Custom plans, drafting + Design

product review

Book Review: “Defiantly Homemade:” A Review of Lloyd Kahn’s Tiny Homes Simple Shelter (Shelter Publications)


Tiny Homes Simple Shelter is a newly released (2012) offering from Shelter Publications. It builds on earlier publications from Shelter and deals specifically with small and tiny homes. The homes within the pages of this book will most likely delight you. I noticed that on, the book is in the top 500 sellers in their books department, and it’s easy to see why. Here are some of my impressions from reading the book.

For starters, the size is excellent for the material contained within. It’s a large, coffee table book with soft covers and a size that is just right for perusing with friends or a partner or for spreading out on the couch to enjoy with a cup of tea. Inside there are so many pictures (all color) that it’s a real feast for the senses. Each photo essay – that’s really how they come across – introduces you to  real, living people, frequently just regular people who have, for one reason or another, struck out and built for themselves a tiny or small dwelling space to call their own. The homes vary in size from tiny houses built on trailer beds, trucks, or caravan wagons, to tree houses; from natural cob buildings and veritable hobbit holes to architecturally sleek and ultra modern spaces – and back again – to homes framed entirely from hand collected beach wood, recycled materials and modified-traditional stick framing. In location, you’ll find these homes in British Columbia, Austin, TX, San Francisco, the Arizona desert, in places like Mali and Costa Rica, on islands, even on the road and in the water! The stories vary from person to person, just as you’d hope and expect, and they’re all intriguing. The stories are generally told by the builders themselves and are often set into the photo essays as letters written to Lloyd Kahn and Shelter Publications about various projects.

What other things can I say about this book? In terms of inspiration, it’s worth the price. It’s a beautiful looking book and is positively hefty in terms of idea generation, enjoyment and interest. You’ll learn a lot reading it or just studying the photos, and you’ll certainly see things you hadn’t even thought of before! The layout has an interesting, organic feel thanks to a good balance of text and photos, photos being dominant and text being varied in terms of individual writers and scenarios being described. I can’t say how many times I simply felt happy while reading these intriguing stories of people who’ve done what a lot of us imagine doing (and sometimes are doing ourselves)…taking a dream and hammering or otherwise molding that dream into a physical form and then enjoying the fruits of that labor. Many of the stories have similar threads, whether written by a woman in her early 20’s or a man in his 60’s, or even a whole group of people. From the unique homes that ooze personal expression as well as pride of craftsmanship, there’s a strong do-it-yourself energy that emanates from the pages. Authors repeatedly mention the freedom that results from plunging into self-building and from coming up with creative methods to allow more time for personal interests while simultaneously fulfilling two of the basic necessities of humanity: shelter and creative expression. Really, the two go hand in hand and nowhere is that better expressed than in the photos of real projects by real people.

Another reason I can heartily recommend this title is that it would appeal to a broad spectrum of readers. The contents are not strictly high-end architectural works or storybook tree houses; they’re not all tiny spaces that many might have a hard time imagining themselves raising a family in for instance. The homes contained in the pages of this book are tremendously unique. You won’t find any cookie cutter homes in any sense of the word. There’s a fine introduction to dozens of ways of doing the same things: learning to build, building, and loving the end results. If you are like me, you will quickly wonder what new things have happened to these builders. I found that to be my only real issue with the book; the stories seem to request a supplemental publication revisiting these homes and the people who built them. Some of the essays do in fact do that although I found myself sometimes wishing to know more about the people doing the building. I can certainly say that it was pleasant to feel that there is – and really always has been – a community of people from all walks of life, from all over the planet, answering the fundamental questions of What is a good shelter and What is a home in their own, “defiantly homemade” way. That this book has been compiled is a real treat for those of us who sometimes feel out of place or vastly outnumbered in our opinions regarding what we seek in our housing requirements. Sometimes it’s just a nice thing to read about creative, ingenious people that are just like anyone else out there. Maybe they’re a little further along the path than we might be in our own personal building projects, but there’s much to be said for trailblazers.

This is a book I highly recommend. It will appeal to builders, building enthusiasts, small home and tiny home champions, fans of alternative building and ecological building & living, people considering downsizing or wanting to build a smaller space for whatever reason, as well as homegrown DIY’s that love an engaging read that makes us feel like we’re all are part of the solution. All ages will enjoy this one too. I can confidently recommend this book to all sorts of people as well because no one “style” is represented; from earthy to modern, it’s all in the book. It seems as though every taste is expressed and no judgments are made. There are all sorts of building methods represented; timber frame, stick built, cob, and straw bale all make the pages. From an anthropological perspective, what a great peek inside the minds of so many interesting people this book is. You get a little introduction to lots of cool people who are just going out and simply doing it, and doing well as a result. I found this book a wonderful antidote to the evening news. What a nice way to spend a night…leafing through a compendium of smiling faces and great stories.

