Big Little House by Donna Kacmar shows that tiny houses are a design strategy in their own right.

These 20 Dwellings Show Just How Complex and Brilliant Tiny Houses Can Be

These 20 Dwellings Show Just How Complex and Brilliant Tiny Houses Can Be

The Eye
Slate’s design blog.
July 13 2015 3:16 PM

These 20 Dwellings Show Just How Complex Tiny Houses Can Be

The Bayley Loft
The Sky Ranch designed by the Miller Hull Partnership is an 800-square-foot residence built on top of a 62,000-square-foot warehouse in Seattle.

Photo by Benjamin Benschneider

The tiny house trend has awakened all sorts of collective fantasies about conscious downsizing, bringing back the age-old desire for a cabin in the woods, a cottage in a meadow, or maybe an off-grid eco-pod perched atop an urban high rise.

But in our default bigger-is-better worldview, the tiny house is often seen as a shrunken, low-budget version of the so-called American dream houses that have become the norm.

In Big Little House by Donna Kacmar, the architect and associate professor at the University of Houston considers the unique challenges of designing and building modest dwellings and what those small projects reveal about architecture.

The Bayley Loft
The Bayley Loft
Warm wood was used on the interior of the Sky Ranch to ensure a homey feel despite the industrial setting.

Photos by Benjamin Benschneider

The Bayley Loft
Zoning regulations allowed for a “caretaker’s unit” in an otherwise industrial zone. The house was wrapped in metal cladding to reflect light and help it blend into neighboring warehouses.

Photo by Benjamin Benschneider

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Kacmar offers a brief postwar history of small-house building, including Philip Johnson’s New Canaan, Connecticut, Glass House from 1949 and Le Corbusier’s 1951 Le Cabanon in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, France. The book focuses on 20 contemporary houses, sheds, writers’ studios, music rooms, and other structures under 1,000 square feet, all designed by architects in North America.

19.03 Nested House-north elevation
Nested House designed by LOJO Architecture is an 895-square-foot guesthouse on a large lot in a suburb of Houston.

Photo by Luis Ayala

19.06 Nested House-outdoor kitchen and dining porch
The guest house's outdoor kitchen and dining room is an L-shaped structure that wraps the building and helps to deflect sound from a nearby freeway from the sleeping and living spaces inside.

Photo by Luis Ayala

19.04 Nested House-living room looking east towards felt clad wall
The client, who is from Kazakhstan, originally asked for a space that looked like saunas in his home country. The architects put the sauna at the core of the house and built it out in layers to create an indoor/outdoor house that took advantage of natural light

Photo by Luis Ayala

With photographs, floor plans, and information from the architects, Kacmar demonstrates that small dwellings are not always dollhouse-size knockoffs of larger ones. When thoughtfully designed, they are painstakingly integrated into their surroundings; deeply reflective of the priorities of the people who live in them; and compelled to address issues of space, light, and form in highly specific ways. Small structures, she writes, are not necessarily simple nor cheap. Building small can be a deliberate design strategy in its own right.

05.04 Writers Studio-east elevation
A writer’s studio designed by Cooper Joseph Studio in Ghent, New York, “provides a special place for one person to read, write, listen to music, and gaze out towards several framed views,” Kacmar writes.

Photo by Elliott Kaufman

05.05 Writers Studio-fireplace weights the end
The interior of the house focuses on warm, solid walnut wood—used for flooring, wall cladding, sliding doors, furniture, and even the bathroom sink—as well as black slate in the form of pebbles and tiles. The exterior is clad with cedar siding in varying widths and stained ebony black to evoke a shadow in the woods.

Photo by Elliott Kaufman

05.03 Writers Studio-south elevation
The studio is a simple wood-framed box that features large corner windows to blur the distinction between inside and out.

Photo by Elliott Kaufman

Kristin Hohenadel's writing on design has appeared in publications including the New York Times, Fast Company, Vogue, Elle Decor, Lonny, and Apartment Therapy.