Listen to this article
When it comes to size we should design and build “as far as you can see,” says Arata Isozaki, and to “the height of the sky”. The 82-year-old Japanese architect, whose work includes museums and sporting arenas, is not suggesting we cover the planet with gargantuan buildings. On the contrary, these are his musings on some of his smallest works – three outdoor concrete “bedrooms” in California’s Mojave desert, each measuring just nine sq metres. They have “the desert as a floor, the sky as a ceiling, and no walls but unframed landscape,” he says.
The quote comes from Small Architecture Now!, a new book published by Taschen. In architecture today, small is big, although the trend is one born out of necessity. “When the money disappears more small structures are created,” posits the author, Philip Jodidio. A bonus is that “small buildings often provide architects a degree of freedom that cannot be obtained in gigantic public or corporate projects”.
Take, for example, Hut on Sleds, a cuboid wooden holiday home on a beach in New Zealand. It measures just 35 sq metres – it could fit on a tennis court seven times over with room to spare – yet sleeps a family of five. As the “hut” is in a coastal erosion zone it had to be designed as a temporary structure: it can be slid off the beach, placed on a barge and relocated (though not quite so easily as it appears in the book. “The farmer’s tractor was the only one we could find on the day we were taking photos, it really needs a much bigger one to move it,” says architect Ken Crosson, of Auckland-based Crosson Clarke Carnachan Architects). Although the rainwater-harvesting, toilet-composting, fully demountable cabin has a small environmental footprint, it is not a lightweight hut; in fact, its wooden frontage folds away to reveal double-height, steel-framed windows that open up to a vista of the sea. “It is life-enhancing . . . with a direct and dramatic connection to the ocean beyond, while the living area flows easily on to the beach,” says Crosson.
With its eye-catching and environmentally sound design, it is no surprise that “Hut on Sleds” won a 2014 Architizer A+ award in the Living Small category. The client’s “modest budget meant a modest size,” says Crosson. “We love a challenge. It was a case of ‘if we don’t need the space, we won’t build it’ – like a caravan or boat, with a place for everything and everything in its place.”
As the world becomes more populated and urban, homes will become smaller. In Japan, with its culture of small tea houses, architects excel at tiny homes. Some feature in Small Architecture Now!, including properties that have been shoehorned into gaps and others that seem to accept smallness gracefully with Isozaki’s philosophy of letting nature take centre stage.
Take Sou Fujimoto’s House K, with its sloping roof garden that “expands the line of sight toward the woods that spread to the west”. In a calm residential area between Osaka and Kobe, the small, all-white house is designed with access to what Fujimoto calls the “mountain-like garden” from all levels within. The challenge of a small space, says the 42-year-old architect, is to “balance openness with privacy and create a diverse, joyful place in a limited space”. Another of his small homes, House NA, completed in 2010 in a quiet Tokyo neighbourhood, has tiny outdoor ledge gardens where residents can – literally – hang about; a play-like “climbing frame” theme he employed for London’s 2013 Serpentine Pavilion.
Even tiny houses in busy streets can bring the big outdoors in. A slender Tokyo residence trades internal space for views of nature. The home, with a footprint of just 25 sq metres, is angled to the street so that “a wide and deep view is acquired and you can see the neighbour’s cherry tree”. 63.02, named after the angle to the road, is the smallest house that Jo Nagasaka, of Tokyo-based Schemata Architects, has designed.
By contrast, as if despairing with their concrete surroundings, other small city properties retreat from busy streets behind artistic perforated steel grilles, such as Shuhei Endo’s Rooftecture OT2 in Osaka and Portuguese architect José Cadilhe’s House 77 in Povoa de Varzim, Portugal.
Most homes that feature in Small Architecture Now! are bespoke private residences, their costs and clients “not disclosed”, but small architecture is not always so glamorous.
As cities evolve into being less car-centric there are even those who envisage a future where we convert redundant multistorey car parks into stacks of micro-homes. In the US, students of Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) have designed three different minuscule “SCADpads” that each fit on to a single parking space on a parking “deck” in Atlanta. Volunteers will be living in them until June. At just 12.5 sq metres, it will be a challenge. “The home becomes an extension of your personal envelope,” says Christian Sottile, dean of the school of building arts. He sounds like Henry David Thoreau, the 19th-century philosopher and author who, for two years, lived in a 150 sq ft cabin that he built in the woods of Concord, Massachusetts. In Walden, he describes a home as an “outer garment” and wrote wistfully of his simple, pared-down existence.
Small houses can be so simple that, like Thoreau, we do not need a professional architect. In fact, there is a growing “tiny house” movement of self-builders in the US – and not just among urban singles but families too.
On a three-acre plot in Floyd, Virginia, Hari Berzins, her husband Karl and their two children, Ella (11) and Archer (nine) have lived “mortgage-free” for three years in a house they built themselves. It measures just 2.4 metres by 6.4 metres and has a mezzanine floor of two bedrooms with only 0.9 metres of headroom. The recession initially forced them to live small but the experience has had other rewards.
“Living without a mortgage has enabled us to shift to more meaningful work,” says Hari who writes the blog tinyhousefamily.com and runs online courses on how to build a mortgage-free home. “We have more time to be with each other and our children. Stripping away the excess has helped us focus on what brings us joy,” she says.
In rural Staffordshire, on a plot of land where she keeps hens and pigs, Liz Moffitt, 49, rents a historic, Grade II-listed, one-up, one-down octagonal house with mullioned windows and an ogee roof. About 24 sq metres in total, her toilet, hip-bath and sink are right next to her bed. “I love it here. I’d rather live here than on top of other people in a big modern flat in the village,” she says.
Such comments might cause dismay at the Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba). Its HomeWise campaign has been lobbying for national minimum size standards of 50 sq metres for new one-bedroom homes. Riba points out that the UK has the smallest houses in western Europe (probably exacerbated by the fact that the British housing market focuses on the number of bedrooms rather than floor area.) “Pocket-sized homes are a symptom of a failing market and government needs to intervene by setting minimum space standards in order to protect the public,” says Will Fox, Riba’s public affairs manager. “We need urgent action to tackle the housing crisis, but a race to the bottom on the size and quality of new homes is not the way to go about it.”
“Britain’s smallest house”, measuring 3.05 metres by 1.8 metres and 3.1 metres high (with two floors), is in Conwy, Wales. Now a tourist attraction, it was home to a 6ft 3in fisherman until 1900. Were he alive today, he might wonder why some think 46 sq metres – the size of an average one-bedroom home in modern Britain – is considered too small.
“When you’ve never had a home of your own, even a tiny one makes a huge difference,” says Andrew Partridge, associate partner at Rogers, Stirk, Harbour and Partners. In collaboration with the homeless charity YMCA, the firm has designed the Y: Cube, a 26 sq metre home that will be built in a factory, transported on the back of a lorry and craned into place, one on top of the other. They will cost just £30,000 each. Meanwhile, Yo! Company, famed for Yo! Sushi and Tokyo-style pod hotels is designing tiny, factory-built, upmarket homes. They will feature a bedroom that rises to reveal a sunken living room. A development of Yo! Homes is planned for Manchester this year.
“The house of my dreams is built in a factory,” was French architect Jean Prouvé’s catchphrase in the 1940s. He designed demountable wooden homes of 36 sq metres that could be assembled in a day. Designed to accommodate war refugees, only a few were built and they are now collectors’ items on sale through a Parisian gallery for €1.2m each. It seems investing in tiny homes can reap big rewards.
‘Small Architecture Now!’ by Philip Jodidio, published by Taschen, £34.99
Get alerts on House & Home when a new story is published