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Small is Subjective: 10 Rules for the Small House Builder

Design PhilosophyTHE small HOUSE CATALOG
Small is a subjective.

Small is a subjective.

1. Small is subjective. Build what makes sense.

2. Be frugal. Being frugal means being modest not a cheapskate. Stay away from subpar materials. Be willing to pay for quality and save money by limiting your demands. 

3. Reuse the right stuff. Salvaged materials can be great or utter garbage. Reuse materials that will enjoy and deserve a useful, long life. Don't use materials just because they're repurposed or inexpensive. Example: You're not doing anyone a favor by installing old, leaky windows and doors.

4. The construction industry has an embarrassing history of approving and subsequently banning products eventually shown to be toxic or grossly subpar. Most prefabricated goods are loaded with glues and other chemicals and in general won't last as long as the traditional materials they're intended to replace. They also often require intensive energy to manufacture and ship. Not all prefabricated products are equal. Some are worthy, most are not. Investigate your materials and know what you're putting into your house - and ultimately your body.

5. When possible use local materials if they're of good quality.

6. When needed hire local contractors if they do good work.

7. Create beauty! Design is one of the most important factors when it comes to sustainability. People are more likely to care for and preserve a house built with care and attention to detail.

8. Build efficiently and build to perform efficiently. If possible, have your work tested to be sure you're achieving your goals. Verification, which tests actual performance, beats any certified checklist. Keep in mind that many certification programs, including the much touted LEED, don't even test performance! Invest potential certification money directly into your project and do good work.

9. Use the least (and as few) toxic materials as possible. 

10. Reject much of what passes for quality construction and design.

Shawn A. DehnerTHE small HOUSE CATALOG


10 simple ways to make a good little house even better

Design PhilosophyShawn A. Dehner14 Comments

Small houses are great. They can be comfortable, cost effective, energy efficient, highly valued, and attractive. However, many could be built much better simply by considering a few things before starting.

Here are 10 things to consider:


1. Build with Wood

Despite what many advertisers would have us think, wood is a sensible, natural, renewable resource. I've even had people email me criticizing the use of wood at all. A contrario! Wood is strong, manages high wind and earthquakes very well, is inexpensive, widely available, often locally harvested and milled, and has been successfully utilized by homeowners and professionals alike for building long-lasting, highly-efficient, attractive housing for centuries

Wood has less embodied energy than concrete, bricks, aerated blocks, steel, plastics (vinyl, e.g.) and most other construction materials. Wood can even be easily modified and recycled.

  • Wood is sustainable.
  • Wood is green.
  • Wood is strong.

So there.

2. Put your house on a slab. 

If soils permit, consider building your house on a super-insulated slab. Yes, yes, I know, I know, slabs have been seen as a crummy, poor man's foundation for years. No more! I'm not a Passive House certified designer but I can confidently tell you that some of the most energy-efficient houses in the world are being built on insulated slab foundations. Do some investigation.

3. Invest in good windows

People often tell me - with notable pride - about the used windows they intend to put in their houses. My advice is almost always, Don't do it!

But why not? It's reusable. Aren't you concerned about the environment? Yes I am and if you are too please take my advice

Ask yourself why those free windows were given away (i.e. thrown away) in the first place. I can probably answer that for you: they don't perform well and leak air. They're junk because they're old, likely not built well in the first place, or even worse, both.

Used windows will almost assuredly underperform even new, inexpensive, low end vinyl windows. Using recycled materials is a great idea, don't let my sarcasm discourage you from creative recycling. Just reuse good materials because using lame materials, recycled or not, is really a terrible idea.

If you need a third reason, used windows - no matter how cool they look - are unlikely to meet code anyway so the point is probably moot. 

4. Annie, get your caulk gun

Buy a case of quality, non-toxic, zero-VOC caulk and lay a bead along every seam in your house before you close up the walls. Caulk:

  1. the plates at the subfloor
  2. sister joists
  3. built-up posts
  4. adjacent studs
  5. around windows and doors. 

Caulk every narrow path to the exterior that I missed in that list.

5. Go tankless

An electric tankless water heater is one of the best ways to obtain hot water in a small house. Don't believe me? It's what they use in Europe, Japan, and other places where space is at a premium. I've used them in Maine and Washington and know they're inexpensive to run and work in cold climates.  

If you've got space - or live in a desert - also consider a solar powered heat-pump hot water heater. But an on-demand electric, propane or natural gas water heater is a wise choice.

6. Reduce thermal bridging in walls, floors & ceilings; or, Oh my God, what does that mean?!

An insulating material's resistance to conductive heat flow is measured and rated in terms of its thermal resistance or R-value - the higher the R-value, the greater the effectiveness of the insulation.

Here is an example of a code mandated R-value for a house:

  • Floors: R-30
  • Walls: R-21
  • Ceilings: R-49

In my region those minimums must be met in the cavities between the joists, studs and rafters of a house with some sort of insulation, typically fiberglass, spray-foam, rockwool, cellulose, et al. That's okay. But consider that wood has only an R-value of about 1.25 per inch, which means every stud, joist and rafter in your house has a VERY low resistance to heat migration. All that lumber is essentially a bridge for heat loss - or heat gain depending on the season. There are a lot of studs, headers, trimmers, rafters and joists in even a small house.

So what should we do?

I've written a little about the Scandinavian-style walls I build up here in the Pacific Northwest but you can also read more extensive experiences and wall design ideas from Lami Designs

For years we've focused on stopping air-leakage in North America and that is a great idea but we can do way better - and guess what, it's easy! In North America we're not doing nearly as much as we could to create energy-efficient housing. So, make your house better by air-sealing it and reducing conductive heat loss.

7. Super-insulate

This goes with point number six. Because insulating itself is such a widely advertised good thing to do it baffles me to see people - guilty builders included - often cutting costs in this department. Crappy insulation? It's ridiculous; it's dumb; don't buy it. Insulation is not a place to cut costs. In the scope of construction it's inexpensive! It even pays you back by reducing heating and cooling loads and adding comfort to your house. Why wouldn't you insulate properly? Ignore code too. Well, don't ignore it - improve upon it because it's not very impressive.

