Square feet: 172

House width: 8’-6” House length: 20’

Road Height: 12’-3”

Dry Weight: 7000 lbs

Great Room: 9%‘ x 5%’ Kitchen: 5%’ x 4%’

Bedroom: ІУЇхАУ*

Bathroom: 2’x7%’

Ceiling height: 7’ 6” – sizes are approximate


The Popomo is different than my other portable homes in that it does not have a pronounced ga­bled roof or a loft. It does have a stainless steel boat fireplace, sink and stovetop, a refrigerator, wet bath, a full-sized bed, and a clos­et. The large glass wall is intend­ed to face south during winter for excellent solar gain. The house is shown at right with hot rolled cor­rosion resistant steel siding and at left with the same siding and the wheels removed.

1. Kitchen 2.Bedroom 3.Bath 4. Great Room

Square feet: 65

House width: 7’

House length: 11’

Road Height: 12’-9”

Dry Weight: 3000 lbs

Porch: 2’x 1 %’

Great Room: 4%’ x 5%’ Kitchen: 4’ x 4’

Bathroom: 3%’х2’

Ceiling height: 6’ 2”

Loft height: 3’ 2”

-sizes are approximate

Codes and Regulations

Until building codes catch up with the environmental and social realities at hand, the question of how to meet or beat minimum-size standards remains. If guerilla housing, variances, or pushing to have your local codes changed hold no attraction, going with the flow may be your best bet. Most of the U. S. and Canada employ what is called the International Building Code. In spite of its name, the IBC is only really used in the U. S. and Canada. While the code is often tailored at the local level, it usually reads pretty much as listed here.

All houses shall have:

– At least one room of no less than 120 sq. ft.

– Ceilings of no less than 7 ft. (except 6’-8” in unfinished basements)

– No habitable room of less than 70 sq. ft. with no dimension smaller than 7’ (except kitchens)

– A window (or second door) in every bedroom of no less than 5.7 sq. ft. total. Each must be at least 24” H x 20” W and no more than 44” above the floor

– A landing or floor on each side of all exterior doors that is no less than 36” deep x the width of the door

– Hallways of no less than 36” wide

– A door to the exterior that is no less than 36” W x 6’-8” H

– Egress for habitable basements (window wells of 9 sq. ft. or greater and 36” minimum any horizontal dimention

– Stairs of no less than 36” wide with 6’-8” headroom (except spiral stair­ways = 26” W x 78” H)

– Stairs with risers of no more than 7 3/4” and treads of no less than 10”.

Trailer Design Considerations (May vary by state)

– All trailers must have fenders or splashguards.

– When it is dark, all trailers must have stop lamps, a license plate light, and turn signals.

– Every trailer over 1500 pounds needs to be equipped with brakes.

– Trailers with brakes require an emergency brake system designed to acti­vate in the event that the hitch fails.

– Tail lights are required (magnetic lights are okay).

– Trailers over 80” wide must have amber reflectors on each side and the front. Red reflectors are required in the rear.

– No vehicles in combination shall measure more than 65’ in length.

– No vehicle may be wider than 102” without a special permit.

– Mirrors, lights, etc., may extend beyond 102”, but not in excess of 10” on each side.

– No vehicle or load may exceed 13’-6” from pavement to top (14’, some areas).

If you are making a corridor that is 20’ wide, you can make it out out of concrete; if it is 10’ wide, you should use stone; if it is 6’ wide, use fine wood; but if it is is 2’ wide, you should make it out of solid gold. – Carlo Scarpa

Basic Dimensions and Potential Restrictions

Every inch counts in a small house, so knowing exactly how many inches are required for each element is important. Dimensions for the integral parts of a house are listed here. The wall, floor and roof thicknesses listed are for the most standard type of construction—that which uses 2x lumber and half-inch plywood as the primary building materials. The greater the distance a rafter or joist needs to span, the thicker it and the roof or floor it comprises will need to be. A list of the most standard sizes for appliances and some considerably smaller options is also provided.

A house in Mendocino, CA

Span Chart

RAFTER SPAN RATINGS (for roofs with a pitch over 3 in 12):


2 x 6

2 x 8

2 x 10


’ o. c. / 24”

o. c.) (16” o. c. / 24” o. c.) (16” o. c. / 24” o. c.)

