Applying tiny-house principles in an Abu Dhabi studio

The writer's key design requirement was one that seemed incompatible with a studio: being able to invite friends over for dinner without them feeling like they were dining in my bedroom.
The writer’s space-smart Abu Dhabi studio. Ravindranath K / The National
The writer’s space-smart Abu Dhabi studio. Ravindranath K / The National

Tiny isn’t a word often used to describe UAE real estate, but amid all the focus on the biggest, tallest and most luxurious, a contrarian few take the opposite approach.

I’m one of them. When I moved back to the UAE five years ago, it seemed like the perfect time to apply the principles of the so-called tiny-house movement, which is based around spurning the consumerist ideal of endlessly bigger and more expensive houses, opting instead for small, affordable and well-designed spaces.

The high cost of accommodation here was one incentive. And with air conditioning being essential for at least half the year, a smaller space would be directly proportional to my environmental footprint. An added benefit was that having a unique design would also avoid one of my pet hates: walking into a friend’s home and feeling like I’d crossed through a portal leading to Ikea’s showroom.

Some tiny-house zealots live in spaces as small as 8 square metres, which makes my 50-square-metre studio seem almost profligate, but it means I have a full-sized bathroom and kitchen, and room for a dining table that can seat eight. My key design requirement was one that seemed incompatible with a studio: being able to invite friends over for dinner without them feeling like they were dining in my bedroom.

A bit of research showed that thousands of other tiny-house dwellers had faced and solved this dilemma in two main ways. One was to have the bed on a mezzanine floor (the three-metre ­ceilings and high window made that feasible); the other was to have a bed that slid out from under some form of raised sitting area.

The mezzanine is more of a cold-climate option because being close to the ceiling would have been hotter, requiring the air conditioning to be on for more of the year. But as soon as I started sketching out possible options for the sitting area, it became obvious that I was drawing something familiar – a majlis.

Visits to Sheikh Zayed’s old majlis in Al Ain Palace Museum and, later, sultans’ divans in the ­Topkapı Palace in Istanbul, confirmed the appeal. This option also had the ancillary benefit of creating a huge amount of storage room for all my hiking, cycling, mountaineering and skiing equipment.

At home in New Zealand, I used to make my own wooden cabinetry at night classes at a local polytechnic, but that option didn’t exist in Abu Dhabi, so I had to construct my majlis vicariously via the carpenters and metalworkers of Mussaffah.

This was a process that, at times, seemed more like an absurdist comedy than a furniture commission, but through scribbling on scraps of paper, bridging the linguistic divide with mime, retaining a sense of humour and many, many cups of tea, all the components were constructed.

There were still a few amusing hiccups, particularly because the carpenters were used to specifying their work in centimetres and I was used to working in millimetres. When, as part of a larger order, I asked them to make me a shim – a small wedge of wood used as a gap filler – instead of creating one 200mm long, as I had asked, they made one two metres long.

But after about a year, a cost of roughly Dh12,000 and more trips to Mussaffah than I care to think about, I put together the final part of my majlis. Four years later, it’s still a success, whether I’m sitting reading and looking out the window or on one occasion when I had 35 friends visit and we all managed to fit.

The UAE might be better known for big things, but sometimes contentment can be found in the smallest of places.

jhenzell@thenational.ae

Published: August 31, 2016 04:00 AM

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