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The Big Deal about Tiny Houses

Smartly designed small homes trade quantity of space for quality of life. Check out plans by local architects who are embracing this trend.

Who knew tiny homes would become so big? Not in size, which by definition is less than 500 square feet—sometimes much less. What has mushroomed is the tiny house movement. It has spawned a spate of books, blogs, and TV shows (Tiny House Builders, Tiny House Hunters, Tiny House Nation, and so on). Specialty builders, conferences, and trade shows have sprung up to address a growing market. Last month’s Birmingham Home Show drew crowds with a Tiny Home Village. And this month, the gallery of the American Institute of Architecture’s Birmingham chapter unveils “Living Small,” an international survey of tiny home designs, complemented by ingenious examples from local architects. 

The tiny-home phenomenon is as local as your backyard and as global as the cities represented in the AIA show (New York, Copenhagen, Seoul, Stockholm, and Tokyo). And with land and housing costs so high in many urban areas, tiny homes can be a practical solution. But interest in them is as much romantic as realistic. “They tap into our childhood fascination with playhouses and tree houses,” observes Birmingham architect Jeff Dungan. 

In high-density cities, tiny homes tend to be more like modular micro-apartments with expansive windows, shared living and green spaces, and multi-functional furniture. Those same features are often found in freestanding tiny houses, though they can be more fanciful. The prototypical tiny homesteaders are millennials who, after much online research, design and build their houses themselves (with help from friends) on a trailer for as little as $10,000. Styles range from gingerbread cottages to modernist mini-villas, from steel-clad steampunk pods to whimsical Hobbit huts. It’s a dream come true: a custom starter home that enables a mobile, mortgage-free life. Call it the anti-McMansion. 

“They’re not for everyone, but there is a need for this type of housing,” says architect Garrett Reynolds, who created the Living Small exhibit for the AIA’s Seattle chapter. “It’s about just living in the space you need. Editing and simplifying your life can add value to it.”

 For manufacturer Clayton Homes, architect Jeff Dungan designed five tiny houses, each in a different style and all under 400 square feet. Known for creating grand, high-end houses, Jeff saw it as a challenge “to design by the cubic inch instead of the square foot, to make it like a prime cut of a really nice house,” he says. Twelve-foot ceilings, ample windows, French doors, and careful detailing elevate the designs. Clayton Homes executive Gary Hollingsworth has cited millennials, empty nesters, retirees, and seekers of second homes or guest houses as likely buyers. Most models cost around $100,000.

Squeezing so many big-house features into a tiny footprint can sometimes result in a high cost per square foot, “but the bottom line is still lower,” notes architect Robert Sproull. “And it’s a more sustainable way of living. It takes far less energy and materials to build and power a tiny house.” 

Last year, the International Code Council took steps toward approving tiny-house building codes. Locally, especially in Birmingham’s city core, tiny houses could increase density, affordability, and livability. “We want the Living Small exhibit to encourage people to think about the way we live, now and in the future,” says Rhea Williams, executive director of AIA Birmingham. “With a tiny house, you have less environmental impact, less upkeep, and more disposable income.” 

Big Tips for Tiny Houses

Living small has broad appeal as housing that’s affordable, flexible, sustainable, and (possibly) mobile. Before investing in a tiny house, however, consider these factors:

  • Living in close quarters can fray nerves. Before you buy, try small-space living to see how you like it. For example, spend a few days in a compact vacation cabin.
  • Tiny houses are full of clever storage solutions—under-bed boxes, high shelves and cabinets, wall compartments—but they still require drastic paring-down. Living with less stuff can be liberating, but you have to be ready and able to declutter.
  • Knowing in advance where you plan to put your house can shape its design. A tiny house on a trailer doesn’t have to meet building codes but may be prohibited from some locations as an RV. A tiny house on a permanent foundation offers more design options but may not be allowed as an auxiliary dwelling in an urban backyard. Rural areas are more permissive. Check local building and zoning codes before you commit to a tiny house.
  • Outdoor areas are key to making tiny houses feel larger. Terraces, decks, covered porches, dining pavilions, outdoor kitchens, and outdoor showers. All can expand a tiny house’s living space.
  • As small-scale versions of regular houses, tiny homes require the same level of workmanship. DIY-ers can save some money, but don’t cut corners on plumbing and wiring. No matter who builds your tiny house, make sure it is able to withstand severe weather and (for trailer-built homes) highway towing. — Jeff Book

