We spoke to Minimaliste about tiny home design, building codes, resale value, and the future of the tiny house movement.
Minimaliste is a household name in tiny houses on wheels and a Canadian success story. Based in Quebec and delivering tiny homes all over North America for the past six years, Minimaliste has become a reference point for anyone joining the tiny home movement.
JP Marquis, the VP of Sales and Business Development at Minimaliste, was kind enough to share his insider view on all things tiny homes in Canada.
Thanks for taking the time to speak with me, JP. I feel like I am in the presence of greatness. It seems, everyone I know has their eye on a Minimaliste tiny home. Like, you are tiny homes.
Thank you, I love hearing that! This is my passion and what we do is genuine, so I think people feel that. It took some time for people to understand that tiny houses are not just a trend, but a new type of continual lifestyle. It’s a change in the housing industry. So that feedback is truly appreciated.
Minimaliste tiny home designs: what’s the secret?
So, let’s jump right in. When you’re designing your models, who is that “ideal client” that you have in mind?
Actually, we didn’t start by thinking of a layout that would suit an abstract buyer. We went directly with custom projects and built specifically for each individual client’s needs. But after six years of experience in the tiny house industry, where we came up with 1000s of layouts, we now can narrow that down to five models that we think will suit different types of needs.
What is your take on continuing custom work versus having these five models available?
Of course, custom projects will always be there – they are what made us what we are today. But, we are a company that wants to democratize the tiny house industry, so we needed to find a way to produce more houses. Demand is rising and we want to help more people live the tiny house lifestyle.
The exact same layout would not suit one person versus another because the house is tailor-made.
So, what is it like for someone to go through that custom tiny house build?
We create custom projects for clients according to their lifestyle and that means we go really deep into people’s needs. When you design a tiny house, let’s say you live in 300 square feet, the exact same layout would not suit one person versus another because the house is tailor-made. It’s really important to understand the day-to-day of this client’s life because most of the clients we have are living full-time in their tiny houses. There are also people who have interest in short term rentals and then we approach those projects in a different way than designing for full-time living.
I think the difference between the tiny home and the conventional home is, like you said, the tiny home is like a tailor-made cocoon. It’s designed for one, or for two or four specific people, it’s almost like getting measured for a custom suit.
Yes, exactly. The house may be 90% or 99% the same from one individual to another but one might feel comfortable and somebody else may not be. For example, the typical house in North America always has the living area centered around the TV. But, when you talk with different people, some people don’t even watch TV. So being in a small footprint, if you don’t need something, you can use that space for something else.
Of course, there are compromises to be made, but all these compromises will ultimately result in a design that matches your needs. And not only your immediate needs, but your future needs as well. We have the experience where we can say to a client, “right now you might think that this is a good idea but in five years it might not work” and we can help guide you to make the long-term decisions. A good example is designing a downstairs bedroom for a client who is getting older and in a few years may not want to be climbing into her loft. In a bigger house, there may be spaces you can convert from one use to another. In a tiny house, you’re limited with space and you really need to think twice about all the choices you make.
There are not that many people in Canada who have lived in tiny houses for more than two years. You actually know people who have lived in tiny houses for six years because you built those houses. So now you can pass on that experience.
Yes, the thing is, it’s really important for us to work with each client on a personal level and if, while talking with the client, we feel that the tiny house lifestyle is not for them, we don’t want to sell them a house that won’t work out. That’s where we don’t force a design and the last thing we want to do is sell a tiny house to someone who is hesitating and just not sure about going tiny.
It can happen that a client will like a model because of the look and the style. We want to dig deeper and make sure it’s functional for what they’re going to be doing in the tiny house. Then, we need to talk about financing and by-laws, etc.
A tiny house done in a rush, will never result in something interesting.
By-laws, city planning, financing tiny homes
Congratulations on that financing announcement by the way, that’s really exciting.
Thank you. We recently announced that financing will be available for our tiny home buyers. It shows that there are many pieces to this that all go together. Now that there’s more interest in tiny homes, financing is becoming more realistic. When more people can afford to buy their tiny house, then cities will be more flexible. It’s better today than it was yesterday, but there’s still a ways to go for sure.
So, what is taking so long with the by-laws and city planning? Have you seen any progress?
Sometimes, people will say, “it’s taking so long for cities to allow tiny homes.” But then, if you think about it, when the city develops its by-laws, they are thinking 10 or 20 years ahead. It’s a big move for a city government to make that sort of change. And just the fact that they are looking at the situation and talking about it shows that they have tiny homes in mind and they know it’s something they need to address.