I’d like to close this review by saying one other thing. Aside from the great stories and structures, the thing that most strikes me about this book is the particular quality of the smiles on the faces of the builders represented. There’s a giddy sort of excitement in the smiles that I recognize from personal experience. It’s kind of a cross between happy pride, settled hilarity, contentment and exhilaration. I love the smiles in this book. Give this book as a gift – to yourself or others.

Technical details:
Title: Tiny Homes Simple Shelter: Scaling Back in the 21st Century
Author: Lloyd Kahn
Publisher/Year of Publication: Shelter Publications, 2012
ISBN: 978-0936070-52-0
224 pages, 9” x 12”
List Price: $24.95 list price

You can purchase this fantastic book online from Shelter Publications or

Product Review: The Max Burton 6200 Deluxe 1800-Watt Induction Cooktop

max burton.jpg

This stovetop was chosen primarily for space saving features (it’s a single burner) and for portability. We often cook when we travel so we thought this stove would both work for our little kitchen and also be a useful tool when needing a portable stove. The unit is somewhat large for a single burner stove but the sensor in the unit allows this unit to service different sized pots and pans. That for me was a big plus over our little hotplate. That unit was impossible to put a big saute pan on as the outer edges hung over the burner and would never get hot. This unit solves that problem.

While this unit has been a real plus in terms of allowing me to do all the stovetop cooking I need to do in a small space, there are actually a couple drawbacks to it. It’s a noisy unit. The fan in the device comes on every time you use it. You get used to the sound but it’s definitely a force to be reckoned with, kind of like a noisy fan. That’s the big drawback. Secondly, depending on what kind of cookware you use, an induction model can be a drawback in that only ferrous materials will work on it. That means cast iron, enameled or otherwise, and various types of (usually) higher end stainless steel covered cookware. In my case, most of my cookware was compatible with the unit so it wasn’t an issue. If you consider induction, read about whether your current cast of pots and pans will function on it, though. And a word to the would be wise from one who learned…not all stainless steel pots and pans, even expensive ones, work on this unit! And some cheap pans will surprise you. My water bath canner, a simple black enameled model, worked perfectly. So do your homework and rejoice in your accumulated knowledge of pot and pan materials.

Pluses to this unit include that it’s a single burner model that both saves space and also self adjusts to the size of the pan you are using allowing you to efficiently use several sized pots and pans. It’s energy efficient. It heats things super quickly although only requiring a 110 outlet. The burner top cools down almost immediately despite warnings to the contrary. This unit cleans up beautifully and easily. Things do not burn on to the surface of this induction model in the same way that they do on glass top stoves, which is a real plus in my book. My prior experiences trying to clean stuff off a regular glass top stove had me wishing I was substantial enough to pick up and hurl the stove out the nearest window. This unit preserves my mental peace and requires no questionable chemicals to remove residue from its surface. All in all, this has been a good fit for our needs. It’s a compact enough unit and I like the way things cook on it. I expect most induction units would have similar pluses and minuses but overall, I consider this one of the appliances that has been helpful to me in the tiny kitchen!

Product Review: The Steibel Eltron SHC 4 Point of Use Water Heater


The Steibel Eltron SHC 4 Point of Use Water Heater

Used in the FreeShare Tiny House 

Used in the FreeShare Tiny House 

This is the second water heater by Steibel Eltron that we have purchased. Stiebel Eltron is a German company and we used an on demand electric model at our self built home in Maine. They’re great machines by a quality company. When we moved into our tiny home, we needed a small water heating unit and originally went with a Bosch-Ariston GL6, which had very good reviews online. It leaked. It was replaced with another one. It leaked too. The design of the model we had just wasn’t great. We opted to return the bad heater and went back to the German made Stiebel Eltron, but in a (less than) four gallon size that fits underneath our counter tops and supplies us with a perfect amount of very hot water. The Stiebel-Eltron SHC 4 heats rapidly, noiselessly, and has a very sensitive temperature gage that lets you control how hot your water gets. It can get very hot, there are no problems with cold showers. Four gallons sounds like a very small amount of hot water, but the tank reheats in less than half an hour (it has a light that lets you know when it is actively heating). For showering comfort, we combined this water heating unit with an ultra low flow shower head from Bricor (.5 gals/min) and we are able to take nearly 15 minute showers, if we so desire. It’s a great combo and highly recommended. There are no leaks associated with the Steibel Eltron because all the water hook ups are on top of the unit rather than on the side, as with the Bosch unit. It’s also built well (and surprisingly in the EU).

