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:
I was struck last night, as we stepped into the street to take a satisfying look at the days work to see how the yard work is starting to hold together now. The two projects are holding hands at last. Things are starting to make sense to the senses.
We had an interesting comment recently from someone who suggested we (and this was a collective we rather than a “we” restricted to myself and Shawn) would do better work by remodeling existing homes than by building new ones, given that there’s such a glut of homes on the market, especially in North America. I say that the answer is... not necessarily.
I’ll say flat out that I’m a big fan of remodeling homes. Shawn and I got our start and basic skill set by remodeling. We couldn’t have owned our first home if it hadn’t been in need of a lot of work, because we simply couldn’t have afforded an expensive newer or older house that was in tip top shape. Plus, we couldn’t have made a house seem more “like ours” outside of building it from the ground up if it hadn’t been for the major remodeling we did to it. Even though we didn’t build our first truly loved home from scratch, we put our hearts and souls into it and it became imbued with our love and fingerprints...a Velveteen Rabbit sort of thing. We both love remodeling and curiously enough, would still love to remodel another house in our future, though we aren’t certain if it’s in the cards.
But I will also say that if we were to remodel, we would want it to be an older home, and by older, I mean a home built prior to 1949. The materials and building styles commonly used at that time tend to be better, in our opinion, than those typically used in more recent history (there are always exceptions to generalizations, of course). Some of the most recent architecture, especially large box like houses, seems like it would be nearly impossible to remodel to me. Curiously, I think this is because I consider remodeling to be both an outdoor and an indoor job. It seems to me that the majority of what fuels design in more cookie cutter style homes is a focus on the interior of a home to the near complete exclusion on the focus of the outdoor facade of a home (and the neighboring homes including the people living in them). You might indeed have as a result a very comfortable and attractive home from the interior view. But the exterior is sort of lifeless and not very personalized. All of us have seen developments where this sort of thing occurs. I don’t really write this to demonize these developments or put them down, but to note that if we focus exclusively on the interior of our homes, we create a problem in terms of exterior aesthetic and I think also reinforce a negative psychology that tends to be overly “indoor” focused. There’s more to life, especially the social lives we hopefully share with one another, than a life that is spent mostly indoors and in front of a television. I think that a lot of modern design encourages an overly indoor lifestyle that compels us to remain in the tv room rather than outside walking, meeting our neighbors, relaxing in the fresh air and gardening or doing other outdoor things, like watching the birds or seeing kids playing together. There are a host of ramifications to this that I won’t get into here.
I guess I realize too that if we were to remodel again, I would want to remodel an older home as well because the older homes (especially bungalow styles) I see in various cities and small towns (like Seattle, Portland, OR or smaller towns like Bellingham, WA or Salem, OR) seem to have an added bonus to them. They are surrounded by other small homes and seem to have a neighborhood character that is very warming and attractive to me personally. The bygone era that they represent is not merely pleasing to the eye (I love the character of these homes even when they are neglected; they bring out a nurturing sense in me that makes me want to do something to restore them) but also to my psychology. I can imagine being out in the yards of these homes because even on tiny city lots, smaller older homes don’t take up the entire lot , which means there’s space left over to sit, garden, play or daydream in. To me, this is attractive and life sustaining. It can be very difficult to find building lots in established urban areas, whether they are large or small urban centers, so remodeling and restoring these homes is definitely high on my list of laudable acts. There are many times that Shawn and I wonder if perhaps that might be possible for us to do together again someday, and that’s despite the fact that we love to build together.
I wonder if it will be possible to start building homes on a “neighborhood” basis that might replicate more closely the beautiful old neighborhoods that are a part, somewhere, of many cities across the country. Perhaps the future will hold a chance for generations down the line to remodel well built, character rich homes in cities and towns across the country. I’d like to imagine something like that happening. That’s part of the reason that I don’t think it always makes sense to remodel existing homes rather than build new ones. Sometimes, people building new really IS better. The builder can choose a style that they love and that reflects something personal to them. They can choose to use good materials that will stand the test of time. They can build something that will delight people decades and even centuries down the line. Yes, I think even in a world that is increasingly beset by shortages of material it can sometimes be best served by starting from scratch. Some of the building that has taken place over the years has just been a big mistake. I think that a certain level of conservation simply occurs by people taking matters into their own hands and building something that will last. It can be done and really should be done. And I hope that it will be.
There’s one more reason that I think building from scratch can be a better option than remodeling. That has to do with expense, funny enough. Depending on your personal skill set and the area of the country that you live, it may in fact be less expensive to build from scratch. A lot of remodel jobs with great potential may have already been done where you live. Seattle is a great example of this. There are lots of adorable bungalows in this city, and most of them have been purchased and fixed up already. There’s not a whole lot of work left to be done on them and their cost reflects that. Granted, in an urban setting like this, there’s also a lack of available building lots, so bear with me on this. I do realize this. But there are places where you can actually build from scratch for far less money than it would cost to buy a fixer upper. As in most things, individual circumstances will dictate particulars, but this is just food for thought and part of why, for our circumstances, building is often a more sensible option than remodeling.
I do hope and intend, though, that our buildings will stand the test of time and will be homes that many decades from now would be well worth remodeling to someone, should they ever fall into disrepair, which I hope they do not! That, however, is the very finest compliment a builder, designer or someone otherwise involved in building could ever receive. If this sensation remains primary in the minds of people anywhere who are undertaking a building project, I don’t think there’s much cause to feel guilty about starting from scratch.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Read more about how I started my first honey bee colonies in The World Of Beekeeping!
