Plans, Drafting & Design

small house design

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."