Think Small to Build Small

Introducing a new feature on this site:

Conversations with my architect on the design of the house we will build in 2012.

Our architect Della Hansmann of Whole Tree Architecture (see York Times article here) is also our daughter.  This is a rare opportunity to mull over how to make the greenest possible structure in an unusually intimate architect/client exploration as we talk and tape.  Here is what we said yesterday morning:


Della:  Staying small is always a challenge.  Just this week I was working on the floor plan for your house and struggling to make the main bathroom core work around the stair well (whose bright idea was it to put that there – oh yeah, mine).  I found myself longing for an extra two feet.

Denise:  George Carlon said: Everyone who drives slower than me is an idiot and everyone who drives faster is an asshole.

Every process has a spectrum, and we tend to feel our own position is right.

Della:  Exactly:  In this case, everyone who lives in a house smaller than you is freakishly ascetic,  and everyone in a bigger house is a whale.

Denise:  Is our house a whale?

..The 3-bedroom quad-level in Libertyville IL, where we raised our girls. This house had an openness that reverberates through our family ties to this day.

Della:  Off the top of my head, I’d say you are hovering around 2,000 square feet.

On the other hand, one of the reasons that houses so many houses are so big, is that it gets hard to fit specific design needs (rooms, activities, etc) into the footprint– so, as you design, you tend to push the walls outwards.

People often end up with a house that’s bigger than they had imagined and tell how their contractor or architect suggested that this or that expansion would be efficient or “cost just the same and give you so much more” and so forth.

As a designer, when we run into a crunch where things just aren’tfitting, it’s tempting to just push a wall out another 2 feet, rather than go back and redesign everything.  But as you add 2 feet to the bathroom, you are pushing the whole side of the house which is maybe 24 feet long.  And you’ve got another 50 square feet – if there’s more than one story it’s an extra hundred.  That happens a few times, and you’ve got a much bigger house than you were planning.


You are imagining yourself into your new home, and especially with a retirement home, it’s hard to imagine exactly what life will be like there.  You want to hedge your bets.  You think that if you only had a space for a sewing room, you would do all this sewing.  Once you’ve imagined it in there – it’s hard to cut it out.

You imagine scenarios – what if my entire extended family descends for xmas, and we all get snowed in for a week!  If I don’t have a living room, family room and a den, my goodness, where will we put all the grandchildren?

Denise: Yes, I imagine that exact scenario.


..This tiny little house, where my mom lived with her mom, wrapped its walls around many family gatherings and found space to sleep 8-10 very happy campers.

But I also remember my mom’s tiny 600-square-foot house — and how all four kids would come home with friends and spouses.  We had a ball there.   We would spend our afternoons hiking around the woods in Allerton Park then all then falling on Grandma’s overcooked dinner like hungry wolves.  Curling up in her little living room to visit and  later bedding down on every horizontal surface as the conversation  ran down to steady breathing.  It took choreography to manage with one bathroom, but I don’t remember the details now.  We worked it out.

The whole family still think about those gatherings.  We would  converge on that place full of joy – well knowing that we would be crammed in, under each other’s skin and in each other’s face.  But we made it work.  We are a close family.  Perhaps we became close because of that tiny house.

Now Doug and I will just be the two of us in our greeny- green little house in the woods, and we want it to be a spring board for all the activities that are important to us — writing, music, sociability, outdoor work.  That seems at the moment to require 2000 square feet.  Yet Mom got by with 600.

Della:  Yeah.  It does sound big when you put it that way.  But we’ve already been whittling it down.  When you initially described your wants to Roald and I, you talked about re-creating most of the spaces you have in your current house. Since we all really love that house, I think it’s a good jumping off point – to take features of the current house and make some of them a little smaller and take a few out and correct for some of the things that don’t work as well as you like.   For example you are moving your bedroom to the main floor so you don’t have to make that end-of-the-night trek up from the living room to your  sleeping space.

..I love this house. I hope it will help a growing family bond when we move to our new, LITTLE place in 2012.

But a lot of the needs stay the same.  You still plan on a kitchen, living and family area, an office for yourself.  Music space.  Guest bedroom(s).  Sleeping loft.  Attic storage and basement storage with root cellars.  We’ll keep condensing it.

Denise: One of the reasons I like about not building till 2012 is having time to think it through before it is literally set in cement.    How do you feel about building a house this size?

Della: I think the goal is to keep re-examining everything.  How many different activities can be fit into any given room?  Can a living room double as a guest room?  Can the furniture be pushed around to turn it into a yoga space so you don’t need a dedicated workout room and extra guest bedroom?  Can it change moods through the day to stay interesting and functional?

Grandma’s house is an interesting idea. We should be using it as a measuring stick

We might try considering the house from both angles – both with the design we have and thinking about her home.  What you might need to add to Grandma’s place to make it serviceable for two people in the country rather than a woman living on her own in a little town.  Grandma’s  is your avatar of all that was warm and happy and family.  What can you  add without losing that sense of coziness?

Denise:  It was little, but Mom’s little house would seem like a palace to many people.  With Copenhagen in mind, we need to study every inch this winter.  This is going to take serious soul searching.

..Of course, sometimes a space is really too small. (Our holiday photo the year we added Tombo to our family.)

Categories: Uncategorized

4 replies

  1. Denise, your reference to Allerton Park brought back some long-forgotten memories! My wife and I went to graduate school at Univ Ill – Urbana/Champaign. Several times we drove down to Allerton and wandered around on a lazy Sunday afternoon, back in the early 70s. I especially remember the Sangamon R. because my grad. thesis was a study of nitrate pollution which involved the Sangamon R. Thanks for stimulating the memories!

  2. Yes, my grandparents had a farm outside Monticello, so Allerton Park was always part of my life. My parents moved away when I was a baby, but we returned again and again to visit. Then my mom moved back to Monticello and lived there with her mother in that tiny house that became our family gathering spot.
    Beyond the Mansion and formal gardens, lie miles and miles of rough trail winding through the Sangamon river valley, as you no doubt remember too. Me and my sibs, with pals and spouses would hike, run and ski those back paths and think we were in heaven.
    I think houses can be too big and comfortable — and then we lose touch with the outdoors.

    I’ll bet there was plenty of nitrate pollution to study in the Sangamon, surrounded as it is by agribusiness as far as the eye can see (and in central Illinois, the eye can see pretty far) What a brown river.

    Now that my mom is gone, I still find a reason to go back to Monticello every year, but where I am really going is Allerton Park.

    Glad to share that memory!

    • Thanks for your comment. I’ve been thinking about the term carbon footprint. I think of it in more general terms. Having just come back from an organic farming conference and attended two workshops on reducing tillage, I am really focused these days on trying not to compress the earth. So footprint feels very literal to me. And the footprint of a house is a literal way to control its impact. I just don’t think the term “green” and the typical American square footage can be put together no matter how many green gimmicks may be employed.
      Best wishes to you!

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