Spruce/Pine/Fir No. 2

8’3” / 6’9”

10’11” / 8’11”

13’11” / 11’5”

Southern Pine No. 2

9’10” / 8’0

” 12’11” / 10’7”

16’6” / 13’6”

Ponderosa Pine Sugar Pine

8’1” / 6’8”

10’9” / 8’9”

13’9” / 11’3”



2 x 8

2 x 10

2 x 12








(16” o. c. / 24” o. c.)

(16” o. c. / 24” o. c.)

Dglas. Fir – Larch

13’1” / 11’3”

16’9” / 14’5”

20’4” / 17’6”

No. 2

Dglas. Fir – South

12’0” / 10’6”

15’3” / 13’4”

18’7” / 16’3”

No. 2

Ponderosa Pine/

11’4” / 9’3”

14’5” / 11’9”

17’7” / 14’4”

Sugar Pine No. 2

Design Criteria: Strength—10-psf dead load plus 40-psf live load Deflection—Limited to span in inches divided by 180 Source: National Lumber Manufacturers Association.

Appliance Sizes

Refrigerator Dimensions:

Avg. – 68 1/4” H x 29 3/4” W x 31 3/4” D Small – 34” H x 19” W x 20 1/2” D X-Small – 17” H x 19” W x 20 1/2” D Range Dimensions:

Avg. – 29 3/4” W x 46 1/2” H x 24”

Small – 21 3/8” W x 16 11/16” H x 20” D (R. V Style) Washer:

23 3/8” W x 33 1/4” H x 22 1/8” D Dryer:

23 3/8” W x 33 1/4” H x 22 1/8” D Water Heater:

6-Gallon – 17 3/4” H x 16” Diameter Tankless – 29 3/4” H x 18 1/4” W x 9” D 12-Gallon – 22 3/4” H x 16” Diameter Shower:

Avg. – 30” W x 80” H x 30” D Small – 24” W x 72” H x 24” D Tub:

Avg. – 60” W x 18” H x 30” D Small – 48” W x 24” H x 30” D Toilet:

Avg. – 20” W x 29” H x 30” D Small – 18” W x 29” H x 24” D

Anthropometric Data

More than 95% of U. S. adults are between 4’11” and 6’2” tall, with their shoes off. The average measures in at 5’7” (Architectural Graphic Standards). The remaining 5% have been excluded from the following data to keep it simple. If you or frequent visitors to your home are particularly tall or short, you may want to adjust accordingly. Ceiling heights and door widths have been calcu­lated to fit a 6’2” person comfortably. Reach areas have been calculated for an unaided, 4’11” tall person. Work surface heights have been determined by what will most comfortably fit someone at the 5’7” median.

Ceiling Height:

6’3” minimum

Door Height:

6’2” minimum

Door Width:

1’5” minimum

Bed Width:

2’8” minimum

Bed Length:

6’3” minimum

Counter Height:

2’8” minimum/



Counter Depth:

1’4” minimum/



Door Knob Height:

2’9” minimum/



Lavatory Height:

2’6” minimum/



Control Knob Height:

2’6” minimum/



High Shelf:

6’2” maximum/

Desk/Table Height:

1’0” minimum/



Desk/Table Depth:

1’0” minimum/



Booth Width:

5’0” minimum/



Sleeping Loft Height:

2’10” minimum

Leg Room Under Table:

1’4” minimum

Room or Hallway Width:

1’8” minimum


So far, this chapter has described the sensibility, the principles, and the tools inherent to successful architecture. This next section explains the actual pro­cess of subtractive design and relevant considerations. Compared to what is involved in producing large houses, planning a little home is relatively challenging. As stated earlier, a smart, little dwelling is just like an oversized house with the unnecessary parts removed. Editing a structure down to its essence takes patience, but so long as one has this and abides by these instructions as well as necessity, the effort will not go unrewarded.

Get the right tools. There are as many techniques for putting architec­tural ideas down on paper (or screen) as there are people putting them down there. The best way I have found is with a.05 mm technical pencil, a Tuff Stuff retractable eraser, an 8 1/2” x 11” pad of 1/8” grid paper, a transparent ruler and a simple compass for making arcs. I know there are a lot of people out there who will swear by computer programs like CAD. My own experi­ence with such programs is that they are great for tidying up finished designs but are no match for pencil and paper when it comes to the creative part of the process. Fluidity is essential, in any case.

