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  • Writer's pictureTim Rhodes, RA., AIA

The Smaller House, Part II: Small Houses Big Spaces

Updated: Apr 7, 2023

Tim James Rhodes RA. AIA.

Rhodes Architecture + Light

Tiny houses are not small and small houses are not tiny. The tiny house movement, while illustrating a sought-after trend toward living with less encompasses single spaces in which all functions are combined. Living, dining, cooking, working at home happen together, usually in one largely undifferentiated room. All or most of the tiny house shares the same space and the same scale.

Smaller houses do not mean the creation of one room in which different functions are combined, sharing the same room dimensions, ceiling heights, views or relationship between the interior and outdoor environment. Creating good small homes means carefully separating the important activities of a residence into mutually supporting spaces differentiated in size and scale based on the publicness, “privateness” and the intimacy inherent in what happens within them.

A living/entertaining space is best in more volume and requires separation from sleeping, bathing, reading, playing and working places.  An intimate reading space is best served by enclosure, a lower ceiling, a more defined, captured view outside. Great dining and gathering benefits from some privacy, a lower, comforting envelope of space and a more human scale that relates to the seated person inwardly focused on others in a group.

In a good house, there is a naturally comfortable order of space based on the activity it encompasses, how one’s body is arranged there, and whether the space is designed to create a setting for an inwardly focused, engaged group, more disparate activities done by a family together yet somewhat apart, or a private place for introspection, repose or rest. This is the principle behind architect Sarah Susanka’s hopeful and helpful pursuit of “The Not So Big House”. Bigger is not better; we can have more comfortable, more human, better living and gathering in smaller spaces if they are well designed.

Big, high, open houses that are designed (with some thought…or almost none) to impress with the luxury of size (to project the impression of more) are not comfortable. Big spaces and large floor areas are often confused as synonymous with better, more desirable opulence, and a sense of good living. In addition to insuring that they use more energy, materials and labor and are more wasteful to build, maintain, and to eventually demolish, today’s larger homes are also uncomfortable to live in.

Large parties may start in big rooms but watch a large group across an evening and you will find people selecting smaller, denser and often more intimate places away from the larger room. Experiments in allowing users of a building to self-select the most comfortable place to talk or gather a small group or to be alone illustrate that humans have a naturally sensitive intuition for the right space. Living in “intentionally small” has deservedly gained attention in many places in recent years.

The right space is the place that is just large enough to hold yet small enough to cluster, to support togetherness at the right distance as a group (a tribe). We tend to like visual-spacial connections between rooms that lend the one we are in a sense that we are not confined yet the big undifferentiated (largely undesigned) spaces of many newer homes are not conducive to our real daily uses, nor our real lives. We’ve seen vivid examples in our own work.

Several years ago, we were called to fix a large second-story space created to house a “master bedroom suite”. The couple who had spent many thousands of dollars building it were so uncomfortable sleeping in it that they had cobbled together a 2 x 4 frame around their bed and had covered it with sheets. They could not explain what was wrong but knew that they felt acutely uncomfortable in their own home.

The space their designer had created for their bedroom was a 12-foot-high vaulted room that lent no sense comfortable intimacy to activities in it; sleeping, reading, making love. Our solution was to divide the space vertically, building a lower ceiling over their bedroom that became a floor for a desired upper office/workroom aerie. The creation of smaller spaces differentiated by the needs and scale inherent in the activities they housed fixed the grand bedroom that the previous designer thought they needed to express their successful lives. In the end, they were very happy with two smaller spaces, each scaled to the activities and the intimacy/privacy of the activities within them

The design of better smaller houses that lend warmth, comfortable enclosure, and interrelated space that nurtures the way we really live requires care and thoughtful planning. Yet It is not rocket science. Great small houses begin with a “program” of the functions within them correlated to the kinds and scale of spaces that best serve those functions, a development of the best relationship of these spaces, and a sensitive connection of interior space, exterior landscape, views and environment. The height and openness/closeness of spaces, natural and man-made light, the orientation of space to the sun and wind are all important. With more care in the creation of our homes those capsules so critical to nurturing our families and ourselves are better, smaller, more meaningful and comfortable.

We are convinced that in less your family can be better housed in richer, better built, longer-lasting, more efficient, and more human dwellings. It’s also less expensive, more efficient and easier to clean.  Read the third part of this series to find out how the design process emphasizing the right space works.

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