8. Avoid urea-formaldehyde glues and other toxic materials

The construction industry has an abysmal history of approving allegedly safe building materials only to outlaw them down the road after they've been shown to be hazardous. As a general practice, not a hard and fast rule, be suspect of engineered building materials, especially ones using urea-formaldehyde glues and binders. Here's a good example: don't build cabinets from interior grade plywoods that use this type of glue and reject engineered flooring that uses it as a binder (note: most interior sheet goods and bamboo floorings use urea-formaldehyde binders and Lumber Liquidators nearly went bankrupt by not regulating it properly).

Also choose low- or zero-VOC, non-toxic paints, stains and finishes for your house or project. And keep in mind many low-VOC products still contain carcinogenic components; non-toxic is also important.

9. Install a heat recovery ventilator

A HRV (heat recovery ventilator) removes stale moist air from inside a house via a simple inexpensive mechanical fan and vent system. An HRV goes one step further than a standard ventilation fan though; it brings in fresh air in an exchange. Air comes in to replace the air going out. And it gets even better: the warm outgoing air is used to warm up the colder incoming air thus reducing heat loss!

Surely, this sort of thing costs a fortune, right? Well, sure it does. But it doesn't have to.

After I got a $5,000 bid for materials from an admittedly good HRV manufacturer I decided it wasn't worth the cost and put together my own fantastic system using a Broan HRV and aluminum ducting sealed with UL 181B-FX foil tape. The system cost me around $800, took only two days to install, and works great.

Removing moisture and VOCs is an important leap forward in modern housing so I recommend some sort of air-exchange system. 

In warm climates a simple air-exchange system can be useful.

10. Build what makes sense

Build what makes sense and build it well. That's the smart thing to do. Let the alleged know it alls - who typically don't design or build anyway - calculate the virtues of their own square footage. Definitely don't build small for the sake of some arbitrary, made up notion of what small is. There's so much noise and baloney about what a small or tiny house should be that it's best to simply ignore the debate. Be modest and build a good house.

Afterword: There are so many ways for all of us to improve what we do and we can learn a great a deal from each other. However, I also recommend taking ideas like the tiny house movement or the small house movement - or any movement at all in fact - with a serious grain of salt. Movements have a terrible tendency to lose their way. Give up the idea of any one size fits all, perfect house design or building material. Be a part of the conversation and be open to new ideas. If we're successful we'll continue to innovate and make ourselves and our houses better still.

Are we seeing a mainstreaming of smaller homes?

Jamie's MusingsJamieComment

Shawn and I built a house in Maine together that was so much bigger than we expected and needed that it was ultimately one of the reasons we ended up selling it. While it was on the market, a frequent comment we heard was that it was "too small" which completely amazed us, particularly given that at the time, fuel prices were very high and it seemed an incredibly big house to us. 

Since having that experience, we always consider size in our drafting, particularly since we have moved around and resale is something we now always take into consideration when building. We want to build small homes but also keep in mind that homes are a big investment/money sink for all of us. If you need or want to sell the home, it is nice to think that you could get your investment back out of it. 

Our first house building project was a trial by fire experience. Belfast, ME (Fine Homebuilding, 2009)

Our first house building project was a trial by fire experience. Belfast, ME (Fine Homebuilding, 2009)

Has concern about resale value ever prevented you from building or buying a small house? 

In talking with realtors over the last decade, we've noticed that rather than hearing about how big a house needs to be to be attractive to buyers, we're hearing realtors actually blow off the idea of a house being less marketable due to a smaller size - citing that people's tastes and needs are changing. Retirees don't need as much space and seem to be showing themselves more averse to taking on huge houses. Young couples, too, can fit this category. The size of families has grown smaller so that small houses can easily accommodate a family with children. Many people don't have children. This is a real sea change. Perhaps this trend holds more true in crowded urban areas where space is at a premium or in retirement areas where many buyers are not necessarily looking to take on a humongous house responsibility. But then again, we might also be seeing long term trends transition to smaller houses being seen as highly attractive for their own merits, rather than being seen as "too small" or "not big enough."  

Alexis Givens Interview


This month we did an interview for the Alexis Givens design blog! Alexis Givens has worked as editor for a variety of publications, including Redbook, Martha Stewart Living, O At Home, House Beautiful, and Real Simple. Read the two-part interview and check out her awesome design ideas! Read the interview here:

Alexis Givens Interview

Alexis Givens Interview

“Wow, this place is really spacious!”

Jamie's MusingsJamieComment

Do you think this comment was made by a visitor to the Palace at Versailles or a weekend visitor to the Beekeeper’s Bungalow? Well, let’s just say it could’ve been overheard at either location…

We are really making progress on the house and are starting to anticipate moving in sometime in late spring. Interior walls are built, plumbing is being roughed in as I write, and the stairs are built and are awaiting the finishing details. The insulation is also done and the house is staying toasty warm with just a tiny space heater at this point. We are impressed with this last bit for a couple of reasons: First, when we completed our energy audit for the county while applying for our building permit, it looked as though a single 400W electric heater could do the trick in terms of heating – the entire house that is. While it seemed hard to believe at the time, it is now being borne out. Secondly, we used a new (to us) product, the Knauf EcoBatt, for insulation. We did the entire insulation project on our own, employing caulk and foam for air sealing and this high density insulation to bring our walls, ceiling and subfloor insulation up to and beyond current code requirements (we achieved cavity values of R-21 walls, R-38 floor, R-38 cathedral ceiling). We’re so pleased that the product is working so well. In addition, the Knauf insulation is easy to work with, doesn’t smell bad, is free of toxic binders and dyes, and isn’t even all that itchy!

Knauf Eco Batts (self-installed) in second floor attic bays. Air sealing with Chem Link non toxic caulk and spray foam.

Knauf Eco Batts (self-installed) in second floor attic bays. Air sealing with Chem Link non toxic caulk and spray foam.

