The Small House Movement – Our Cottage


The Cottage 2008

As houses have been getting bigger, a reactionary small house/tiny house movement has arisen. The environmental advantages are obvious – less resources, less energy consumption (both embodied and use) and a smaller footprint on the land. Affordability not only increases because of decreased material content but also because self-building becomes a realistic option. Less material possessions, less housework and less maintenance associated with a small house all contribute to a simpler life.

In 1992 Maggie and I were living in a 1,450 square foot house in Hamilton (which was an average family sized house then), when we decided to buy two acres of bare land. We planned to build a small house to live in temporarily while we designed and built our main house. To have two houses on our property Waikato District Council planning rules required that one of the houses was limited in size (the ‘Granny Flat’ rules).

So we built a cottage, living in it ‘temporarily’ for about 7 years while I designed and self built our house.


Building the Cottage 1992

The Cottage proved to be warm and easily heated by a 7kw woodburner. The small kitchen is very efficient to work in but is essentially a one person kitchen. There is no space allocated to hallways or entrance ways. All of the downstairs is allocated to daily living, with spaces in the sleeping loft for one double and three single beds. In most houses, a lot of space is allocated to bedrooms, but the actual living use of them can be very low. The awning was a really good decision – for wood storage, bikes and garden tools. For a time we even had a spa pool there.


Cross section in the Cottage plans

In the spirit of the small house/tiny house movement, landshare initiatives and the open source movement, you are welcome to use the plans I created for the Cottage (here). However I would suggest that you take ideas from them so that the design of your house is unique to you, and appropriate to your site. I also hope that you incorporate into your design double glazed windows, passive solar heating, PV panels, and solar hot water panels – products and information about which were expensive and difficult to access in the 1990’s.

The environmental aspects of small houses tend to dominate information on the web and in books. But it is the social advantage aspects of a small house, and our Cottage in particular, that I want to talk about further.

As we considered the long term, we saw the social advantages of having a small house on the property. As our family members grew and changed, our Cottage might support this process: a place for family to live close by us, a place for babies to be born, a temporary place for family to stay while they were in a transition phase, a place for Maggie and I to live in our old age.

We were also becoming concerned at the way in which, within our society, it seemed that individual family members were increasingly leading separated lives within the same household. Multiple rooms, large bedrooms, ensuite bathrooms, multiple TV’s, smaller families and longer working hours, were all contributing to people increasingly becoming isolated within their own family. We wanted our children to experience a way of family living which emphasised communal and cooperative living.

For about two years we had three teenagers and two adults living in the cottage. On a later occasion for a number of months, four adults, one teenager and two babies! For most of the time we were living in the Cottage, I ran my law practice from there, Maggie her midwifery practice, and we homeschooled our teenage son.

When we moved to our main house, our oldest daughter and her son lived in the Cottage for a couple of years.

Then the house became Birthspirit Cottage. For 11 years, each year we ran about half a dozen live-in intensives for midwives, with 10-12 midwives living in the cottage for a few days – eating, sleeping, learning, and lots and lots of talking. The design of the Cottage lent itself to communal living and contributed to the success of the intensives.

We were blessed with six homebirths in the Cottage, including our two grandchildren being born there.

Now the Cottage accommodates our oldest daughter and her partner, plus three late teenage boys on occasions.

A small house requires cooperative living. People in large houses can live separate lives, but not so in small houses. To date we have very fond memories of our times in the Cottage, and believe that the size and design contributed to this. In respect of any negative teenage behaviours, our experience was that they were and are challenging in any situation, whether small house or larger house.

When I designed the Cottage in 1992, there wasn’t a small house movement. When it started, we immediately related to it; what people were saying about small houses described our experiences with the Cottage. I do recommend small house living for environmental reasons and believe that the positive family reasons outweigh any negative ones.

Tony Banks
March 2015

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