Frozen Music

There is an old saying, one of many incorrectly attributed to Mies Van der Rohe, that “Architecture is frozen music.” This was actually first published by German writer, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Here’s the full quote.

“Music is liquid architecture; Architecture is frozen music.”

I love music, and I love architecture. Yes, that quote is very poetic, and to some of you may seem like complete bull, until you’ve experienced what he was trying to capture. This happened to me a few times in my life. One particular example relevant to the Tiny House ideas that burn in my belly came from spending the night in the Fern House. Built by my very close friend, and college alumni Robert ‘Bob’ Swinburne, at his family homestead, the Fern House is a very simple structure. It’s what is often called an architectural folly. Measuring approximately 50 square feet, composed of 2×4 wood studs, insect screen, and polycarbonate roof, it is built on top of an old tent platform. Bob and his wife Rachelle bought this sprawling Southern Vermont property nearly 14 years ago where they’ve since made a delightful home and are raising two adorable children. He’s even built his own barn, completely solo. That’s a different story.

Way before I’d ever heard of the term ‘glamping’, or glamorous camping, I had stayed a weekend with my friends in this little guest bedroom. For lack of a better term for it, that’s what it is, having one simple piece of furniture, a bed suspended from bright red parachute cord. It was here that as the day faded into night, and a bit of moonlight crept in, I truly knew what that quote meant. Frozen music.

Not only could I hear the quiet sounds of the wildlife from all around, crickets like a distant orchestra tuning their instruments, but I could also hear – nothingness. Peace, tranquility, and a soft wind blowing through the forest ferns and spindly trees. It was as if there was no one else around. It was romantic – both because my then fiancée was with me, and it seemed a bit overly luxurious. Like we were in our own private cathedral, both grand and sized just right for two; simultaneously simple and posh. That combination had never occurred to me. Perhaps it had a more long-lasting effect than the moon those first two nights.

I haven’t been back to Vermont to visit, and of course nap at my friends’ place nearly enough. A nap sounds fantastic right about now. I truly hope to recapture that feeling with my own tiny house. Like everyday is a vacation. Everyday is fresh and you cannot shut out the renewing light of the sunrise. Will my house feel exactly like being in the Fern House? Probably not.

If you wanted to create your own version of the Fern House, Bob will happily sell you the plans to create one, at $150. You won’t regret it. Someone in Wisconsin has already built one and it turned out very well. I know that once I’ve got a slice of land somewhere, I plan to build my own folly in the woods, maybe even one like Bob’s, just a short hike from the tiny house.

Last year, a professional filmmaker interviewed Bob, and the resulting short clip below gives a great flavor to what I’m describing. This really is a must see.

A few more images, showing the seasons’ change. No ferns in autumn or winter and sleeping outdoors is a little more brisk these times of year.

Fern House in Fall

Fern House in Winter

Check out Robert Swinburne’s blog (Vermont Architect) and his work (Bluetime Collaborative) here: 

One Night of Tiny House Bliss

Monday night, I tried on my first Tiny House for size. That’s right, I went to the store, picked one out my size and went into the fitting room. OK, actually spent the night at the Caravan Tiny House Hotel in the Northwest area of Portland, Oregon.

Tiny Vacation

It was wonderful. I stayed at the Kangablue, which is the newest arrival. At only 15 SM (160 Square Feet) plus a sleeping loft, it was just right. Surprisingly roomy. I will write-up a more comprehensive review soon, as I seemed to have caught a flu-like thing… I always want to see too much of a new city, and invariably exhaust myself. I wish I had planned a week or two in this hotel, and I could have tried them all. Below is a sampling of pictures for your enjoyment. You can read more about the six tiny houses available to stay in part of the Caravan here:

Tiny House Typologies

imageI’m going to explore the different layouts often found on the many tiny house websites out there and try to explain why none of them suit me. I’ve hand-sketched them from memory as simple diagrams, to protect the identities of each.

First, let’s just get one thing out of the way. I’m a designer, and it’s in my nature to want to create something new. This in no way is to say that the options available out there aren’t valuable.

Knowing something fits with your lifestyle, your values, and appeals to your senses, is what makes a house a home. “Commodity, firmness and delight”, words said by Vitruvius over 2,000 years ago were then, and are still today, the foundations of what makes good design and good architecture. The combination and weighting of these and the aspects of each differ for many people.

