Little Houses


Photo montage by

Photo montage by

I’ve always had a big thing for little houses, and so until recently I’ve been a square peg in a round hole, with all my friends and neighbors buying up into McMansionland for the past three decades.   

But now, it seems that petite-chic is in.  I recently read about the Clayton ihome, named with “a nod to the iPhone and iPod” but really representing the shape of the house, with a large core, and then a smaller “flexroom,” representing the “I” and its dot.  The prototype is 1,000 square feet, and is built with the environment in mind.   It includes solar panels and other eco-friendly features.   

Others drool over industrial-sized kitchens and massive great rooms, but I drool over the homes created by the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company (see example upper left in the photo).   I first learned of these wee houses when one of the first owners, Dee Williams of Portland, was featured on the news.  I subscribe to their e-newsletters, because they have frequent workshops, with several this summer from coast to coast.  

Sarah Susanka, architect and author of many books on the topic of small spaces, speaks of a human need for specific proportions to make us feel safe and protected.  She says that while cavernous entryways are impressive, they do little to make us feel welcome.  What’s inspiring in a cathedral is not necessarily so in a home.   Frank Lloyd Wright was a master of proportion in architecture, using lowered ceilings in entryways to provide transitions from the outside, and being mindful that it is our own size that should determine the correct proportion for our living spaces.

Before this, by way of innate sense of comfort, had come the idea that the size of the human scale should fix every proportion of a dwelling or of anything in it.  Human scale was true building scale.  Why not, then, the scale fixing the proportions of all buildings whatsoever?  What other scale could I use?  So I accommodated heights in the new buildings to no exaggerated order nor to impress the beholder (I hated grandomania then as much as I hate it now) but only to comfort the human being.”  Frank Lloyd Wright, 1936

Grandomania!  I love that word.  It certainly describes what we have seen in our culture over the past decades.   Why should we live in places bigger than necessary for our own sense of comfort?   Sometimes we have dreams of entertaining big–and then we don’t have the time or money to actually carry that out.  Sometimes we need to accommodate our interests–we need a library, or a crafts room, or a kitchen with a baker’s station, or a way to simply store all the stuff we’ve accumulated.  

Sometimes I think it would be great to put all the stuff I have that is currently stored in the garage in the house, and then redo the garage into a little studio apartment to live in.   Have you ever noticed how cozy and appealing garage apartments sometimes seem?  I think about Cary Elwes’ apartment in “Crush” or Michael Keaton’s apartment in “Multiplicity” or Audrey Hepburn’s apartment in “Sabrina.”  

It seems worth exploring how to convert the need for quantity into a fulfillment of quality.   If you have less, you can make the less more with quality materials, design elements like wainscoting, coffered ceilings, columns and high quality windows and doors.   A friend I know has a big formal living room space–but no furniture!  She can’t afford it yet.  So she has this huge empty room just taking up half of her ground floor.    Why not buy less house, and decorate it in a way that reflects you, and make you feel good?  

Maybe it’s time for a housing recession in a different way–rolling back the neighborhood to smaller, more livable homes.  Maybe it’s time for our architects to design some kind of flex-home that expands and contracts to meet the needs of growing families–similar to what the creators of the ihome have done.   Maybe it’s time to mainstream all the great green ideas that architects and builders are currently dreaming up and creating.   Maybe it’s time for me to go clean out that garage!


  1. countryheritage says:

    I have to agree with you, I also love small houses, especially traditional Irish Cottages. There are very few small houses being built in Ireland today, they are all large mansions of houses to suit the needs of the modern day family with 2 bathrooms, kitchen, sitting room, dining room, living room, 4-5 bedrooms ensuite, study/play room, sun room, the list goes on and on…… If the form of the traditional Irish houses was used today and the mass of the new hosues broken down to create a more sympathetic design form, the mansions of houses wouldn’t look so bad in the countryside.

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