I would recommend this as an area to seriously examine design as water leaks are very demoralizing, particularly if you want to have a hot shower to wash your stress away. The Stiebel Eltron has been a real winner for us in this new application. The 4 gallon unit doesn’t have a tremendous energy demand either, although if you are using a 20 or 30 amp service, like us, you might want to give it its own line of electricity. We originally hooked up the oven and the water heater on the same circuit and had the breaker pop, so we rewired. Just a thought if the situation applies to you!

Product Review: Haier Space-Saving Portable Compact Electronic 1 Cubic Foot Top Load Washer HLP21N


For a unit with an incredibly long name, this is a super small unit with a great deal of ‘oomph’ to it. It fits into our kitchen right next to the refrigerator and underneath the shelving where we keep plates and our oven. It’s top loading and you can actually fit much more than a shirt or two in there. I routinely wash a pair of jeans or two with undies, socks, and a few tee shirts. No problems. The bathroom rug throws it off balance and usually needs to be shaken a bit before it goes through its cycle, but sometimes it does just fine. You can wash a reasonable amount of clothing at a time and what is best of all about this unit is that it functions like most of the HE models that are on the market these days. It spins out a tremendous amount of the washing water. And you can set it to run small, medium or large loads and can also adjust for normal, light, or heavy soil levels/wash times.

The unit is somewhat noisy, but really no more so than a regular front loading washer. It doesn’t bounce around (unless badly overbalanced, and that’s human error rather than machine dysfunction). Clothing comes out clean and well laundered. I do not use a dryer but this particular model comes with a matching dryer. Both units run on a 110, which is very handy for a number of reasons. I really like this washer. I’ve used HE front loading washers at two of the last homes we’ve lived in, one by GE and one by Frigidaire, and liked both. I find this one to be in some senses even better in terms of the amount of water spun out. It’s a great little machine. I would recommend the dryer if you have the space, especially if you don’t have space or the time to air dry. We live in a rainy climate and there are times a dryer would be very handy. So far, this hasn’t been a big problem, but consider your needs when designing.

For air-drying you might consider an accordion-style drying rack for, say, a tiny bathroom or utility room, even a porch. Also, the IKEA octopus is an inexpensive (about $6) way to dry socks, diapers, undies and more.

I would highly recommend Haier’s little washer. We chose it over all-in-one units (the combo washer/dryer) based on an abundance of negative reviews we’ve seen regarding units like that. I don’t have any first hand experience with units that combine both washing and drying, but if you share that concern, this Haier model is another very impressive, very space saving unit. Our unit is completely installed but the unit comes on casters and can actually be wheeled in and out of closets, if needed.

Product Review: The LG Refrigerator #LRBP1031W


Don’t be fooled by the romantic name of this fridge. The LRBP1031W is a fantastic fridge and a small one at that. We really debated refrigerators. We do a huge amount of gardening, so a lot of our food is coming fresh out of the garden. In that sense, we don’t need a huge fridge. We couldn’t fit one in if we wanted to, anyway. On the other hand, we cook from scratch, eat mostly at home, and need a real refrigerator. No matter how much you grow in the garden, a fridge is an important part of the kitchen. A small dorm style unit would have been very space conserving but just wouldn’t have suited our needs. We chose this one after seeing it “in person” at a friend’s beach cabin. It’s tall and narrow with a bottom freezer. The freezer has three deep drawers which are very convenient for stacking and storing. We have a ton of berries in the freezer right now and there’s still room for many other things as the cubic storage seems to really save on space. There’s also a quick freeze drawer at the top where we keep ice packs and ice trays. For ice cream fans (and I only mention this because it’s SO important), the freezer drawer will fit the Kitchen Aid ice cream bowl. You have to tilt and jostle it a bit, but what matters is that in the end, you can store it in there!

The top refrigerator section is spacious. It has three drawers, three shelves and the door has ample space for tall things (including wine bottles), a butter (or whatever) box, egg tray, and little shelves ranged in size for storage of smaller items. I’ve found this a great size fridge. It’s not too small for anything. And the unit itself is not humongous, so we are able to tuck it into the kitchen and it really works!