Plenty of large spaces are insensibly (and strangely) laid out, feeling cramped, small and inefficient. You can also have large spaces that seem plenty large but don’t actually offer up much in the way of functional space to the inhabitant. This particular design flaw creates a problem for people in that they can come to believe that you need even more square footage to gain function and comfort. Many houses are designed BIG as a way to avoid conflicts with code. However, what people really need (and want) are better layouts and good balance, which can take place in both large and small spaces. Huge vaulted ceilings in a large house tend to be enormous wasted spaces that might make a place seem airy but also inadequate. A small home can suffer, too, I think, if it becomes too much like a low, small den. A little bit of vault can be a great antidote to this sense, along with well placed fixtures and maximized space usage. All of us, I would imagine, have lived in small spaces that seem highly functional, small spaces that seem totally dysfunctional, large spaces that seem to somehow not provide appropriate space, or large spaces that seem cavernous and just lack something despite obviously having plenty of square feet. Balance is key, whether you prefer a large or a small home, or whatever gradient in between.So, all this progress is making the house seem like it’s nearing completion. Of course there’s a lot more to do, but we’re at the point where the rooms are obvious to visitors and a sense of comfort is heightened. People are dropping by with interest and we have noticed something interesting about our visitors: most of them immediately comment, “This is really spacious” or “It doesn’t feel small at all” or “It’s so much bigger than it looks!” We intentionally designed a house that wasn’t extra large or even “large” by current standards. This house, in fact, seems like it could be a little smaller and still be plenty comfortable (for our needs). We’ve noted that other people used to much larger spaces are immediately impressed by how “large” the house feels. This is very interesting, especially to me, in that it makes me consider what it is about spaces that makes a small one seem larger or a large one seem smaller. This isn’t the newest of news, and it’s not a revelation, but it’s mostly, I think, an issue of layout.

A grand staircase at Versailles. Our own grand staircase is slightly more compact.

A grand staircase at Versailles. Our own grand staircase is slightly more compact.

It will be fun to post more pictures as they come and we get ever closer to finishing work.I think Shawn and I have reached the point where we are able to design for ourselves (and others – thank you to our customers and interested followers out there!) small spaces that achieve maximum function by being thoughtfully laid out. Obviously, a modest space is never going to be laid out in a way that causes it to resemble the Palace at Versailles; yet, a small house can definitely, as our visitors attest, be laid out in a way that makes it seem not cramped, small and stingy on space – and even cozy, comfortable and functional with room for all that we need in our lives.

Thanks for coming along!

The Scandinavian Wall

Design PhilosophyShawn A. Dehner

The Scandinavian wall design enables a single piece of insulation (e.g. a fiberglass batt) to be fully inserted into a stud bay without being interrupted - and therefore compromised - by electrical wiring, gang boxes, plumbing and other systems. It also allows a vapor retarder or barrier to be installed continuously, without excessive puncturing, over the studs and insulation. The results are walls that greatly reduce air and moisture migration.

News Update for Autumn (2012)


We closed out the summer with a fun giveaway of a great product. Shauna Carritt Gerke won a Bricor B100 Max ultra low flow shower head by leaving a comment sharing how she conserves water – we hope that the showerhead will be a water saving pleasure for her and her family. We enjoyed the many, many comments we received and suppose the biggest regret with any giveaway is that you can only giveaway one item and there are always so many great entries. It may be a partial remedy to share that we will be hosting one additional showerhead giveaway in the next few months. It won’t be until 2013, but we’ll be using another Bricor showerhead product when finishing the main floor bathroom and will review this new product as well as host another giveaway. Hope we will get many more interesting comments at that time!

What is Chosen, Flourishes

Jamie's MusingsJamieComment

Our neighbors are Canadian and found an article about small/tiny houses in their Sunday paper magazine insert. They brought it right over and prefaced giving it to us by explaining that it was quite amusing to them and that the author had a very sarcastic style of writing. I didn’t think much about it at the time and when they actually brought the article over (it was featured in BC Homes magazine, or something like that in title) I didn’t read it right away. When I finally got around to it, I found that it was quite unlike I expected.

Small and tiny houses are in the news a lot right now. For whatever reason that trends begin (and I think anyone who’s been conscious for the last several years is pretty well aware of what might be fueling this particular consciousness shift) the interest in downsizing, simpler living, small houses, efficient use of space, etc. is definitely big news right now. So I really expected this article would be something addressing that growing trend. I was very surprised to read an extremely sarcastic approach to the small house movement that I’d never even considered before.

Here’s why.

The fellow writing the article was singular in his approach to the small house movement in that he was very irritated and angry about it. He suggested that the way to get into the small house movement was to adopt a series of lifestyle changes. An example. He suggested that to live in a small or tiny house you would need to divorce your spouse (or otherwise dispose of them, he wasn’t specific) and get rid of your kids. Along with this you presumably would need to vacate from your life anything that gives you pleasure or offers happiness to yourself or others. And you won’t be able to entertain friends. The article didn’t make it clear if you could keep the friends you had. Are you grinning yet?  I wasn’t at first, but then I snapped out of my grouchiness and thought about how inconceivable it was to me that someone would approach the trend of downsizing in such a fashion. I felt like I didn’t live on the same planet as this guy…like he wasn’t representing me or anyone I knew that was interested in the small house movement!

I haven’t seen any evidence in our boards or communications via email or telephone or in person chats that lead me to believe that people who choose to downsize to small or tiny spaces are antisocial or feel the need to eliminate people and other animals from their lives due to the size of their home. Shawn and I don’t do big dinner entertaining in our 160 square feet, but we do have people over for tea and frequently (sometimes too frequently, when you’re trying to put a roof on!) have drop in visitors. The size of the house hasn’t caused any problems. We’re still happily married. I’ve heard countless stories from people who have raised their families in tiny homes (well, that’s no surprise since several decades ago every family was raised in “tiny” homes and of course, families used to be bigger!).

