Brian Levy is leading his own quiet experiment on a pie-shaped, 5,000-square-foot lot in Northeast Washington. As new homes get larger and larger in many neighborhoods throughout the region, Levy is attempting to prove that less is more.
Levy’s house is 11 feet wide and 22 feet long, with 210 square feet of interior space. The house has a galley kitchen and space to accommodate a small dinner party. It also has a full-size bed — although he can’t sleep overnight there because of a provision in District law.
Still, he hopes his “micro-house” will spark a revolution. He wants to spread the message that owners of tiny houses spend less time on such chores as cleaning and mowing — plus the structures have a relatively minimal impact on the environment. Moreover, small houses cost less to purchase and maintain when affordability is becoming a bigger issue in the District.
“I was looking for designs that are more functional for a wider range of people,” said Levy. Micro-houses that don’t rely on a loft as a sleeping area could bring affordable housing to more people who are looking for less-expensive housing options, he said. “Older people don’t want to deal with a loft.”
A few years ago, when Levy finished renovating a rowhouse on U Street NW, he began looking for a new design challenge. Levy — who is vice president of Pollin Energy and Retrofits (PEAR), a retrofits financing partnership, and has a master’s degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government — came across the micro-houses movement. But he couldn’t find a model from the manufacturers of the prefabricated structures to meet his needs.
So he called an architect — Will Couch of Foundry Architects, Washington and Baltimore — to custom design one. “I wanted something that was more livable,” Levy said.
In April 2012, Levy purchased the lot in Northeast where he keeps his micro-house, which he calls “Minim House,” as a showcase for others interested in living more simply.
“He was interested in a lifestyle that left a smaller footprint,” Couch said.
“He wanted a modern, clean design. We knew very little about tiny houses but approached it, as with all our houses, with a fresh eye, with the design challenge it presents,” Couch added. “It’s like a trailer. You can always relocate it. It’s on a trailer bed that was designed and built for it.”
Levy paid $7,000 for the original architect plans from Foundry Architects. He also spent $35,000 for materials and another $35,000 in construction costs to complete Minim House.
The mini- or micro-house trend began in the United States began about 15 years ago,s when the then-new Tumbleweed Tiny House Company sparked interest in small spaces.
The movement is getting a new look with a growing number of potential buyers unable to find houses within their financial reach.
In fact, 40.9 million, or 35.3 percent of American households — homeowners and renters — spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing, according to tabulations of the Census Bureau’s 2012 American Community Survey data by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University. Moreover, 19.8 million, or 17.1 percent, spend more than half of their income on housing — up from 13.1 percent in 2001.
One factor that makes new houses harder to afford is their growing size.
From 2000 to 2007, the average size of a single-family home increased from 2,309 square feet to 2,517 square feet, according to the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB). But after the downturn of 2008, according to the NAHB, the average single-family house contracted to 2,457 square feet and continued to shrink until 2010, when it was 2,388 square feet.
By 2013, however, the average size was moving in the other direction again, having increased to 2,673 square feet.
“The recession caused everyone to evaluate,” said Maureen McAvey, senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute in Washington. “Will acquisitions make you happy? Is that success?”
The idea that more is better could be changing. “We’re moving to a society that says more is simply more and it may not be better,” McAvey said.
Many micro-houses, such as those that are built from plans sold online, look like miniature houses — with a smaller scale and limited living space. Most are on wheels and conform to recreational vehicle standards so they can be easily moved from one place to another. There is “modest demand” for micro-houses, McAvey said. Yet “people want to find their own little niche, and they will find a way of satisfying it.”
For most people who seek micro-houses, “there’s a strong element of wanting to reduce their living expenses,” said Mary Murphy, 32, owner of Mountainsong Expeditions, a wilderness trips and class business she started almost two years ago. She has been living in a 72-square-foot micro-house in Worcester, Vt., she built and moved into just after she launched her business.
What Levy requested was a “highly functional small space” where he could have a dinner party for six, full-sized appliances, windows that were bigger than two feet wide and design that was more functional for a wider range of people. In addition, he wanted enough space for a full-size bed that would not be relegated to a loft.
Creating a micro-house that is livable requires skill and imagination. Since the first micro-houses emerged, the structures have become more sophisticated, and they rely on expertise to make limited space more livable. Using the space and natural light to best advantage are what makes micro-living work or not. Most are designed for one or two people, but sometimes they can be used as modular units to accommodate a growing family.
“Dual purpose is really what makes the space seem bigger than it is,” Couch said. For Minim House, a full-size bed, a large projection screen, a well-designed kitchen, with a place for everything, make the most of compact space. The full-size bed on casters fits neatly under an elevated workspace. “This one just rolls away,” Couch said. “It’s not that different than a Murphy bed.”
Minim House has a 10-foot galley kitchen designed to accommodate two cooks.
A seven-cubic-foot refrigerator/freezer runs on a 12-volt solar system. A two-burner range is hidden under the cutting board. A microwave doubles as a convection oven. Shelves hold 60 Mason jars for food storage. The kitchen sink operates on foot pedals that help conserve water.
A table in the main living space operates on a device from the boating industry that allows it to serve multiple uses — as a coffee table or a dining table for six. A padded ottoman converts into five stools that fit into the custom-made Cubista from Resource Furniture. A sofa can seat five more. Tucked away beneath it is a 40-gallon water tank on the left and a water filtration system and storage on the right. Minim House uses a propane marine heater and an incinerating toilet. A three-part ceramic filtration system — part of an off-the-grid rainwater collection and treatment system — provides enough potable water for drinking, cooking and showering, Levy said.
Levy has discovered that interest in micro-houses is growing. More than 300 people have contacted him through his Web site, minimhomes.com. So far, Levy has sold about 40 sets of plans for $495 each, but he has found that people are more interested in finished units. Pricing for finished units will be available in mid-December, Levy said.
Minim House and a shed share the pie-shaped lot in Northeast amid raspberries, Seckel pears, red peppers and Fuji apples, all growing side by side between two alleys just minutes from the Capitol.
Minim House has a different look than many of other micro-houses.
The American Institute of Architects’ D.C. Chapter named it a 2013 Award of Merit winner. It is the collaborative effort of Levy, Foundry Architects and contractor David Bamford, principal of Element Design+Build.
Right now, Levy can’t sleep overnight in Minim House — not because of any fault in the house, but because the alley next to his lot is not 30 feet wide and does not connect to a public street, according to the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. In the meantime, he is working to change those regulations so that the pie-shaped lot where vegetable and flower gardens abound can become a real home for the Minim House.
Harriet Edleson is a freelance writer.