Tiny Houses, Big Dreams: Van Bo Le-Mentzel on opening up spaces of possibility

Many people might think that Van Bo Le-Mentzel is a dreamer, and he would agree. What does he dream of? A more sustainable, less capital-driven world in which people reactivate and share spaces. Through Tiny House University, Van Bo and his team are making this dream a reality.


Anna Gyulai-Gaal


Robert Rieger

A little over a year ago, a cluster of small, house-like structures appeared in front of the Bauhaus-Archiv in Berlin, next to the Landwehr canal. They soon began to multiply, as did the number of people working, studying, cooking, and sleeping there. These stylishly designed buildings, measuring less than 10 square metres, formed part of the Tiny House University Collective, a Berlin-based NGO founded by Van Bo Le-Mentzel, a Berlin-based architect and DIY activist, with the goal of creating new models of social neighbourhoods.

The tiny house movement is a social initiative geared towards downsizing the spaces we live in. It originated in California, with its first pioneers creating alternative living structures in the 1970s. Any free-standing residential structure less than 46 square metres is considered to be a tiny home.

The movement is increasingly popular all over the world, especially in places where people are looking for lower rents and a more sustainable living situation, such as the USA, Japan, the UK, and Germany. Van Bo’s theory is that the tiny house origin story is related to the advent of Silicon Valley, where computer geeks profited from close quarters by building computers, and communities, in their garages: ‘Because a garage is 10 square metres and close to the street, people can come by, share ideas, find each other. It’s a social scene. If it had all happened in backyards, it would have stayed hidden. So I call these “spaces of possibilities”!’ Van Bo surmises. He has a calm air about him, and is characterised by a soft-spokenness and dreamy nature. But despite this, he is an organiser, and always manages to make things happen, and find the right people to collaborate with to make his dreams a reality, with Tiny House University being a prime example.

‘We want to reactivate spaces and make neighbourhoods better, to improve social potential!’

Tiny House University began in 2015 when Van Bo started the project with a group of refugees who had just arrived in Germany. Van Bo noticed them queuing in front of LAGESO (now LAF), the State Office for Refugee Affairs in Berlin. ‘It was packed with people – two, three, four hundred a day – usually waiting there from the night before to make sure to get a number,’ explains Van Bo, who himself came to Germany as a child refugee from Laos. His migrant background informed his decision to get involved with various refugee integration initiatives, and upon talking to the refugees at LAGESO who were frustrated after realising that the office could offer them no assistance, he decided to take matters into his own hands. ‘My idea was simply to build something together with them; to help them.’

Van Bo has a track record of taking charge and leading DIY projects to success. As a young and unemployed architecture graduate, he felt the need to do something more practical, and so completed carpentry training at the Volkshochschule in Berlin. Soon after, he designed a furniture set that was easy and cheap to make, which provided the basis for his 2012 book Hartz IV Moebel: Build More, Buy Less. The book inspired a grassroots movement of people building their own furniture instead of simply hitting IKEA, and his designs now represent the core furniture of tiny houses worldwide. Van Bo has been the initiator of many inspiring crowd-funded projects. He has designed fair trade shoes, the Karma Chaks, taught at the University of Fine Arts Hamburg, and, in the process, has built up a support circle that will stand behind him whatever his ideas are.

His multifaceted career helped Van Bo to bring the idea of building something with the refugees he had met to fruition. After assembling a team of refugees eager to help, he gathered discarded wood that he’d found on the streets and turned to the ‘Konstruieren statt konsumieren’ Facebook community to ask for tools. This is how the first tiny house was born. ‘We called it “Hotel LAGESO”,’ he laughs.


We are sitting in the latest tiny house at the Bauhaus Campus. There are 13 buildings at present. The number grew rapidly as more and more people got involved in the movement. ‘We started building tiny houses in gyms, where the refugees were staying,’ Van Bo tells us. ‘We soon teamed up with Syrian, Egyptian, Iraqi, and many African carpenters and helpers, and I realised how much I, as an architect, could actually learn from the refugees, people living in mobility. So, we started designing new kinds of apartments, no bigger than 10 square metres, and we just put them on car trailers so they could stand in parking spots.’ He calls the structures ‘100-euro apartments’ as it is stipulated that the rent cannot exceed 100 euros.

Van Bo is keeping himself busy as we talk, assembling and rearranging furniture in the tiny structure. The sun is setting and it’s getting chillier, so he turns on a gas heater that quickly warms up the small house. Downstairs is a tiny kitchen, a living/working space, even a flat-screen TV on the wall, and upstairs is space for a cozy bed. All the houses located at the university – the café, the library, even the public toilet – are designed in a way that one could actually sleep in them.

For Van Bo, the project is a way to rethink how we live together. ‘With the tiny houses, we can experiment with a lot of ideas! One of them is, of course, housing. How could we organise a society in a post-migrant, post-colonial, post-democratic world? What’s next?’

‘How could we organise a society in a post-migrant, post-colonial, post-democratic world? What’s next?’