I’m here to tell you from my experience (and I probably don’t need to) that the small house movement is about much more than getting rid of everything one values in order to live on the cheap. In fact, I would say that the exact opposite is true. Any comments out there? I have comments open on Facebook and for WordPress members. If you are considering downsizing, what about it is appealing to you, what draws you in??  If you are already living in a tiny or small space, what do you love about it?  I love (most) being able to afford my home and therefore have a lot more freedom to pursue gardening, beekeeping and walking with my husband. I don’t feel like I’ve had to give anything up that isn’t in some way re-creatable (although I do think that our couch is incredibly uncomfortable…) Do you think a special temperament is required to “live small?”  I’m curious to hear…feel free to respond!I won’t go on too much further with this entry as I am sore in the wrist from rafter painting (it’s a good kind of tired though) and because I trust that everyone reading this can pretty much guess how weird an experience it was to read a vitriolic piece on living in small spaces. Usually it’s exactly the opposite. All I will say is that the key to happiness seems to be to follow your heart, as much as you can given your personal circumstances. I haven’t met too many people following this rule that aren’t basically satisfied – which is not to say permanently elated. There are always going to be a smattering of folks out there that view change and new ideas and trends as somehow threatening. There are always going to be people who seem to feel that if some percentage of the population opts to enjoy downsizing and living in a smaller space (of their choosing – could be 100 square feet, could be 1000!) that those people must be (or are about to become) deprived, depraved, ascetic, or otherwise permanently damaged by the experience. Maybe it’s easier to think this way than to just accept that tastes and trends change and that not everyone anywhere is ever going to think or live exactly the same way.

Measure Twice, Cut (the check) Once

Jamie's MusingsJamieComment

Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple. – Dr. Seuss

Let me explain:When mentioning you’re building or considering building a house have you ever had people tell you that it’s cheaper to build a big house rather than a small one – or something along those lines?  I’ve heard this before – from professionals – and I’ve never understood why someone would say something like this (other than to get you to spend more money). Usually, it’s phrased something along the lines of: If you’re already spending the money to build then you might as well make everything bigger because it’s cheaper to finish a larger space than it is a smaller one.” This is a confusing suggestion – some might even say crafty one depending on who’s making it – and I’m here to tell you this piece of advice is unlikely to save you any money.

All things being equal, a small and large house will contain similar features. For instance, each one will have a kitchen with appliances, like a refrigerator, range, dishwasher, etc. If you divide the cost of these appliances by the square footage of the small house and the square footage of a large house, well, sure enough, you’ll discover that the appliances cost less per square foot in the larger house. If you do this with all the elements of the smaller house, you’ll also find that it costs more per square foot to build than the larger one. But this does not mean that the larger house is less expensive to build!

We finished the project just fine, but had some amusing experiences along the way. When it came time to pay for the extra flooring, for example, we found it a real benefit to have a truck to sell!  We had a trusty Ford F-150 with a slant six engine that ran like a beautiful thing. We used it to haul materials, tools, and to function as a shed for the whole course of the building process. It was a great truck. Shawn loved it, especially. But it was surprisingly easy to sell, even for Shawn, when the time came to pay for the flooring (or persist on plywood subfloor)!  We had to cobble together a couple of other non traditional payment methods for some other finishing work projects and we actually learned some strong skills as a result of having our budget stretched so much as a result of the bigger footprint. Drywall we were terrified of doing, really believing it to be a project best undertaken by the “experts.”  It’s amazing what requesting a bid for work can do to your skillset sometimes!  We got the bids back on the project and discovered that we were the experts we had been waiting for. We got really good at drywalling!  It’s hard work and we aren’t as fast (by a loooooong shot) as the pros, but we got the work done, learned a lot, and the end result fit our budget. Likewise with many other things.When we moved to Maine and built our first house, it turned out to be bigger than we’d expected. Admittedly, part of the reason it was bigger than expected was related to our new status as designer-builders. But a large part of it was related to our trying to avoid building “too small.”  Without even knowing how things would look, without even laying out stakes, we were already concerned that our footprint would be “too small.” Despite the worries we had about having enough room in the house for ourselves and potential resale, in the end, the house was definitely too large! And the larger space translated quite elegantly into more cost for finishing, etc. (now there’s an equation that DID work!).

For this post, I merely want to mention that a potentially more expensive higher quality product is affordable to us because the scale of our project doesn’t require a million dollar budget to accomplish.It’s really a pleasure to start a building project when you can foresee your budget clearly. Small designs truly facilitate this. Though we have designed a small house, in fact, it still seems large! But it looks “right” to us size-wise, and it’s going to be manageable from so many perspectives. We’ll be doing the work entirely ourselves – from sill plates to the roof – with some help from friends raising walls here and there. We know our budget and we don’t expect any big surprises, though we’ve of course allotted a small allowance (10%) for things unforeseen. But the extras won’t have to cover material for hundreds or thousands of square feet in size. We can use the materials we want because it’s not such a huge project that some splurges in material are impossible to afford. For example, we are choosing to insulate with sheep wool sourced from Oregon Shepherd. We’ve always been interested in wool as an insulator and now we have a home to try it out on. On our first house, it would be way too expensive for our personal budget. But with our design, it’s affordable, and in fact only a little more expensive than using an alternative we weren’t too crazy about. By the way, we’ll be updating the blog with a couple of posts specifically about our experiences with Oregon Shepherd and a more in depth exploration of why we chose it, so stay tuned.

To me, small is beautiful. It’s been said before, it’s going to be said forever, at least by some of us. Small houses give people the ability to handle building projects on their own, finish projects in a reasonable time, make the building project financially attainable for more people, and allow for the incorporation of the quality things you’d most like to see and experience in a home. And if you exceed your budget while building a small house, you probably won’t have to sell your truck in order to cover the gap (I think these are great pluses, and not just because we miss seeing our big green truck and are sometimes humorously hauling materials in a compact sedan!).

I probably could have written this blog entry in a more concise fashion. If I were to rewrite it, it would read as follows:  Some people (even people who love you and are excited for you) may warn you, with something akin to dread in their voices, not to build “too small.” Others may make baffling statements that sound like bad math equations (which they are): “If you’re going to build, you might as well build BIG because it’s cheaper in the long run.” My advice: trust yourself first and build what feels right to you.

Take care of that, and the rest will follow, from mudsills to ridgeline.

A Psychology of Cozy

Jamie's MusingsJamieComment

It can be difficult to write sometimes. I don’t consider myself especially prone to writer’s block, but I must admit that as we wait for our permitting process to be completed through the county building department and as spring warms things up and wakes up the garden, I have had quite a case of writer’s block, and I haven’t treated it with anything but time.

