June 4, 2020Deconstructing the “Tiny House”
AIA New York hosts seven panelists to expound on the movement toward homes that support smaller living… but what is it really all about? Watch the event video here.
By Kiley Jacques
When Peter Chapman, a senior editor and colleague at The Taunton Press, first approached me about participating in AIANY’s webinar on tiny houses, I believed I understood the topic at hand. Past conversations with Alek Lisefski, founder of The Tiny Project, as well as David Latimer, Ethan Waldman, Joshua Engberg, and Jenna Spesard—all of whom are said to be forerunners of today’s tiny house movement—left me with the impression that tiny houses are a physical manifestation of an ecological ideology, and those who build and live in them do so to support a lifestyle reflective of that worldview. Lisefski emphasizes the importance of fine craftsmanship, healthy building materials, and the DIY spirit that drives him and many in his circle. At the heart of their homes stands a commitment to environmental stewardship. Lisefski describes his hope for tiny-house living as a means for “catalyzing a mass lifestyle shift in which society turns to commonsense, human-scale housing solutions, as well as a broader shift from consumption and acquisition to gratitude, freedom, and peace.” That is what I thought tiny houses were about. My understanding has since been challenged.
To start, AIANY defined tiny houses as single-family homes no larger than 450 square feet. Somewhere along the way to developing the final presentation, the scope was broadened to include “small” houses, too. These were described as having the same footprint as tiny homes with additional square footage in the form of lofts, upper levels, and lower levels to make room for one, two, or three bedrooms. (It is worth noting that today’s tiny house pioneers typically build structures measuring closer to 160 square feet.)
The panelists were tasked with tracing the trajectory of the tiny home’s rise—beginning in 1995 at the peak of the building boom, when houses began to get much larger than their predecessors. “Cabinologist” Dale Mulfinger, based in Minnesota, discusses an early form of small dwellings—the ice house. He notes its flexibility, explaining that some are taken off the water and used as cabins in summer months. Of course, early settlers depended on wood and built log cabins, which Mulfinger characterizes as practical, adaptable, and transportable. “Architects are always being challenged by the idea of the cabin,” he says.
He then moves to the example of a heavily glazed modern “cabin” by architect Ralph Rapson, FAIA (1914-2008), describing it as a “radical structure.” Perched on a bank of the Apple River in Wisconsin, it stacks three tiers of Andersen glass-sliding doors on all four sides. Its square footage isn’t given, but Mulfinger’s point is: “Small structures don’t necessarily remain small.”
Somewhere between the ice house, the glass cube, and the adaptations of barns and garages, Mulfinger finds a place for space-saving innovations such as his alternating-treads stair, suggesting it is ingenuity that is required for small-home appeal. Is that what the tiny house is about?
Julie Trelstad, founder of 82 Stories, a bookselling and publishing services platform, weighs in with ideas informed by her time at The Taunton Press. She calls 1995 “a point of inflection,” when houses tipped over the 2,000-square-foot mark. At the same time, in the book-publishing industry, there was a trending interest in small houses. Enter Sarah Susanka’s book, Not So Big House, published in 1998, which featured comparatively small houses; they are considered rather large today. Trelstad appreciates the quality of a build over the quantity of its square feet, though she notes the promised real estate value inherent in the latter.
Ontario-based TreeHugger.com editor Lloyd Alter—whom Chapman describes as the “maverick” among us—has been an architect, real estate developer, and prefab entrepreneur. Once a proponent of tiny homes and prefabricated housing, his current disenchantment with both is striking. “As a developer, I was appalled by the inefficiency of site construction, and I thought prefabrication would be a better approach,” he explains. “I introduced the idea of small prefab houses—my thinking was that not only the wealthy should be able to own a home designed with flair and skill by a good architect. The problem was only the wealthy could afford them.” (Modular homes are expensive to ship.)
