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Independent and ecological, these women build their own houses

Mobile homes are flourishing in the Drôme thanks to women. In a hangar near Valence, they build their own habitat on wheels, motivated by a desire for independence and ecology.

Valence (Drôme),

One meter high, a raised fist made of colored scrap metal is placed in front of a gate. Behind this symbol of struggle and commitment, the inscription "tiny" on a small sign indicates the direction of a flowered garden. Spring is just around the corner. Nathalie too, smiling, on the terrace adjoining her miniature and mobile house.

It is here, a few kilometers from Valence, that the founder and co-president of the Tinyland association intends to organize training sessions for all those who would like to start self-building tiny houses, these light houses on wheels that have been gaining popularity in France for a few years. And in his association, out of the eight builders currently helped voluntarily, half are women.

In Tinyland's hangar, one is sawing, another is cutting wood, others are bringing in boards. All of them have the goal of making their own mobile home. Solène, 27 years old, has just started the work. Even if the oil runs out, I will have a roof over my head," she says between two wood-cutting sessions. I currently live in an uncomfortable home. If I put money into stone, it would take me longer to get a comfortable bed. And I figure if I split up with my boyfriend, I would still have a place to live."

Solène and Agathe exchange know-how. Before launching out, Solène took part in Agathe's construction site. Now that Agathe's tiny house is finished, it's her turn to help her friend in the design of her future house on wheels. If the construction trades are largely male, the self-building field is more open to women. Insulation, windows, roofing, ergonomics... everything, absolutely everything, is designed from A to Z by these non-professionals, for an average price of the finished house ranging from 20 000 to 30 000 euros. "The association wants to be accessible to all people with a small budget who have optimism, motivation, says Nathalie, the founder of the place. Thanks to the sharing of knowledge, mutual aid, and collective intelligence, we tell them: 'Come and build your tiny with us'."

It was after leaving her permanent job and working as a volunteer in Armenia, during a European volunteer service, that she made the decision to build her first tiny house, with her partner at the time. After their separation, she found herself without a home. Hosted by friends, she then organized the construction of a second tiny house, hers this time, in a shed lent by a carpenter friend. This was the first of many participative building sites: more than twenty of these houses have been built since then.

Nathalie, founder and co-president of Tinyland, in front of her self-built tiny house. She is now a trainer for Solution ERA in the construction of tiny houses. For the past six years, she has been lobbying town halls to dismantle the clichés surrounding light housing. "If I can do this, I can undertake anything I want!"

Self-building, a way for women to regain control of their lives? If the method does not solve the basic problem of inequality in access to property, it allows, according to Bérangère, one of the builders, to remove many psychological barriers. She takes as proof what she has experienced.

At the beginning, she did not feel capable of building her house independently. Going through a participatory construction site was reassuring. Eight women responded to the appeal launched via the self-help platform Twiza.

With the payment of two technical advisors for the design, the project had to be completed in four months. After eight days, the first lockdown thwarted her plans. I had to finish the house practically by myself," she says. Even though I had some help, I was still the boss of my site. It was a life lesson for thirteen months. When I finished the tiny house, I said to myself, "If I can do this, I can undertake anything I want!"

Berangere built her house on her own. According to her, building allows women to realize that doing a project has no gender. When she realized how emancipating the experience had been for the eight volunteers, she thought about organizing all-female participatory workcamps that would have a therapeutic purpose.

"They have realized, as I have, that if you explain to them how the machines work, they are as capable as men. With three or four people, we can raise the wall of a house together. That's why I want to do participatory building sites for women. Not so much so that they can build their own house, but because if you manage to break through that wall, the one where you say to yourself that the construction site is not for you, then you can launch yourself into any project in your life.

Bérangère, in her self-built tiny house. A home of your own, quickly accessible

In this period of uncertainty linked to the health crisis and the war against Ukraine, the need to reduce one's consumption is shared by all the people who passed through the hangar. With, on average, less than 100 euros of expenses per month, to build one's own sober and low energy consuming habitat is a way to gain autonomy and freedom. Especially since the latest report by the Fondation Abbé Pierre on the state of housing in France is categorical about the increase in the price of so-called "classic" housing: +154% in twenty years. This is enough to increase the inequalities between those who inherit a house, or who have the means to borrow, and the others.

Solène and Agathe exchange their know-how to build Solène's house. "You don't live the same way when you have the comfort of your lineage and you know that you will have a home no matter what. So you roll up your sleeves to be independent," says Nathalie, who doesn't expect any inheritance.

And even if she had one, sociologists Céline Bessière and Sibylle Gollac have proven, after more than fifteen years of studies on the family unit, that women were the most often harmed in inheritance matters. Much less questioned and publicized than the increase in wealth inequalities between households, the growth of the wealth gap between men and women is nevertheless regular. It went from 9% in 1998 to 16% in 2015, according to the two authors.

Louison is building her tiny house with her partner "to make her lifestyle consistent with her ecological convictions. Living in a light house, whose installation is nevertheless suspended to the open-mindedness of the town halls, is "a freedom", according to Nathalie. It is a house of their own, which does not reduce them to their gender, as a conventional house or apartment can do. "I can devote myself to artistic or cultural activities that have meaning for me," Nathalie immediately responds.

As for Agathe, 25 years old, who has just finished her construction site, she feels that she can now take more risks by working on her own, but also "have more time to have a child, because my partner and I will need to work less. Living in a tiny house gives us that well-being.

Fewer possessions, more connections

Another desire shared by these women is to match their ecological values with their lifestyle. Before building their future home, the self-builders are obliged to review their real needs. In other words, a big sorting is necessary. "Living in a tiny, it makes you restrict yourself and that's not a bad thing. The trailer is there to tell you that if you have too big a house, you will consume too much, you will be very energy-consuming," says Agathe. That's the main objective, not to exceed the regulatory weight, i.e. 3.5 tons, in order to be able to move it as much as you want.

At Tinyland, mutual aid between builders is an integral part of the association's philosophy, whose primary objective is to federate and promote the sharing of knowledge about the construction of ecological habitats. A graduate of the National School of Architecture in Grenoble, Agathe has a real passion for miniature construction. In her thesis, she wanted to show that light habitats had an architecture that could respond, under certain conditions, to the challenges of the ecological transition. More philosophically, she pointed out that owning less could also be a source of happiness for the inhabitants.

"Some professors had a hard time understanding the quality of life in these houses, for them comfort comes down to the space you have. For some, it was housing insecurity. But not everyone wants to live in an American-style suburban home. The American dream is not for everyone," she says.

In the shed of the association, Agathe builds her tiny house.

Building an ecological house also means realizing its impact on the environment. "The tiny house is connected to nature. It implies thinking about all our waste. For example, I stopped using hormonal contraception, because I know that hormones have an effect on water and fish," says Nathalie. Dry toilets are the norm among "tinyists". Human waste, like animal waste, is returned to the earth via compost or phytodepuration, purification by plants.

In the warehouse where creativity teems, where each house is unique, ecology is not discussed, it is even a shared ideological basis. What is more important, insists Solène, "is how the mix is played out, how tasks are divided in a couple, how decisions are made, etc." Benevolence and mutual aid are fundamental for these defenders of alternative housing. This is what allowed Nathalie to "rebuild herself" at the same time as she shaped her house. To Agathe to find "the cabin of her childhood" and to choose her job: designer and builder of tiny houses. To Bérangère, facilitator in non-violent communication, to lead discussion groups for women.


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