“This house is perfect for one person, a couple, or a family with young children. The weaving together of openness and privacy allows different types of homeowners to enjoy it.” - Robert Thompson
 

The Retreat

This 400-square-foot house makes a perfect weekend getaway just about anywhere: beach, lake, or mountains. It would also work well as a guest house or studio in a backyard. The exterior is designed to blend with the landscape while distinguishing itself from the main house.

“The problem with tiny houses is that they are so tiny,” says architect Robert Thompson. To combat the size, the house has folding doors in the living room and bedroom that open the entire home to a covered patio, creating a single, large space. The living area expands out from the house to include the patio and the scenery beyond. The home has the flexibility of opening the living area but keeping the bedroom area closed. As a bonus, a ladder accesses a sleeping/storage loft that is private from the rest of the house.

Thompson Architecture 

Robert Thompson AIA
Office: 205.414.1272 • Cell: 205.999.6461 

“It wasn’t that long ago that people lived in much smaller houses. You can reduce square footage using smart design and end up with a jewel box of a home.” - David Blackmon

Garden Party

This 500-square-foot house lives larger than its size suggests. Architects David Blackmon and Chris Rogers wanted to create a home that has a sense of permanence. “It’s more home and less recreational vehicle,” David says. Avoiding the design for a linear home that would fit on a truck bed, the architects chose a wider shape and incorporated a relatively spacious octagonal living space (17´4˝ x 17´4˝). And instead of making interior appointments miniature, they opted for a spacious feel with large arched openings, a wood-burning fireplace, and the heightened exposed wood ceiling. The shape of the structure, the arched windows, and the Alabama native materials such as stone, wood, and steel make it an extremely attractive focal point in a landscape. The adjacent terrace allows the living space to expand outside. This tiny home would be perfect as a backyard guest house, pool house, or small vacation home. 

Blackmon Rogers Architects LLC

David Blackmon, AIA • Chris Rogers, AIA
205.837.4886 

Lake Living

(2nd floor not shown on plan)

 

To give this tiny lake house a greater presence, architects Robert Sproull and Dan Fritts broke it up into two separate structures and designed a second story on one of the buildings. Finishing details and the orientation of the structures help facilitate views while offering outdoor living space. The L-shaped plan, along with a raised platform and planters, frames a large outdoor gathering area that provides the owner a great deal of flexibility. The space could serve as a play yard or living/dining area. The cantilevered space on the two-story building creates a shelter over an additional outdoor area below. Large swinging doors break down the delineation between inside and outside, while large windows bring the views inside. 

In total, this plan is a little less than 500 square feet, but with two baths and a sleeping loft, there’s plenty of room for a couple to entertain on a weekend and host overnight guests.

5th Dimension

Robert Sproull, AIA • Dan Fritts, AIA
713.518.6947

“The central space in this 300-square-foot tiny house opens entirely to the outdoors with pivot and folding doors, inviting the breeze from the water and creating a shady spot to retreat from sunny afternoons.” — Taylor Plosser Davis 
 

Dog Trot

The house is designed to accommodate two people but could certainly allow for temporary sleeping in the living space—especially with pullout sofas. 

 

The dogtrot house, a part of our Alabama architectural vernacular, was an appealing model to use as a tiny house for its formal simplicity. In the main living area, pivot and folding doors open onto a deck, expanding the living area out to a wide front porch. Stairs that run the width of the porch provide casual seating and lead to the yard below. A large fireplace that could be doubled on the back of the house makes the living space comfortable on cool nights.

Board-and-batten siding and a standing-seam metal roof are evocative of traditional lake cottages. This tiny lake house is designed to accommodate sleeping and living on the same level. Library ladders access storage above the sleeping and kitchen areas, while an outdoor closet provides storage for toys and gear.

Taylor Plosser Davis

Taylor Plosser Davis, AIA
205.623.5136 // taylor@tpdarchitect.com