It’s interesting to me that even though we have designed and are anxiously awaiting the chance to build a truly small home, we have still made it a priority to design little spaces within a little space. Built in cupboards and cabinets, a little closet tucked under the stairs, and an attic style bedroom with sloped ceilings were all design pluses, to our mind. Our friend mentioned that even in bedroom furnishings one can see evidence of an almost primal desire to have a small, safe, cocoon like area to cozy up in – think of canopy beds, for example. I hadn’t in the past, but how true this is. I have heard a dozen times from a dozen different people from all walks of like the oft repeated story of loving some tiny nook or tiny part of their childhood home…perhaps we often want to recreate spaces like this and perhaps that desire is part of what makes me and many others so fond of small houses, tiny houses, caravans, trailers, boats, etc.In Maine, one of my very favorite spaces in our house was the attic (and the attic space, we both agree, would have handily satisfied quite a few of our childhood fantasies about living in a clean and cozy attic). I liked the attic quite a bit…it was nice to be up high but also in a space that snuggled down around one thanks to the ceiling slope. I also liked the neat little cupboard/closet we built under the stairs. It was a perfect linen closet and storage for vacuum as well as satisfying in that it cleverly used space while being attractive to look at. It was, in many senses, a tribute to our favorite things about old New England houses. Our greatest compliment of the space was when Shawn’s late grandmother, one of our truest role models, mentioned, “Oh, I really like that. There was one just like it in my grandmother’s house in Haverill (Massachusetts).”Several days ago, however, we had a serendipitous encounter with a friend who said something about small spaces that was somewhat similar to something a woman recently wrote about The Beekeeper’s Bungalow on her blog (read Small Space Living HQ) a few weeks ago. Both comments had to do with growing up – or currently living in – larger spaces but recognizing a genuine affinity for small, cozy spaces. I could instantly relate to both these sentiments. And both of them got me thinking and eventually resulted in the writing of this article. I also grew up in a large home with lots of “extra” rooms that were not used often, like a formal dining room, a den, and what we dubbed ‘the toy room’ that my parents must have hoped we kids would go into regularly and give them peace and quiet. There was also a spare bedroom. And a full basement. In some senses, it was a lonely design for a home, being so large in comparison to the size of our family. I clearly remember that some of my favorite places to play in the house were small. For one, I had a strong fondness for making forts and houses in the lower level kitchen cupboards, which could be problematic during the dinner preparation hour. There was another space, a little scarier, down in the basement under the stairs. While the basement wasn’t finished and as a small child I could sometimes convince myself too surely that it was inhabited by ghosts, I still loved the mysterious sloped roof and walled off secrecy of this under the stairs space. It made for a great play space when my little brother was around to bolster my confidence and offset my overactive imagination.

I’m also impressed at how well small spaces can work, especially when we are flexible in terms of looking at them according to our own needs. One person mentioned on her blog that if she were to build 

 model, she would use the upper floor not as a master suite, but as a space for her three daughters to make their abode. What Shawn and I envision as the upstairs reading nook in her mind became a perfect space for the girls to have their toys and to while away many a day playing under the roofline, lost in their imaginary play-worlds. I really enjoyed reading this because it made me realize that it’s this personal freedom of imagination that really turns houses into homes and also makes small spaces work well for all kinds of people. Many parents don’t require huge bedroom spaces. In fact, this is what our friend Margot told us. She doesn’t prefer large bedrooms in particular because they don’t provide the cozy, comforting cocoon quality that small ones do. Both our friend and the woman writing in her blog (as well as myself) actually grew up in very large homes. That seems to indicate that living in a big space is not something that one becomes accustomed to and can never live without. Who would think that someone who grew up in a 5200 square foot home would even consider a two bedroom home under 750 square feet to raise her three daughters in?  Well, it’s not that uncommon, really. I realize that after the last couple of weeks. I might have thought so once, but once you get conversations going or do a little reading, you realize how much a part of our psychology as well as our personal tastes a preference for small and inviting spaces might be. That’s not to say that everyone on the planet wants to live in a small space. There’s lots of examples of big houses out there, too, and obviously there are people who prefer big spacious rooms and houses. But it’s still a lot of fun to me to hear the flip side of the coin.

Bee Hives & Bungalows

Jamie's MusingsJamieComment

The following entry deals a little bit with beekeeping. I am a beekeeper with a couple of years experience now, which is to say that I am at last learning to let the bees explain things to me and that I have years of learning ahead of me. What has me thinking about bees is that it’s spring, everything is blooming, and all three of my colonies survived the winter without chemicals and are thriving right now. It’s a wonderful thing to see!  I’m also currently putting together some extra hive bodies, which are basically the houses that the bees live in. They are the rectangular stackable boxes you see comprising the typical Langstroth hives around this country. The colonies build their combs inside these boxes to live, raise brood and store food in on frames that can be lifted out (by the annoying beekeeper).  So what does this have to do with small houses? I’ve been thinking about a couple of seemingly very different things, they correspond, but analogously. I’m a lover of analogy and metaphor though and, as with certain photographs, the proper comparison of apparently disparate ideas can often be powerful and dynamic. Now, I won’t claim that the following is going to be powerful and dynamic but I hope at least to provide something thought provoking. 

Trouble Brewing

Me, building frames and hive boxes in spring!

Me, building frames and hive boxes in spring!

There’s been plenty of news about Colony Collapse Disorder in the beekeeping world and the world in general. There’s a lot of speculation about the causes, but if you ask me and plenty of others, it boils down to inappropriate human behavior on multiple levels (agricultural chemicals, GMO crops with built in chemicals, overuse of bees in massive monocrop pollination, diseases that the bees are still gaining resistance to…) But an interesting idea that has gained some steam is also related to house size.

The analogies: when it comes to housing, size really can mean something for both bees & humans

Over the years, beekeepers have used pre-formed sheets of foundation (generally wax or plastic based) on frames inside hives to help the bees (and ourselves) along in drawing out comb. What’s interesting is that the size of these cells has changed. The width of naturally drawn honeybee cells is about 4.9 mm.  This particular size is chosen for reasons we do not fully understand, but the size has some influence on how long an egg takes to develop into a full sized honeybee. We made the cells slightly larger. I think that the typical new cell size might be around 5.2mm. (I should reference this, but I’m too much in flow to get up and check, so bear with me.) What’s important is that the cells are slightly larger now on this manufactured, human printed foundation. In some way, they are easier for us to use, but there’s been an interesting ramification (unintended of course): there’s a particular mite infesting honey bees called Varroa Destructor. It is an aptly named pest. This mite breeds on developing larvae in the hive and can basically destroy colonies and over the last 20 years has methodically done so, making beekeeping a whole different world today than it was in the “old days.” 