We think that tiny homes on wheels should be integrated into cities with services, taxes, etc. You cannot say, “I want a tiny house, but I don’t want to connect to hydro electricity or pay taxes”. If tiny houses are a part of the city, it means that they need to be structured in with the other residences. When somebody has their own address on a tiny house on wheels and pays city taxes, that means success to us.
Where do you want to see the municipal planning going?
I think it’s totally understandable that you cannot put a tiny house in between two regular bungalows – it’s not going to be cohesive. And people want to avoid mobile home parks in the traditional sense. But there are different ways of developing a tiny house community, with shared areas and spaces such as gardens. It’s something that can be really dynamic and interesting. There is a lot of opportunity here.
From what we’ve been seeing, we agree that it takes momentum. City councils have gone from not knowing what a tiny home is to now doing research and inviting more information. Today they also have other Canadian municipalities that have successfully included tiny homes to use as a reference.
Yes, the more projects come to life, the more people will be interested and they will have a reference point to start with.
Tiny house building codes and the Minimaliste standard of quality
When you say you want to democratize the tiny home industry, what does that mean?
The tiny home movement is not just something you see on HGTV. A lot of people who watch the tv shows may say, “this is really cute, but the function of the house is so-so and I can’t picture myself living in something like this”. Now, what we think Minimaliste brought to the industry is a more realistic way of living in a tiny house, where it’s not just ladders and bunk beds. We talk about downsizing without downgrading. And that doesn’t mean that the house is made with gold, it just means that there are less compromises to be made.
Our aim is to build the most durable houses possible. When the housing industry decides to create standards for tiny houses, we want Minimaliste to be their reference.
How did you arrive at the Minimaliste quality standard?
Of course, there are many ways of producing houses and we are not known as the tiny house company that offers the cheapest house on the market. That’s because when we started our company, we decided our aim was not to try and have the lowest cost, but to build the most durable houses possible. We wanted our houses to be the most cost-effective in the long-term.
This is why we show a lot of behind the scenes footage, the roughing, the warehouses, the materials that we use. We put it all up front so people can know what they’re buying.
If you compare this to an RV for example, an RV is a vehicle and it depreciates in value very quickly after you buy it. Are tiny homes different?
The way we build it, our customers are investing for the long term. Of course, you have to explain and educate people. We had a little more difficulty doing this a couple of years ago but now people that come to us know the recipe is different, and they want the recipe and not only the look.
So what happens if you buy for the look only?
Your tiny house can look great, but if the quality isn’t there then you end up a horror story. And I see those stories of people who invest in a tiny house that is really really beautiful, but you need to know a lot to see the red flags. And then a year later, there is mold on the floor. So it’s something that looks great, but if the foundation is weak, then everything you build on top of that is compromised.
What kinds of standards are out there to protect the tiny home buyer?
Standards right now are a complicated issue. I mean, in California, there are some places where you can live full-time in an RV. And normally, this would not be possible because when you’re building an RV, you are actually required to put a sticker that says, “not built for full time living”.
As a builder, you have the choice to follow only the minimum requirements of the RV standard or be in a category of your own. When the housing industry decides to create standards for tiny houses, we want Minimaliste to be their reference.
So with the tiny house, the building code for regular houses is not adapted to the tiny model. But the RV certification is not adequate for full-time living and the requirements are definitely too low for something that is durable and an investment. So, the tiny house is in a grey area between these two standards and, as a builder, you have the choice to follow only the minimum requirements of the RV standard or you decide to pretty much be in a category of your own. We did the latter. When the housing industry decides to create standards for tiny houses, we want Minimaliste to be their reference.
Because tiny houses are fairly new, there’s a lot of research and development to be done. Our goal is to build the most durable houses, so we are constantly improving and rethinking the recipe with our own team and with feedback from our customers. We make sure people will buy peace of mind and not only a nice product.
Tiny houses and the real estate market in Canada
In your experience, who is buying tiny houses right now?
There are two main reasons why people want to go tiny – because it’s cheaper, or because they want to leave a smaller footprint. In North America, the tiny house movement pretty much came out of the housing crisis in 2008, when access to property became a big issue in California. Now, it’s like that not only in California but in most other big cities in North America – around Toronto, around Vancouver. And so this is forcing municipalities, counties, provinces, states to ask, “How can we make house ownership more accessible?”
The second reason people buy tiny homes is the ecological thinking behind the tiny house concept. This is mostly what drives our clients. The cost per square foot of a tiny house is much higher than that of a regular house, but then, if you have a utilities bill of $30 a month, it starts to make sense. Many of our clients are over 50 and don’t need five bedrooms. They want to invest in something durable and reduce their footprint without sacrificing comfort.
