The Small House Lab Blog
  • Less Dwelling, More Living
Less Dwelling, More Living

Lily Copenagle and Jamie Kennel designed their house with help from SketchUp, the free, user-friendly 3D program that's also used for Small House Lab's 3D models. It brings new visualization and experimentation powers to the masses, facilitating owner participation in house design. (Image courtesy Lily Copenagle.) 

Two weeks ago, a New York Times story called "Freedom in 704 Square Feet" reported on an Oregon couple who built a small house in part to free their lives for other pursuits:

The idea was simple. They would create a home that was big enough for the two of them, but small enough so that it would be easy to maintain, environmentally responsible and inexpensive to operate. And that would allow them to free up their time and funds for intellectual and recreational pursuits. Own less, live more . . .

Small House Lab was conceived on faith that such people existed. On the eve of this site’s launch, their story brought confirmation that they do. The Times story then topped the paper's most-viewed-online list in the week that followed, signaling that the Oregon couple may not be outliers but forerunners of a new type of homeowner.

And why wouldn’t they be? They’re in the demographic mainstream of today’s America, where 55% of households are of one or two people, and only 20% are a couple with a child at home. Roll over, Ozzie and Harriet. Why care for an oversized house and work to pay it off when you could be reading, volunteering for your favorite cause or bike-touring Greece? It’s human to fixate on visible possessions and overlook invisible, more precious time, but at life’s end it’s the sum of our experiences, not our possessions, that will fill out the scorecard. As the one-room-cabin dweller Thoreau wrote in Walden:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when it came to die, discover that I had not lived.

Were Lily Copenagle and Jamie Kennel swayed by Thoreau when they built their 704 square foot house? I asked this and other questions by email, and heard back that they aren’t particularly influenced by any philosopher or writer, but do “try to live thoughtfully,” and “don't have a need to demonstrate social status through the accumulation and display of stuff.” They’re not out to make statement or repudiate a culture of materialism and excess. The couple seems instead to have pragmatically derived their house from qualities they liked in their previous homes.

Their first dwelling was an 1100 square foot loft. They liked its openness, but with the four dogs they had between them when they met, they needed outdoor space. The next stop was an 860 square foot, 1910 bungalow “arranged as a series of lots of little rooms, and we found that all six of us just moved from one little room to another,” according to Lily Copenagle. They also weren’t vitally occupying the whole house but using parts for storage. “We didn't like the idea of heating and furnishing rooms just because they were there, so we started thinking about what our ideal floor plan and size would look like.” They then looked for either a smaller house with a simple layout or a rare vacant city lot. They found a 700 square foot 1950s house at the north end of an oversized 50’ by 150’ lot. It was hopelessly moldy but the right size and looked south onto a gigantic back yard. They bought the house, tore it down and built a spatially luxurious, loft-like one-room house on its foundation. A wall of south-facing windows floods the new house with light and visually extends its space down the length of the yard. The one-story new house will allow the couple to age in place.

While their parents were approving and supportive, Lily's mother once joked that the couple took down a perfectly good two-bedroom house and put up a room. She may not have realized what an architectural compliment she was paying. In his 1954 book, The Natural House, Frank Lloyd Wright criticized houses like the couple's earlier 1911 bungalow:

The interiors consisted of boxes beside or inside boxes, called rooms. All boxes were inside a complicated outside boxing.

Even before that bungalow was built, Wright’s 1908 essay, In the Cause of Architecture, had argued:

A building should contain as few rooms as will meet the conditions which give it rise and under which the architect should strive continually to simplify . . .

Wright recalls the “simplify, simplify” of Thoreau, whose one-room cabin at Walden Pond took room reduction to the limit. If a building has only one room, all its vitality is concentrated in a single space. Such buildings may tap the psychological force of primal architecture, invoking archetypal cave and hut dwellings or ancient temples. To quote the architect Frank Gehry: “Think of the power of one-room buildings and the fact that historically, the best buildings are one-room buildings.” These structures have a satisfying interior-exterior unity and irreducible simplicity. Masterpiece examples range from the Pantheon to Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House. The latter, like Philip Johnson’s Glass House and other modern-house touchstones, is a single room, not counting bathrooms. Notably, these are only weekend houses. In Portland, Lily and Jamie have pushed the envelope by building a one-room primary residence. Their contentment in it may be less a proof of its viability for typical couples than a tribute to their exceptional relationship. Asked how they get by without interior doors, Lily emailed:

We still both work very long hours for our jobs, and we find that when we're home we are glad that we can be together, even if one of us is cooking and the other is working in the office area. We enjoy each other's company (and that of our dogs, of course) so much, and we seem to have so much overlap between the way we want to be in the space that we don't have the conflicts that other couples say they feel they would have. We also just really enjoy being kind to each other.        

