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Back of the Book

Living Less Largely
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Our children will not have bigger houses, or faster cars, but they will live richer lives.” —Rice University sociologist Stephen Klineberg, Rice Design Alliance Civic Forum, 2009.

I’m sitting on a red mushroom stool slightly smaller than my butt in an 86-square-foot model “boy’s bedroom,” writing notes in my little notebook on a laptop-friendly foldout aluminum work surface (PS, $59.99) that presumes to pass for a desk. If the corner weren’t lit within an inch of its life by brushed aluminum-and-paper fixtures, I’d be sitting in the steep shadow of the lofted bunk that hovers over the mini sitting room behind me, complete with a little lad’s lounger, a 24-inch flat screen TV on the wall (painted Benjamin Moore Pearl Finish Buckland Blue) and more pressboard cubbies than the most precocious Pokemon collector could put to use.

There’s a ladder to the bunk. In the emerging matter of our personal domiciles’ Earth-impacting footprints, as with our waistlines and urban planning, we are encouraged to grow up, not out. In the future, everyone will be skinny and sleep in lofts.

The boy’s room opens into the parents’ mattress-cramped sleeping quarters, which opens onto a living room stuffed with a couch and enough shelving to choke a small bookstore. The living room spills into the miniature modern kitchen, all on a tight foursquare plan topping out at 603 hall-free square feet, and packed with hideaway storage and semi-ingenious Swedish design. I could totally live in this space, as long as the parents lived somewhere else.

I’ve come here (40.88-mile round-trip; estimated fuel cost $4.50) to Ikea (252,000 square feet of home furnishings sited on 21.5 acres of freeway-frontage pavement) to think about living small. Every time I tune to NPR, somebody is telling me that’s the way we’re headed, the size of things to come. With the economy getting pooch-screwed, everyone says we’re going to have to get used to living with, in, and on less than we’ve spent the better part of the last six decades learning to expect. I anticipate shrinking pains.

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Happily, as the Ikeans intuit, the Great American Downsizing will provide plenty of entertaining opportunities to buy more stuff.

Tiny Houses

For instance: Mimi Zeiger’s Tiny Houses, published earlier this year by Rizzoli. Think of it as a tiny coffee table book for the tiny coffee table in the tiny house of your unexpectedly smalldreams.

Tiny Houses introduces itself as a popularizer of the so-called small house movement. As movements go, small houses hardly can be said to be growing, but the message resonates regardless. It’s a sort of exhortation from designers and architects, aimed at popular public anxieties about ecological bigfootism and our continuing capacity (or not) to sustain a highly leveraged standard of living.

Scratch the pretense, though, and Tiny Houses is shelter porn pure and simple, like Dwell or ReadyMade (pick your aspirational stratum)—all anonymous deco-peeping and just-right lighting. Marine-grade plywood glows like cedar in these layouts, and the designs trend toward conceptualism in ways that betray experimental architecture’s not infrequent disregard for pragmatism. A lot of these little houses function as exhibition spaces or meeting rooms or otherwise part-time habitats no one would think of trying to live in on anything but a stipend or a dare.

The most sensible-seeming—like a 538-square-foot Nomad Home in Seekirchen, Austria; a 336-square-foot Arado Weehouse on Lake Pepin, Wisconsin; the transient 270-square-foot miniHome SOLO—are modular and shippable, or hitchable to a truck. Viewed through wide-angle lenses and emptied of dog bowls and dirty laundry, they look like spaces you could almost see yourself in. Especially if you could manage to get yours sited within an expansive buffer zone of total privacy at the head of a primo viewshed. Not sure that still counts as scaling down, though. The book doesn’t say how much any of these jewelboxes cost. And if you have to ask…

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It’s difficult to write about matters of size in Texas without resorting to the state’s hoariest and most blatantly untrue cliché. Not everything is bigger here. The population isn’t bigger than California’s. The high-rises aren’t higher than New York’s. The mountains aren’t taller than Colorado’s. Our landmass isn’t greater than Alaska’s. Neither is our coastline. Our collective ego is bigger, maybe.

