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Watch: Finland's tiny house movement checked by regulations, attitudes

Some in Finland want to downsize to smaller homes for environmental and financial reasons, but housing regulations remain an obstacle.

Growing concern over the impact of climate change in recent years has accelerated the interest in tiny homes and the minimalist lifestyle that goes with it, and the movement also appears to be gaining ground in Finland. However moves to live in smaller spaces have floundered over unclear legislation and trends to expand rather than contract living spaces.

Pauliina Helle is a member of a small community in southern Finland currently trialing life in tiny homes as part of a more sustainable lifestyle - which includes communal facilities for household tasks such as cooking and laundry. She is also the chairperson of the Finnish eco village network and a strong advocate of the ‘tiny house’ lifestyle, which encourages people to downsize their lives into smaller and more environmentally-friendly dwellings.

"The tiny house movement offers a model for living with a smaller environmental impact and economical investment," Helle told Yle News. "Taking into consideration all the huge challenges that humankind is facing, I just feel that I cannot close my eyes to these things anymore," she added.

Living below means

The tiny house lifestyle can have financial benefits too. Choosing to live in a smaller space can mean fewer bills, and little or no mortgage or rent to pay.

"Of course in a small place, you use a lot less energy to heat the space. It’s been incredible actually for me to see the difference in how much less firewood you use in a much smaller space," Helle noted. "And gardening a lot of your own food is another way to reduce your carbon footprint."

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A tiny house kitchen in Finland
Kitchen and living area. Image: Yle News / Ronan Browne

'Tiny' houses are loosely defined as being between eight and 37 square metres, and living in a tiny house can have a dramatic effect on an individual’s or a group’s consumption levels. Finnish Environment Ministry regulations, which are not enshrined in law, determine the minimum space for a single-person dwelling to be no less than 20 square metres.

The current tiny house movement originated in the United States in the 1990s as a response to the materialism and consumerism associated with the 'American Dream' and as a means of addressing the affordable housing crisis. Buying or building a smaller house offered people the twin benefits of owning their own home at an affordable price, and living a more sustainable lifestyle.

The concept spread to Europe in the early 2000s. Germany was at the forefront of early adopters when the ‘sustainable model district’ neighbourhood of Vauban was built in the southwestern city of Freiburg in 2001. Similar projects and developments have since been undertaken in other countries, including Sweden and the Netherlands.

However, the relative novelty of the tiny house concept in Finland has created some conflict between advocates and authorities, and has led to calls for current legislation to be reviewed and updated.

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Tiny house living room
A room with a view. Image: Yle News / Ronan Browne

Douglas Gordon, an architect with the City of Helsinki’s Urban Environment Division City Plan team, explained that the Ministry of Environment stipulates that the minimum size of a dwelling for a single person is 20 square metres, and for a student in university housing, 16 square metres. "In other cases, cities and municipalities use their discretion as to what constitutes reasonable floor space for households of two or three occupants, or a family of four or larger.

Gordon further noted that the city of Helsinki, for example, negotiates with developers throughout the building planning process on what constitutes a reasonable sized dwelling for different households, and also, equally important, the mix of housing stock.

"The City of Helsinki's ATT building company will, on average, provide larger sized dwellings compared to the private sector. Similarly, the Housing Fund of Finland (ARAVA) is likely to have greater minimum standards per dwelling than homes for the private market."

Gordon also argued that size is not the only factor in determining how environmentally-friendly or sustainable a dwelling will be.

Eco-dwelling not just down to size

"It is not simply the size of a dwelling which defines 'eco-living'. It requires an attitude change in the way we live within four walls and how efficiently space and energy is used," Helle of the Finnish eco village network explained.

Cultural and social barriers further hamper the acceptance of the tiny house lifestyle choice into Finnish society, as has happened in many other countries. The alternative lifestyle challenges long-held attitudes about property ownership and the pursuit of material wealth, according to Helle.

Furthermore, any move towards living in smaller homes would be a considerable reversal of the decades-long trend in Finland towards living in larger spaces. In 1960, for example, the average Finnish person inhabited a living space of only 14 square metres. Today, that has increased to 37 square metres.

Helle said upholding these norms contrasts sharply with the spirit of Finnish law. "It is worth noting that even though the Nordic laws are meant to secure cultural freedom, diversity and social safety, a culture of living voluntarily in simple dwellings is confronted with notably negative attitudes and constraints," she said.

"I have been following what is happening in Germany and in Sweden and in other countries, where there are some very fresh and interesting ways to make these new ideas possible. We just need a bit of creativity and cooperation to throw us into that."

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