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'Tiny Chalet' Wonder, For An Ecological Swiss Ski Vacation

The Thyon tourism office rents innovative 'tiny houses' to ski vacationers: 56 square feet, fun and environmentally friendly. But it's not so simple.

'Tiny Chalet' Wonder, For An Ecological Swiss Ski Vacation
Caroline Stevan

THYON — The doubts begin before departure: a family weekend usually means filling up the car, but a full car represents a quarter of the total volume of a "tiny house." These micro homes, which first began to spread in the United States in 2008, mean the second pair of shoes doesn't come along, nor the xylophone, the three extra blankets and board games.

We will be among the first to test the Swiss version, a "tiny chalet" that the Valais resort of Thyon has just installed on the slopes.

The tiny houses aspire to energy independence, and the sparing use of hot water — and of course, space. "This ecological housing completely aligns with the feel of the resort," notes Eric Crettaz, director of Télé-Thyon skil lift company.

The house, long and narrow and covered in white wood, is built at the top of a slope, just after the beginner hill chairlift that was first built in 1850. It is surrounded by fir trees and an impressive amount of snow. Our first exercise: have four of us enter and take off our soaked shoes on the plastic protection without dripping onto the "wood floors." Impossible, we must go two at a time.

But finally, taking a look around, an impression of comfort and conviviality emerges. Ingenuity as well, as the smallness of the location isn't necessarily apparent at first.

To the left of the glass door, the bathroom, which contains a shower, sink, a shelf and a composting toilet. Straight ahead, the mini kitchen, with a table to the right that flips up from the wall. At the back of the house is a small sofa bed, two small tables, a few compartments which hold electric candles, storage bins, board games and pamphlets on saving energy. Everything is there. Above, a loft with a double bed, fitted with two windows. In the bathroom, a corner storage.

Life is organized between drying of ski gear in the shower and the snow storm outside that we are well-protected from. All is well, cozy but no privacy. Of course, you all go to sleep and wake up at the same time. Meals are taken with two at the table, and two in living room. The small house is ideal for a couple without children, furnished with just two chairs and two pairs of slippers. For a family, it has the feel of squeezing into the space of a single hotel room, but allowing kids to be a bit more wild and playful. l "I love climbing into the room upstairs, it seems like a tree house," claims the oldest. "The shower is the problem."

Sure, with only two to three minutes of hot water at a time, you have to know how to hurry. But the preservation of the environment is at the heart of the discourse of the creators of the project, and the Thyon office of tourism offers zero-waste workshops to occupants of the tiny chalet.

Big headache for little houses

Without construction permits, the small Swiss houses generally end up in campsites. They were first dreamed about as miracle solutions to the U.S. housing crisis, to the lack of space, to the over-consumption of energy and the consumer culture in general. In Switzerland, a handful of inhabitants have chosen to live year-round in these houses of around 65 square feet. Today, nearly all register their disenchantment. It's not that a compacted life displeases them. Conversely, one said, "I got rid of a lot of possessions and I feel lighter." Another adds: "We communicate much better as a family, we have to."

The main problem is the legislation that surrounds the housing. The Swiss authorities demand a construction permit that is difficult to obtain. Certain towns consider these houses-on-wheels as motor homes and refuse to welcome them. Thus the owners of these tiny houses are generally relegated to campsites, although certain sites reject them on the pretext that the house has two floors. In France, the law authorizes them to plant their wheels in a garden, for three months at a time, which can be renewed.

Géraldine Imhof, a cosmetics manufacturer who uses her tiny house as a boutique studio, found a campsite for winter but will have to move soon. "It's not so easy," she said. "I'm thinking of a shipyard for the summer, since the boats will be on the water."

Pierre Imhof, who happens to share the same last name, oversees zoning and development issues for the Vaud state. "Before acquiring such housing, we recommend that those interested resolve installation issues," he says. "It is not because they are small that these accommodations should be exempt from construction permits or respecting standards. The ambiguity is in people's minds, thinking that they're buying a motor home, but want to use it like a villa."

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