Kim and Richard’s Tiny House on Rita Street in Sarasota County, Florida is complete. We ride-tested this little tiny house for 5 days over the 4th of July weekend with a load of 4 people, and found that it rode pretty smooth.
We had more visitors – neighbors, West Coast acquaintances, and Rita fans – in 4 days than we had moving in may to Audubon Park. This perhaps speaks more about the West Coast lifestyle vs. the Central Florida lifestyle. Here people are busy, generally keep to themselves, and feel like they are intruding, I guess. In Sarasota, we had multiple visitors that came and enjoyed the Rita’s hospitality. We had real conversations with real people.
The Rita is set in a plane of white gravel which is near-zero maintenance. The boys found a shark’s tooth in the gravel. It is on short concrete piers with a 2′ high crawl space. Riding up on piers allows the land underneath to breathe and for the Rita’s ventilation to work properly like a true Cracker house.
The foundation is fairly solid. There were some interesting secondary vibrations through the house when the washing machine was on the spin cycle. Footsteps did not reverberate.
The front elevation expresses mobility, our age of motion accelerated. And yet it is very static, anchored to the land. The front wall is a grid that is thirteen wide by seven high, interrupted by a simple white band. These two prime numbers plus the partial end corners yield a rhythm that is both complete and incomplete at the same time. The lack of certainty in the front facade expression – nothing is an even number, the ends are slightly unresolved – references our current times of incomplete wisdom and a searching, a yearning for closure.
The central white band can be read in multiple ways. It emphasizes the door, a decidedly un-sarasota-school move (entries were de-emphasized by Rudolph and his peers, you just slipped between two floating plans and presto! you’re inside before you know it). Here the Rita presents the front door to you in a pure, white band.
An element, repeated thrice, has been a theme of our existence together even back in Hawaii days and extending to Norris. Chelsea and Rita both have the number 3 repeated in patterns, solids, and voids in its design.
The interior space, upon entering, fulfilled its requirement to have a series of interlocking functional areas that unite more than they separate. This is typical of nearly all tiny houses but it was particularly important with the vertical space to unite the loft. From 3 people to, at one time, eight, we had plenty of space and it did not feel crowded like a hotel room would if 8 people were in it.
The quality of light was diffuse and generally very high, and it changed throughout the day. The Rita is surrounded by the lush tropical rainforest of Florida’s lower west coast. The greens of the trees highlighted many of the colors inside and as the sun moved across the sky there was a delightful sense of time passing. It was as if the interior of the main space was a little bubble, holding a soft bright light inside.
The wasp-tail between the two wet rooms wasn’t too narrow. One wet room – holding two lavatories and a toilet – was surprisingly spacious. The other wet room had a shower and a tiny washer/dryer combo and it felt fine. It was the smallest room in the house but with a window it was not too claustrophobic.
The bedroom, with its niches, also felt significantly larger than it was, due to the high ceiling.
The loft was perhaps the most successful space of all. With one window facing north, up high, and another window facing west, down low, the loft was filled with stronger light but it had a “treehouse” sensibility being up in the trees. The boys seemed to enjoy it and rarely came down except during feeding times.
As a design experiment the Rita is more successful than I ever expected. Kim Mathis’ interior design talent helped to furnish the interior in a way that enhances the spaces. Scott Stoothoff, the builder, took great care with the construction, interpreting the design skillfully, and the result is an excellent living space with plenty of happy small details that he finished well, so the house will reveal interest and delight over and over again.
[see https://www.facebook.com/theritasarasota/?ref=bookmarks for photos].
The explorer in all of us delights in moving beyond civilization’s edge, seeking a place where human structures dissolve into the wilderness. For me, the return from the Everglades had a different effect: I reveled in nature’s rich variety, in contrast with our current urbanized form that is remarkably homogenous. Anywhere in Florida, and much of the country, one experiences a new sense of sameness in the texture and pace. America has entered a period when our buildings, roads, and infrastructure are uniform, differing only in the details. We live in a very standardized America today, and this is the quiet strength of our country.
If there is any doubt about the new homogeneity, look no farther than the commercial strips that have come to dominate the 21st century experience. These strips are our marketplace, the town square writ large, and are a study in careful, intentional uniformity. Commercial America, from New York to California, is smoothly uniform in both large scale and details to a startling degree, differentiated only by local geography. Although criticized for its aesthetic monotony, our commercial environment unifies our national experience. The endless asphalt strip expresses the contemporary American lifestyle, a way of ordering our space that represents our participation in the high-energy global economy. It’s ugly, but it works; so goes consumerism.
Businesses competing for the customer dollar ensure familiarity and efficiency, and this uniformity extends to the design of the store, both inside and out. From the front door to the street, a precise series of moves are choreographed around the invisible practices of safety, security, and barrier-free flow from the car door to the cash register. All of these dictate uniformity of design, a certain monolithic character, which moves the customer effortlessly from merchandise to the point of sale to the driveway.
The driveway leads to the street. While we yearn for alternatives to the car, we still cling to its super-mobility. This influence begets a rigid, standardized design to which all pavement is built. Lights, signs, intersections, and the pulse and rhythm of the road all become one. Gone, for the most part, are local eccentricities such as stoplights turned sideways; arrived are broad, well-lit roadways with the same signals everywhere, built with the future in mind. This, again, is a strength. Americans have always been mobile, and with this standardization, effortless freedom of movement allows a state of supermobility to be imagined, if not quite achieved.
