Small House Living

This ‘essay’ is actually little more than a vague laundry list of architectural concepts I’ve been kicking around for a while, in an effort to think about what I want in a house, and whether or not I want to build a house.

One of the Christmas presents I gave this year was Little House on a Small Planet, a book of interviews and conversations with people who live in small houses. The average American house has been getting larger and larger for decades. I’ve just spent an hour walking around my hometown, as well, and many of the small houses I recalled liking growing up have been replaced with McMansions — enormous, 3000+ sq. ft. monstrosities that drive me crazy. They are totally lacking in charm, and many of them have been built on SimCity4 style lots: chiseled into the side of a hill to make space for them, or built up on terraces or platforms to support them (Terraces and platforms are useful for agricultural uses, and for temples, but not much else. I’m not at all sure they’re appropriate for building houses on, especially if the house also eliminates all the garden space.)

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about small houses as a result of reading Tom’s Christmas present. There were a lot of things I found really useful, like the discussion about guests. It turns out that small houses tend to overwhelm their occupants less often, which means that they’re more inclined to invite guests for long stays. The house — the structure itself — keeps everyone honest about alone time and communication. Moreover, the narrowness of the available spaces pushes everyone into more intimate discussions and deeper communication. One woman in LHoaSP had a small round house in New Mexico which was very plain; and a more elaborate domed structure about 100′ away, which served as a shrine and a guest house.

Another book on small houses pointed out that by expending little money on actual square footage, one could devote more time and energy and money toward quality detail: built-in bookshelves, detail carving on exposed timbers, high-quality kitchen appliances, more high-quality wood surfaces, and so on. It was more possible to live greenly, the book suggested, by building small and having a high-quality garden, as well.

LHoaSP also pointed out the debt experience of most home-buyers. People buy elaborate, huge houses for themselves, but the house costs so much that they have to spend substantial amounts of time away from that house in order to maintain and care for it. The house is an ‘investment’, but it is an investment which requires constant influxes of wealth and time and attention in order to keep it from falling apart. People own the mortgage on the house, but unless they stay put for thirty years, they don’t ever really own the house.

‘s housemate owns five acres and a 1200 sq. ft. house. It’s really quite a pleasant place to stay and visit. When I’m there, I’m conscious of how much ‘outdoors’ there is, and I don’t feel cramped at all. I can work at the kitchen table, in the bedroom, or in the living room, and there’s enough space for notional/personal privacy, even while others are moving around the house. Moreover, I’m available instantly for people who need my help, and others are likewise available to me. I think it would be possible, with the right roommate, to have more people live in that house than currently live there.

What are the advantages of large groups in small houses? Well, you’d learn communication skills in a hurry. You couldn’t afford to be angry at anyone for a long period of time, if you shared a small house with them. You’d have a principle of ‘many hands, light work’ involved in cleaning common areas like the kitchen and living/dining/ritual areas of the house.

In Japan, which admittedly does not have the same kinds of notions of personal space as America, 450 sq. ft. for a family of three is apparently not unusual (that’s about 15’x24′). (This would be and ‘s living room and kitchen, at a guess, or ‘s living room and kitchen, at a guess. It’s also about the living space in a 10’-radius yurt). Space is at a premium, so attention is lavished on detail work. The bathroom is separated into two functions, waste-disposal and bathing. In some houses it’s separated into three functions — bathing, waste-disposal, and hand-washing.

Architects there also spend lavish amounts of time thinking about the relationship between indoor and outdoor, between public and private access to the house. One house I saw in a book today consisted of a three-story structure sheathed in aluminum, with shutters the full length and breadth of the house on two sides. With the shutters rolled up, the curtains on the two sides of the house billowed into the house and out into the street and garden, thus giving the house a very active and lively shell. The first floor of the ‘house’ was in fact a restaurant, with a staircase ascending to the private house’s living room/dining room on the second floor, and living quarters and bath area on the third floor. Again, with shutters up, the house became actively open to the wider world — screened in only by these billowing white curtains.

Another house had no garden, so the architect/interior designer installed sky lights and brought a trio of birch trees into the house’s living room, blurring the line between outdoor and indoor. That was pretty cool.

