Dreaming Big About Tiny Houses

By Saga Norrby 

— In 1994 Laurens Schasfoort – a then 29-year-old Dutchman – went to Tanzania and Kenya with the intention to teach. Having already taught physics and chemistry in the Netherlands, he thought he could be of help there. But looking back, present-day Schasfoort attributes the thinking of his younger self to “white arrogance.” “I think I can learn more from them than they from me,” he said.

Schasfoort never took up teaching in Africa, but he did indeed learn. With an eco-conscious mind and a taste for construction work, he marveled at some of the houses he saw around him; their shapes, materials and small size made them melt into their surroundings, seemingly becoming part of nature itself. Schasfoort returned to the Netherlands with a seed of an idea, which lay at the back of his mind for more than two decades, until it was stirred into growth.

Upon his return, Schasfoort started working in the emerging field of information and communication technologies. At first, he worked at a software company, then for the police, and then as a self-employed web developer. Then, in the spring of 2017, Schasfoort made an abrupt career switch. He went from building websites, to building houses. Tiny houses.  

Tiny Homes & Houses

Some define a tiny home as any home of 50 m2 or less. Others say that for the tiny home to also be a tiny house, it has to not only stand alone, but be mobile. Schasfoort is not picky with the definition but prefers standalone houses that are tiny in relation to the number of people living in them.

“Construction was always a thing I liked, and I was really fed up with my computer at the end of 2016,” Schasfoort said. “I got self-employed because I wanted to have the freedom [to] lead myself instead of someone telling me what to do. But then I discovered that [while] sitting at the desk, looking at the PC, [with] emails coming in, there was not much freedom anymore.”

This gradual realization lead Schasfoort to eventually hit a wall. “I hardly got any work done in that time; things I used to do in half an hour took me the whole day to take care of,” he said. It all got better when a friend reached out, asking for help to renovate his new home in The Hague. Schasfoort agreed to lend a hand – both hands – and as he got busy with this manual task, he felt energy seeping back into him.

Schasfoort took this as a clear sign it was time for change – “I got sick because of not doing the things I really wanted to do,” he said. So as the year of 2017 came around, he stopped taking on new customers for his web development company, set up a construction company, and started building a tiny house in the backyard of his big house, located in Silvolde; a small town in the east of the Netherlands.

Tiny houses became popular in the United States after the 2008 housing crash, when an increasing number of people simply could not afford anything bigger. They were also featured in the American documentary “Minimalism” from 2015, as a form of housing which can declutter one’s life, curb excessive consumerism and shrink one’s environmental impact.

Schasfoort, who remembers getting introduced to tiny houses by watching another documentary about the American movement, felt compelled to invest in tiny houses for these reasons – but the philosophy that motivates him runs deeper.

Reading tips from Laurens Schasfoort

Article: The Ideology of Isolation, by Rebecca Solnit

Book: Zooikoorts (stuff fever), by Hein Zegers

Toward the end of 2016, Schasfoort’s wife, Arletta Albers, gave him an introduction to the course “365 Dagen Succesvol” (365 Days Successful) as a birthday gift. “She didn’t know there was a whole year program, so [after the introduction] I texted her a message saying, ‘It was a very nice day, I think I’m going to take the whole gift,’” said Schasfoort.

The course, which lasted for the whole of 2017, pushed him to articulate his core values. What came out of that process was something he had been reevaluating the meaning of during the past years: freedom.

 

The development of the tiny house in Schasfoort’s garden.

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Photos by Niek Schasfoort.

 

Partly inspired by the work of Rebecca Solnit, and his experience as a small business owner, Schasfoort had come to see freedom not so much as independence – standing on one’s own, separate from others – but as acknowledging and welcoming interdependence, between man and nature, as well as between people.

According to Schasfoort, the common misunderstanding of freedom as meaning utter independence, is a root cause of many societal problems. That misunderstanding underlies consumerism, mistreatment of nature, and loss of social cohesion. And until the misunderstanding has been cleared up, the problems cannot be solved. It is not enough to see the problems; without proper understanding, there is no proper motivation to act. “Everybody says ‘take care of the environment – of course,’ but nobody does a thing,” Schasfoort said. “We don’t do a thing.”

