What’s Old Is New in Small Home Living

They say necessity is the mother of invention, and when you’re trying to live in small confines, some new thinking might indeed be necessary. However, there are also historic examples that may prove to provide solutions that make downsizing easier. After all, overly-large homes haven’t always been de rigueur. That’s why some developers and builders working in the environmentally friendly and small-home niches are harvesting and resurrecting smart ideas from the past to create efficient, comfortable spaces. The point is beautifully and succinctly made in a book being released today: Prefabulous Small Houses (Taunton Press, 2016) by Sheri Koones.

"Hilltop House," a panelized home in Hillsborough, N.H., features a masonry heater. Credit: Great Island Photography

“Hilltop House,” a panelized home in Hillsborough, N.H., features a masonry heater. Credit: Great Island Photography

The book is filled with imagery of small homes and cabins that seem to melt into the background thanks to thoughtful site placement and design. Even real estate pros in markets that are all about “bigger is better” will find the detailed definitions of environmentally-friendly home features and building materials, from SIPS to induction cooktops, to be a handy reference. The information can help you sell a house that has space- and energy-saving elements, regardless of its size or construction methodology.

But back to the “old is new” phenomenon. Here are a few of the ways the book demonstrates the use of materials and techniques from the past to make eco-friendly small-home living more achievable and comfortable. Not just for farmers anymore, barn doors save room by eliminating the clearance needed for traditional doors to swing open, as they remain flush with a wall. Koones notes that the same functionality can be applied to other design problems, such as hiding television sets or temporarily dividing up rooms and flex space. She also notes that designers don’t need to take the word “barn” literally; though these doors are often reclaimed wood or rustic in style, they are also often sourced from materials that can be made to fit virtually any interior decor.

Even though they’ve been around since the 1980s, compact wall-hung toilets are gaining popularity with homeowners who want to save space in the bathroom. Modern versions add up to 12 inches of floor space, and since they don’t rest on the floor, they’re easier to clean. Finally, they tend to use about 20 percent less water than standard toilets, which brings me to the topic of resource efficiency.

It’s easy to forget the dark ages before central heating and cooling, but that doesn’t mean the innovations that helped humans stay comfy for the past several thousand years should be discarded now. Masonry heaters are very efficient fireplace-like structures that burn wood at such a high temperature that they emit less pollution than other combustion-based heating methods. Due to the fact that they’re made of dense masses of brick, stone, or concrete, they store and slowly radiate heat outward, warming a room for hours after the fire burns out. Homeowners tell Koones they can keep their homes heated for 24 hours with just one fire each day.

Similarly, stack-effect cooling, also known as the chimney effect, is passive natural ventilation that occurs when warmer, less-dense indoor air rises out the top of a structure and draws in denser, cooler air from below. This both regulates temperature and creates a natural flow for healthy air circulation. Many smaller structures achieve this idea through towers or chimneys, but skylights or clerestory windows can also help. When builders create the lower inlet to bring air in and the upper one to let hot air out at the top of the house, they now make them so that they’re adjustable, allowing home owners to regulate temperature through a thermostat. The coolest thing about this inexpensive system (yes, pun intended)? It uses virtually no energy. And that’s what I call livin’ tiny.

Meg White

Meg White is the managing editor for REALTOR® Magazine and administrator of the magazine's Weekly Book Scan blog. Contact her at mwhite[at]realtors.org.

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  1. Meg,

    Great piece on prefabulous book by sheri koones, if you have any current references to builders/developers that are marketing and selling as a micro-home or small home community, I would appreciate any links.

    This concept of smaller space living is on the bleeding edge of new development, design and lifestyle, which will be fueled by offsite construction fabricators that will supply the designs and innovations demanded by the end-consumer…

    We need live examples, models that work, development models that prove ROI is at the back end of this new approach to the market. The research shows the demand from the downsizers and baby boomers is their, they just need innovative value rich products, accessories and amenities to access…

    Tim Kuntz, VP Business Development
    Offsite Construction Division – Ontario Canada
    Laprise Group of Companies
    705 845 1062