Outside, about half a dozen people are busy peeling and chopping vegetables. Their work is visible through the huge windows of the structure in which we sit. They are preparing a dinner at the Holy Food’s House, one of the buildings designed for catering. The food is prepared using only discarded and donated ingredients, and the dishes will be offered to those in need. Tonight there will be a community dinner celebrating one year since Tiny House University opened at the Bauhaus-Archiv.

Many of the volunteers and members have spent some time sleeping in the houses, too. Van Bo welcomed people to stay – whether they were refugees, homeless, or one of the interns – as long as he could trust them to leave by 9am when the Bauhaus museum opened its doors. Van Bo tells us that Tiny House University also hosts many events, lectures, and dinners, and provides a platform for people to meet and work together, and to become friends.


Now, several weeks after our meeting in the cozy 10-square-metre living quarters, the tiny houses are leaving the Bauhaus campus. Some are making their way to Wittenberg, where a new community will soon spring up. ‘One of our members, Apo, is a Kurdish guy; a displaced person. He’s been very active with us and now he is starting a new community in Wittenberg. We will put our house there and we are inviting people to join us. An Israeli guy, Noam, is setting up a workshop, helping people to build their own tiny houses. It’s so interesting to watch the ideas and the utopian steps of a person who is not even “supposed” to be here, who has no rights, no papers, starting all this in a town where Martin Luther wrote hate speeches against Turks and Jews. These are things I find very important: to confront people with their own history and evoke changes.’

In addition to Wittenberg, some of the other houses will move to Holzmarkt, the experimental urban development area in Berlin. Here, a third person, Amelie, will curate the project. Curate is the operative word because, while tiny house communities don’t have leaders, someone needs to take responsibility for the goings on, advocate for the project, set the theme of the community, and set some boundaries.

Van Bo finds it important to always have one person in charge who has an overview of things, especially given the wide variety of people who congregate at Tiny University: ‘Every one of our new spots is a new core of people and ideas, all sorts of people. I think this differentiates us from the Bauwagen (container) communities. They are usually looking for like-minded people. Here at the Bauhaus campus, we’ve had homeless people, alcoholics, ministry workers, company owners, gay people, straight people, terminally ill people, pregnant women, Jews, Muslims. It’s a very nice cross-section of our society, which is not something you’d see in a Bauwagen community. That’s a like-minded bubble, which is totally fine but we don’t want to create bubbles, we want to reactivate spaces and make neighbourhoods better, to improve social potential!’

The biggest challenge tiny house owners face, especially in Germany, is that one cannot legally live in a tiny house. German law stipulates that every resident must register their place of residence, but that this cannot be on the streets. However, Van Bo explains, you also can’t live in your garden as it constitutes a place of leisure, nor can you live in Schrebergärten (small garden ‘allotments’), even though sometimes people still do. By extension, a tiny house that you can set up anywhere also cannot, in legal terms, constitute a place of residence.

Despite its obvious difficulties, Van Bo has high hopes for the tiny house movement. He dreams that ‘one day there will be a big enough, critical crowd who will show how tiny houses can help the community by sheltering, doing dinners, providing kitas, doing things that the government is supposed to take care of but cannot.’ He envisions a world where tiny houses can contribute to humanitarian causes, taking some weight off the government.

‘I think they will see how society reacts to the tiny house movement and they will realise that there is so much more behind it!’ he exclaims. ‘We, for example, have a library and a public toilet where we recycle waste. There are so many things that one could do for the community. What would happen if we defined living in a city as a contribution to society? I think everyone who owns something has a responsibility and they should offer what they have to society. Let that be property, or a tool, or knowledge. If everyone would offer something to one another, there would never be any wars again.’


‘What would happen if we defined living in a city as a contribution to society?’

Back at the Bauhaus campus, sitting in a tiny house creates a warm and homey feeling. It’s easy to imagine packing a suitcase and hitting the road with the tiny house on wheels. And this is exactly what Van Bo dreams of. ‘I hope people will realise that it’s better to buy or build themselves a tiny house instead of having a car, or a real house in the suburbs, because they will start to commit to the world and stick to the global ideas of the world. They will travel a lot, and if you do that, you don’t need a big apartment.’

This sustainable way of living, utopian as it might sound, is becoming a reality for much of the population, Van Bo tells us, with an ever-growing group of ‘urban nomads’ who populate the city landscape. Rather than defining themselves through possessions or property, they are characterised by their free spirit and respect for humanity. Could this be the next lifestyle revolution? Our host certainly thinks so.

Van Bo sees the future as centered around community. Luckily, he is already surrounded by many like-minded dreamers and supporters who also want to change things for the better, and to live in a less capitalistic society where it doesn’t matter where one comes from. He maintains hope for a brighter future, especially when he looks at his two young children.

