Big Problems / Small Solutions

By Brodie Blades

A tiny house parked in the backstreets of Vancouver, BC (author's own photo)

There’s an interesting dichotomy at play between town planning and the free market in major Australia cities. On the one hand, it makes complete sense to encourage housing intensification in well-serviced locations such as inner-city areas, but - on the other hand - the price of property in such locations is prohibitive for the bulk of younger home buyers. Add to this the unprecedented exposure of potential purchasers to new ideas and concepts (as well as the emerging generational awareness that material possessions and ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ does not necessarily bring happiness) and it is easy to understand why the ‘tiny house movement’ (that is, the notion of living in extremely small movable dwellings) is gaining popularity and traction as a legitimate lifestyle option.

But where does this fit in an Australia planning context?

Originating in North America, the basic premise of the tiny house movement is that keeping a small house ‘mobile’ by attaching them to a trailer base bypasses local planning and building requirements. After all, you don't need planning approval to park your caravan but you may to build a house. In Australia, the legitimacy of this approach was recently tested when a Brisbane-based couple won approval through the Queensland Building and Development Dispute Resolution Committee to keep their 18m2 tiny house parked within their inner-city backyard after Brisbane City Council previously ruled that structural approvals were required. Whilst the ‘rules’ around tiny houses in SEQ differs from municipality to municipality (they are prohibited outright on the Gold Coast but permissible on the Sunshine Coast with conditions), the Lord Mayor of Brisbane has indicated that the regulations around tiny houses in Australia’s most populous LGA will be revised shortly for greater clarity.

Closer to home, the Victorian Planning Provisions already make allowance for a form of tiny housing through the ‘dependent persons unit’ (DPU) land use definition within Clause 74 (ie. a movable building on the same lot as an existing dwelling and used to provide accommodation for a person dependent on a resident of the existing dwelling). DPUs are rarely Section 3 (prohibited) land uses within residential zones, but of course there may still be permit requirements for buildings and works and actual building permits. This use definition also invokes the need to prove the ‘dependency’ of the occupant of the DPU on the resident of the primary dwelling, so it is not a ‘true’ reflection of the purpose of the tiny house. But if a tiny house in a backyard is deemed legally acceptable for a dependent, why not then for a non-dependent too?

It is important to note that we have recently witnessed a deliberate ‘shift’ away from mandating minimum apartment and dwellings sizes in Victoria under the Victorian State Government’s ‘Better Apartment Design Standards’. This supports a view that ‘good design’ is inherently preferable to prescribing minimum dwelling dimensions, although it is also important to note that discretionary minimum living room and bedroom dimension standards have been outlined. Regardless, the discretionary approach to the new guidelines does leave the door ajar for further consideration of smaller housing typologies such as tiny houses and perhaps the time has come for a comprehensive planning review in Victoria to ascertain how we can make alternate dwelling options such as tiny houses easier and more attractive as a legitimate lifestyle option.

What do you think? Could you live in an 18m2 house?

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