Keep the process fluid. Writer’s block is not exclusive to writers. It can happen to any artist who forgets to keep an eye on the big picture. Because a successful composition is only possible when every one of its parts is integral to the whole, it makes sense that the whole must be more or less established before any part can be fully developed. The whole informs the shape and function of its parts. Work from the most general elements of the composition toward the more specific details within.

Do not consider anything too precious for revision until a composition has been established, the house has been proven to work perfectly. Expect to go through more eraser than graphite. Every mistake is a step forward, as it further illuminates what is not necessary and, thus, points the way to what is. Ninety percent of the process will be messy and temporal. Clean lines will only be introduced once the real work has been done.

Know what is needed. The process begins with general considerations and broad forms. Before proceeding, a list of domestic necessities, like the one provided on pages 89 – 92, should be developed according to the inhab­itant’s needs and those posed by the local environment.

Determine the shape of the house. Spherical forms have the least amount of surface area, so a dome is bound to need a bit less heating and cooling than something with square corners. On the other hand, domes are prone to leaks and are far more difficult to compose than rectilinear shapes. Right-angled forms invariably mesh with other right-angled forms, so books fit easily onto shelves, shelves into corners, corners into rooms, rooms into houses, houses into lots and lots into communities.

Buildings with flat roofs have become quite popular over the past century or so. The trend began in Europe, where elaborate roofs with lots of orna­ments had become symbolic of the ruling class. Modernism stepped in to provide homeowners with the exact opposite of the ornate option. Flat roofs represented the more respectable, utilitarian lifestyle of the proletariat. Once Modernism hit America, it became the perfect excuse for putting up a lot of cheap buildings. Aside from adding unnecessary square footage, about the easiest way for builders to make more money for less is by sticking a flat roof on their structures.

Flat roofs may be all well and good when used in the most arid deserts of the U. S., but when used elsewhere, they tend to spring a lot of leaks or collapse. In such cases, the complexities of simplification become all too clear. By all means, that which is unnecessary to a design should be eliminated, but only after what is necessary has been determined.

Just as bees build with hexagons and cubitermes termites go for domes, we, as a species, tend to produce a lot of 90-degree angle walls and pitched roofs. It just seems to make sense for us. Rain and snow are a part of most of the climates we live in, and a slanted roof sheds these elements like noth­ing else can. Of course, flat roofs and domes are exactly what are needed in some situations, and, as always, necessity should be heeded.

Determine the approximate size. I know people who live in just sev­enty square feet. I know other folks for whom living in anything less than ten times that might be difficult. Houses are not a one-size-fits-all product.

Lists detailing the amount of space needed for appliances and elbow room, as well as wall, floor and ceiling thickness are provided at the end of this chapter. Reference these as you proceed to determine and organize special needs.

If this is to be a place for yourself, you will have to figure out how much physi­cal space is required for all of your things, for yourself, for other occupants and their stuff, and for guests. Remember that, with all of the money that will be saved by building a smaller dwelling, outsourcing hotel ball rooms for big parties will now be a viable way to extend your home beyond the limitations of the house itself. Your little abode should not be thought of as an autono­mous structure, but more as the most private realm within a much broader system.

Calculating how much space is needed for your stuff is a pretty straight­forward task. First, get rid of anything you do not need. Then, round up all your possessions and a measuring tape. Consider how many of the things will require closet space, how many will go on book shelves, in the kitchen, near the kitchen sink, and so on. Then proceed to determine how much open space you need for your own comfort. You will probably want one relatively – large, main room. To determine its size, find a smallish enclosure that is fairly uncluttered. Does it feel like a comfortable amount of space? How tall does it need to be? Consider what kind of activities you will be doing in your main room. If you anticipate some yoga, determine how large an area that requires. Office cubicles, bathroom stalls and walk-in closets are some places you might consider evaluating. Never mind the puzzled looks you will undoubtedly receive from others

Sketch your rooms. Once you have an idea of how much open area you require, draw a bird’s-eye view of the main room on a piece of grid paper. Be sure to add some square footage around the edges for furnishings and storage. To keep its center unobstructed, most of the furniture will need to be kept on the periphery, along with some empty space for accessing windows and doors.

Detailed calculations should be saved for later. For now, just continue to cat- categorize your things into areas and make to-scale drawings of any other rooms you plan to include. Keep the center of these spaces open too.

