Dr Mike Page explains how The Cube micro home project developed and why land availability turned out to be a major issue for those that liked the idea of tiny house living.
Interview with Mike Page
Mike Page has had what could be considered an unconventional background into low energy building. With a degree in engineering he moved into artificial intelligence and a career in cognitive psychology. He sees the engineering and psychology as being compatible for tackling climate change, which he says will need to be as much about changing behaviour as it will about technology.
The Cube Project demonstrated low energy design
Mike works at the University of Hertfordshire where he became interested in green building techniques and looking at the psychology of pro-environmental behaviour change. Back in 2008 he proposed a cross-department project looking to build a compact home that had low or zero carbon emissions, but still had modern comforts.
The idea was to ascertain what the best things to have in a building of any size would be, and then put them into a building of a small size. Using the philosophy that some things have to be shown, and not just explained, they could then take the building around for people to experience for themselves.
Introducing the low energy elements by design takes away the reliance on people to think about making those changes themselves.
“So, what you’ve got to do is make it the default so they can almost do nothing else in a house. But you’ve got to make it so that they have their comforts and the sort of quality of life that they want.”
QB1 attracted lots of interest
Although not setting out to be a “we want people to live in small spaces” project, they decided on QB1 being a 3 x 3 x 3 metre space in which one or possibly two people could live a comfortable, modern existence but with a minimal environmental impact. Taking it to Edinburgh Science Festival in 2011 brought about lots of interest from people saying they would like a space like that.
QB2 offered more usable space
Mike felt QB1 was slightly restricted in that it didn't have a full sized double bed, or space for more than two people to sit down to eat, so he designed QB2. This was 3 x 4 metres with a 3 metre internal height. It offered a better set of spaces, with a 4 metre long bathroom, a galley kitchen, a full sized double bed, 4-seater table, storage areas and space for a washing machine. There was a full size shower, a 4-burner induction hob, an air source heat pump, fan coil heating and a 32 inch LED TV.
One of the constraints that Mike gave himself was that he didn't want anything inside that folded up as that would always be an inconvenience, or have any ladders. So the design rule was that everything always had to be usable.
Another design rule was that they wouldn't use technology that was only appropriate to small spaces, because of their wider view of wanting to demonstrate what could be done in a building of any size. It did bring about challenges though of using extractor fans and heat recovery ventilation in such close proximity to the composting toilet!
QB3 had moving internal walls
The use of alternate tread stairs to reach the bed in QB2 meant it wasn't accessible for people with restricted mobility, which led to the design of QB3. This was the same internal volume (6 x 3 x 2.5m) but built all on one level.
A key design feature of QB3 was that it had moving internal walls, so you could step out of the kitchen, wind the wall past you and step back onto the same floor which was now in the bathroom. Therefore the light and insulation for one space is also the same that is used for another space.
“All the people who wanted one were exactly the same set of people who didn't have land to put it on”
A company was given the licence to build and sell the Cubes, but despite lots of interest at design shows, the problem of having the land to put it on was an issue.
Although they were careful to keep the design within the definition of the Caravan Act, because it was a self-contained dwelling it would need planning permission. And if people had land with planning permission then they might just build a normal house and not need a microhouse. Even to be in someone's back garden, it would need to be as an annex to the house, not as a separate dwelling where someone could live.
The Cubes differ from the Tiny House movement in the US, which are largely designed to be towed and moved from place to place. While the Cubes meet the Caravan Act and are mobile by definition, in practice they would need to be towed by a lorry. While physically they are tiny spaces, they were meant to be fairly static and not moved around.
It was also never the intention for people to be living in them in isolation. They had always thought it could be groups of young people living in a community of Cubes around a common space such as an allotment. What has been difficult to make happen is a planning arrangement that would allow groups to come together and create a network of smaller houses.
Something like a site that has been designated for static caravans would be ideal, where they could create a low energy community.
“I think it’s more the planning regulations that are conspiring against what we wanted to do with the Cube Project which is to let people live in their own private spaces with groups of other people nearby, in pleasant and low carbon surroundings.”
Land reform is needed
Mike doesn't believe that planning really serves all members of the community, and that land reform is a big issue that needs to be addressed. There are lots of people and companies that own lots of land, with developers holding onto land until the need for housing becomes so desperate they will get planning permission and benefit from the massive increase in land value.
Issue of zero carbon building
Mike's says what we really need are full-sized houses, and that is something he is now concentrating on.
He is amazed that houses generally being built now are not zero carbon all the time, or at least on average.
“So, what amazes me is that given that we’re going to have every house that’s got to be zero carbon basically by 2040 – Extinction Rebellion say earlier, the government says slightly later, but let’s say 2040 – why would you build any house in 2019, 2020 that would need retrofitting to meet that standard if you knew that that house was going to stand for sixty, seventy, eighty years? Why would you do that? That seems absurd. And yet just about every house I see being built is not of this type. It’s nowhere near being zero carbon. I simply don’t understand it. That’s a psychological problem.”
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