A labour of love: inside Abu Dhabi's Dh80,000 tiny house

The global tiny house trend shows no sign of slowing. We peek inside one of the capital’s smallest abodes

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When Dirk Delport and his wife Emma settled down to watch a new show on Netflix last summer, little did they know the impact it would have on their lives. Tuning in to Tiny House Nation, the couple watched co-hosts John Weisbarth and Zack Giffin travel across America exploring seriously small homes. "It wasn't long before we were binge-watching episodes and following the #tinyhousemovement hashtag on Instagram," says Emma, 39.

Something in the show resonated with the Abu Dhabi couple, and it wasn’t long before Dirk began looking at the caravans on UAE roads. “Other than places for rent at Hatta Wadi Hub, I didn’t see anything close to the standard of homes on the show, so I decided to build my own,” says Dirk, 38, who has a background in carpentry, design and project management. The couple refer to their current quarters simply as the tiny house.

Home away from home

“I bought a trailer for about Dh10,000 that was similar to other ones here, and just an empty shell inside,” says Dirk. The first step in turning a trailer into the tiny house was to extend it so it could fit everything needed for a family home. The external staircase leading to the roof had to be moved inside, meaning that Dirk, quite literally, had to raise the roof to allow for a sleeping area in the ceiling.

Despite its size, the tiny house now comfortably sleeps five. “Two people can sleep on the sofa bed, two can sleep upstairs in the bedroom platform that used to be the roof and there’s a single bed space above the bathroom area,” Dirk explains.

In the living area, he added a sofa bed and open-plan kitchen with cupboards, a sink, gas oven, fridge and microwave. The tiny house exudes cosiness with a warm palette, earthy materials and colourful window boxes. 

“Dirk typically goes for a rustic look,” says Emma, who has watched her husband complete several design projects over the years. “In the tiny house, he used a lot of whitewashed materials and wooden cladding. There’s a definite beachside-living vibe in it, something that probably stems from his upbringing near the sea in Cape Town.” 

For Dirk, the design had to incorporate modern amenities, but with a sense of the laid-back. “It’s not sleek and shiny – instead it captures that homely vibe.” Two massive windows on opposite sides of the house can be fully opened to create a sense of more space. Beneath one of the windows, a fold-down table and some bar stools make a welcoming and cosy breakfast nook.

Under the staircase, a small cushioned area doubles as a storage box for books, games and blankets. This is where the couple’s daughter Elissa, 3, can often be found, curled up with a favourite toy or storybook. 

In the bathroom, a fully enclosed power shower and expertly tiled finish completes the transformation from trailer to tiny house. The tank holds enough water for a family to live comfortably for a week. “I increased the water capacity and added a geyser for hot water. There’s also a pump for decent water pressure in the shower,” Dirk says.

Currently, the house is fuelled by solar and generator-powered electricity, but it’s possible that this could be upscaled to become fully solar-powered. “It’s definitely an option to add more panels. Essentially the whole roof could be transformed into one giant solar panel,” Dirk says. 

Labour of love

Ensuring the home was roadworthy in the UAE influenced Dirk’s design process. Regulations dictate vehicles cannot be higher than 4.2 metres or weigh more than 2.4 tonnes. The Delport dwelling weighs 2.2 tonnes and is 3.8 metres high, so it can easily be towed using a 4x4.

The family’s favourite place to take the house to is a little-known beachside area on Yas Island, where a few additions transform the space into a real home. A canopy is clipped to hooks in the walls to form a lean-to, and a roll of artificial grass acts as an ever-ready picnic surface.

For Emma, that’s the best thing about their little home. “When you find a remote location and set up the canopy, open the windows and get the campfire going, it’s so nice. You’re sitting there on the cushions and blankets looking out at the open desert, it’s really awesome,” she says. Being South African, Dirk loves a barbecue, so storage space at the back of the house for a grill, charcoal and firewood supplies was a must.

The tiny house has been a labour of love, with the Delports juggling the renovations over five months. Despite that, Dirk is ready to sell the trailer (for an asking price of Dh80,000), so he can start a new project – designing customised trailers for others in the UAE to fuel the UAE’s tiny house movement.

“Not everyone will want a loft bed. People might want a bigger kitchen or perhaps a chill-out space with a big reading area. Once we have the chassis bed, as long as the design meets the regulations for size, height and weight, I can help people design a tiny house however they want it.”

Dirk’s dream is to design and build a group of mini-homes in a beautiful location somewhere in Abu Dhabi. “I’d love to build a cluster of tiny houses and create a resort somewhere in the emirate. I’d design each house with a different theme, and locate it out in the desert, on a farm or by the beach,” he says.

Not such a small movement

In the United States, it’s estimated that more than 10,000 people now own tiny homes. One of the driving factors behind the movement is financial freedom, with many opting to invest in a tiny house so they can live mortgage-free. It’s also about leading an alternative lifestyle.

"When we really got into watching Tiny House Nation, we realised that it's not just about the physical space; it's about a lifestyle and the freedom that gives you,"  Emma explains. For Dirk, his first tiny house was all about having a space to enjoy family staycations. "It has all the basics you need for a weekend away – a place to cook, a place to eat, a place to sleep. It's great for getting out in the desert and doing so with a little bit of luxury."

But has the tiny house inspired the couple to pack up their three-bedroom villa and take the plunge into tiny living full-time? “I’m not sure we’re quite ready for that,” laughs Emma. “I think it would be difficult to pare down to just the essentials, although it was something about that challenge that hooked us in the first place. What we fell in love with was the idea of being able to live a simpler, pared-back lifestyle – if only on weekends.”