Cut the drawing of each room out and place all of them together as you ima­gine them fitting together in a house. If they do not add up to a simple, Euclid­ian shape, like a square, circle, rectangle or triangle, you may want to adjust their proportions until they do. Generally, the more corners there are on the outside of a house, the more surface area there will be to lose heat and A. C., the more materials and labor will be required, and the more complex and po­tentially leaky the roof will be. Four or five exterior corners are usually plenty. Anything with more than ten or so may become problematic. Alignment is particularly important for the outside of the house. Four, unbroken walls are generally better than a bunch of divided ones.

Consider portals. Decide how the rooms will be connected by doors and how the house will be connected to the outside world by windows and door(s). Think about how the placement of doors and windows will make the home’s exterior read in terms of alignment and proportion. Unless your plan is intended for a very warm climate, try to locate most of the windows on the south side and few, if any, on the north. South-facing windows allow for solar gain. North-facing windows allow for winter heat loss.

Along these same lines, be sure to provide seasonal shade for south-facing and west-facing windows. Deciduous trees work to this end, as their leaves provide summer shade and drop to reveal the winter sun. Awnings and porch roofs achieve the same effect by protecting windows from the relatively verti­cal rays of the summer sun while allowing the more horizontal rays inside.

Sliding doors, curtains and pocket doors can often save space as, they do not require an area in which to swing.

Minimize throughways. Hallways and oversized stairwells unnecessar­ily consume valuable space. If a stairway is required, consider making it a ladder. Paddle steps can also save space.

Make use of vertical space. Shelves can usually go all the way to the ceiling; drawers can be put beneath the bed, cabinets can often be posi­tioned over the table, and a sleeping loft may fit below a high ceiling.

Consider using built-in furniture and storage in your design.

Freestanding furniture tends to leave awkward and unusable margins on both sides of where it is positioned. Built-ins generally stretch from wall-to – wall, and often floor-to-ceiling, to make use of every inch.

Built-ins are not only integral to a house in terms of function and structure, but in visual terms as well. Freestanding armoires, chests, and bookcases will fill up a small room quickly and tend to make any space feel more crow­ded. A wall of built-in cabinets can contain more possessions than all of these combined and comes off as far less visually intrusive. Built-in seating, cabin­ets, bookcases, work surfaces, and dining nooks can all be used to save and order space in this way.

Consider including some shallow shelves. Putting all of your glasses, vita­mins and herbs on one deep shelf is going to demand that you dig for stuff that sits at the back. Less depth will put everything where you can get to it.

Carve out places near the door for the things that enter and leave your home: coat hooks, shoe cubbies, recycling bins, and the like.

Keep it simple. It is particularly important that a place for one be kept sim­ple. For a single resident, all of the little extras can quickly add up to one big headache. The housing market currently offers very few properties designed specifically for one person. More often than not, those of us who choose to live alone end up saddled with the responsibilities of a house or apartment that was built for two or more residents.

Tumbleweed Tiny House Company’s XS-House

The design of a single-occupancy dwelling is unique in that it requires rela­tively few, if any, interior walls. One room is often enough to contain every­thing that is necessary. Sometimes a separate little bathroom, kitchen, sleep­ing loft and/or closet can be useful, but the principal aim should be to keep things open. That said, it should be remembered that arbitrarily eliminating as many interior walls as possible will not necessarily result in a better space. While floor area and elbow room are inevitably gained, wall space is lost. This may affect the possibilities for furniture placement and storage options. Open-concept layouts are great so long as they truly correspond with the necessities at hand.

Provide privacy and community. Designing a house for two or more people entails largely the same process, but the big room has to accommo­date enough open space for all of the home’s occupants to feel comfortable, and a small private area should be provided for every member of the house­hold. Our need for a balance of both privacy and community is inherent, and if it is ignored in the design of a dwelling, strife will inevitably result. The private areas can be rooms, entire apartments within the structure, or even physically separate cottages. To increase the effectiveness of the private rooms within a house, closets should be located between them as sound buffers whenever it is possible.

These little private realms should be arranged around a shared larger area. One form that has been proven to work quite well as a shared space is the farmhouse kitchen mentioned earlier. In this case, the kitchen is also the din­ing room and the family/living room. It is designed to contain the dining table and cooking facilities, and enough space to serve a variety of functions.

