Small, compact, affordable – ever more people are adopting mobile lifestyles and living in what are known as tiny houses. These miniature dwellings are an economical and environmentally friendly form of housing, and their close quarters contain everything that might be found in a conventional home. Their interiors can be configured in any number of new and flexible ways to meet the needs of their inhabitants. A fold-down bed turns the house into a bedroom, for example, while modular tables create a cozy kitchen and dining area. Tiny houses usually stand on trailers, and can be towed by passenger cars if desired. Like the miniature house named “aVOID.” Italian architect Leonardo Di Chiara has been traveling through Europe in it since the spring of 2018, in a joint project with the Volkswagen brand. His faithful companion is a Volkswagen Touareg, the Volkswagen model with the greatest towing power.
Mobile living concepts such as tiny houses are of interest to Volkswagen, especially in light of the opportunities that will be created by e-mobility and autonomous drive systems. If tiny houses can offer the greatest number of options in the smallest amount of space thanks to a focus on efficiency, how can cars of the future be designed to enable any number of rooms to be built on the same platform? In this interview Leonardo Di Chiara describes the mobile living concept behind his tiny house “aVOID,” talks about his travels through Europe, and explains why a nomadic lifestyle in a tiny home can also be a model for mobility in the future.
Interview with Leonardo Di Chiara
Leonardo Di Chiara studied architecture and civil engineering. A few years ago, he moved from Italy to Berlin and began designing tiny houses. His research and work have focused on mobile living and architectural concepts. He is a member of the Tinyhouse University on the grounds of the Bauhaus Campus in Berlin.
Mr. di Chiara, you’ve traveled through Italy, Switzerland and Germany. Why did you choose those countries? And what cities did you stop in?
I selected a route through Italy, Switzerland and Germany because I knew that the countries in this region have a vibrant and stimulating influence on each other. I left my home town of Pesaro and headed for Munich, where I parked right in front of the modern art museum, the Pinakothek der Moderne. I then set off for Ulm and stopped at its college of design, and so on. My tour included Berlin, Munich, Ulm, Milan, Rome, Siena, Parma, Holzhausen, Zürich, Stuttgart and Pesaro. And I was a short-term resident of every one of those cities!
You’ve worked with the Volkswagen brand on this, and toured Europe with a Volkswagen Touareg. What was that like?
My tour was like a big European driving lesson. I hadn’t driven much before, and at first I thought I’d never be able to transport the house. But the Touareg let me work up to it. It has all those driver assistance systems, plus all-wheel drive which gives it more agility and stability. My driving improved with every meter. Later, I had no trouble towing the house on narrow Italian roads and through historical town centers. It gave me a sense of freedom. And it fulfilled my dream of living in different places while being able to move on whenever I wanted.
What’s the story behind tiny houses?
Tiny houses are miniature homes on wheels. I started building them when I moved from Italy to Berlin. I wanted to show people that small spaces don’t have to limit your range of options or quality of life. Instead, you can reconfigure the space however you want to suit your needs. I wanted to avoid having to deal with social expectations: a tiny house is a statement against overpriced apartments that you don’t really live in because you’re spending all your time trying to earn the rent for it.
Is your tiny house furnished with everything you’d find in a conventional home?
Yes, it has nine square meters that include a separate bathroom of nearly one square meter. I have a kitchen with room for up to six people. I have a double bed. Tables and chairs are hidden in the walls. It’s like a house in the form of a Swiss army knife. There’s a lot to discover. One cabinet contains a ladder that lets me climb up to the roof and enjoy a splendid view of the city. That’s a very important point – how to create variation in the smallest possible space.
Why precisely nine square meters? Why did you limit yourself to that amount?
Nine square meters are a lower limit in real estate law. A room has to be at least that size to be legally designated a bedroom. I wanted to show that you can do much more with that official minimum space. I want to draw politicians’ attention to this outdated 1975 regulation and get them to change it. New technologies have been developed since then. We can live in smaller spaces.
Did you build the house all by yourself or did you get help from partners?
I worked together with many different people. In looking for specialists, I walked through my home town and asked 40 companies about products and materials. About 80 percent of the components in my house, from the trailer to the kitchen utensils, come from external partners. I was less interested in getting sponsoring than in knowledge transfer and expertise. For example, I connected the refrigerator producer with another company that could optimize the product for a nomadic way of life.
Do you think this form of urban life can be a model for the future?
I think tiny houses are a good option for many people, but not for the entire society. To live this way, you have to change your life in a way that doesn’t appeal to everyone. We’re going through major social shifts in terms of digital connectivity and mobility. These developments will have a huge impact on life in cities and in the countryside.
Have you received a lot of offers for your tiny house?
Yes, in fact there’s quite a bit of interest in this room on wheels. The spectrum ranges from NGOs that need mobile addiction treatment centers to hotel chains that want to try out new nomadic approaches to hospitality.
What is the most important statement you’d like this project to make?
If you have a big dream, you can make it come true in a small space. My dream was to live in my own home while also traveling the whole time. This tiny house on wheels lets me do both those things.
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