The way Schasfoort sees it, that is because most people still do not (or long ago stopped to) think of themselves as part of nature. And similarly, most people do not think of themselves as particularly connected to each other either.  “For [so many] years we looked at it that way, that we are bigger and more than the rest of the world,” Schasfoort said. “Looking at it differently, if you say that we are a whole system with nature, then it becomes a part of you. And if it becomes a part of you, then it’s more necessary to take care of it. Then you take care of yourself as well. So, if you take care of other humans around you, then you take care of yourself.”

Failing to look at things that way, and instead believing that each person is free only to the extent that they can take care of themselves and own everything they need and want – regardless of how often each thing is used – does in Schasfoort’s eyes feed into the contemporary obsession with possession. He also thinks stuff serves not only as an unfortunate, but comfortable distraction. “It can always be an excuse for not doing what you really want to do,” he said.  

In the words of Schasfoort’s daughter, Julia Schasfoort, “People unconsciously keep themselves busy with doing small things because they are scared of making free choices.”

For Schasfoort, tiny houses can be a manifestation of true freedom – of getting closer to oneself, to nature, and to other people. But though Schasfoort started with one single tiny house in his garden, a key component of his vision is tiny houses together; whole communities of them.

“Within [the 365 Days Successful] course, we did some meditations,” Schasfoort said. “There was one meditation where you had to make [your vision] bigger and bigger, so I saw communities with tiny houses, a whole world with tiny houses, where people have less stuff and take more care of each other. That’s my dream. That sort of connection, making a choice to live that way.”

The course also taught Schasfoort to approach goals by taking small, daily steps. One small step toward the bigger vision, was to find a partner. “I said to myself that I want to find at least one person who also wants to do this as life work; full-time work on tiny houses,” Schasfoort said. He ended up finding not one, but two partners.

Not long after Schasfoort had been inspired by the tiny, earthy houses in Africa in the 90’s, a man who had gone to high school with Schasfoort and then become an architect bought a secondhand copy of the book “The Tiny Book of Tiny Houses” by Lester Walker. The man’s name was Jarno Nillesen.

“Mankind used to live in caves, tents and huts [for] most of its existence, and then, only a few hundred years ago, moved into bigger and more sophisticated domiciles made by specialists, [requiring] a lot more effort, money, material, and infrastructure,” said Nillesen. “Living in Berlin [at the time] I liked the idea of living more basic, closer to nature. In a way [the book] showed the roots of man and the origin of architecture.”

Examples of natural biodegradable building materials: 

Wood, straw, loam, glass.

As was the case for Schasfoort, the thought of tiny houses then slipped to the back of Nillesen’s mind, and he continued on the path of designing buildings for hospitals and nursery homes. But over the years, working architecturally in the field of healthcare, he became increasingly concerned about how healthy buildings are themselves. “People nowadays spend ninety percent of their time indoors,” said Nillesen. “It therefore is very important [that] we create an environment which is congruent with nature. Industrial products very often are not, they can even cause severe illnesses.” Wanting to know what a truly healthy building looks like, Nillesen started considering steering his work in a new direction.

Then, a couple of years ago, Schasfoort reconnected with Nillesen and the two bonded over both being in the process of reassessing their careers. Realizing they also shared an interest in architecture and living in tune with nature, Nillesen lent Schasfoort his book on tiny houses, and Schasfoort handed Nillesen a book on ecological houses.

Subsequently, Schasfoort started building a tiny house in his garden, and Nillesen applied to study at the German Institute for Building Biology and Sustainability (IBN).

“I was very much inspired by their [IBN’s] philosophy and knowledge,” said Nillesen. “Man is a social and psychological, but also biological being, and always has been part of nature. Man is nature. [It] is only since the industrial revolution, and especially after World War II, [that] mankind has started to separate itself from nature, with the terrible results we see in the world today.”

At IBN, Nillesen met a fellow Dutchman; the energy consultant – and by now fellow building biologist – Geert van de Rijdt. Nillesen connected Van de Rijdt with Schasfoort, and the two became full-time colleagues, while Nillesen joined the team on a part-time basis.

Like Schasfoort, Van de Rijdt has always liked to build things. “We share the same mission, we like to think about technical stuff and realize it with our hands,” said Van de Rijdt. And with his and Nillesen’s knowledge of how to build houses in natural, biodegradable materials, they were able to take Schasfoort’s vision closer to nature and to the idea that was planted in him during his visit to Africa.

