'Tiny Home' Architects Push the Envelope Around the World

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By Linda Federico-O'Murchu

Here are a few truisms about tiny homes: They are ecologically friendly. They are generally inexpensive. They can help avoid house debt. They have a reduced carbon footprint. They offer the possibility for a freer, simpler life.

Tiny homes may have another selling point: the coolness factor.

Architectural innovation has become part of the tiny home movement, with some of today's top designers testing the boundaries of imagination and possibility, transforming ultrasmall spaces into marvels of eco-sustainable, microminimalist design.

Just look at what a tiny home can be: A "free-spirit" tree sphere, hanging above the forest floor. A steel hut constructed of salvaged car parts. A plastic "loft cube" that can be airlifted by helicopter. A Space Age microhouse with round, rotating rooms. A diamond-shaped glass house suspended on a pole.

"There are a lot of architects today who are pushing the envelope," said California architect Cate Leger.

"It's hard to tell people you have to live small. But building ecologically responsible housing is essential to our survival as a species."

Leger and husband Karl Wanaselja, founders of Leger Wanaselja Architecture, are "green builders" who recently designed a residence in Berkeley, Calif., the McGee House, that utilized car windows and 100 salvaged car roofs. Needing a storage shed during construction, the team quickly slapped together a metal hut-like structure using some of the leftover car parts, and the result was unexpectedly appealing.

"In the next five years or so, you'll see us turn that idea into tiny house architecture," Leger said. "I believe tiny homes are the future. Or they should be. It's hard to tell people you have to live small. But building ecologically responsible housing is essential to our survival as a species."

Many architects agree. Tiny homes are being retrofitted with ecologically conscious features like solar panels, rainwater collection systems and compost waste management systems. Some even have state-of-the-art internal heating and cooling systems that can be digitally controlled by smartphone.

Some of the most cutting-edge design is happening outside the U.S., such as in Tokyo, the world's most populated city and one of the most expensive. There, living tiny can be a necessity. Radical tiny homes abound there, such as the microcompact Paco House cube or the bullet-shaped Lucky Drop House, which is 30 inches wide at its narrowest point.

Most extreme of all may be Japan's so-called coffin apartments—mausoleum-like lockers that rent for $600-$1,000 a month and are barely big enough for a narrow mattress and a few belongings.

Denmark is also at the forefront of the tiny home movement. A futuristic structure called Primeval Symbiosis, designed by Konrad Wojcik , is an ultra-high-tech glass dwelling suspended on a pole above the forest floor..

"Wojcik's tree house is a good example of architecture students who have cast off the rule book," said Michael Janzen, 46, a corporate Web designer in Fair Oaks, Calif., and the founder of tinyhousedesign.com. "It's extremely expensive to put in photovoltaics and all those high-demand appliances. I don't think going the high-tech route is sustainable.”

Architect Jordan Parnass agrees that the super-wired mini-house might not make sense. He said that there are simpler means to an eco-friendly lifestyle.

"It's extremely expensive to put in photovoltaics and all those high-demand appliances. I don't think going the high-tech route is sustainable.”

"You see a lot of tiny homes that consciously avoid making a great impact on the environment, that aim to be off the grid," said Parnass, principal at Jordan Parnass Digital Architecture in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Because a tiny home can be constructed from practically anything—a refurbished shipping container, a yurt, an "earthbag dome"—its cost is hard to quantify. Some businesses, like the Tumbleweed Tiny House Co., offer basic, ready-made starter homes starting at $57,000 ($433 a month) as well as do-it-yourself workshops.

Cheaper options are available, however. The "OTIS" house (optimal traveling independent space) for example, designed by students at Green Mountain College in Vermont, has features like a rainwater catchment system, composting toilet and a solar-powered electrical system, and still only costs $8,000-$10,000.

For aficionados of tiny homes, a houseboat or a treehouse may be the ultimate fantasy. Both minimize the home's environmental impact (because the earth is undisturbed by the home's construction) and allow the inhabitants to live harmoniously with nature.

Among the world's most ingeniously designed, unique tree homes are the Chudleigh family's Free Spirit Spheres on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Inspired by Jacques Cousteau's round, steel deep-sea diving submarine, "Bathysphere," Tom Chudleigh, 62, custom builds uni-room, round dwellings that hang from trees.

An artist with a background in biology, boat making and engineering, Chudleigh handcrafts the beds, chairs, tables and circular windows so they fit precisely into the curved space.

All the spheres are unique, measuring between 8 feet and 10 feet in diameter, and have names like Eryn, Eve, Melody and Gwynn. They are currently being rented out as vacation homes, though Chudleigh and wifeenvision a future "populated with spheres, connected by rope suspension bridges."

It may be hard to imagine a future where "free spirit spheres" are a standard housing option, but Chudleigh said he's open to the possibility.

After all, the sky's the limit in the future of tiny home design.