Of the varied floor plans of tiny houses on wheels available and examples of built work from the last ten to fifteen years, I think I can organize these into varying typologies. These are in no particular order.


Type #1
With this plan, you’ve got a good deal of flexibility. I’ve seen these often with a full-width front porch, shown hatched. The living and kitchen are a shared zone, which may be a problem for some who like watching television and relaxing on a couch. What’s gained by this configuration is a whole extra room, as compared with option #3 (arguably the original of the tiny house on wheels layout). This room could be used for a twin bed, a den for that TV watching, or possibly an office.

Like many of these houses, there’s a loft that can comfortably fit a queen-size mattress above the bathroom and smaller bedroom/den. This arrangement of spaces could even allow additional storage above the kitchen or front porch.


Type #2
Version two has large space in the middle, flanked on each end by the bathroom and kitchen. This arrangement provides the largest possible open space, while at the same time dictates that the largest windows are on the sides. What I don’t particularly care for in this layout is the necessity to enter directly into the living space. Within the confines of the box, there’s no journey or transition, no sense of discovery. This could be mitigated by a temporary porch, although when entering in the middle of such a large space, you can see everything the home has to offer. This also means there’s no room for separate contemplation, other than the bathroom.

If views are important, the orientation of the home must be considered carefully, ensuring there is enough maneuvering space to position the home on the site. This may not be possible when using the home as a proper RV in a park. In the RV park configuration, you would be looking only at your neighbors.

A loft is possible while sacrificing part of the potential for a high-ceiling living space. I’ve noticed a few that have accomplished this in clever ways, some even with the loft on sliding rails over the bathroom – which when pulled back, make for showering in a light-filled tall space very pleasant. Just make sure if someone is in the bed, they don’t mind going on a little magic carpet ride.


Type #3
Business in the Front, Party in the Back – or perhaps a better name would be the plain studio apartment model. In this plan, regardless of where the entrance is, the kitchen, bath and storage are aligned along a common corridor in a galley style configuration. This is very efficient, and allows a loft above, while leaving the majority of the main level for a large open area.

I would say this is very appealing, as the open area can serve as a multi-purpose space for living, sleeping, eating and work. If I were to expect living alone, this fit the bill. However, this model requires a lot of negotiation with a partner or spouse. Like type 2, this layout makes it a challenge for two adults to be doing separate activities.


This type is often associated with a deck over wheels configuration, similar to what I’m planning.  The entrance is on the long side, again directly bringing you into the living room, flanked by the kitchen and bath, and the bedroom. This is another very efficient layout, as it eliminates any corridors. To save even more space, one model I’ve seen with this configuration introduces the wet bath concept and a shared sink with the kitchen.

For my tastes, entering into the living room in a way that your seating area looks back at the front door feels off. It’s probably bad feng shui, if you’re into that – which I consider to contain wise principles, even without necessarily understanding the spiritual thought behind them.

Breaking from the pack
What I’d very much like to do, and have explored several versions of, is to break free of the boundaries of the box. Unfolding panels, pop-outs and pop-ups could be some of the strategies for making the spaces better suited programmatically to my needs. For instance, a room could expand as needed for a given activity such as dining, versus a desk for a laptop. Rooms could combine for larger gatherings, or furniture could transform from a banquette or couch to become a guest bed. Many of these ideas have been used in the RV and boat design for decades.

Someone once said that there are no new ideas. Someone’s already thought of everything. While that often seems true, and there’s plenty to be learned from studying other’s work, I don’t think we’ve even begun to examine this typology in any real depth. I want to discover and implement the ideas that are most exhilarating and tickle my funny bone. There’s going to be many other ways of synthesizing these ideas into a new way of thinking about the house and tiny living.

Every time I bring up this project of mine in front of a group, there’s always a large number of people that have never heard of the tiny house movement. We have a long way to go. I want to engage as many people as possible, to help generate more ideas. Perhaps it might make sense to create a design competition. That could help raise awareness within the design community, and be a way to get to my goal of a living laboratory with this project when finally built. I’m really looking forward to that day.