Not So Big Houses
Sarah Susanka, in her series of books on the “Not So Big House”, points out the tremendous advantages of building pods of space, and including long diagonal sight lines, within a small house. Diagonals, or hypotenuses, tend to be the longest lines in many a structure, so by adding or incorporating diagonal sightlines in and through a house, you make the space seem much bigger than it really is. Built-in storage (active, medium, deep and collections! for you organizers playing along at home) can help structure the precision and daily lives of the dweller-owners; you have to put away your stuff regularly, you can’t keep clutter on hand because your house has to be livable, whatever doesn’t fit in storage must be given away, and so on.

What are the spaces in your house that you feel most drawn to? Susanka says it’s to the places where beauty, comfort and efficiency meet. I think this combines well with Forrest’s ideas about immanence, transcendence and omniscience. A small house architecturally draws together its occupants and guests to create a sense of beauty and well-lived lives. By drawing down the needs of square footage to be occupied with stuff, one creates time and space for people to live more closely and happily with each other.

Susanka also suggests that large houses are ready-made for divorces, rather than working marriages. You can’t really hide from the people you are mad at in a small house; you have to make up with them in order to live in this tiny space together. One house LHoaSP talked about had a clerestory window in the bedroom that shed light on the bed in such a way that it was uncomfortable to sleep in alone (or this is what the designers/dwellers claimed).

Driving along the main road in my neighborhood today, I chanced to glimpse a room over a garage. It too, had clerestory windows. The sun carried the light in through one side of the house, and made it bright and cosy and comforting at the right part of the afternoon; it gave me a boost of energy at a slow time of the day and the year.

Outbuildings, Outdoor Rooms, & Porches
Susanka and the LHoaSP authors all note the importance of making use of indoor space and outdoor space — living large and pursuing inner happiness within a smaller space. Christopher Alexander, in his book A Pattern Language, as well, points out that a well-placed and ‘angled’ house will divide its interior spaces naturally into several rooms or nodes — and that it will divide the exterior spaces of its lot into a series of rooms. In the US today, this amounts to ‘front yard’ and ‘back yard’, but it makes much more sense to use/think ‘kitchen garden’, ‘outdoor dining/living’, ‘playspace’, ‘shade arbor’ and ‘entry garden’, or whatever. This allows you to have a small lawn, and three separate spaces for kids and adults to live/work/play outdoors, as well as a source of food for you and your family. If these outdoor rooms are integrated around the house properly, they function as positive environments for you and your family and guests, instead of being merely adjuncts to the main house. You are, in effect, investing yourself in the Land, as well as the human structures on the land.

One of the ways that you can effectively increase the amount of space ‘indoors’ in a small house is to build a porch. LHoaSP and Susanka point out that porches usually cost 1/10 to 1/8th as much as a full room. They can be enclosed with screens or even windows, which can give you 2-3 times as much space inside as you had without them. In summer, the porch can be overflow seating for guests, or even sleeping space; it can be home to potluck supper tables; it can be audience space for poets reciting in the main house; it can be music practice area. Porches are tricky, though, in that their surface area needs to be about 8′ wide, and shielded from direct observation by passers-by, in order to be both useful and used.

A third effective way of increasing space in a house is to include in your master plan for the house and its site locations for outbuildings. One such building could be as simple as a shed for storing garden tools, potting supplies, and equipment for cold frames, as well as the lawn mower. A shed, well-proportioned and carefully placed, becomes a way of separating one outdoor ‘room’ from another, whether they be the kitchen gardens from the patio, or something more elaborate. Other functions of outbuildings could range from guest houses and artist’s studios to mother-in-law or teenager apartments, for when children grow too old to dwell in the main house, or need some space for entertaining friends. One recommendation I’ve read about teenager apartments is that they be positioned so that the teen must pass by windows looking into the house’s prominent public areas, and perhaps under the main bedroom’s windows. In this way, the teen gets to experience some independence — “we’re trusting you with this little house” — while at the same time knowing that the comings and goings are, if not closely monitored, at least known and recognized.

In many tribal cultures, of course, the recognition of a teen as an adult, with the attendant ceremonies, is accompanied by the construction of a living space for the new adult, in which he may entertain his friends and proceed to the business of finding a mate; building the house provides the teen with mad skillz, and a place to display collections and ownership. If 1200 sq. ft. is appropriate space for a family, perhaps 200 sq. ft. is appropriate for a teen? This tiny house can be rented if the teen leaves; it can be guest space; it can be a house for a mother-in-law or widower. The resident can withdraw from the world in this house, or be party to the main house’s living, while still maintaining a degree of distance.

It’s all worth thinking about.