Why house and cell sizes matter to honey bees 

Interestingly, a larger cell size has given the mites a slight advantage in that the timing of the mite’s reproductive cycle is benefited by allowing it slightly longer to feed on developing bee brood, which take slightly longer to reach maturity due to the larger cell size. The change may be tiny, but it’s had huge impacts, both unforeseen and not fully understood. There is some fascinating work being done right now by beekeepers who are returning to smaller sized cells called natural cell size or small cell size and finding benefits in terms of overall honeybee health.

What I wonder is,

  • Could our drift toward much larger houses have impacts that we are only just starting to understand the dimensions of?  Sure, we aren’t infested with mites as a result of the increase in the size of our homes, but are there other, insidious damages taking place?  Mites actually damage and kill developing bees and adult bees by sucking them dry, basically.
  • Could our extra large homes be doing the same?  They are energy intensive to build and maintain and housing in general is more expensive than it ever used to be. In many places, that is the case despite the housing bubble bursting.
  • We have to spend a lot of money to keep these houses going. Consider property taxes; those are calculated primarily by square footage. All of this translates to a lot of our time going toward making the money to keep them up. 

Okay, so there’s all sorts of possibilities to explore here. Evidence is inconclusive, in fact, this is only my translation of some random thoughts I’ve had while thinking about small houses (we are in the midst of designing one for building this summer!) and also assembling bee boxes in preparation for splitting my hives later this spring.  But I think there’s a vaguely analogous idea to express and explore here. I hope you will, too. And now I’d better get back to assembling some small homes!

For more about beekeeping, check out The Practical Beekeeper and  The World of Beekeeping websites. 


Read more about how I started my first honey bee colonies in The World Of Beekeeping!

When I started my first hives my bees needed to be flown into our isolated town! 

When I started my first hives my bees needed to be flown into our isolated town! 

Denmark: Lessons From a Very Small Country (Logstrup, Viborg & Copenhagen, Denmark)


Last month Shawn and I visited the beautiful country of Denmark where he participated in a summer exchange program 25 years ago! He lived with a wonderful family in Viborg, a city roughly in the center of the Jutland Peninsula. Over the years, the families have stayed in contact and when we decided to make our first trip to Europe together, Denmark was high on our priority list to renew our acquaintances with all the members of the family, old and new.

I should just say in short that this visit to Denmark was a wonderful one. Travel can be a life changing experience as it teaches you so much about other places and your own place in the world, if you let it. This particular visit had a feeling like that for me. We spent time in the country around Viborg and also made visits to two cities, Copenhagen and Aarhus which are the second and largest cities in Denmark respectively. Denmark is an interesting country. It’s roughly the size of the US state of West Viriginia, which is not too large by US state size standards.  Another interesting thing to consider is just how long people have been living in Denmark. For well over a thousand years they have more “modern” settlement including the practice of agriculture, fishing, more contemporary religion, and more. That’s a long time in terms of continuous human usage of a small geographical area.

When you travel through the countryside around Viborg (which includes a great deal of breathtaking agricultural land as well as fjords and many picturesque small towns) it’s striking to see how manicured the fields, forests and land are. It’s obvious that growth is contained or prescribed  to a degree and farmland and forest alike are protected spaces. While there isn’t much of what we in the US would call “wilderness,” there’s also not a great deal of the sprawl that I am more accustomed to seeing at home. Granted, around Aarhus and Copenhagen there is a degree of sprawl that is what you expect from concentrated urban centers. But I’m musing right now about the more pastoral parts of Denmark I visited. It occurred to me while marveling at the landscape that the Danish government, over the years and probably centuries, has had a great deal of influence in bringing about the progressive country of Denmark that we see today. Denmark is self supporting for it’s energy usage. It produces enough oil for its own needs. Wind and solar power are used for a growing portion of general energy usage and the evidence is everywhere. Magnificent white wind turbines seem to greet you from every vista, reminding me that the countryside is not only beautiful in its own right, but also rich in agricultural and energy resources. Some of the tiny villages we drove through were part of government and village supported experiments with solar energy…imagine driving through a tiny rural town full of “very old” homes, some with thatched roofs, and seeing literally half or more of them covered with solar panels. Fantastic!!  Architecturally, I found little to complain about with this juxtaposition of old and new. It was amazing and beautiful, really. A valuing of both what was and what will be is evident everywhere. I felt overwhelmingly during my time in Denmark that the country is thoughtfully managed and very very rational. It was cheer inducing!  And I mean cheer in all its possible nuances. A toast could have been made, I felt happy inside, and I felt like cheering. Not a bad set of emotions.

So what did I learn that relates to our work on this website? I knew it would be hard to write about this trip without getting lost in impressions and details so I will try to reign myself in a bit.

In a small country with a strong centralized government, it seems relatively less difficult to implement policy that protects things that are important to the future well being of a nation and its citizens. For example, farmland is protected because there isn’t a ton of it to go around. Denmark is not an endless nation. It’s smaller size makes that easy to remember. So I’m getting back to smaller size. In a country that is not geographically humongous and has an active government that tries to make choices that will benefit the greater good and the greater number, how does this express itself architecturally? Well, open space is abundant and accessible. From our friends’ home in Logstrup, outside of Viborg, we were able to hike in managed fir and beech forests right outside their door, basically. They were hiked and traveled by many of the families (of all ages) living right in the area. The woodland was managed by a farmer who regularly sells the timber to a company in Sweden for pulping and wood and paper products, yet the land was not closed off. It remained a public place though privately and even corporately owned and the landowner had participated with local residents to create paths throughout the property with a tiny building for the kindergarten to use for student outings as well as posted maps for the trails crisscrossing the woods. If we struck out from home another way, we walked through the little town of Logstrup and passed to an old railway line that had been converted to a nice wide recreational path. This walking path was pretty impressive. The trails stretched for many kilometers (over 25) and you could walk, run or cycle all the way to Viborg if you wanted to. Fantastic!  Our walk took us to a beautiful fjord, partially frozen at the edges. The day was quiet and cold and peaceful. There were active farms around us and obviously this was a living, working, populated landscape but an absence of big roads with noisy cars, chain stores and fast food restaurants and gas stations made the surroundings seem far from anything. It was possible to be in a natural, open space but still be very close to established small town and city life.