In the common area of a shared household (be it inside or out), traffic zones and activity zones need to be kept apart. Unlike the space in a one-person residence or a private room, people will be passing through the common area regularly, so projects need to be kept out of traffic’s way. Provide activity nodes at the area’s periphery to keep the center wide open.

Keep it light. Light colors tend to make a space feel more open, while dark ones will make the same space feel crowded.

Make it flexible. If your desk can double as a dining table, so much the better. Mobile bookcases and cabinets can be used as room dividers, then moved out of the way for activities that require more space. A Murphy bed can transform an office into a guest room in seconds. Folding tables and chairs allow for further flexibility.

Extend sight lines to make small rooms feel more generous.

Views from one part of the house into another or to the outdoors will make that part feel more expansive.

Keep clutter out of sight and, thus, out of mind. This goes a long way to improve how we experience a space. Be sure to include areas where clutter, or even everyday items, can be stored away and hidden from view. An uncluttered house will result in an uncluttered mind and unfettered creativity.

Take advantage of the outdoors whenever possible. Outdoor rooms add functional space without the added cost of water-tight, insulated construction.

If necessary, sacrifice space for the illusion of space. Our per­ceptions of spaciousness often have more to do with perception itself than actual volume. Occasionally, it will become necessary to sacrifice actual space to achieve a design that feels more open. By lowering the ceiling in one area, for example, the volume in a neighboring area will generally ap­pear to increase.

Remember the invisible parts. With the basic shapes and sizes more or less established and in place, more attention can now be paid to arranging any furnishings or integral elements. Do not forget to include room for pipes and heating ducts if any are needed. Keep the plumbing as localized as pos­sible. If the water heater is at one end of the house and the shower is at the other, you will have to wait a long while for hot water when you go to bathe.

Keep refining. As the floor plan becomes clearer, feel free to add some details and to eliminate any unused or unusable parts. To read as a strong composition, every square inch of your house should be contributing to the whole structure and its function. Feet, inches and quarter-inches can be shaved off as the design begins to reveal its own needs. Before things get too finite on the inside, make scale drawings of the front, back and sides of the structure to determine what changes may need to be made there.

Align everything that can be aligned. Consider the hierarchy of the place. Lower ceilings and enlarge some doorways, if necessary. So long as necessity is allowed to make the decisions, all of this should come pretty naturally. Remove yourself from the process and let nature take over. The resulting home will be beautifully simple.


While the principle of procession is still primarily about space, it also pertains to time. The best houses speak to us in a visual language with which we are all familiar. A gate in a picket fence that opens onto a narrow path that leads through a yard to an open porch that covers a door is a set of symbols we rec­ognize as signposts guiding us through increasingly private territory towards the threshold of someone’s clandestine world. Such "layering” (as it is often called) demarcates public space from semiprivate and private spaces. This serves to put us at ease, as it ensures that we will never be left to wonder if we have overstepped our boundaries as guests. Familiar symbols of domes­ticity, like the gable, can further comfort us by presenting the subconscious with the familiar language of home. A covered doorway that is clearly visible from the street not only lets us know where to enter a house, but indicates that we are welcome there. Generally, more private areas, like bedrooms and bathrooms, will be positioned towards the rear of a house and encountered only after more public realms, like the living room, have been passed.

Once inside a good dwelling, visual cues should leave us with no doubt that this is a home in the truest sense of the word. Some of the greatest residen­tial designs employ the same formal geometry as that of sacred architecture. When we approach and enter a well-designed church or mosque, we imme­diately find ourselves straddling its vertical symmetry. As we follow the axis between our eye and the cross or qibla at the far end of the room, we remain at the building’s center. This procession alludes to the structure’s significance as a symbol of the cosmos of which we are the center. A well-designed little house will remind us just as effectively as any cathedral that we are not merely witnessing divine beauty, but that we are that beauty.

A strong procession is created in the home by using some variation of the same three elements that are universally used to create it in sacred architec­ture: a gate, a path and a focal point. Moreover, all seven of the principles that have been presented here for residential design are none other than the same used to design a good cathedral. Attention to simplicity, honesty, proportion, scale, alignment, hierarchy and procession can help to produce a composition in which we participate as an indispensable component. So long as the prescriptions for good design are followed, even the tiniest hut will never seem twee or out of place. A well-composed, little house reflects the entire universe as no ordinary mansion can.