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  1. I imagine you could reorganize your house, putting a second kitchen upstairs and turning it into a rental apartment, and live downstairs and in the basement, with your living room becoming a bedroom and study, your side living room remaining the living room, your studio remaining your studio, and bathroom staying the same. Alternately, you could turn the loft into your sleeping area, and leave the living room as is, with dining, working and lounging space all together.

    Whether you would WANT to, is a different question.

  2. LivingHomes


    Hi! Love your thoughts about small houses/small living spaces. Have you seen LivingHomes?

    Modern modular (yes, modular!) houses that can be configured any way you like. I am, of course, in heaven.


  3. I’ve thought about downsizing the domicile, too . . . but would need to really learn about what’s possible in small space before I was ready to just jump in and do it. Surely, a smaller version of exactly what I have now wouldn’t do. But it may very well be possible to live well, much smaller. I suppose the efficiency of resource utilization should be motivation enough – but it’s not quite enough for me. And then there’s the other thing: these days, if one wants a small home, one would have to build it — ya won’t find ’em on the market.

  4. Hmmm, that’s true…

    Hmm. That’s true, actually. I hadn’t thought about that.

    Of course, I was trying to think of sacred space as BEAUTIFUL space, and I don’t really think of megachurches as beautiful. But you are right, in that there is a clear and recognizable relationship between the mosque and community services, and mega-church/evangelical services.

    Do you have any comments about the rest of the article? You responded to a comment, but were you interested in the rest of the article?

  5. “We have a model that sacred space should be supported by individuals voting with their feet and ears, showing up for worship on a given day. How much more exciting would it be to have sacred ground supported by a whole series of economic entities that feed the larger community. And if it were also a green entity!? That’d be pretty damn cool.”

    I dunno, I feel like we have a model for that already — we call them megachurches. And aside from malls they come with universities, theme parks, and a multi-media broadcast network. I think it’s better to keep money changers out of the temples myself.

    But that’s just me.


  6. great essay, thanks muchly.

    We’re currently in the process of moving into a space that is more than 2X what we’re living in. We both needed spaces for doing music and art as well as our business, and right now we’re only supporting for business. I like to have space for people to visit, as well, so one of my criteria is always an extra room for visitors.

    I really like the idea of the home as an extension of organic space, I’m hoping that the new place won’t be “too big” for us. Unfortunately, this is a cookie-cutter double, but the rent is right and the area is really nice. Hopefully we can at least make it accessible internally 🙂

  7. The idea sounds very cool. I like the idea of the worship built into the community, but since I’m a pretty solitary person in that respect, I like the built-into-the-house version for myself. Of course, proximity to quiet stretches of woods or ocean also works.

    I also like the idea of building a house that has very separate general/private areas, say a bottom floor with an open living room/kitchen/library/guest space and an upstairs with bedroom/writing room.

    On the whole, we’re really happy with our apt. though. We could use a few shelves to use the space a little better (and have places for all the books), but it’s comfy and there’s just enough room that we can leave half the living room open for yoga.

  8. I have read about co-housing, but I haven’t done much with it yet. Perhaps we could find land in woodstock, CT or thereabouts, and work on a poetry/pagan/gardening/yoga/writing/teaching co-housing center with performance space, common areas, and guest housing for visiting poets. We could even have a tiny apartment for artists in residence. Wouldn’t that be cool?

    One of the other things I’ve been playing with is the Turkish/Mameluk idea of building mosques in conjunction with other facilities: a caravanserai, a bath house, a school,a market, a soup kitchen/restaurant, a bakery, and so on. The Turks’ idea was that you build a master plan for all of these services around the mosque, and the rents and other financial derivatives of the services support the sacred space.

    We have a model that sacred space should be supported by individuals voting with their feet and ears, showing up for worship on a given day. How much more exciting would it be to have sacred ground supported by a whole series of economic entities that feed the larger community. And if it were also a green entity!? That’d be pretty damn cool.

  9. Neat stuff. I skimmed the “not so big house” book ages ago and love the designs and the general concept. I’d rather have details and built-in shelves than gigantic rooms. In my pipe dream, I’d love to be able to design a greenhouse/porch/yoga space into my living space.

    Have you looked at co-housing? Some friends of mine are involved in a project in Berlin, MA that has individual units as well as common areas, with a lot of thought given to greenspace. So basically, you get a fairly green community designed as community rather than a series of boxed people that don’t interact. If you’re interested, I’ll hunt down the link.

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