I didn’t find homes in Denmark to be particularly tiny, though many would be comparable in size to homes typically built in the US over 50 years ago. Our friends’ home had four bedrooms (they have three intelligent and energetic boys) and a big open space area for the dining and living room areas. The floor plan was modern and open (this home was built around 2005). At the same time this was not a huge home by American standards.

Many of the other homes, especially older homes, are indeed small and quaint. They are well cared for and there are limits to the kind of exterior and interior renovations that are allowed to them so as to preserve the appearance and feeling of neighborhoods that have been established for such a very long time, often centuries. Seeing architectural continuity even in smaller communities was interesting for me especially since I come from a small west coast town where “anything goes” is a widely accepted theme that allows for great personal expressiveness at best – and at worst creates a mind boggling jumble of structural detail and design that makes even “expensive neighborhoods” seem mixed up and looking a bit chintzy.

In Denmark, small personal spaces seem to be “compensated” for by an abundance of shared community places including parks, walking trails and places for people to be active out of doors (not coincidentally, the country has a relatively low incidence of overweight and obesity issues). In large cities, where smaller and more expensive real estate is naturally de rigeur due to space constraints, there are wonderful (and extensive) car-free promenades lined by shops, cafes and restaurants. People can be out and about amongst one another enjoying the abundance of space and interest afforded by a lively street scene. I also noticed, particularly in Copenhagen where we were able to spend more time walking and exploring, that Denmark has some fantastic, highly modern and very large public buildings that take center stage in the city. The city features a tremendous new library, dubbed The Black Diamond, that is a shining example of modern Danish architecture and is available for public use. Another fantastic and ultra modern building is the Copenhagen Opera House. Museums of great stature and fine collections, some even free, are a huge part of the cityscape as well. So, while space in a personally owned piece of property might be set in a city or a rural setting and might be small, medium or large, what carried on was an abundance of things “for the people” generally within walking or biking distance. In fact, 90% of Danes own bicycles, and boy can you tell! Perhaps when people’s private space is so wonderfully flanked with truly public space, something happens mentally and architecturally that allows for the maintenance and expansion of good spaces for people to live, work, and be outside without the necessity for the massive and monumentally sized domiciles that often characterize modern North American suburbs.

Impressions and notions are easy to get when you spend a little time in a place. Our visit to Denmark seemed so very short: we had just 11 days in the country. But what a great taste we got; what a long lasting flavor to consider afterwards! I’ve a feeling that the lessons we learned in Denmark will be a long time in unfolding for us and just might influence some of our personal decisions about housing, living and the need to keep interconnected the nature of indoor and outdoor space for a long time.

Tusind Tak Danmark!

Victory Housing! Or…How Old Time House Catalogs are Rebuilding Our Thinking on Housing

Jamie's MusingsJamieComment

It’s probably occurred to some readers that this website is in large part a modern twist on old time house catalogs. We love those old catalogs…from Sears, Radford, Bennett, Aladdin…You’ve probably seen them and perused them too if you’re at all an enthusiast about those classic old kit homes from days of yore, as we are.  For our part, we like just about everything those catalogs (still) stand for: Sturdy construction, a do it yourself attitude, beautiful materials (sigh, many of those materials are hard to come by these days!), pride of craftsmanship and “ownership” in a wonderful way that includes stewardship and love as well as affordability. We love especially the sentimental descriptions of the homes (especially of the kitchens) written by authors trying to entice potential home builders (and their wives). While vaguely and even sweetly chauvinistic at times, these descriptions still make us laugh and even tempt us – they are peeks into a bygone era that we can pull the best out of, if we like.  When we were designing our first home together, we spent a whole year in part looking at these catalogs and taking ideas from them, trying to translate what we liked to an age with different building codes, different social and environmental needs, different building materials, mindset, etc. It seemed sometimes that the only thing that was much the same was the outline of the house; that is, the lines, the bones. As we thought about it, though, we realized that how we looked at houses and dreamed about their construction really followed all those old veins…we were imagining our gardens, sunny days at home, snowy days at home, gatherings with friends and family; a place to grow old, and oh yes, a kitchen for the cooks to put on their aprons and crank out some great grub!

We’ve long had a dream of settling into a place and building a home to stay in and to grow old in should we be lucky enough to grow old. In this sense, the spirit of dreaming that is typified in the old time catalogs is still a part of our search, our considerations and the expansion of our catalog today.  Since the abrupt change in the US economy, which centered so much on housing, we’ve been giving especial thought to what affordable, human centered housing is or might be, not just for ourselves but for society at large. THE small HOUSE CATALOG is part of how we are approaching this thinking.

So back to Victory Housing…When we say Victory Housing we mean it partly in the sense that the Victory Gardens of the WWII days were meant; as a response to changing and serious circumstances that demand thoughtfulness and creativity from all of us. But also, when we speak of Victory Housing, we’re talking about the active dreaming catalogs can inspire…dreams that involve people working together, putting in the time, work, money, stress, joy, sweat and waiting that is involved in building a home. Lastly, we also mean Victory Housing in the Wide World of Sports style THRILL OF VICTORY; the amazed pride that comes when you take on a project so innately primal and delightfully freeing as constructing your own shelter.  When Shawn and I were raising our first walls, I began to have a little feeling of amazement creep over me. It crept and crept and crept till suddenly it jumped entirely over me and I was able to recognize that what amazed me so much was that we were doing it, building our own home!  A thing that had seemed so mysterious, difficult and best left to “professional builders” was actually tangibly unfolding before us…thanks to our own work. And also thanks to the good advice and requested help of a few professional builders too. Victory! We were figuring it out. We made it through several hurdles and also realized that a lot of what seemed like it would be really hard really wasn’t hard at all. What a wonderful lift to self confidence.

