Sandy Thieu Interior Designer Human beings are fascinated by small objects; Smart Cars, miniature pigs,…
Human beings are fascinated by small objects; Smart Cars, miniature pigs, tiny hamsters eating tiny burritos (for some reason animal references keep coming to mind). Dating back to ancient Rome, architect and engineer Marcus Vitruvius Pollios established the classical ethos of architecture in his treatise De architectura, describing the human figure as the principal proportion among the Classic orders of architecture. To Vitruvius, the human body was “the greatest work of art and to understand its proportions was to facilitate the perfection of the art of building”. During the Renaissance in 1490, his vision came to fruition by way of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Vitruvian Man, a pen and ink sketch of the human body inscribed in a circle and square, the fundamental geometric shapes of the cosmic order. Present-day architecture not only considers human proportion, but all factors that affect human comfort. Because we’ve been living and thriving in a world specially designed for humans for over two thousand years, it is no wonder that we find anything that contradicts the standard exceptional and exciting. Think about how relevant this is in our daily lives today! Pictures taken in oversized Adirondack chairs are a treat at the park. I’m guilty of being one of the first to jump into that chair and strike a pose. And movies like “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids”, “Alice in Wonderland”, and “Ant Man” explore scale that is beyond our imagination. It begs the question, what would it be like to live in a world that goes against the cosmic order?
Among this paradigm shift is the Tiny House Movement (THM), which has captured our attention for the past few decades. It is internationally recognized but most active in the United States, especially in the residential architecture community. Thanks to popular TV shows like HGTV’s Tiny House Hunters, the movement has gained popularity and is trending. However, if we look past its novelty, tiny houses are a catalyst for fundamental architectural values that speak to an emerging new way of life called “simple living.” As a direct reaction to the financial and housing crashes as well as the impending environmental crisis, people across the globe are voluntarily reducing their space and material possessions. They are building closer to nature and choosing to live more responsibly for a greener and more holistic lifestyle. THM helps facilitate this way of life in many ways. It allows financial freedom from a mortgage payment and high utility bills, is ecologically friendly by building smaller and requiring the consumption of less energy to operate and, most importantly, it enables people to take back control of their time. Less time working to make payments and less time maintaining a large house allows for more time for everything else important in life! A smaller building footprint not only promotes a minimalist lifestyle, it liberates us from any burdens and obligations modern society has set as the basic standards of living.
Tiny houses come in infinite shapes and sizes. Compared to the average American single family home of 2,600 square feet, they range from 100 to 500 square feet. Some are permanent, some are mobile on wheels, and some are nestled in trees above the ground. The ambiguous nature of these structures make it very difficult to be confined to traditional building codes, especially that of zoning and land use regulation (Washington Post). Tiny houses can be built virtually anywhere, bringing a rest to the age-old “location-location-location” debate. As a result, homeowners take on the responsibility to create a spatial experience that harmoniously integrates their home with its surroundings. It echoes Frank Lloyd Wright’s organic architecture teachings, which “blend(s) interiors and exteriors, and create(s) a built environment not separate or dominant from nature but as a unified whole” (architecture.about.com). Based on this design concept, Wright went on to develop a series on homes called Usonian. On a large scale that encompasses all platforms of architecture, this concept has inspired new technologies such as passive solar building design, solar power harvesting, and stormwater management. This allows buildings to coexist with the natural environment for a more sustainable way of living in the modern world. From a THM perspective, integrated green features achieve the same goal. Products such as high performance insulation, solar panels, greywater reuse for gardening, and composting toilets help to maximize functionality without compromising the integrity of it’s the tiny home’s environment. For THM, this elemental design principle has been executed in the smallest scale possible to achieve human comfort.
According to Vitruvius, architecture requires three essential elements. Buildings need to be sturdy, useful and beautiful. In his mind, both form and function were important in their own right. THM has successfully executed this design foundation—tiny houses simultaneously prioritize overall good aesthetics and purposeful space design. As a designer in commercial interiors, that is what I strive to accomplish—an environment that is both the physical embodiment of a company’s vision and one which inspires employees and helps them perform to the best of their abilities. Like all other architectural spaces, the design of tiny homes is impacted by its location and its ultimate purpose (i.e., tree house, summer lodge, college dwelling, etc). Modest amounts of space forces the designer to be more deliberate in decision-making and to pay close attention to detail. I have found that many tiny homes unabashedly display the true integrity of their finishes, especially those that are local, sustainable materials. This once again reinforces the attentiveness to ecological conscientiousness. Finish materials are used to create an atmosphere, evoke an emotion and can provide clever solutions to optimize space usage by creating dual-purpose spaces, multifunctional furniture and built-in equipment and appliances. As an interior designer, the Tiny House Movement satisfies my love for artistic freedom. As a person of only 5’-0” in height, it fulfills my dreams of having everything literally within arms-reach. In my research, I have found that no two tiny houses are perfectly alike. When it comes to design, sky’s the limit!
Among L2Partridge’s broad portfolio, ranging from commercial buildings to residential projects, the Burns Cabin comes to mind. Driven by the client’s need to escape the hubbub of New York City life, Design Principal Bob Little, AIA, was tasked with designing a secluded cabin situated by a pond in rural Pennsylvania. The goals: keep it simple, modern, and under 300 square feet. Based on these requirements and the parameters of the site, the end result is a single multiuse living space, clad with weathered wood planks to aesthetically blend with the environment. The living space includes a full bathroom, small kitchen, murphy bed and small sound studio for the client’s work. Since no air conditioning system was implemented, energy efficient windows penetrate the walls to bring in light and air. An exterior structure encompasses the entire space to frame and showcase the landscape and create an outdoor patio area where floor-to-ceiling glass doors open up for a fluid transition between indoor and outdoor space. It is finished with cement boards on the side and zinc panels on the roof, both sustainable and low-maintenance materials. As you approach, the main walkway leads you directly through the frame structure and draws your eye immediately to the pond. Last but not least, my favorite feature of the Burns Cabin is the hearth. Piercing through the frame structure, the tall masonry fireplace is the main source of heat in the space and becomes the key focal point for the cabin’s entire indoor/outdoor experience.
Now, this is not to say that tiny houses are all rainbows and butterflies. First, the average cost of a tiny house is $200-400 per square feet—way more than your average American home, and that does not include the cost of land. One reason for this upcharge is because experts of this building type encourage building higher-quality for better performance that stands the test of time. In addition, one square foot in a tiny house goes a long way as compared to an average American house. It’s packed with newer, more integrated technology and is dense in functionality. Secondly, depending on the nature of a tiny house, traditional heating, cooling and plumbing systems could be replaced with new alternative and renewable sources of energy that require an entire lifestyle change. Finally, the sheer minimization of space is a deal-breaker for some. I mean, we are a country where “bigger is better.” Tiny houses and simple living cater to a certain demographic but are, nonetheless, intriguing and make us reevaluate our day-to-day living on a macroscopic level.
I realize that tiny houses are not for everyone, nor are they meant to be. If we break down the various attitudes and ideas about tiny home design, a few specific aspects become clear. Tiny homes are efficient in their utilization of space and energy use, often relate to their surroundings by the use of natural materials and finishes, and their design focuses on the basic needs of human life. THM continues to awe us with smart and beautiful designs and pique our interest with an off-the-beaten-track way of living. Stemming from far bigger and more challenging issues at hand, tiny houses and simple living, for some, is a small solution. For me, I think they are onto something big.