Third Street Cottages in Langley, WA



Good home design entails a lot of categorizing. The categories we use are determined by function. In organizing a home, everything that is used to prepare food would, for example, most likely go into the "kitchen” category. If something in the kitchen category functions primarily to wash dishes, it would probably be placed into the subcategory of "kitchen sink area.” The categories proposed by our predecessors usually serve as pretty good tools for organizing a home. Ideas like "kitchen,” "bathroom,” and "bedroom” stick around because they generally work. But these ideas cannot be allowed to dictate the ultimate form of a dwelling; that is for necessity alone to decide.

Sacred Geometry

Organizing the tops of windows and doors along a horizontal axis and deliberately spacing porch posts in a row are examples of the ways alignment and proportion can be consciously used to create a structure that makes visual sense. Less obvious examples become apparent when regulating lines are drawn on photos of a building’s fa­cade. These lines are stretched between significant elements, like from the peak of the roof to the cornerstones, or from a keystone to the baseplates. When geom­etry has been allowed to dictate the rest of the design, the lines will almost invariably intersect or align with other crucial parts of the build­ing. The intersections are often unexpected, their appearance the unintended biproduct of the cre­ative process described on these pages.

Do not think that, just because our shared idea of "bathroom” includes a bath, a sink and a toilet, that these things must always be grouped together behind the same door. The needs of a particular household may determine that each be kept separate so that more than one can be used at a time. What is more, if the kitchen sink is just outside the door to the toilet, then a separate basin may not be necessary at all. The distinctions made between the categories of "living room,” "family room” and "dining room” might well be combined into the single category of "great room” for further consolidation.

Vernacular designers do not thoughtlessly mimic the form of other buildings. They pay close attention to them, use what works in their area, and improve upon what does not.

Along with all the categorizing that goes on during the design process, there is a lot of prioritizing that has to be done as well. The relative importance of a room and the things in it can be underscored by size and placement. The most important room in a small house, in both the practical and the symbolic sense, is almost always the great room or its farmhouse kitchen equivalent. To make its importance all the more clear, this area should occupy the largest share of the home and should be prominently located. In a small dwelling, it is generally best to position this space near the home’s center, so that small­er, less significant rooms can be arranged around its periphery as alcoves.

Arranging the rooms and objects in a house according to their relative impor­tance is essential to making any space readable. Presenting such a hierar­chy may require that some doorways be enlarged to exaggerate one room’s significance, or that a ceiling be lowered to downplay another’s. As always, necessity will determine these things inasmuch as it is allowed to.


Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context—a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment. – Eliel Saarinen

Again, the scale of our homes should be determined by the true needs of their occupant(s). Few of us would go into a restaurant and seek out a table in the large, open space at the center of the dining room. Most of us pre­fer the comfort and security of the corner booth. Ideally, every room in our homes will offer the same sense of enclosure without confinement.

To be sure that a minimized space does not feel confining, its designer has to consider ergonomics and any pertinent anthropometric data. Understand­ing exactly how much space we occupy when we sit, stand or lie down is absolutely essential to the subtractive process. To know how much can be excised from our homes, we must first understand how much is needed. An extensive list of recommended dimensions is provided on pages 117 – 122. When a home’s designer is also to be its sole inhabitant, a more personal­ized list can be made. Every measurement within a house, from the size of its doorways to the height of its kitchen counter, should ideally be determined by what feels good to the occupant. Designing one’s own little house is more like tailoring a suit than what is normally thought of as architecture.

The overall scale of our homes does not need to accommodate every pos­sible activity under the sun. With little exception, home is the place we go to sit and to lie around at the end of each day. There will also most likely be some cooking, eating, hygiene, working and playing going on, but none of these activities needs to occupy a palace. Remember, "half a mat to stand, one mat to sleep.”


Gestalt psychologists have shown that compositions with long, continuous lines make more sense to us than those with a lot of little broken ones. Con­tinuity allows us to read a composition as a whole. The principle of alignment is just one part of what some psychologists have termed the "simplicity” con­cept. This states that simple patterns are easier for us to comprehend than complex ones. This will come as no surprise to vernacular architects, who have been putting the concept to work for quite some time now. Common sense has always been the folk designer’s greatest asset.

Alignment entails arranging the elements of a design along a single axis or arc whenever possible. When a group of columns is required, a savvy de­signer will not just put one over here and arbitrarily plop the next two down wherever chance or ego dictates. The designer will line them up in a row. The geometry of alignment may contain some real lines, like the kind produced by a solid wall, and it may have some implied ones, like the axis that runs through a row of well-ordered columns.


