I sought out the top industrial designer in the country. I went to him and I said, ‘I want you to design me an iPhone I can live in,’ and that’s what he did. That is the base DNA of Kasita.”

Modern micro homes

Kasita makes Kasitas, which are “smart, modern, micro homes” designed to squeeze into otherwise ignored corners of cities, stack together to make vibrant housing communities, or stand alone in a back garden or in the middle of the desert as a complete housing solution. Starting at just USD 150 000, it packs all the amenities of a modern home into just 352 square feet (32.7 square metres). By cleverly designing the space (slide-out beds, storage in stair treads) and integrating technology at every turn, Kasita takes a “better square feet, not more square feet” approach. It enables mass production and gives people the opportunity to live in cities they would otherwise be priced out of.

“We are not looking to compete against the traditional family home builder – we are going super-dense in New York and doing urban infill, we are looking at rooftops in the urban space in Austin, we are looking at some models of shared housing, and we are looking at new financing,” explains Wilson. “We are looking to create new models, as people just can’t afford to live in the cities they love any more.” The fewer, better model of housing is equally valid at the other end of the housing market, too. 

Design object

“The idea came to me while I was living in New York,” says Kasper Egelund, CEO of Vipp, the third-generation Danish family business famous for its impeccably designed pedal bins. “It is a fantastic city, but you’ve got to get out and back to nature. The thing with urbanisation is that now people are longing to get out of the city and back to nature. That was my dream, but I couldn’t just have a hut out in the forest, I couldn’t find what I thought would really have that ‘wow’ factor, so we had to make it ourselves.”

The Vipp shelter, like the Kasita, is a complete home. Unlike the Kasita, it has not been designed as an affordable, mass-production solution to the urban housing crisis, but rather as a ‘liveable design object’ and an antidote to urban living. As Egelund says, “It is the opposite movement to urbanisation – it is a human battery charger.”

It has been designed to let you enjoy your surroundings and to recharge away from the constant bustle and disruptions of modern life. From the huge glass windows and dark felt lining on the walls to the sleek black kitchen (which, incidentally, represents another industry disruption from Vipp, which is offering a try-before- you-buy service on its new kitchens in its Vipp Hotels, of which the shelter is one), every element of the 55 square-metre shelter has been meticulously planned and executed. “It is less but better,” says Egelund of the shelter. “It is not a big house, but the square metres you have are better thought-out. It is there to be used and to be a joy.”

Outside influences

While it might seem unusual for a product design company to make a house, Google now makes cars, and Apple makes watches. Indeed, the most interesting industry disruptions nearly always come from external players, as they are able to take a completely fresh perspective on an old product or service. Egelund, Morten Bo Jensen, Chief Designer at Vipp, and their team took their knowledge of steel processing gained from years of making small steel items for the professional market and combined it with their extensive design experience to create a complete home. Egelund explains: “Just because you start with a trash can, doesn’t mean you can’t make a house. When you become good at something you can use that knowledge and that attention to detail to scale up or down and make something else.”

Given the growing pressure that the housing industry is under as a result of booming populations and dwindling space, we need innovative approaches like these to help reshape the housing market. And while a small home might not be for everyone, the simple elegance of the Vipp shelter and the innovative Kasita show that we could all live just as well, if not better, in a smaller home.

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