To Van de Rijdt, the size of the houses is less important than their materials and energy efficiency. And Schasfoort himself concedes that from a sustainability perspective, tiny houses are not necessarily better than, say, small apartments. By virtue of being stuck together, heating is more efficient in apartment buildings, and since they are built on top of each other, they also require less ground space.

But according to Schasfoort, although people who want to live in tiny houses want to do so partly because of sustainability, they also want it for other reasons, such as having nature at their doorsteps – something apartments usually cannot offer. Furthermore, there is an appeal in having one’s own house, albeit a tiny one. This may sound contradictory to the theory of connectedness being the key to true freedom, but humans are complex beings. Finding freedom in recognizing one’s connection to everything else is not necessarily mutually exclusive with wanting to express one’s individuality.

 

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A miniature model of a wooden wall frame and a ball of loam; the loam is to be stuffed into the frame, for isolation. Unlike most conventional walls, humid air can pass through the loam, which decreases the need for ventilation systems.

 

Comparing tiny houses to tiny apartments further, Albers said, “People [who choose tiny houses] want to live simple, connected, they want to leave a small footprint. People who live in small apartments aren’t necessarily busy with these thoughts, they just don’t have a big house yet. People who live in a tiny house don’t want to live in a big house. I think that’s a big difference.”

This is echoed by Gene Tempest in her article “What no one ever tells you about tiny homes”, published in the New York Times in 2017. Tempest describes the unromantic crampedness of involuntarily living in a tiny home, dreaming of someday being able to afford something bigger.

While it is certainly possible for an eco-conscious person to live in a small apartment and have no plans of moving into a house, neither big nor tiny, Schasfoort thinks apartments do not do as much as tiny houses to remedy the lack of connection with the earth that people experience in general. “People don’t know where milk comes from – we are not connected with animals and forests anymore,” he said. Knowing that he was being interviewed by a Swede, he added, “I think in Sweden it’s different, isn’t it?”

In Sweden, with its small population and large swaths of land, nature is never far away. This may have allowed Swedes to keep a closer connection to it than people of other modern and urbanized countries. There is some reason to believe, however, that all that space has not helped with another issue which Schasfoort hopes to address with his tiny houses – social cohesion. In fact, Swedes are commonly mocked for avoiding interaction with strangers at all costs.

Sweden has been pointed out as the most individualistic nation in the world, with the largest proportion of single person households. This development may well have been aided by a surplus of space. Had the Netherlands only been bigger, it is not entirely unlikely it would have seen the same tendency toward individual living and social timidity, especially considering the Netherlands is already seen as similar to the welfare states of Scandinavia.

Did you know…?

The population density in Sweden is 24 people per square kilometer. In the Netherlands it is 506 people per square kilometer.

Source: The World Bank

Besides space, some explain Sweden’s individualism and social behavior by pointing to the peculiar policies Sweden opted for some decades ago, ensuring relationships were no longer defined by dependency, but by voluntary interaction. The saying “friends are the family one chooses” seems quite accurate as a summary of the guiding philosophy behind the reformation.

The policies in question, introduced in Sweden in the 70’s, aimed to make sure no woman is dependent on a man and no elderly on the benevolence of their family. The documentary “The Swedish Theory of Love” from 2015 makes the case that those policies have rendered the Swedes the loneliest people on earth. While the movie has been criticized for too harshly blaming the measures of the welfare state and its egalitarian visions, it also presents the views of Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman. Bauman attributes the onslaught of individualism and loneliness more to consumerism and digitalization, which would explain why the same patterns can be seen in the rest of the world, the Netherlands included.

“People who are trained in independence are losing the ability to negotiate cohabitation with other people,” Bauman says to the camera. “[Socializing] is awfully tiring, requiring a lot of effort, a lot of attention, a process of negotiating and renegotiating, re-discussing, re-agreeing, recreating… Independence strips you of the ability to do just that.”

Both Schasfoort and his wife recognize that cohabitation comes with challenges – challenges one sometimes wishes to be relieved of. “I remember when I went from a little village to a city and I was very glad that I didn’t have to know my neighbors, and that they wouldn’t gossip about me,” Albers said. But being relieved of other people is only good to a certain extent.

