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Monday, April 27, 2009

Book Review: Tiny Houses

Tiny Houses by Mimi Zeiger
Rizzoli, 2009
Hardcover, 208 pages

The decision to live sustainably comes into play at different scales, from light bulbs to the distance between home, work and shopping. Three broad scales can be noted: consumer products, buildings and the larger natural and urban context. The first encompasses household goods, the foods we eat and processes, like knowingly using canvas bags when going to the store or taking short showers. The last involves where we choose to live and work, a decision that impacts mainly how much driving is necessary, but also our level of exercise and our social well-being. The second, the focus of this book, involves our home, its size, energy usage and other factors affecting the inhabitants' ecological footprints. All are important and can be seen as part of a larger web of life that fails to see a differentiation between large and small scales. Everything affects everything else. So to focus on one aspect paints an incomplete picture, but in this case the subject is an invitation for changes at the other scales.
Mimi Zeiger carefully titles her collection of 36 projects so it is clear that the trend of small, or not-so-big houses -- a reaction to bloated McMansions in the suburban realm -- is not small enough. The houses here range in size from just over 1,000sf (93sm) to only 10sf (1sm). City dwellers could argue that the first is hardly tiny, but compared to the average American house size -- 2,330sf (216sm) in 2004 -- the difference is larger than the biggest of the tiniest here, and the majority here are less than half of that. The book is arranged from tiny to tiniest, with a handy area box on each page (with the teeniest font I've ever seen in print, either an editorial error or a joke, playing on the book's title). This arrangement clearly illustrates that the smaller a house becomes, the more creativity is required in its design. It's fairly easy to create a 1,000sf house, but the architect needs to stretch his or her brain muscles to develop an abode 1/10th that size. This creativity obviously extends to the occupants, who must do without certain things, the third R in the reduce-reuse-recycle triad Zeiger discusses in her introduction.
How this middle of the three scales I mentioned impacts the other two is dealt with directly and indirectly here. The reduce aspect of living in a tiny house surely means less consumer goods in less space, a fact not lost on Zeiger, who also mentions the reduces energy required for powering and conditioning tiny houses. Indirectly is the fit into the larger natural and urban context. A number of projects find themselves within the former, like the cabin on the cover by Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen Architects. While these houses fail to effectively address the largest scale of sustainability, the antithesis can be found here in almost equal numbers. Great examples are Korteknie Stuhlmacher Architecten's Parasite Las Palmas, Atelier Tekuto's Lucky Drops and Recetas Urbanas's Puzzle House. They illustrate how the potential of reducing one's own ecological footprint can extend to one's neighbors, to the betterment of the most people in the smallest space.

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