{image top, Etruscan Temple types, from around the 1st century, B.C. by Francis Brenders at | other images drawn (crudely) by sdb.}

Small Box Retailers

permit?How do you construct a new shopping mall in 3 months, within the heart of earthquake rattled Christchurch, New Zealand? With a literal boatload of shipping containers, that’s what. The project is called Re:START. Thanks so much to my dear friend and colleague Phil Read of @ReadThomasBIM for… wait, “holding back showing me this”? LOL. It was worth the wait.

I like looking outside, thinking outside the box as it were, to discover inspiration an apply innovative ideas.  This has definitely inspired me to continue to seek ways to incorporate my modern design tastes, while still managing to incorporate a relaxed, cozy environment.

Watch the video – ReStart: Christchurch Shipping Container Mall, or for more information on this project, visit

Waxing Brasil

Brasil seems like an interesting place. Some of the world’s best beaches, music you cannot help but sway your feet to (almost all of it – I’m looking at you Pitbull), architectural experimentation in Brasília through the late Oscar Niemeyer who died (still working) at 105 years young in 2012, and after 60 years, the last VW camper van rolled off the assembly line just a few weeks ago. Although, as we have seen during the run up to the 2014 FIFA World Cup, there’s a great divide between the haves and have-nots. Sometimes the tension breaks free of it’s delicate balance and you have political unrest. These are a people with passions. The world’s eye being on this country will most certainly turn out to be a good thing, as I am ever hopeful of the strength of the human spirit and desire towards justice and equality.

On to the houses…

(click to see as a slide show)

All this energy seems to be helping the construction industry, (independent of the games) and there is much fresh experimentation. It’s encouraging to see prefab in Brasil taking off. The confluence of technology and desire for newness is shattering the traditional stereotypes of modular or pre-fab housing, while managing to achieve a minimalism and spareness that celebrates both nature and shelter. Here are three examples: Mini Mod, Innotrade Modular and the off-the-grid Solar Decathlon Europe project from Team Brasil, Ekó House. Perhaps the United States is hoarding all the world’s spare shipping containers; as these examples are all of a similar ISO container modular dimension, they are all fabricated as bespoke boxes.

What’s interesting is the cultural, material and stylistic diversity of the Team Brasil strategy that manages to pull together a really well-considered concept. Although they did not win, all the entries were pretty fantastic.

Here’s a video tour of design concepts behind the Ekó house (in English).

Ekó House from EkóHouse on Vimeo.

{Credits: Top image – The Metropolitan Cathedral, located in Brasília, Brasil – by Oscar Niemeyer, 1970 – photographer Victor Soares/ABr. 2003 – source Wikimedia Commons | slides: Mini Mod – 1 through 6 – by MAPA (MAAM Studioparalelo), photography by Leonardo Finotti © | Innotrade Modular – 7 through 9 – | Ekó House – 10 through 12 – by Team Brasil

The Miter Box Tiny house



Here’s an example of a tiny house on wheels, not a container, however the details are very interesting.  It’s called the Miter Box, due to its clean corners, and was completed last summer by Shelter Wise LLC out of Portland, Oregon. In fact, you can buy the plans on the Portland Alternative Dwelling (PAD) website.  At 8.36m2 (90sf), not including the sleeping loft, it’s a fair bit smaller than what I’m planning.  The limited material palette indoors and out makes this house seem larger, although that could be partially attributed to the necessity to use wide angle lenses when photographing these spaces.


After finding this little gem, I’m starting to come around to the idea of a “wet bath” , where the whole room is a shower.  It saves a great deal of space.  In doing more research; it’s becoming clear that dealing with moisture in such a small structure can become a challenge.  Even the moisture from cooking and exhaling while asleep! Being able to seal off the bathroom from the rest of the house while the fan deals with shower steam is critical to winning the fight against condensation in the wall cavity and mold. Just another thing to keep reminding myself when it comes time to detail my final design. Note to self: looking into roof air-conditioner or dehumidifier in addition to fans.


Excitingly, there’s a tiny house hotel in Portland where this model currently resides, listed as ‘The Pearl’, along with a couple others from different sources. The next time I am in Portland, I will make it a point to visit and stay here – Caravan Hotel.

via: Tiny House Talk

{Note: original article had the area incorrectly stated at 11.15m2 (120sf), which has been corrected above}