We live in an area right now that is sort of an old beach town currently undergoing a resurgence in popularity as the children who grew up playing here in the summers are now of an age to bring their own kids down for the summers to repeat history. Rusty old cabins in various stages of dereliction or upkeep are being reinhabited, torn down, renovated – the works. In this process, we’ve seen 600 square foot beach cabins torn down and replaced by newer, much larger homes as well as vacant lots purchased with modern sized homes (some of which can be very very large in comparison with the old beach cottages) built right next to old places. The resulting juxtaposition of a large, modern home next to a 60’s cabin can be a little curious.
What urges me to mention this is not so much to make a judgment, exactly, of any kind. It’s merely to note that it is not frequently (if ever) mentioned in lot or land covenants, that homes built in the area must not exceed certain square footages. Yet, property values (as well as the character of neighborhoods) are affected when a huge (or even just a large) home is built next to a small home that has been around for a long time, regardless of the home’s condition. The building of large homes can also damage property values, but this fact doesn’t seem to be noted with the same fervor that the opposite does.This past weekend we took a trip to look at some properties for sale in an area that we were considering moving to. The process of trying to imagine where to site a house, orchards, the garden and other things was enjoyable, though none of the land turned out to be suited to our needs or our budgets, quite. One thing that was thought provoking, though, was our examination at the end of the day of some paperwork relating to one of the properties we had looked at. Looking through the covenants relating to the set of acreages (these properties turned out to be “developments” in the loosest sense of the term. They weren’t gated communities and didn’t have matching houses, but the original division of land into acreages had details that went along with them, cc and r’s I guess is how you’d describe these restrictions). Among them was an architectural provision that insisted that all homes built in the area would be no less than 1200 square feet. I voiced some surprise at this limitation and the realtor was quick to point out that the thinking behind that provision was to protect property values in the area. That was fine with me, in particular since we weren’t going to be buying the property anyway (especially after seeing that provision!). But as with many things, the idea stuck in my mind and I’ve been thinking about it ever since the weekend.
I’m only musing in this blog entry, and I should wrap things up, as one person’s musings can become awfully tedious after the second paragraph! Let me just conclude that it has often been noted that the cultures of “the west,” in particular the US, is very individualistic in its focus, outlook, character, etc. But in many ways, we are a very homogenized culture. There is a tendency to only see in one direction, and that direction is generally to follow the way that the herd is going. It would appear that homes beneath 1200 square feet are sometimes regarded as a drag on property value, which is rather interesting since only a short time ago that very size was considered suitably large. Apparently we can’t really imagine a neighborhood of mixed sized homes that would individually suit the needs of the families they are supporting, be they retired couples, young families, multi-family homes, or single people. Perhaps this is a function resulting from the tendency of people to move frequently for their work, rather than to settle into places for the long haul. In any case, it will be interesting to see how the wider effects play out as we continue to follow the trend toward smaller, more human scaled and generally more efficient housing. That trend is here to stay, for certain, and I wonder if someday folks will be wandering a five acre lot somewhere only to find covenants restricting the building of homes over 1200 square feet.
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!
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 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.
I've been giving some thought to what "small" means lately and it would appear that it's a pretty relative term. It's much more relative, to my thinking, than what "large" means. Right now my husband, my cat and myself are all living in a "small" house of 160 feet plus a loft area for sleeping. I occasionally have friends ask when we're going to build our house (our "big" house? our "real" house?). Some can't believe we haven't killed each other living in so "small" a space. Others totally understand the appeal and a surprising mix of people alternate between disbelief that we live full time in our little home and a desire to come inside and see how things are laid out...then come a fairly frequent number of comments along the lines of, "Wow, this has really got everything you need in it!" "This isn't really very small at all!" "I love it, it's so cute!"
While we originally built a tiny house as a builder's cottage intending to begin building a small house within about 6 months, we've come to like the tiny house very much. We're not quite ready to leave it yet. It's wonderfully spacious (thanks to high ceilings over the living room and plenty of windows) while also cozy and comfortable. It's got most of what we need and not too many drawbacks. When I consider all the places I've lived in my days, I can always recall certain things about those spaces that were drawbacks so this home doesn't seem to be any different than others in that regard.
What do I consider the biggest drawback? I'm a scratch cook, so sometimes I'd like a little more space in the kitchen. But I've been able to do it all (really!) even in a kitchen smaller than most bathrooms (and I mean I bake all my own breads, process honey from our bees, can, freeze and dry foods for winter use, make 95% of our meals at home, and do all the dishes to boot!). And I'd have to say that it is more difficult to have friends for dinner in close quarters. But one or two visitors for afternoon tea or a talk are no problem at all!
So why all the random thoughts attached to this one little word, "small?" I guess I'm mulling it over because as we develop new home plans and consider our own future desires, the thought is reinforced that much of what makes a place not just satisfactory but also pleasing is a personal feeling about the structural surroundings that make up our homes. What do people often desire from their housing? Shelter and safety, of course. Also we want something well laid out, comfortable, a refuge from things outside when we need it to be, a place we can be comfortable and share time with loved ones. We need places that are reasonable to heat, cool and maintain, laid out so that things are where they need to be and useful without being too much or too many and places that offer enough clean, comfortable space for all the people living under its rooflines. A home should provide the space you need to do what you need and like to do in a method that is appealing aesthetically and also allows one to be unstressed financially. These kind of things make a home a home and in that sense, size is somewhat irrelevant.