Small stuff

I’ve been reading lately about the tiny house and small house movements. As a person of what I like to call space-saving physique, I find it almost a personal vindication that Americans are beginning to question whether bigger is better when it comes to our earthly footprint (“I take a 7 and a half,” as Bullwinkle once said, although admittedly he was talking about hat size).

There don’t seem to be any official definitions for what constitutes a small house nowadays. A house the size of the first house my wife and I bought back in the late 1970s would probably qualify – it was about 950 square feet. I have seen several articles that describe houses that size and even a little bigger as small houses. A generation ago, they would have been considered normal size.

Tiny houses are another scale altogether. Most are so small they have to be carefully designed to get around local code specifications for minimum house size. (It turns out putting wheels on a house gets you exempted from many code provisions, so some of these tiny houses are actually elegant little trailers.) Some of the tiny houses I’ve seen featured in stories are truly tiny – one was barely bigger than its owner, who pulled it from place to place with a bicycle.

Today’s best small houses are designed by architects specifically to be small, it seems. They are made using high-end materials and from the safety of my larger home appear quite comfortable. The key seems to be designing in enough storage and private space for each occupant.

Architects are needed, apparently, to make sure the available space is put to the best use. There are lots of clever built-ins, for instance. They also intensively use the same space for several different purposes, so it takes an experienced designer to make sure there are no bottlenecks or conflicts.

The ideas aren’t really new. The most famous American architect of the twentieth century, Frank Lloyd Wright, designed a number of small houses. Wright took a slightly different approach than the current small house architects I’ve read about, though. Current architects start by identifying your stuff, then designing an efficient house to hold it all. Wright, on the other hand, designed what he considered a perfect small house along with the stuff that would go into it. You couldn’t go out and buy a chair or a table to put into “his” house; you were expected to live within the perfect setting he created.

One client complained that the kitchen was too small. Ridiculous, said Wright. It’s as big as the kitchen in a railroad dining car, and railroad chefs serve thousands from those.

Today’s architects of small houses would be more collaborative. They would start by asking how you use your kitchen, how many people work and eat there. Then they would work to fit those facts into an efficient, space-maximizing plan.

Older small houses like our first house certainly did not follow either model. Space was determined by whatever happened to be captured inside the cost-delimited roof and exterior walls. The kitchen was designed to fit the planned plumbing runs for the bathroom and the space next to the living room. While efficient use of materials and builder’s labor was a major consideration, energy efficiency was not. We had to cover the windows with plastic every winter to keep the wind from blowing through the house. I had to hose down the air conditioning unit on hot days to get the interior temperature below 95, even when it had a full load of freon.

Still, the old houses worked for their time. For example, storage was easy in our first house. We didn’t have much stuff, so it fit quite nicely into the available space. There were three small bedrooms, a den and a kitchen, even an extra half-bath and a one-car garage, so Joyce and I could easily find pouting space when needed.

Things changed when our daughter was born, of course. Our quantity of stuff grew suddenly and exponentially. We had to let go some of our long-held stuff. I even gave up my sacred collection of every graded paper from the sixth grade, lovingly archived in the actual notebook I used that year. (Long story – let’s just say it seemed important at the time.)

Today our house is more than twice that size and feels too small at times. That’s partly because we share it temporarily with our daughter, our son-in-law, and our granddaughter. Needless to say we feel stuffed to the rafters because Joyce and I had spread our stuff evenly through the house. Then our guests brought their stuff with them when they moved in. Apparently one thing that makes a house seem too small is a sudden influx of people and their stuff.

I have resolved that I will look through my collection of stuff to see if there are any more of those things, like my sixth-grade archives, that are no longer worth the space they occupy, but even sorting through your stuff takes a certain amount of space. So far I haven’t found enough room to find things to throw away. We have inadvertently created a gridlock of stuff.

Some days I dreamily picture myself living comfortably in one of those 200 square foot, energy efficient, elegant beauties I’ve seen in stories about modern small houses. In fact, on some particularly crowded days I can envision myself living in a “personal storage building” down at the local U-Haul center, surrounded by just my stuff (and no one else’s), with all the pouting room one man would ever need.

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