‘My wish for my two children is that they keep their curiosity and their faith in laughter as long as possible. It is always a very nice moment for me to see them having fun, playing around, making something out of nothing: how they create their own toys and stories in their brains. That’s a really great ability and skill if you can just create something out of nothing. Some call it magic. And that’s something every human being can do when they are little, but then we lose it because people tell us that there is no magic. What I would really like is to create spaces where people can stay magicians, or reactivate their magic geniuses. Spaces of possibilities.’

Keep up to date with the activities of the Tiny House University via Facebook.

小住宅,大梦想: 范波 · 雷门特泽尔

许多人认为范波 · 雷门特泽尔是个不切实际的梦想家,他本人也这么同意。他的梦想到底是什么呢? 一个受更少资本驱动的世界,人们可重新激活并分享空间。透过小屋建筑大学企划,范波与他的团队将梦想变成事实。


Anna Gyulai-Gaal


Robert Rieger



这个运动在世界各地越来越受欢迎,尤其在那些人们寻找租金低廉、可承受的住房环境条件下的国家,例如美国、日本、英国与德国。范波的微型住宅理念源于硅谷产业的出现,计算器怪杰在一间小车库靠着创建计算器及周边小区发展来机获得效益。范波总结 “车库不仅靠近街道其面积为10平方米,人们容易过来一起分享点子或见着彼此。这是个社会现象,如果所有事情都在后院发生,那么永远也无法为人所知。所以我将它称为 “空间的可能性!” 他身上散发出冷静、说话温和以及具有幻想特质的本性。尽管如此,他总是一个说到就做到的组织者,并找到合适的人与他合作将梦想付诸实现,小屋建筑大学就是很好的例子。


2015年范波与一群刚抵达德国的难民开始小屋建筑大学的计划。范波注意到他们群集在柏林卫生与社会福利局门外排队,范波说: “每天都挤满上百人,通常他们在前晚就先到门前等候,以确保能拿到号码牌。” 范波儿时跟随父母从老挝以难民的身分来到德国。因自身移民背景赋予他决定要积极参与各种难民融合机构组织,在与难民对话后得知柏林社福局无法对他们提供任何具体协助,他决心用自己的方式来处理, “我的想法很简单,透过与他们一同建造东西而帮助他们。

范波有负责和领导DIY项目成功的纪录。身为一名年轻且失业的建筑系毕业生,他认为有必要做些更实际的事情,于是他在柏林的成人教育中心完成木工培训。很快的他设计了一组廉价简易建造的家具,为他2012年出版的书哈茨IV Moebel:建的越多、买的越少立下基准。这本书启发了草根运动的族群,他们不去宜家家居购买,反而自己建照家具。如今他的设计已成为全球小屋家具的核心代表。

范波也发起许多振奋人心的众筹企画,他设计公平贸易的鞋子the Karma Chaks、在汉堡造型艺术学院授课,同时他也建立了一个将无条件支持他提出所有新企画的支持大队。

范波多方面的职业背景造就了他一起与难民建造东西的想法。在集结首批热心帮忙的难民团队后,他在街上收集了被丢弃的木头,然后在脸书的用建设替代消费社团征求建造所需的工具,第一间微型住宅就此而生,他笑着说: 我们管它叫 柏林卫生与社会福利局旅店





对范波来说,这个项目对我们该如何居住做反思。透过小屋,我们可以对许多新点子做实验! 其中之一当然是住房。我们该如何组织一个后移民、后殖民、后民主世界的社会呢? 接下来是甚么?

“我们该如何组织一个后移民、后殖民、后民主世界的社会呢? 下一步是甚么?”







范波认为找个能对全面概况负责的领导很重要,尤其在小屋建筑大学中聚集了来自不同文化的人们,我们每个新地点都是各种的人和观念的新核心,我认为这足以区分我们之于游居游民社群,他们通常寻找志趣相投的人。在包豪斯校园我们有无家可归者、酗酒者、政府员工、公司老板、同性恋、异性恋、晚期疾病者、孕妇、犹太人、穆斯林信徒。 我们这里有社会很好的横切面,在其他游居社群中看不到的。这是个志趣相投的幻影,但我们不想制造幻影,我们想激活空间致力邻里关系进而提升社会浅力!


尽管这面临许多难题,范波对小屋运动抱有很大的希望。他梦想 “有天会有足够的关键人群,证明小屋将如何庇护、做晚餐、提供幼儿园,做许多政府该做却力所不及的事情。他想象未来世界中小屋可为政府减轻压力并在人道主义上付出贡献。



他喊着:我认为他们看到社会对小屋运动的反应后,会意识到这背后有更多的含意! “例如我们有一间图书馆和回收废物的公厕,尽一己之力可为小区做许多的事情,假如我们将城市居住定义为对社会的贡献,会发生甚么?”



这种可持续性的生活型态听起来有些乌托邦主义,但在多数人中已成为现实。范波说:  在城市居住的游牧民族群体不断增长下,他们不靠己所拥有物或财物而以自由精神和对人性尊重的特质来定义自己。这会是下个生活方式革命吗? 范波当然如此认为。




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