Best Small Home 2018: Small House Has It All
A little house on an urban infill lot leaves room for gardens and play, and lives larger than its diminutive footprint.
Synopsis: The 2018 Best Small Home Award goes to Duncan McPherson and Margaret Chandler of Samsel Architects for designing a 816-sq.-ft. home that makes sensible use of a difficult lot. The 0.2-acre property slopes steeply away from the street, so the house was sited on the low portion of the lot to create intimate spaces for the screened porch and yard, with a simple shed roof that opens up toward the road. Because the lender was loathe to back a 500-sq.-ft. house, the homeowners upsized their plans and included a loft accessed by ladder. The article includes eight design lessons from a small house, including the use of storage solutions, durable materials, light, and bonus spaces.
When new clients Dave and Ali approached us to design a tiny house on an awkward, urban infill lot, we were excited by the challenge, but skeptical that the project would make it past the conceptual stage. They had a tight budget and a 0.2-acre parcel, which sloped steeply away from the street, and wanted to build a 500-sq.-ft. house, leaving some land for a miniature farm. After meeting Dave and Ali, we could tell they were serious and wanted professional help to create an efficient floor plan and make the most of their tricky lot.
They wanted the home to reflect their values of a simple life with less stuff, but realized the need to balance these things against the practicalities of modern living: laundry machines, computers, a TV, and amenities for entertaining friends. Their home life centered on cooking great meals, gardening, and raising chickens, and a fully functional kitchen was a must-have. Their larger design goals included lots of outdoor living space and daylight, as well as privacy.
The house’s placement on the lot was critical to meeting these goals. The land is in an up-and-coming neighborhood, one block away from shops and restaurants, and came with its own set of challenges: car traffic, a steep dropoff from the road, a small buildable area, and a perennial creek at the rear. We quickly realized that the parking needed to stay tight to the street to minimize the cost of a driveway and to conserve land for other uses. Siting the house on the low portion of the lot partially screens it from the street, and creates intimate spaces for the screened porch and yard. A simple shed roof that opens up toward the road makes room for windows that bring in natural light from that side of the house. The living spaces and porch are oriented toward the private and wooded back portion of the land. With its ceiling following the plane of the roof, wall of windows, and white interior, the living space feels large and light. Terracing the gardens into the slope saved the remaining flat areas for outdoor living.
Creating functional back-of-house space was another design challenge. We settled on dedicating one room to multiple functions: laundry, bathroom, mudroom, storage, and back entry. Packing these together meant reconsidering the traditional compartments of a home. Maximizing wall space for storage and combining the floor area of spaces for circulation meant designing and considering every last inch of space. After careful assembly of this design puzzle, all of these separate functions interconnect in the space comfortably.
There was one hiccup—and it’s a lesson for anyone who wants a tiny home: the lender was loath to back a 500-sq.-ft. house. To secure financing, Dave and Ali had to upsize their plans. We were able to adjust the roofline and massing of the house to add 300 sq. ft., including a habitable loft of more than 200 sq. ft., without adding much to the construction costs. The loft, accessed by a ladder, became critical for the house to meet Dave and Ali’s needs when their family suddenly grew by one. The baby took over the bedroom, and Dave and Ali moved their bed into the loft.
The construction budget was such that every stick of wood was considered. One problem inherent in small homes is the economy of scale; the cost per square foot for small homes is typically higher than for larger homes. We worked with the builder during the design phase to talk through the best assemblies and most cost-effective material options. We settled on a conventional framing system on a crawlspace foundation, which provided tight but much-needed storage space. We minimized constructed corners and maximized connectivity from inside spaces to the screened porch. This inside-outside connection allows the house to live larger for at least three seasons of the year.
Energy efficiency was also a priority, and spray-foam insulation was used to create a tight building envelope. The small-house design is perfect for a minisplit heating and cooling system with two wall units, one in the living area and one in the bedroom. A ceiling fan in the living area and an exhaust fan in the bathroom help circulate the conditioned air throughout the house. Simple interior finishes and Ikea cabinets helped keep costs down, while fiber-cement siding and a metal roof bring durability to the exterior.
For more photos, floor plans, and information, please click the View PDF button below — and also click here for a slideshow featuring this home.