Building smaller homes starting to take hold


Book Information

“Taunton’s Small Houses” by the editors of Fine Homebuilding magazine; Taunton Press; 2012; $21.95; softcover, 238 pages; 800-888-8286;

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Almost every big cultural shift with any staying power tends to arrive the same way — through a small group of forward-thinking individuals who recognize and chronicle the incoming tide for what it is or perhaps even usher it in before the rest of us notice our feet getting wet.

This pattern is generally true of housing trends in the U.S., and is particularly true of the movement toward smaller homes — an embracing of shrinkage that has never been at home in the mainstream American psyche.

As a nation, we tend to embrace growth, expansion and all things “mega.” Scaling back carries a negative connotation associated with jobs and the national economy, and often involves issues of displacement, loss and other involuntary changes we can’t control.

With housing design, the dynamic of downsizing is different; it reflects deliberate and often values-driven choices that homeowners and homebuyers can make freely, and typically offers gains to offset the so-called sacrifices involved.

Now that we’re a couple of decades into the life span of the small-home ethic, the quirky architects and environmentalists are no longer voices in the wilderness. More Americans realize that sustainability makes sense.

Just as important, we all lived through an economic meltdown that mercilessly unveiled the perils of excess — and we now better appreciate the mature aspects of housing designs that favor quality over quantity, where smart and efficient trumps showy and impressive.

For years, the editors of Fine Homebuilding magazine have been documenting and promoting smart developments in the building trades, and now they have produced a book that showcases the virtues of these small-house footprints: Taunton’s Small Houses.

The timing is great for a guidebook like this. For starters, the information is less theoretical and more hands-on, because practitioners of the small-house craft — builders and owners alike — have had plenty of time to try different ideas, seeing what works and what doesn’t. And second, there are far more examples of professionally designed, well-crafted small homes to feature, conveying both inspiration and technical expertise.

Before delving into those examples, the book starts with an outline of 10 basic principles for small-house design. Here’s a sampling:

• Create distinct zones: So with a small home, you want to camouflage the modest footprint by leaving big open spaces, right? Sounds sensible, but separate zones with varying sightlines and distinct boundaries actually work better to lead the eye around, and that visual movement helps create the sense of a larger structure.

Some subspaces should serve as gateways to larger rooms, and it’s important to create a clear distinction between public spaces such as kitchen and living room and private bedrooms and baths.

• Create contrast with scale: Another proven but counterintuitive technique for designing and outfitting a smaller home is to vary the scale of architectural elements and furnishings. A massive fireplace surround can be a grand gesture that makes the space live large rather than seeming to dwarf the surrounding area.

Likewise, a large window can make a room light-filled and expansive, and also give the eye a path through to outdoor spaces. Those are the signals your brain reads as “big,” even if the literal square footage area is small.

• Create multifunctional spaces: Can you combine a bath and laundry area to get more mileage out of a floor plan, or use built-in storage to make a hallway more functional? Can you define a small zone in or near a bedroom as a reading nook?

All of these “tricks” make you feel like you’re getting more livability out of a home. If you can vary the tasks possible in a space, that versatility helps counter any sense of being cramped or limited.

There are many more strategies to be gleaned from the book’s “principles” section, and the many real-life examples of small homes and additions in section two offer an exciting tour of those possibilities made flesh.

Of course, there are some reality checks that eventually come into play: The typical cost-per-square-foot of the featured homes and projects is much steeper than a more typical homebuyer would expend on a conventional home. To be fair, these costs reflect high-quality design and building work, but as yet these are not dwellings for average income-earners.

Also, the cap for “small” home size was pegged at around 2,300 square feet, which by most standards is a generously sized dwelling and far bigger than the average American home of just a half-century ago.

These are minor gripes, admittedly, about a thoroughly enjoyable book that offers a refreshing take on what it means to build and live in a satisfying home that is kinder to the planet and everything on it.

Whether in woodworking, homebuilding, gardening or cooking, the Taunton folks always feature workmanship that makes you want to roll up your sleeves and make something great happen, and this book is no exception.

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