Monday, March 21, 2011

Book Review: Two Books on Small Houses

Micro Green: Tiny Houses in Nature by Mimi Zeiger
Rizzoli, 2011
Hardcover, 224 pages

Narrow Houses: New Directions in Efficient Design by Avi Friedman
Princeton Architectural Press, 2010
Hardcover, 240 pages

A common way to collect and present designs of contemporary architecture in book form is by building type. And easily the most popular type is residential architecture, particularly single-family houses. A search on Amazon for "architecture houses" yields over 14,000 book results, but "architecture office buildings" only 716, and "architecture stadiums" only 132. For those who digest these sorts of contemporary collections, these results are hardly a surprise, but they go to show how pervasive and important considerations of houses are (I'm guessing the minority of those 14,000-odd titles are geared towards architecture) and how diverse the subject is. My point here is that one needs a particular hook when adding to the literature on residential architecture. These two books stake out precise areas that then dictate the types of houses that fit in their pages.

Micro Green is Brooklyn-based freelancer Mimi Zeiger's follow-up to Tiny Houses from 2009. In the earlier book the houses range in area from two digits to four, and roughly the same applies in the new title, which starts with a 43-sf (4 sm) "Mobile Eco Second Home" and ends with a 1,722-sf (160 sm) villa in Vals, Switzerland. In between the 34 other projects are arranged accordingly, from micro to tiny to small to not-so-big. Yet as the full title of Zeiger's latest makes clear, the focus of the collection is not just size but eco-conscious living and a Thoreau-esque retreat into nature. (One must turn to Tiny Houses for city living.)

The collection is quite diverse in terms of design and geography, but most are quite photogenic, the hand of talented architects. A couple houses have been featured on my web pages previously (Rolling Huts, Chen House), and Zeiger's book influenced me with three projects creatively incorporating logs. Yet two projects, Michael Janzen's Tiny Free House and Derek and Dustin Diedrickson's Backwoods Skyscraper, stand out from the rest because they are not self consciously architecture with a capital A. They are respectively built from shipping palettes and salvaged doors, windows, and plywood, and they exhibit more than just a DIY aesthetic; they are DIY living, off the grid, for oneself and one's family. While they look like they might not support day-to-day living, they do just that. Ironically many of the other projects are not houses per se; they are cabins or other shelters for short-term living, not contemporary examples of Thoreau's move to the woods.

Narrow Houses by McGill University Professor Avi Friedman also looks at small houses (not nearly as small as Micro Green), "ecologically sensitive homes ... no more than 25 feet (7.6 meters) in width." Infill lots in cities come to mind, but townhouses comprise only nine of the 28 projects collected here. The rest are detached dwellings, some in urban conditions but most removed from the confines that reduce the benefits of building a narrow house, mainly the cross-ventilation on the long sides that is almost impossible to achieve with infill houses. That the majority of the projects are small houses (most are under 1,500 sf / 140 sm) on large plots of land points to a responsibility on the part of clients and architects towards reducing house sizes and increasing performance in terms of sun and wind. This also points to a reconsideration of the suburban ideal, the large energy-hungry home surrounded by lawn. Lessons towards this shift can be gleaned from these project, just as lessons towards dealing with tight urban lots (especially in terms of natural light) can be found in the townhouse chapter.

Following the presentation of the 28 projects are four thorough essays by Friedman: design principles, site and plan considerations, interiors, and a historical chronology of narrow-front homes. While this last section is geared at a lay audience more than architects, the latter benefit from their inclusion in the book, as various considerations towards dealing with narrow lots and designing narrow houses are collected in one place. These essays can be seen as an outcome of the efforts of McGill's Affordable Homes program, which Friedman heads; all then informs the selection of the preceding projects. Together the writing and case studies offer valuable information and precedents for architects and clients aiming to build a narrow house either out of circumstance or responsibility.