Brenda Kelly started doodling plans for caravans and tiny homes as a child, back when you could still pick up a quality house on a complete section for under $200,000.

“I’ve always been passionate about small spaces,” she says. “I’ve never bought into the quarter-acre, white-picket-fence dream. And I think that dream is no longer a reality in New Zealand anyway.”

She spent much of her 30s bringing her passion to life as both her home and vocation. Brenda began designing and then building container homes that she trialled herself. “There was a lot of interest, so I turned it into a business helping others do a similar thing,” she says. Given the trajectory of house prices over the past decade, her timing couldn’t have been better.

Now she lives in a 40-square-metre container home overlooking Lake Taupo and operates IQ Container Homes, sharing her designs and know-how with others who want to go small.

“I was driven by small spaces—everything you need, nothing you don’t, low running costs,” she says.

Brenda is quick to point out that tiny homes are more expensive per square metre, but they provide a lower rung on the housing ladder and are more affordable to maintain. Container homes, in particular, also have an advantage in challenging terrain.

“The land that was in my price range was often steep and sloping,” she says. “Container homes need minimal pile foundations, so straight away they’re a cost-effective option for those difficult sites where creating a level building platform is going to be cost prohibitive.”

Brenda built her first two container homes in Auckland’s rugged Waitakere Ranges. Where her section starts to drop away, the more prominent home perches on piles with a roomy deck that floats out over the lush bush.

Her home in Taupo backs onto a hill rising above the lake, the main house snug against the highest part of the section to make the most of the view.

Both sites would have been costly to put a conventional build on, and their price tags reflected that.

Because developers want to get the most out of their investments, Brenda says there aren’t many tiny homes like hers built on their own piece of land. So, for those who don’t want to live in terraced housing or apartments, a container home on a slightly challenging section could be an economical solution.

The estimates for IQ’s standard designs range from $40,000 for a sleepout and $75,000 for an on-grid studio, each just under 15 square metres, to $350,000 for a two-story, three-bedroom model with 87 square metres plus a rooftop deck.

A year after completing the main home, Brenda built a smaller container home as a rental on the bottom of her section across from a sleepout. She hasn’t missed the internal space she enjoyed living in her last traditional home with three bedrooms and a garage.
“If it’s designed right, and you furnish it right, you don’t miss out on anything,” she says.

Brenda often works from her living room, with its ever-changing views of Lake Taupo, but she also has an office with a desk that pivots down to reveal a double bed.

Each winter, she hosts friends from her pre-Taupo days for a birthday weekend, sleeping seven or eight comfortably in her buildings and campervan. She hosts twice that number a little more cosily in the living area, which opens out onto a covered deck that is also the roof of her carport.

“I think the optimum is to be able to own your land and put a permanent home on there, regardless of the size,” she says. “Obviously, small homes are going to be more cost-effective. They’re more expensive per square metre—don’t get me wrong—but the overall cost will be more affordable. And if it’s a compromise to go small, then it only needs to be short-term.”