It seems that when people are liberated from the necessity of depending on each other – for example because they can buy everything they need themselves – they are freed of the burdensome parts of socializing; but they lose the skills to create the pleasurable parts of it as well. “So, at the end of independence is not happiness,” said Bauman. “[At] the end of independence there is emptiness of life, meaninglessness of life, and utter, utter, unimaginable boredom.”

More than 40% of the Dutch adult population feels either socially or emotionally lonely.

Source: Volkgezondheidenzorg.info

In line with Bauman’s argument, Schasfoort thinks that despite the challenges involved, there is need for more social interaction. There can be a functioning social web, without everyone in the community necessarily liking each other. “You can’t have it all, without having the disadvantages of [nobody being] perfect,” he said.

“Except me,” Albers threw in with a mischievous smile.

“Of course, my love,” said Schasfoort.

Jokes aside, the question seems to be whether it is possible to create something in between shackling dependence and lonely independence. A community of tiny houses in which people willingly make an effort to share space and possessions, is Schasfoort’s proposed way of bringing about what Bauman called “very pleasurable interdependence.”

“The whole idea about community is also about sharing, so you may have less space, but by sharing things together, you have even more than you have now,” said Schasfoort, emphasizing that giving up possession is not the same thing as sacrificing access. In the tiny house communities he hopes to build, Schasfoort imagines common houses for meeting each other, dining together, or holding courses in yoga or tai chi, as Albers does a few times a week already. At the moment, she holds her classes in a room of their house, a room which otherwise stands empty, but the counterpart of which could be frequently used by the members of a tiny house community.

Schasfoort himself would really like a shared garage – “a big space where you can build things,” he said. “And [when sharing] it’s much cheaper to have a thing like that.”

 

A model and sketch of Van Nature Duurzaam’s first tiny house

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Schasfoort’s, Van de Rijdt’s and Nillesen’s construction company, Van Nature Duurzaam, is not the only actor building tiny houses in the Netherlands. In Almere, a city slightly east of Amsterdam, BouwExpo Tiny Housing held a building exposition of tiny houses in 2017, with some houses being permanent installations. The owners once again opened their doors for visitors as part of the Architecture Day 2018 on June 2. And in Oosterwold, just outside Almere, a Swedish couple has founded a small eco-village partly made up of tiny houses. They named it after a village featuring in the works of Swedish children’s book author Astrid Lindgren; Bolderburen in Dutch, Bullerbyn in Swedish.

However, the focus of Van Nature Duurzaam on natural materials – and their use of the designs of Benno Hartmann, another coursemate of Van de Rijdt and Nillesen at IBN – makes them rather unique. “Natural materials are very often superior to industrial products,” said Nillesen. “Besides, they look, feel and smell better. Nature is (almost) always right.”

Tiny houses are usually marketed as a sustainable choice, but according to Nillesen this is more of a marketing trick than reality. “Tiny houses offered by the market don’t deal with ecology and healthy building,” he said. “They might look sustainable, might claim they are, but mostly they are not.”

Schasfoort pointed out that tiny houses are more sustainable than normal size houses simply by virtue of being smaller, which might make it seem desirable to build tiny houses but stick to conventional methods; at least one step toward sustainability is taken, without much need for putting efforts into reeducating architects and constructors. Conventional construction methods being the only ones he was familiar with at the time, Schasfoort himself built the tiny houses in his garden that way. When Van de Rijdt and Nillesen joined his expanding tiny house project, the knowledge they brought with them made it possible for all the future tiny houses of Van Nature Duurzaam to be wholly natural.

Before Van Nature Duurzaam can build their first tiny house community – which Schasfoort and Albers have every intention of living in – they need to secure a patch of land. This is according to Schasfoort the trickiest thing about tiny houses. Though the interest in tiny houses is big and growing in the Netherlands – judging by Schasfoort’s contact with customers and the popularity of the exposition in Almere – regulations for this relatively new form of housing have not yet caught up with the demand.

Both Albers and Schasfoort think tiny houses are especially hyped at the moment, but they believe it is a movement which will last. How many who will join in is still too soon to say. For them it does not really matter – they’re convinced, and that’s that.

Being used to doing most things on his own, Schasfoort has set a goal so ambitious that it will force him to depend on others; 100 000 tiny houses. The plan is to make the work of Van Nature Duurzaam open source, so that their philosophy and knowledge can spread and educate. Sprung from what he learnt in Africa, it has all developed into something Schasfoort wants to spend the rest of his life teaching.

 

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