He segues into the recreational vehicle as an alternative, noting its efficient design and flexible allowances. “It is something that transcends borders,” he says. “There’s a place to put it without needing to own land.” On the other hand, in his view, the RV comes with negative cultural associations. He then looks at the Sustain MiniHome, a prefab modeled after an upscale resort. But at $120K, he says, it shocked RV buyers, i.e. there was a mismatch. He points to another hopeful model: Sweden’s Friggebod, named after Swedish Housing Minister, Birgit Friggebo, who changed the building codes to exempt structures under 150 square feet from needing a building permit. However, that kind of wild frontier has resulted in structures that continue to grow “taller, longer, and weirder.” And affordability remains elusive. According to Lloyd, tiny houses over $25K don’t make sense.
“In North America, we got this romantic image of the tiny house on wheels, first promoted by Jay Shafer, and it really had nowhere to go,” he adds, pointing to “terrible features” of tiny houses, including “head-banger” lofts, primitive amenities, and over time, disproportionately sized kitchens, which he says, contribute to poor indoor air quality. All told, he is “totally disillusioned with the idea of tiny houses.”
His provocations invite the question: Low-brow vs. high-brow—is that what tiny houses are about?
Geoffrey Warner of Alchemy Architects encourages us to “embrace the box,” but he makes the distinction between a “jewel box” like his weeHouse and a pole barn, an economic convention. “Because the weeHouse is small it can be luxe.” For Warner, the building type is an opportunity to connect people to the natural world. He views tiny houses as having become “less about minimal cost and more about maximizing the experience of nature.” This notion is something he describes as “the luxury of less.”
In the same vein, Kai-Uwe Bergmann of Bjarke Ingels Group presents his Klein A45 cabin as “the answer to urban life—a home in nature.” The modular 180-square-foot off-grid structure is an architectural marvel, notable for its “faceted” or “shifted” frame with glazed opening for optimizing the interior volume. Bergmann describes the Nordic-influenced structure as “Lutheran luxury.” It is his answer to the question: “How can we be both generous and cost-efficient?”
The word luxury comes up a lot during the discussion. Is that what the tiny house is about?
Dr. Maria Saxton of NANO—Tiny Life Innovators gets at the environmental sustainability angle. She shares a few of the findings of her research, which looks at the relationship between downsizing to a tiny house and one’s ecological footprint. Her study divides “ecological footprint” into five components: housing, food, transportation, goods, and services. In addition to reduced building materials and fewer carbon emissions, tiny-house living results in behavioral changes. The average ecological footprint of the 80 people in the study was significantly decreased after downsizing. While living in conventional homes, each participant used 7.01 global hectares (gha) of resources; after downsizing to a tiny home, they used 3.87 gha. “If 10 percent of Americans lived in a tiny home, we could save about 366 million acres of resources,” Saxton concludes.
Interestingly, there was a tendency toward increased transportation. Building code restrictions have led to the siting of tiny houses in more rural locations, which results in the need to drive longer distances for goods and services. Similarly, in some cases, space restrictions and decreased access to curbside pick-up resulted in less recycling. “Future designs can possibly address these potentially negative consequences,” says Saxton, who also briefly touches on the potential role of tiny homes as part of a sustainable housing solution. Is that what tiny homes are about?
Nicolo Bini of Binishells, a construction technology firm, introduces an atypical design featuring a pneumoform anchored to a circular slab foundation. Its construction includes the inflation of the form, application of shotcrete, and removal of the form, which can be reused. The result is a passive-house-level-performance shell. Bini touts its structural efficiency and durability under seismic and wildfire conditions. He also suggests it is a cost-effective structure: “When you have a monolithic material with no connections, labor and materials costs are lowered.” He applied this system to the tiny house typology; that application does not require air-pressure inflation, though it includes all of the advantages of a thin-shelled structure. Bini advocates for site-built structures with prefab MEP cores. He also indicates the design has potential as a low-cost solution to the need for disaster-relief housing. Is that what tiny homes are about?
I surmise that the tiny house begs more questions than it answers—including its very definition. The most commonly asked questions from webinar attendees can be tucked into three basic categories: cost, construction, and code. When and where do tiny homes make sense? Why are they so expensive? Can you really live comfortably in such a small space? Are they an authentic connection to nature?
Personally, I see tiny homes as having a role in natural disaster relief, the affordable housing crisis, and sustainable neighborhood development. For me, that is what tiny homes are about. That said, I love a building type that sparks controversy, contemplation, and creativity. In that regard, I think all of us can agree, the tiny house is the perfect fit.