Another thing that I love about this refrigerator is that it’s incredibly quiet. If, for you, the sound of a humming refrigerator is at all annoying, imagine what a problem this could become in a very small space. The LG is truly quiet. I rarely if ever register its sound. I love this refrigerator. Great purchase.

If I can also plug a bit for LG’s customer service, I feel compelled to do so. When we unpacked this refrigerator and installed it, the seal around the door had been wrinkled in transit and wasn’t sealing the fridge door. After waiting a week or so without success to see if the seal would uncoil itself and work properly, we called LG to ask them to please send a new seal out to us. This they could not do. However, they sent a whole new refrigeratorout to us, no charge, no questions asked! They merely asked us to send in the sticker on the side of the unit with the model and serial numbers. We thought the response was excessive but obviously more than satisfactory. I would have preferred, truthfully, that they just send the seal, since it was all that was required, but in terms of good responses and willingness to fix a mistake, LG really impressed me with their commitment to customer service. Having done a fair amount of building and remodeling over the years has given me a certain (over) familiarity with the process of sometimes needing manufacturers to honor warranties. LG is far and away the most honorable company I’ve worked with in that regard. I’ll definitely recommend them.

All told, the refrigerator speaks for itself, anyway: It’s quiet, very well designed, attractive, and super functional, all in a smaller package that doesn’t skimp on quality. This is a great refrigerator. By the way, it comes in white and a stainless style finish.

Product Review: The Breville Smart Oven


I actually got this deluxe toaster oven after three failed attempts at a Kitchen Aid toaster. The Kitchen Aid toaster was the first “fancy” toaster I ever bought, and it was terrible. It broke three times, from the same defect, in a three year period and after the third replacement, I decided to let Kitchen Aid keep its overpriced, defective toaster and opted to try something new. Knowing we were about to move into a smaller space and being keen on having the ability to use a smaller oven for smaller portions anyway, I looked into toaster ovens and eventually settled on the Breville Smart Oven. It toasts bread (and bagels!), roasts, broils, bakes, has a pizza setting and a few other settings as well. You can easily adjust all the functions and it has a convection setting that can be turned off and on depending on what you are baking. I am an avid cook and baker and bake all my own breads.I was walking the other day and started thinking about how homes listed for sale are described in print. I was specifically thinking of the way that you sometimes see homes listed as including Five Appliances. (Sometimes you see numeric variations on this theme, but five is a number I see a lot). Anyway, I began thinking about our home and what appliances it contains…since it’s a home under 200 square feet, I was considering which of our appliances have made it a resoundingly pleasant 200 square feet to live in. To celebrate the end of our first year in our little house, which coincides nicely with the end of 2011, I’ve compiled a list of the Five Appliances that I think have contributed to a successful year living in a small space. If you are considering outfitting a small space, be it house, travel trailer, in-law apartment, or just a smaller sized kitchen, I hope you will find this useful.

We also routinely bake pizzas in this oven. The pizza function is nice. I have a thirteen inch baking stone that I like to bake pizzas on and this stone does fit into this oven. Barely, but it does if I want it to, and the door closes fully. Wow. That’s amazing! You can also choose to bake on the pizza pan that comes included with the oven. The pizza setting includes subsettings for frozen or fresh dough/pizzas and has an inbuilt time and temperature suggestion for each variety that you can easily adjust according to your own preferences.My biggest concern about moving into a small space was being limited to a large toaster oven for all my baking needs. But I’ve been really pleasantly surprised by the Breville. I can fit two two pound loaves of sourdough bread into the oven at a time to bake (though they come out more perfectly shaped when I cook them one at a time). The oven can hold 450 degrees beautifully, and while the baking space is indeed snug for two big loaves, they bake evenly and turn out beautifully. There’s no steam injection, but tossing a bit of water in the base works well to give me a lovely, caramelized crust and I’ve been really happy with the way this oven has performed.

Broiling works beautifully as does baking and roasting. The bagel setting I have not used, but I use the toast setting every day. I like that you can choose to toast 2-6 slices at a range of darkness, depending on what you like. You can adjust the oven rack to various heights inside the oven, which is handy if you are baking bread or other tall items like whole squash. I can’t say much against this little workhorse. It’s much more pricey than a toaster oven, but in this case, you aren’t buying a toaster oven so much as a small oven. This has been an excellent investment. It functions beautifully on every setting, it’s quiet and small and attractive with a stainless finish. It’s sturdily built and in a year and a half of at least once daily usage, I haven’t had a single problem with the machine.

I give this gem a five star rating. I think the Breville Smart Oven would suit a variety of people’s needs and can’t recommend it highly enough.