I love the tiny house movement.
I love the efficiency of it. I love the flexible use of space. I love the things that fold out from the wall, and who doesn’t love miniature things — so cute! But when I think about it for my lifestyle, it would be darling — for about the first week. Then, after tripping over my family during that week, I’d start thinking about an addition or maybe a new house.
When I was in architecture school, I had a professor by the name of Kaya Arikoglu. He would often have jewels of wisdom and this particular jewel that I’m going to talk about here I have used over and over again throughout my architectural career. He would say, “You can’t afford the mansion, but you might be able to afford one room of that mansion.” I love that philosophy so much. It really works.
About 14 years ago, I designed our vacation home on a pretty tight budget and I used this philosophy. Yes, I had to make sacrifices — I couldn’t have the grand kitchen, the palatial bathroom, the separate dining room, the to-die-for master bedroom. I had to make the decision that one room, “the great room,” was the priority and everything else was subordinate to that idea.
I had to use a simple structure (think barn). You will save a lot of money using a simple structure, all those fussy bump-outs cost money. Quite simply, that is why barns have always been built that way. They wanted a lot of space — for little money. That’s just what my just now named “not-quite-so-tiny house movement” wants to do, too.
When I went to a mason to get a bid on my house project, he said, “Why do you want the footprint so small — I’ve built garages bigger than that!” The answer was simple, I didn’t have the money to make it bigger. But what I knew was that it would live large, because I wouldn’t divide the space into little compartments like most homebuilders do. The enemy of tiny houses is interior separation walls. Yes, it is important to close off the bathroom and maybe the bedroom, but everything else has to share the great space or it won’t be a great space because the budget will be eaten up by all of those rooms.
Let’s just say, for argument, that an average dining room is about 14 by 14 feet; a small kitchen is 14 by 10 feet; a small living room is 14 by 16 feet. If you add those all together, you get a room that is 14 by 40 feet — that’s a pretty good-sized palatial room.
Height is also really important in making this a truly great space (why the standard ceiling height in this country is 8 feet is a concept I will never understand). Eight feet is okay in small rooms, but when the room expands in plan it needs to expand in height, too (although, you don’t need to make it as tall as I made mine.)
This is my “great space” with the sleeping loft above (not totally private, but separate enough that it feels pretty secluded from the first floor); the small bathroom (behind that painting to the right); the kitchen to the right of the dining area. The walls of the bathroom and kitchen do not go all the way up, so that you feel like the entire footprint of the house is all one room.
The other really effective thing I did to maximize the space was to use lots of windows. That way I get to sort of steal the exterior space, too, for my house. I’ve always thought that a great way to expand a small house was to make the edge of the property provide the privacy for the house. Say, have a fence and dense evergreens line the edge of the property (or maybe just the back yard) or just get a big piece of property, as in my case.
Then build the house with lots of French doors and windows, so that one can see right out to the edge of the property. It’s almost as if the walls visually “fall away” and the tree line is the visual boundary of the house. Now the house is just made up of interior and exterior rooms.
And the best news of all is that this design philosophy doesn’t just work for new construction. It works for renovation, too. Architects are adept at manipulating the current layout of a space, which can really expand the spatial feeling of an existing house.
By just tearing down a few walls and ceilings (I love reclaiming attic space) and connecting the interior visually with the exterior, one can make a small house live large.
Julia Caswell Daitch is the principal architect of Caswell Daitch Architects in Silver Spring, and a member of the Potomac Valley Chapter of the American Institute of Architects and the AIA’s Capital Area Custom Residential Architects Network (CRAN). To see a YouTube video on how to choose an architect for your project, click here.