Pocket Pads

With rising energy costs and the scarcity of raw land, the era of the McMansion may slowly be coming to a close. In 2006 the average U.S. single-family home clocked in around 2,500 square feet, up nearly 50 percent from 28 years ago. And yet more residential architects report square footage in home design to be decreasing than increasing, according to a 2007 American Institute of Architects survey. That’s only fitting as the size of the U.S. household continues to shrink: with 2.6 members under a roof today, the average has dropped two whole bodies in the last century. A handful of architects are betting that at least some of the singles, couples, and empty nesters who are clamoring for smaller, more efficient homes are ready for radical solutions, ranging from bread-box-size houses to entire neighborhoods tucked into what are often considered single lots.

“More people are looking at tiny homes as full-time residences,” says Jay Shafer, owner of the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, based in Sebastopol, California. “The way we live our lives has changed.” Since 2000 the architect has been building homes as small as 70 square feet, many with green-certified lumber and gravity-fed plumbing. Just last year he toiled away on his designs solo; today he needs five full-time employees to help meet demand.

Shafer lives in the 96-square-foot Epu home, with a sleeping loft, a desktop that transforms into a dining room table, and a heating furnace the size of a stoplight. Photovoltaic panels provide what little power is needed, and framing members are spaced 24 inches apart instead of the standard 16 inches, to save trees. “Recycling can only go so far,” Shafer says. “If you don’t use anything in the first place, you’re much better off.” His newest model, Weebee, ticks in at 110 square feet and costs $46,000 fully built.

Another dwelling that can be shipped fully assembled is the 350-square-foot MiniHome. Designed to function year-round in any climate, this ecological trailer is powered by a solar, wind, and battery package and works completely off-grid, says Graham Smith of Toronto-based Altius Architecture. The MiniHome taps a hundredth the electrical power of a conventional home, sleeps four comfortably, and can be towed anywhere a trailer will cart it. “Home is where you park it,” says Smith, who has already won over homeowners in Colorado and California.

But it’s architect Ross Chapin who takes the tiny-home concept the farthest—by clustering a dozen or more of them into “pocket neighborhoods.” Completed last year, his two-and-a-half-square-block de-vel­opment in Port Townsend, Washington, weaves together 28 small homes and cottages with common courtyards and a network of walking paths. No cottage is larger than 1,000 square feet, and parking is relegated to the perimeters to maximize chance interactions during the walk home. Though his houses may not be as tiny as Shafer’s or Smith’s, Chapin is challenging buyers to substitute personal space with a sense of community. By expanding residents’ outdoor experiences, he argues, the need for vast indoor areas shrinks. “Sustainability has a social dimension,” Chapin says.

These advocates of “scaled living” may soon have help: a smattering of local governments across the country have begun to consider enacting ordinances to limit the size of new and remodeled homes in established neighborhoods. “As our society moves into the post-peak-oil era, these new codes will become the norm,” Chapin says. “Not only will they help us live with a lighter footprint, they will foster more livable, walkable neighborhoods.”

Find out more facts about this story on the Reference Page: April 2008

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