If these principles are starting to seem a lot like common sense, it is be­cause they are. It is in our nature to seek out the sort of order that they prescribe. Honest structure and simple forms strike a chord with us because they are true to nature’s law of necessity. Sound proportions strike a chord, too. Certain proportions seem to appear everywhere — in sea shells, trees, geodes, cell structure, and all of what is commonly called "the natural world.” That these same proportions continually turn up in our own creations should not seem too surprising or coincidental. We are nature, after all, and so our works are bound to contain these natural proportions.

Proportioning is one of the primary means by which a building can be made readable. Repeated architectural forms and the spaces between them are like music, the pattern (or rhythm) of which we understand because it is al­ways with us. We intuitively understand good proportions because they are a part of our most primal language.

On the most conscious level, good proportion is achieved by first choosing an increment of measure. Making such a seemingly arbitrary decision can be made easier if meaning is imposed on it. Ancient civilizations created sys­tems of measure based on human and geodetic significance. A Mediterra – nian precursor to the foot we use today was 1/360,000 of 1/360 (one degree) of the circumference of the earth. It was also related to the conventional calendar containing 360 days of the year plus five holy days, and it was 1/6 the height of what were viewed as ideal human proportions. The eighteen – inch cubit (distance from elbow to longest finger tip) and the yard (1/2 of the total height) also relate to this canon. We have inherited a measuring system imbued with meaning that relates us to our environment. Our buildings are literally designed to embody the characteristics of the Self.

Today, plywood is milled to 4’ x 8’ pieces; lumber comes in 6’, 8’, 10’, 12’ and 16’ lengths; metal roofing is typically 3’ wide, and most other building materi­als are similarly sized to fit within this one foot system of measure. Great ef­ficiency can be achieved by keeping this in mind during the design process. A large share of bragging rights deservedly go to a designer whose structure has left little construction waste and has required relatively few saw cuts. Simplified construction is nearly as much the aim of subtractive design as simplified form and function are.

The unit of measure we use to compose a harmonious design can be more than just linear. In Japan, a two-dimensional increment called the "tatami mat” is often used. It is an area of three by six feet (the Japanese foot, or shaku, is actually 11.93 of our inches). This area is meant to correlate with human dimensions. The Japanese saying, "tatte hanjo, nete ichijo,” trans­lates as, "half a mat to stand, one mat to sleep.”

Once an increment has been chosen, be it a foot, yard, cubit, tatami mat or a sheet of plywood, we can begin to compose a home comprised of simple multiples and fractions of the unit. This process should be fairly intuitive. Each one of us will compose somewhat differently, but our underlying prin­ciples are the same. These principles are not arbitrary, but the same that govern the composition of all natural things.

Dee Williams’ house in Olympia, WA


In the most beautiful houses, no attempt is made to conceal structural ele­ments or disguise materials. Because wooden collar beams are understood as necessary, they are also seen as beautiful. Whenever possible, features like these are left unpainted and exposed to view. Then there are those hous­es for which attempts are made to mimic the solid structure and materials of more substantial homes. These are easily recognized by their wood-grain textured, aluminum siding, hollow vinyl columns and false gables.

Aluminum is a fine material so long as it is used as needed and allowed to look like aluminum. Artifice is artless. It does not merely violate nature’s law of necessity, but openly mocks it. If wood is required for a job, wood should be used and allowed to speak for itself. If aluminum is required, aluminum should be used and its beauty left ungilded whenever possible.

Ornamental gables are to a house what the comb-over is to a head of hair. The vast disparity between the intention and result of these two contrivances is more than a little ironic. Both are intended to convince us that the home­owner (or hair owner, as the case may be) feels secure in his position, but as artifice, each only serves to reveal insecurity and dishonesty.

False gables are tacked onto the front side of a property in a vain attempt to prove to us that the house is spectacular. While this effort is not fooling anybody, it is effectively serving to weaken the structural integrity of the roof. The more parts there are in a design, the more things can go wrong. Leaks almost never spring on a straight-gabled roof, but in the valleys between gables, they are relatively common. Unnecessary gables compromise sim­plicity for what is bound to be a very expensive spectacle.


