Essential home reading: The New Small House

By Dan Gregory

This recently published book by architect Katie Hutchison offers

If you are thinking of building, you must read The New Small House, by architect Katie Hutchison (Taunton, 2015). She defines the small house as 1,700 sq. ft. or less, which is roughly the size of the New England house that she and her husband Chris call home. I think her ten small-house design strategies are especially useful -- they offer a disciplined approach to analyzing what makes a small house feel larger than it is, and by extension what makes good design. Katie's book offers a wealth of examples for each strategy and shows houses by the water, in the country, in the village, in the town, and there is a final section on retreats. Think of the book as an extension of Sarah Susanka's famous Not So Big House series of publications. Use the principles to help you find the perfect house plan for your needs and lot!

Building on Katie's work, I'll show how some of her strategies apply to designs in Houseplans.com's own inventory.

"Be Sensitive to the Site. Organize your small house and outbuildings in relation to the natural feature or view." In other words see how your design has the potential to shape outdoor space. Katie's statement reminds me of a famous headline from Sunset Magazine: "They live all over the lot." That's what a good house does -- it allows you to maximize the land on which it sits.

"Pay attention to the third dimension." Here she means the vertical dimension; raised or lowered ceilings can create feelings of lift or intimacy.

See how the lower ceiling of the dining bay in Plan 479-11 by Peter Brachvogel AIA and Stella Carosso creates a room-in-within-a-room.

"Make a big statement." A small house should not be just a collection of small rooms -- some elements, like large well placed windows, or a single larger space, can make the entire design feel more spacious. As she says: "It all comes down to balance."

The lookout tower on Plan 931-1 by Butler Armsden Architects adds memorable character and large scale vertical surprise to what is actually a diminutive 785 sq. ft. cabin, and is balanced by the diagonal of the shed roof over the living room.

"Create multipurpose spaces." This is something we have mentioned often in the Time To Build blog -- overlapping functions can create a feeling of spaciousness, as happens, say, in a well-proportioned living/dining/kitchen,

as you can see in Plan 890-1 by architect Nir Pearlson, where living area, entry, seating alcove and kitchen all overlap while still being well defined architecturally. 

"Shape pockets for privacy." This rings absolutely true to me and is a feature of many houses by architects like Charles Moore or William Turnbull, who were among the original designers of The Sea Ranch on the Northern California coast, where window seats abound.

"Bring the indoors out and the outdoors in." A phrase often heard around Houseplans.com, which is another way of saying be sensitive to the site or lot. Good design is about connection -- a well designed porch,

patio, or deck allows a house to expand in good weather, as the porch in Plan 891-3 by architect Cathy Schwabe does. 

"Select a succinct finish palette." In other words, simplify the materials and patterns to avoid an overly busy look -- which a small house can make more intense. She writes: "A succinct finish palette will help tie spaces together and allow them to read as a larger singular space rather than a cacophony of divided spaces."

"Invest in quality materials that matter...Invest in quality materials where they matter most to you without breaking the bank. Choose serviceable but more economical materials elsewhere." Always good advice!

"Design distinctive details that relate to the big picture." This somewhat more subtle and rarified strategy (which to my mind actually illustrates how an architect thinks!) is about integrating the design so that one distinctive feature or element might relate to the house as a whole. An especially successful example of such

a strategy appears in this barn-shaped cabin, Plan 452-3 by architect David Wright, where corrugated metal shutters match the siding and slide on a barn door track. I have known some architects to get carried away by this strategy -- but again, balance is the key.

For a collection of Small House Plans click here.

March 30, 2016


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