THE small HOUSE CATALOG

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From Giants to the Fairy Tale Cottages of Carmel (Carmel By the Sea, California)

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Part of what is so appealing psychologically about these places is that houses keep a particular similarity to one another and yet are quite unique, each and every one. That seems to be what we want to find reflected in our human community, too. Closeness and connectedness without the sense that uniqueness and individuality have been lost or controlled.

The Many Uses of Tiny & Small Houses (Port Townsend, WA)

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To start, we had always intended to build a small home to live in full time. We weren’t sure it would even be in Point Roberts, but we always thought of the “rolling house” as a temporary solution. Who knew (at the time) that it would be so comfortable for us that only county regulations would fully entice us to leave it?  Since Shawn and I have begun construction on The Beekeeper’s Bungalow, a lot of passersby have begun to ask the same question that we considered between us when we decided to build a larger small home, What are you going to do with the cute little orange house?

Anyway, the questions we asked ourselves and the questions being posed to us by curious neighbors are what I’m going to use as the jumping off point for this blog entry:

What can you do with a tiny house if you aren’t living in it full time any longer?

One option, of course, is to sell the tiny house. If you’ve built on a trailer bed, the issue is a very simple one (well, as simple as driving a house down the road ever is…mechanically easy but psychologically a bit nervewracking). However, if you’re thinking ahead about the selling option and you’re building on a “footed” foundation, consider putting the house on skids…small buildings, like sheds, have been moved this way for ages.

What about other options? I thought that I would just share a few of the many that I’ve heard from people in town. I’ll start with our own decision. We are keeping our tiny house and it will become “office central” for THE small HOUSE CATALOG. Shawn’s drafting work will probably benefit from my not bopping around the room doing my thing while he is calculating loads and headspace.  Since it’s hooked up to septic, etc. it’s also going to become an enticement for friends and family to come up and stay awhile. And it looks pretty cute on the lot and frankly would be hard for us to let go. It’s become a nice part of our memory. It’s a great place for guests to stay as it’s fully contained, kids love it and adults do too.

Here are some other creative options: One woman stopped by and said she would make this a kitchen that she could put on her land as an accessory building. She is a chocolatier and needs a commercial space separate from her home kitchen where she can do all of her prep work for sales. A little mobile kitchen on her property would free her up from having to rent and drive to commercial space (to satisfy health department regulations, someone selling commercially cannot prepare foods for sale in their home kitchen) Very convenient!

Another couple came and surprised me when the teenaged daughter and her mother told me that this would be a perfect accessory building for their cottage in town. The cottage is small and with the kids growing up, they wanted a little more space for the teens to be able to do their own thing with the family but also be “on their own.” What surprised me was that the daughter immediately began pointing out what she wouldn’t need…no bathroom necessary, no kitchen necessary…just space to have friends hang out together and sleepover. Parents of teenagers might or might not press more for the bathroom than the kids!

A rental space is another option I have both seen in person and heard passersby mention as a desired outcome. When we’re visiting Port Townsend, WA we stay with a man who has a small cottage called Hammond House on his single lot in the backyard that he rents out as an accommodation. It’s low maintenance for him. He hires a local cleaner to come in and clean up the space after guests leave and the cottage is self sustaining. It has wifi, cable, a sauna, full bathroom, big bedroom area and an enclosed patio/seating area all in a very small space. It’s roomy and perfectly comfortable. The in-city location is perfect – you can walk everywhere. He has located the cottage in such a way that his own house doesn’t look over into it and vice versa. Privacy for everyone and a boost of income for the owner. I can think of a lot of ways that something like this might be a benefit for a variety of people, including guests.

The Hammond House Guest Cottage in Port Townsend, WA. Nestled in the single city lot sized back yard of the main house, this little cottage is tiny and a perfect size for visitors to the fun and artsy waterside town.

The Hammond House Guest Cottage in Port Townsend, WA. Nestled in the single city lot sized back yard of the main house, this little cottage is tiny and a perfect size for visitors to the fun and artsy waterside town.

Another closely tied option to this one would be to rent the space out on a regular basis. A tiny space that is well designed offers a perfect living space for single people, couples or people with young families…everything would depend on the people wanting to rent. Depending on your location, you could easily rent out your tiny house or cottage on a full time basis if that was your wish. It would pay for itself quickly in that case and might pay you back in other unexpected ways as well (e.g. as a chance to meet interesting people). Call me biased, but people interested in these small living spaces seem to be pretty interesting people… 

Meeting as many people as we do (something about the house being so tiny, along with the bright orange color must wear away at the inhibitions we sometimes have about just walking up to people and starting conversations), we’ve heard a variety of other ideas for small houses. An architect we met last weekend had entered a sustainable urban development contest and submitted a fantastic idea for compact urban living in Vancouver, BC using railroad cars as the basis for construction. These cars are compact, recycled, and can be stacked for vertical rather than horizontal living; critical in an urban area where space is at a premium. Using color and creativity, he had designed a little urban oasis of tiny living spaces made even better by the incorporation of green growing spaces outdoors that could be enjoyed by all the residents as well as passersby (who doesn’t like green spaces, especially in cities?). The storage containers were boldly colored, stacked several stories high and made a real statement visually. It was fantastic and suited the urban landscape perfectly. While not applicable for most of us, this is just another example of how only our thinking about things limits the potential use of small space.

Another advantage of a tiny house or small cottage on a lot or piece of land is that they are never so large that they take up a tremendous amount of space. In and of themselves, they provide a focal point of great visual appeal in the home/garden landscape. Cute, cozy and inviting, they make a statement about staying in place and enjoying what’s around you.

I’m only touching on a few ideas here. There are obviously many many more and in many ways, our imaginations are the only limitation to what can be done with a tiny house once it’s not being used for full time occupation. Once a home, always a home of some sort!

Please feel free to share your own comments on using tiny and small houses, I’m eager to hear what you have to say!

Small Footprints (Orcas Island, WA)

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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.

A small bungalow turned restaurant. Located on Orcas Island in Eastsound, WA.

A small bungalow turned restaurant. Located on Orcas Island in Eastsound, WA.

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.

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

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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!