It is ironic that simplicity is by far the most difficult of the seven principles to achieve. Simplification is a complicated process. It demands that every pro­portion and axis be painstakingly honed and that every remaining detail be absolutely essential. The more simplified a design becomes; the more any imperfection is going to stand out. Everything in a plain design must make sense, because every little thing means so much. The result of this arduous effort will look like something a child could come up with. The most refined art always looks as if it had been easy to achieve.

This sort of streamlining demands a firm understanding of what is neces­sary to a home. As stated before, there is no room in an honest dwelling for anything apart from what truly makes its occupant(s) happy. Each one of us must ultimately decide what this is and is not for ourselves. But, as with all good vernacular processes, we should first consider the findings of those

who have gone before us. While our domestic needs will differ as much as our location and circumstances, a look at what others consider to be impor­tant can get us going in the right direction.

Ideas about what is indispensable to a home can be concise so long as they are kept abstract. Consider Cicero’s claim: "If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.” And William Morris’ sage advice: "Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” More pragmatic lists tend to be a bit longer. Small house ad­vocate, Ron Konzak, is helpful. In his essay, entitled: “Prohousing,” Konzak explains that most every domicile should provide…

1. Shelter from the elements.

2. Personal security.

3. Space for the preparation and consumption of food.

4. Provision for personal hygiene.

5. Sanitary facilities for relieving oneself.

6. Secure storage for one’s possessions.

In their now-famous book, A Pattern Language, Christopher Alexander and his colleagues provide a detailed list of no fewer than 150 items for possible inclusion in a home. I have made a similar, albeit far less detailed, list here. More asterisks indicate a more universal need for the item they accompany.


1. A small parking area out back.

2. A front door that is easily identified from the street.****

3. A small awning over the door to keep occupants dry as they dig for keys and guests dry as they wait for occupants.**

4. A bench next to the front door on which occupants can set things while fumbling for keys or sit while putting on/off shoes.

5. A window in the front door.

6. A steeply-pitched roof to better deflect the elements.*

7. Adequate insulation in all doors, windows, walls, the floor and the roof.****

8. Windows on at least two sides of every room for cross ventilation and dif­fuse, natural light.

9. Windows on the front of the house.**

10. A structure for bulk storage out back.

11. A light over the front door.

12. No less than 10 square feet of window glass for every 300 cubic feet of interior space.**

13. Eaves


14. A light switch right inside the front door.*

15. A bench just inside the front door on which occupants can set things while fumbling for keys or sit while putting on/off shoes.

16. A closet or hooks near the door for coats, hats and gloves.*


17. A chair or floor pillow for each member of the household.****

18. Some extra chairs or pillows for guests. (In bulk storage?)*

19. A table for eating, with a light overhead.**

20. A table for working, with a light overhead.**

21. Nearby shelves or cabinets for books, eating utensils or anything else pertinent to the activity area.

22. A private place for each member of the household.***

23. A phone.


24. A bed.***

25. A light at or above the head of the bed.

26. A surface near the head of the bed on which to set a clock, tissue, books, etc.


27. Electricity and a place for the accompanying fuse box.**

28. A source of water and sufficient room for water pipes.***

29. A water heater.**

30. A source of heat.**

31. A place for an air conditioner.

32. Ventilation and room for any accompanying ductwork (windows can sometimes work to this end).****

33. An indoor toilet.*

34. A tub or shower.***

35. A towel rack near the tub or shower.**

36. A mirror.**

37. A home entertainment center.

38. A washer/dryer.


39. An appropriately-sized refrigerator.

40. A stove top.*

41. An oven.

42. A sink.***

43. A work surface for food preparation with a light over it.**

44. Shelves or cabinets near the work surface for food and cooking sup­plies.**


45. A laundry bin.

46. No less than 100 cubic feet of storage per occupant for clothes, books and personal items.****

These items are not mutually exclusive. Where one can serve two or more purposes, so much the better. The dining table, for example, may double as a desk. This is especially true in a one-person household, where a single piece of furniture will rarely be used for more than one purpose at a time. Also, keep in mind that many of these things can be tucked away while not in use.

This list is meant to be a starting place from which anyone can begin to de­cide what is necessary to their own home. Certainly, what I propose to be universal requirements will not be universally agreed upon. The only needs that really matter in the design of a home are those of its occupant(s). The important thing to keep in mind when creating one’s own list is that the less significant a part is to the whole and its function, the more it will diminish the quality of the overall design. Just remember when to say "when.”