Q&A | Piet Ubels on building tiny houses to address homelessness

Homelessness is a growing issue in New Zealand. The latest census data (2013) shows that more than 40,000 people in the country are without a home – a figure up 15 per cent from the previous census. That is to say – according to the official government definitions – close to 1 in 100 New Zealanders have exhausted all options to acquire safe and secure housing and are therefore homeless. This includes people living in cars, garages, temporary short-term accommodation and sleeping rough.

In Auckland, Piet Ubels has had enough. He says the time for inaction on the city’s levels of well-documented homelessness is over. So, he and a group of housing activists formed Build Up. It’s a demonstration project aiming to show how innovative design and creative use of public resources, along with civic action, can help create affordable housing solutions.

In March this year, as part of their demonstration, Build Up constructed a tiny house on unused council land in South Auckland. Hannah quizzed Piet on how the project went, and what the outcome of Build Up’s activism has been so far.

You built a house in two days. Wow! How did the event go?
It went great! We had amazing feedback and a huge amount of support. Unfortunately, we didn’t complete the house over the weekend – although we weren’t expecting to do so. We are still finishing off the final stages now.

Who came along and helped over the weekend?
So far we’ve had about 50 people come give us a hand from all different walks of life. Most were inexperienced volunteers who found us via the Facebook event or were just friends of us organisers. However we did have a few curious people walk up off the street and decide to give a hand.

“Building is predominantly a male-dominated industry, and it was great to see so many women on the tools.”

But, actually, I was genuinely surprised at the fact that over two-thirds of our volunteers were women. Building is predominantly a male-dominated industry, and it was great to see so many women on the tools.

On that note, what were the specs of the house – and where did you source the material from?
The house was prefabricated using voluntary labour in an Ormiston Junior College workshop and transported on domestic-size trailers to a piece of vacant Auckland Council land. It utilises readily available technologies including solar panels, rainwater collection tanks and a chemical toilet.

The idea here is that it serves as an example of prefabrication techniques, sustainable design, and affordable good quality housing which families and whānau could construct in their backyards. This means we also intentionally got all materials from local suppliers.

“The tiny house is big enough to be a better solution than a hotel room, car or the street, yet not large enough to be a permanent house.”

The interior of the house is 24m2, divided into three spaces: a bathroom, a living and dining area that opens onto a deck and awning, and a bedroom that can be reconfigured for whoever needs it, such as a mother and child.

The technologies described above are also contained in an exterior services cupboard accessible to a building and tenant maintenance caregiver. Essentially, the tiny house is big enough to be a better solution than a hotel room, car or the street, yet not large enough to be a permanent house.

I heard you mention in an interview on Vent NZ that it cost around NZD 50,000 to build the show house. Is this correct? How did Build Up pay for everything?
Actually, at current projections the house will be built for under NZD 40K! This all wouldn’t have been possible without the financial support of the Auckland Housing Association and the help of volunteers.

You’ve described the build as being a demonstration project. Can you elaborate a bit on what that means, and what your mission at Build Up is? 
This project is to draw public attention to a number of issues and ideas, including that:

  1. The Auckland Council has done nothing tangible to relieve the housing shortage but has the resources in terms of vacant land and the ability to relax connection and consent fees to provide perhaps 100 small cottages across Auckland as a medium-term response to this crisis,
  2. Ordinary citizens can be involved in responding to the housing crisis in a practical way, and
  3. A basic adequate house which can also be used in backyards to house family members and perhaps in rural areas including on Māori ancestral land is inexpensive and can be built by moderately skilled people.

We are hoping that the project drives a more productive response from Auckland Council while at the same time motivating a popular response to our homelessness.

What has the Council’s response to the demonstration been? Have you made any progress in terms of your mission?
Good! We had a few councillors visit us onsite over the weekend and have been in touch with others since. I can’t give the specifics now, but we are currently in conversations with both local and central government.

The land you did the build on is Auckland Council land, but the house has been moved to Te Puea Marae. How will it be used now?
Once complete, the house will be primarily used to house those [who need it most]. Although I do understand that Te Puea will be using it as a demonstration model house for a brief period.

You’ve talked a bit about the quarter-acre home ownership dream. Is this still a reality in today’s housing climate? What needs to change in terms of the mentality around home ownership in New Zealand?
Unfortunately not anymore, in our most populated areas. This belief in the quarter-acre dream has led to the density problems that are now contributing to Auckland’s transport and homelessness problems. Being so spread apart means that we all pay more for our infrastructure, spend more time waiting in our cars on the motorway, and create more inequality in our society.

Thankfully, the Unitary Plan is now allowing us to build our community smarter. But it will take all of us to reconceive what our neighbourhoods can look like. I’m not saying that we need to aim for the density of cities like Manila, but we could easily accommodate double the population of Auckland without noticing.

Is this the only demo project Build Up is planning? What’s next?
I’ll have to get back to you on this one, but there is talk of producing a lot more. The government just announced similar plans that we might be involved with.

You’re an architect by trade, is this a side project for you? How did the Build Up project come together?
Not quite! Although yeah, in the past I have completed studies in both architecture and engineering, nowadays I’m a project manager by trade, specialising in public and civic projects such as the redesign of Western Springs College, or the Myers Park Upgrade.

“It really isn’t that hard to build something if you ask for a hand. We have spent a lot of time talking about the issue, now is the time for action”

But yeah, being without kids I’ve found myself involved in a lot of these kinds of side projects that are focussed toward improving the lives of our community. Whether it be it building a 9m Christmas tree in Aotea Square to promote recycling, making giant dominos for kids to play with at festivals, or lobbying the Council to divest away from fossil fuels.

Build Up was formed after the ‘Park Up for Homes’ movement when Alan Johnson, Jessamine Fraser and myself came together to hatch a practical idea of addressing the homelessness crisis that we are facing.

What have you learnt during the past two months, in the lead-up to and following the demonstration?
It really isn’t that hard to build something if you ask for a hand. We have spent a lot of time talking about the issue, now is the time for action.

Piet Ubels is a project manager by trade, specialising in public and civic projects, and one of the founders of Build Up. Find out more about Build Up.

Hannah Spyksma is Media & Climate Editor at Impolitikal. She is currently completing a doctorate in journalism at Queensland University of Technology. Read more by Hannah.