Tiny Houses: “The idea is that there is no change in lifestyle — This is an uncompromised living experience”

When the City of Ottawa passed a bylaw in 2016 permitting coach houses, many people likely asked themselves, Could I really live in a tiny house?

These pint-sized dwellings are certainly part of the zeitgeist. It’s almost impossible to switch on HGTV these days without stumbling across a show about someone planning to move their life (and sometimes children, dogs, and businesses) into houses roughly the size of a suburban living room.

As of early 2018, the city had issued six coach house permits, with ten others pending. “We’ve had interest from pretty much all over the city — urban, suburban, and rural,” says Alain Miguelez, program manager of community planning for the City of Ottawa. “I personally think there’s a very promising trend bubbling under here.”

Tiny house proponents include families building homes for their aging parents or for adult children, singles looking for affordable housing, and empty nesters looking to downsize. In the Ottawa region, a builder, a homeowner, and a researcher are on the leading edge of the little house craze. 

The Future of Tiny Houses

Ben Hayward in front of his prototype. Photo: Justin Van Leeuwen
Ben Hayward in front of his prototype. Photo: Justin Van Leeuwen

Ben Hayward wants to determine whether a tiny house can be beautiful. For the past year, the recent architecture grad has been building a prototype tiny house at Carleton University.

Hayward’s vision is coming to fruition via a 185-square-foot tiny house, a sleek, curvy structure with futuristic features. The main door is a gull-wing affair: press a button on a remote control, and the oval door pivots out on a piston. “It’s a bit of a gimmick showpiece feature, but it’s also one of those things that might be the tipping point [for a potential buyer],” he explains.

Inside, he has done away with the sleeping loft common to most tiny houses by hiding the bed in the ceiling. Flip a lever, and the bed descends into the living room and clicks into a latch. The back of the couch becomes the headboard.

Photo: Justin Van Leeuwen
Photo: Justin Van Leeuwen

Another common drawback to tiny houses is the need to locate the bathroom next to the kitchen to avoid taking up precious space with long stretches of plumbing. Few people want to look at a toilet while they’re cooking, Hayward notes. He has solved this problem with a door that closes off the toilet stall while still allowing the large bathroom window to light the house.

Photo: Justin Van Leeuwen
Photo: Justin Van Leeuwen

One of the signature features of this house is its double curvature, a common element in automotive design but a rare feature in residential housing. Hayward used a digital 3-D model to design the house and a computerized router to cut the pieces from plywood. He then assembled the pieces with a mallet. Eventually he hopes to be able to email the specs to people anywhere in the world, who could use digital fabrication tools to cut the pieces onsite, then assemble their house themselves.

While his prototype will be sent to his mother in Alberta, who plans to set it up in her backyard, Hayward hopes to make a career out of designing similar small dwellings.

In future projects, he would like to incorporate green technologies such as Tesla’s Powerwall (a rechargeable lithium-ion battery system used for home energy storage), which he predicts will soon become more affordable. He believes such user-friendly technologies will be key to making these houses appealing to a wide range of buyers.

“I’m trying to compete with a bachelor flat apartment rather than with other tiny houses or RV campers,” Hayward explains. “The idea is that there is no change in lifestyle — that this is an uncompromised living experience.”