You live in your house and not for your house. The philosophy behind Minimaliste is all about downsizing without downgrading.
How do you see your tiny houses changing the Canadian real estate market?
We make tiny houses on wheels, and, of course, wheels are not essential to a home, but they do add another dynamic to the product. A home that can follow you can change with your needs. You can be living in it full-time, then it can be your second home or cottage, then you can have your grandparents living in it.
With people working from home more because of the pandemic, you will see more people move to smaller towns or make seasonal moves while they continue to work remotely. You can see how this can revitalize the small towns and villages around the country.
So, what’s the investment value and resale value of a tiny house?
That’s a good point to address because we get that question a lot. The resale value of a tiny home depends on a lot of things, and primarily on the quality of the build itself. Of course, if you have a tiny home and don’t own the land it is on, it’s kind of hard to see that the value of a tiny house will increase over time. But that’s the traditional way of thinking where the house and land go together. Selling a house with wheels opens up your possibilities and changes the market dynamic.
That’s a great point actually, because we interviewed someone who was selling his tiny house on wheels and got interest from all over the country. When the house isn’t tied to its location, that brings a whole new dimension to the sale.
Well, for example, we had a client who was located in a really really small village in Saskatchewan. She bought the Sakura tiny house, which was our third model. When it was delivered, she suddenly got a job offer in New Zealand. This was her dream job, so she decided to sell the house. It sold within two weeks to someone in Ontario, for the same price that she bought it. Now, If you were to try and sell a property in that village, it might take two or three years. You might not even be able to sell it. Having a house on wheels gives you a bigger market and affects the price. If you’re good with numbers, you can even sell your house to someone in the United States with the exchange rate in your favour.
The future of Minimaliste and the tiny house movement
What was it like starting six years ago with no reference point?
Starting a tiny house company six years ago was a big guess, because we didn’t know how it was going to turn out. At first it was like, “Hello, are we alone here?” We asked ourselves a lot of questions, but we decided to move forward because if you believe in something and you have the passion for it, then people will feel that. And there are now people who want to buy these houses and develop the tiny house communities. Now we’re in a place where there are other actors in the industry, which is good because we cannot do everything on our own.
When you started, the tiny home market was a solid thing with not that many segments. Now, there are more types of clients jumping in. People are building entire resorts of tiny homes, or retirement villages. There are many directions you can take this now. So, can you give us a hint – what are the future plans for Minimaliste?
Of course, there are choices that we need to make as a company. And of course, we are always oriented toward the customer. For example, if tomorrow we have someone who wants to buy 100 houses, will we stop our production of custom houses or houses that we sell to individuals for one big project? The answer is “no”.
We need to find a good balance between people who will invest in tiny houses for short-term rentals and people who genuinely lean towards tiny houses because they want to make a commitment and they’re into tiny house living and the values related to that. For us, it’s really important to have these people as our main client. At the same time, rental projects offer us a way to structure our growth. And that’s really important because the stronger we are as a company, the better equipped we are to serve the individuals. We want to use those projects, which are less personal, of course, as a fuel to grow and offer more and better products to our customers.
Do you think the tiny house industry will keep growing in Canada?
When it’s a slow curve, we think something more permanent can be created.
Tiny houses are not just a trend, because a trend doesn’t build over time like this. We see more and more people leaning towards a common goal and I think this is what makes the industry strong. It’s a slow curve upwards, and it’s better like that because when growth is too fast, sometimes it just falls down. When it’s a slow curve, we think something more permanent can be created in terms of by-laws and financing, communities, tiny home projects. There’s a lot of work that still needs to be done but just the fact that we’re having this conversation means that tiny homes are staying around.
What do you think is fueling the tiny house movement here?
People are more educated now and more aware. They are asking themselves more questions than they did in the past.
Besides the real estate prices and access to owning property, there is something more to the tiny house movement. We are imagining a future where we take the environment into consideration before we face a point of no return. We don’t say that tiny houses are the solution for everyone, but “going tiny” also doesn’t need to involve moving to an 8 ft x 10 ft tiny home. Someone who makes the move from a 2000 sq ft home to 800 sq ft home, for example, is still downsizing and simplifying and reducing their footprint. And that’s good for everyone, it’s good for the planet.
The thinking behind going tiny is something that really appeals to us – asking ourselves, “do I need this? Do I need that?” It does not only apply to our house, but to how we buy everything. “Where does it come from? Where is the source?” People are more educated in many areas of their lives and they are thinking more about the way they consume. We think it’s a good thing and tiny houses are a part of that.