Their house may explore new territory in urban planning as well. American city neighborhoods are full of moldering, energy-inefficient wood-framed houses with the dated, box-like interior compartmentalization Wright mocked over a century ago. These neighborhoods retain valuable infrastructure, services, mixed-use community character and walkable density – qualities attractive to anyone disaffected with car-dependent suburban blandness. As the Portland couple has demonstrated, these neighborhoods also have reusable house foundations and utility hook-ups. It’s tempting to envision old neighborhoods as incubators of self-designed lives in owner-built houses, as fields awaiting a new crop. For the average person, building one’s own house typically involves buying land and having enough funds left over to qualify for a construction loan. This can be financially challenging for those shopping among typically large suburban lots, where zoning often dictates conventional tract-house forms and sizes. Urban tear-down sites may offer both affordability and creative freedom, along with sidewalks and community.

Demolition needn’t be wasteful. Lily and Jamie donated or reused material from the house they replaced, throwing away only one dumpster-load. Their replacement house is far more energy efficient. 

Lily Copenagle and Jamie Kennel's floor plan organizes bathroom, storage and sleeping spaces into a support zone along one side and aligns the kitchen counter and a desk against the opposite side, leaving the space between as a well-defined living pavilion. Not shown is a freestanding storage unit that screens the bulk of the living space from the front door, at top, without diminishing the house's one-room appeal. The New York Times piece about the house has a slideshow with photos. (Image courtesy Lily Copenagle.)

Thoreau may not have inspired the Portland couple, but he’d surely approve. He built his cabin at Walden Pond with his own hands as deliberately as he created his life in the woods. Walden is largely a critique of the American home, which Thoreau sees as overinflated with “empty guest chambers for empty guests.” His take on the reason: “Most men appear never to have considered what a house is, and are actually though needlessly poor all their lives because they think that they must have such a one as their neighbors have.” In Thoreau’s accounting, the dwelling is inversely proportional to the living. He defines the cost of a house as “the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.” For this reason, “when the farmer has got his house, he may not be the richer but the poorer for it, and it may be the house that has got him.” As the man who wrote, “Our life is frittered away by detail,” Thoreau would have approved of this design requirement for the Portland house reported in the Times story: “Ms. Copenagle wanted a space that was small enough to vacuum completely in five minutes, within cord’s reach of a single outlet, so there wouldn’t have to be any unplugging and replugging of the vacuum cleaner.”

Of course, Thoreau’s managing to live in a tiny one-room cabin isn’t the point of Walden. The cabin is more important as a demonstration of personal instrumentality, of actively replacing received convention with a self-made, authentic life. This applies to the little house in Portland, too. As Lily emailed:

I think that one of the things that's interesting to me about the response to the article was that people seem to be relatively focused on the size, which is understandable, but what I wish other people were catching on to more was the extent to which we did this ourselves. . . . I'd love to see more people intentionally try to build and make things. . . . I wish more homeowners had a sense of agency and self-investment in how their houses are built and maintained. I think we'd move away from disposable solutions and cookie-cutter houses if we embraced this more as a culture.

The cookie cutter didn’t give up without a fight. The couple was repeatedly told by consultants and contractors – sadly, architects included - "most people don't do it like that." They’re happy living in what came of ignoring these words.

Because our home is typically our greatest expenditure in life, we treat it very conservatively. The biggest inhibition comes from fear that it won’t have resale value, so most of us live in houses designed more for phantom future inhabitants than for us. The perception that the next owner has a 1950s family serves a house-building industry financially interested in selling bigger houses. That perception is disproved by demographics. If you're an individual or couple without children at home, the biggest buyer pool looks just like you. Regardless, why not just design the house you’d like to live in yourself and enjoy your own life in it? On what will you spend the final resale income of an oversized house anyway? Thoreau had an idea for that, too: “. . . I reduce almost the whole advantage of holding this superfluous property as a fund in store against the future, so far as the individual is concerned, mainly to the defraying of funeral expenses.”

  • David Holowka

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