We’ve found a huge sense of Victory in building for ourselves. The delight of this Victory has been primarily that it seems happily humble. It’s been fun. It’s involved others; we want it to involve more people. It’s been strengthening to our marriage (let it be known that building a house together need not destroy a marriage!) and we’ve made friends this way. We realize that anyone can build their own home, and, just maybe, everyone should…

Tiny House or Small House?

Shawn A. Dehner

Tiny houses are alluring: they’re cute, moveable and can be built with a set of basic skills, a simple tool box and a modest bank account, minus a whole bunch of red tape. They also have a pleasing scale, a size that just "looks" right. They're still subject to zoning laws but in many places their popularity exists because of a welcome loophole in our building codes, which is to say tiny houses, being built on trailers, are not subject to the same scrutiny as a house built on the ground.

While our building codes have made tiny houses attractive they’ve made more serious small houses difficult, oftentimes impossible, to design and permit. This is poor thinking at a time when smaller houses need to be a viable option again. People  want the choice to be able to live small, or tiny, as evidenced by what’s now a vigorous, if unsustainable, Tiny House Movement. A one-size-fits-all style of building code continues to encourage the practice of bloated mediocrity in residential construction, while at the same time stifling stylistic creativity and diversity. To some degree, the proliferation of tiny houses is revealing a serious oversight in the building codes; and it's putting some wind into the sails of a more sensible, sustainable and broadly appealing enthusiasm for small houses.

Beyond the building codes, tiny houses are making tangible the romance of downsizing. For many people, owning a tiny house means fulfilling the dream of home ownership. Yet, it also does so at a cost. With the little forethought for location, we lose the potential to build fidelity in terms of land and community.

But I like tiny houses. I think they have their place. M wife and I live in one we designed and built ourselves. Our own tiny house provides several benefits while extending us a great deal of comfort. It's been the perfect solution in that we we've been able to avoid zoning and code issues that outlawed a builder's cottage when we sorely needed one. We own land and were contemplating building a small house. 

 Around town, like tiny houses in general I suspect, our own tiny house is very popular. People routinely park at the street and come up to our house (this is not always a welcome event, especially at, say, suppertime) hoping to get a peek inside. But it’s telling…

Tiny houses have become perhaps too popular, too fast. It’s almost unfathomable that something as simple as people living in tiny houses could become a movement. As is often the case with a many good idea, even one as simple as people living in tiny houses, the Tiny House Movement has begun to lose much of its original good intention. In saying that I mean that the  essence itself might still be there but it’s buried under an obvious consumerism, the modern desire to acquire more stuff, even at great cost, which is what tiny houses are: expensive and/or poorly built. 

Tiny houses are trendy, tiny houses are a fad. The current surge in the popularity of the Tiny House Movement is a result of plain old-fashioned consumerism of the immediate gratification variety. This is strongly suggested by all the name-branding occurring among the ‘original’ tiny house manufacturers who are making sure to set themselves apart (and often rightly so) from the fast-growing, often sloppy, competition.

I've probably met hundreds of people who want to buy a tiny house - the product as  a turn-key tiny house or a building experience (also a product). Most of these people are wealthy too and simply don’t need  a house. What they want is the tiny house experience. The idea of a tiny house has fully become another trendy thing to buy or do.

Does it matter?

The Tiny House Movement will only ever be a VERY tiny part of the solutions (plural) to the collective epidemics of McMansions, subpar building products, lousy craftsmanship and tract style house designs. Why? Because, frankly, few people are going to actually live in a space less than 160 square feet, no matter how finely it’s made, for very long. Even for us land lubbers who are willing to live small on a piece of dirt, tiny is just  too impractical for, say, someone who uses a house for more than sleeping and entertainment. If you listen to the words of the original tiny house founders, you'll hear about how they bathe in a friend's house and eat most of their meals out. It’s telling that even Tumbleweed founder Jay Shafer no longer lives in a tiny house; he has a family and lives in a small house. And that’s precisely my point. Tiny houses, at times, have their uses. But as a solution for affordable housing? I'll leave it to the reader to decide if trailers of any kind have panned out as affordable housing.

Once the media coverage begins to dwindle, many of these tiny houses, often mediocre in terms of quality, won’t be used for much. Unfortunately, in this way, I think the Tiny House Movement is contributing to the problems it earnestly wants to transform. A drive through the countryside (or suburbs for that matter) reminds me we have enough empty houses, condos and neglected trailers around.

However, I find it interesting that even in urban places such as San Francisco, simple old ‘relief houses’ are still being used today. The survival of these small houses is based on an attachment to place  - as opposed to a portability (though many were brought in on wagons) along with a structural integrity resulting from good craftsmanship. In these cases, care in building has allowed for a longevity of material life and usefulness. To me then, building well and with some forethought of place – not just building tiny or small – is an important step in our hope for sustainable development. Along with longevity our houses should be places people want to preserve, which means designing well too.

This last thought brings me to what will surely be seen as a subjective point, and that is of craftsmanship itself. I don’t see too many greater threats to forests and ecology than inferior products and shoddy craftsmanship. Good craftsmanship entails the employment of a high level of skill in doing something, anything really, usually work I suppose. To be a craftsman simply means to produce something of quality using that skill. It doesn’t mean being certified (necessarily) or having an advanced degree; it simply means doing creative, quality work. Anyone can do it. The Tiny House Movement has shown that a tiny house, just like a small house, can be well-built without much training provided there’s an enthusiasm and creativity for good work present in the builder. I’ve seen it done, and I’ve done it myself (with my wife) to great success.  But like the building industry at large, what’s cropping up in the Tiny House Movement are low quality products resulting from cheap materials and poor craftsmanship. Too often we devolve into wanting to buy/make things ‘on the cheap’ and we become unwilling to invest the time to apply a skill properly.

So what’s the answer to housing? Tiny or small? Does it matter? That’s for each person to decide. Having lived in both a tiny and small house, my preference is for a small house on land, and will always be preferable because it fuses life to a place and inspires a fidelity to land in way that a portable house has not. Our preference is for houses planted in the ground and surrounded by plants, lots of them. I’m glad we have the ability, at least for now, to choose whether we want to live in a tiny or small house.