The timber-framed cabin near Kommetjie where Joy-Anne Bromilow lives with her three cats and partner who constructed it over several years using inexpensive materials. Picture: Joy-Anne Bromilow
The timber-framed cabin near Kommetjie where Joy-Anne Bromilow lives with her three cats and partner who constructed it over several years using inexpensive materials. Picture: Joy-Anne Bromilow

The small house movement is big and growing

By Time of article published Oct 21, 2020

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By Joy-Ann Blomilow

Search for #tinyhomes on Instagram and you’ll be rewarded with gorgeous images of Hobbit-sized houses, quaint cabins and converted containers just about big enough to swing a cat in.

The small house movement is big and growing for many great reasons, including simplifying lifestyles, saving on big home costs (from building to maintaining) and making off-grid options more viable.

I came to the cabin life in Cape Town when I met and moved in with a man who had (with some helping hands) created the shell of his 5m x 10m wooden home in just 14 days before moving in.

By the time I arrived five years later, with my cat and my baggage (of all kinds), he had made it into an enchantingly ramshackle space to eat, sleep and store surfboards.

No Marie Kondoesque minimalism here.

High windows bring natural light into the bedroom. Picture: Joy-Anne Bromilow

He chose this kind of home because it was quick and inexpensive to build, using materials from building sites and film sets that he had available, and his own skill set and basic needs.

I moved from a large double-storey home into this one-roomed space and I love it, but downsizing has come with its challenges.

Building a cabin

Timber frame building is accessible to anyone with a creative and practical mind who is willing to learn the skills required. In South Africa you’ll need to get your plans, simple as they may be, passed by the municipality, and arrange for services to your plot – water, power and sewerage – before you can start.

Designing your cabin using standard measurements allows for use of precut timber panelling, simplifying the process. Wood keeps both cooler and warmer than other building materials but it will still need insulation.

What if it all brings me joy?

Your lifestyle preferences and personalities will determine whether you end up with the no-clutter doll house of your dreams, or (like us) embrace the layers of loved and collected things and live amid the friendly chaos.

But you will need to let go of a lot of stuff purely out of practicality, which can be pretty cathartic. Disciplined living helps – a sink full of dishes or overflowing laundry basket looks a lot worse in a small space.

The glass-enclosed verandah looks out onto a tiny lush garden. Picture: Joy-Anne Bromilow


Living with too much clutter can make your little home feel cramped. Build clever cupboards and stealthy storage units. We have simple steps up to the loft which double as a hanging closet and shelves. The mezzanine is great for bulky items not used daily. Outdoor storage options like a shed can help.

Open Plan

Two aspects of our cabin that help it feel more spacious are a high ceiling and no internal walls (just one between the bathroom and kitchen). We have a double volume roof space with exposed beams. Last winter we finally covered the fluffy green insulation product with white isoboard, creating more light and air. High windows bring in natural light and sky views.

Flow outdoors

South Africa has great weather much of the year so utilising outdoor spaces means you’re less confined by the limited indoors. We have a glass-enclosed verandah for windy days and an outdoor deck (with rain tanks and washing line) that steps into our tiny green garden.

Change it up

While certain items will stay in set places, like baths and fridges, I love that ostensibly living in a box means we can move things around. As the seasons change and we spend more evenings at home, we make our home cosier by shifting the bed and soft furnishings around the fireplace for maximum hibernating hygge.

Small cabins are simple to take apart, restructure and add on to if you desire more living space down the line.

Finally, if you’re thinking of the cabin life ask yourself these three important questions:

◆ Are you happy to entertain in your bedroom and fall asleep to the hum of the fridge?

◆ If your cabin partner annoys you, will escaping to the loft or sleeping on the stoep give you enough space?

◆ Can you make it just big enough to swing at least one cat?

* Bromilow, owner of juice bar FaithJuice at the Farm Village in Noordhoek, and her partner live near Kommetjie with their three cats Billy, Meep and Etta.

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