You’d want to hang an ego that size on a hook outside the door if you were going to live full-time in one of Brad Kittel’s Tiny Texas Houses, which he builds and sells in Luling, starting at around $35,000. Kittel’s little houses are ostensibly mobile, in the sense that you can get one delivered on a semi, but they’re designed to be bolted to the ground. They don’t wander stylistically far from a Little House on the Prairie aesthetic that’s an inevitable outgrowth of their almost exclusive use of weathered salvage lumber and recycled wood trim. You can pick your own windows and doors from Kittel’s warehouse in Gonzales. He’s working on a book that shows you how to build one yourself.

Tiny Texas House models are mostly in the 200- to 350-square foot range, and typically consist of a small porch, an open front room, and a little kitchen hugging a back wall that partitions a hostel-size bathroom. There’s usually a loft and a ladder to climb up into bed.

The high ceilings and compact floor plans skew the exterior scale in a dollhousey direction, but Kittel’s little buildings are solidly built, Victorianly detailed and appealingly pre-weathered. If you live alone in a pasture or have a big backyard but no conversation-starting guesthouse, or own a weekend place that’s begging for a super-cute cabin, one of these would be mighty tempting. The only one I could legitimately shrink into at this point, I suspect, is a 400-square-foot custom job now on the shop floor. It’s got an exterior porch with a fold-down deck and a fold-up awning, and there’s a comfortable-looking Murphy bed inside. That one runs close to $70,000.

Every little-house guy will explain to you why small houses seem so expensive, i.e. why they tend to cost more per square foot than larger houses. A home’s major components and systems suck up the meat of construction costs; expanding them fractionally costs relatively little. More space is about the cheapest thing a homebuyer can buy.

Why wouldn’t they? Nobody outside of Fleetwood Mac ever chose to sleep five to a bed. We prefer a certain distance. We like to have our space. Taking it up is one of the things we do best.

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Driving back from Ikea, I pull off at the Hester’s Crossing exit in Round Rock looking for the ghost of a Wal-Mart. I know it’s around here because I saw it in artist Julia Christensen’s Big Box Reuse (2008; MIT Press).

Big Box Reuse peppers academically obtuse prose about commercial architecture and community with large-

format pictures of abandoned and repurposed and reoccupied former

Wal-Marts and Kmarts and such. One series of photos documents the old Hester’s Crossing Wal-Mart, since transformed into an indoor cart-racing track and transformed again into a Gold’s Gym-anchored strip mall that’s still there.

Big Box Reuse

It’s the book’s odd archeological charm to document and even, in some sideways sense, value the onionskin layers of history behind the seemingly static and endlessly interchangeable façades of the large-scale commercial landscape.

Standing at the feeder-overpass intersection, there’s a guy holding big Sportsman’s Warehouse signboards, trying to attract traffic to a fire sale: 40-50 percent off EVERYTHING MUST GO, right down to the FIXTURES! The company is closing 23 stores nationwide. This is one. They’ve got to empty the box.

The entire drive out I-35 and back, to Round Rock or Buda either way, is lined with the future ghosts of big box stores if what I’m hearing on NPR is right. We aren’t going to be able to afford as many of those linens and things, and we aren’t going to have any room to spread them out in anyway. Not in our 236-square-foot Ikea-outfitted efficiencies.

When I get home, I unpack the box with my new metal bookshelf (Lerberg, $19.99). It’s my fourth Lerberg, and the last, I’m pretty sure, I can reasonably squeeze into the maybe 750 square feet I’m living in now.

I suppose I could downsize. I could sell the books, start reading the e-versions on my cell phone, maybe get rid of one of the dogs. Then I could rent one of these tiny ecohouses, if I could find one for rent (which is unlikely), or buy (or more likely commission) one with money from a mortgage that—whoops—I can’t get, because I’ve got more debt than down payment, and nobody’s lending anyway.

Which is why I rent this little place I’ve got. Which I like just fine. I just wish, to be honest, it was a little bit bigger.

Brad Tyer is the Observer's managing editor.