Meanwhile, America’s building industry climbed a series of regulatory steps in the last several generations, and today’s built environment is more uniform and less specific to its particular locale, instead taking on a vague, broad national character that is barrier-free and safe. Starting with the 1992 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and continuing today with the International Building Code, standardization has become a quiet but powerful movement.
The ADA sought to remove the localized, obstacle-ridden geography that restricted a large population with sensory or mobility difficulties from having access to buildings and places. Since then, a substantial portion of our constructed world has been built with these rules, and older buildings have been adjusted to remove barriers. With this act, deliberate intent has caused much of America to look the same, from the way our sidewalks rise up from the street to the size of our public bathrooms.
More broadly, building codes became standardized too. In the 1990s, the International Building Code converged three regional codes into one. Building codes, which go back to Hammurabi’s time, have evolved into exquisitely complicated texts, annotated like the Talmud and as complex as the tax code. With the real estate development economy normalized at a national scale, it became more efficient to deliver the same product everywhere, rather than customize an office or a store to local eccentricities. This sameness, again, allows supermobility to meet sales and productivity metrics from one place to another, and indeed smooths the path for a new, migratory America to evolve. This again is a strength, if efficiency is any measure of things.
Local codes still customize structures to particular locales; California requires resistance to seismic activity, and Florida protects against hurricanes. A lot of idiosyncratic localisms have been done away with, however; nuances that did little to protect anybody. A wood building in the Midwest, for example, was called a Type Five building, while in the south it was Type Six, with accompanying detailed descriptions differing in little details. These were all melded into one wood-frame building type by the new code, simplifying national-scale construction and design, and eliminating wastefulness. Like the standardization movement that occurred in the 1920s, this convergence of codes promotes a common system of definitions and measures of firmness and safety.
Intertwined with this rather massive regulatory convergence is, of course, the globalization of the economy. Standardization of materials was critical to be able to import key products from overseas manufacturing, and for a national real estate developer to assure similar costs from coast to coast. Sameness is a virtue, from an accounting perspective.
Should this sameness be doubted, interview any offshore visitor about their American experience, and while American behavior may generate complaints, the American built environment inspires awe and respect. “Why can’t we have this in our country,” more than one international guest has bitterly questioned me, usually pointing to a clean, well-ordered aspect of place that we take for granted. “America,” stated one South American to me recently, “is still the safest place to buy real estate, because of your standardization.” Monotony and safety make for a dull sense of place, but great property values.
How this came about is a study in our faith in the future. America has always had a sense of faith that things will get better even in the darkest of times. This faith in the future seems lost today if one focuses merely on the surface, and the general deterioration of our national conversation. Our actions, however, are different than our words, and our actions – widening roads, consolidating codes, standardizing infrastructure – are those of a people in the process of perfecting our built environment. Only a people who care about the future would be doing this.
American roads and buildings are not precious; we are not a sentimental people, by and large, when it comes to our physical environment. There is emerging out of the past a certain American style of place that is a product of our society’s character.
This style of place is barrier-free, safe, and guarded well against disaster. This character transcends the superficial notion of “style” and goes more to a uniform, shared sense of place. Monotonous, yes; as all standardization tends to become. It goes, however, to a greater value we place upon planning and design.
A positive byproduct of this style of place is equity; roads (except toll roads) can be travelled by all, and buildings are built safely for all to dwell. Another positive byproduct of this style is efficiency, speeding up the process of rolling out new infrastructure. A final byproduct of this style is the future, giving our children’s generation a simplified infrastructure with one operating manual.
What our progeny does with this infrastructure is up, of course, to them. Imperial Rome standardized town-making just as it lost the ability to govern itself; whether we overcome this tendency is still an open question. This uniformity is explicit today, and will be a tacit scaffold upon which a unique, more localized future can be built, celebrating the specific geography and society of each individual place. Suffocating monotony can perhaps give way to flexibility, creativity, and character expressing diversity and culture as we move into the future.
The Qwave is a proposed tinyhouse for Sarasota’s Vamo district, and has a distinct Sarasotan heritage. This area, which dates from the 1920s, is a pocket of space redolent with the timeless, gentle natural energy of the central West Coast of Florida. With a narrow, jungly gravel road leading down into Little Sarasota Bay, a thin finger points westward towards the setting sun. Wave motion laps lazily against the mangroves, and the clams, crabs, and other sea creatures live a fragile reef of existence along the water’s edge. So too do the residents of this little area, many for decades, in a district that seems the eye of the hurricane of development. Still, quiet, and preserved, its atmosphere is a tesseract to the past. Within this genus loci, we are tesselating the future as well with the qwave.
The parcel sits on the south side of the street. Our street is offset from the boat ramp slightly, and the lot is open on the north end, treed around its south. We are reserving part of the north end for a future, larger residence, and in the meantime it may become an edible garden. The first phase will be the guest house.
In 1946, the Healy family built a guest house, and it was designed by a young architect who said he wanted to use the least material possible, make it as light as possible, and as efficient as possible. The notion of tension structures fascinated him, and he perched the house just over the edge of the sea wall. All of these principles are still applicable today.
Wave motion on the Gulf Coast is gentler than the Atlantic, as a rule. Within the curve of a wave, the space is tight and the wave breaks onto the beach with little of the crash and thunder of the great Atlantic Ocean.
With a small house (572 SF), efficiency is critical. Space has to have two or three uses, like on a ship, and items that move, fold, unfold, stow and stack blur the line between architecture and furniture.
This building also references Florida’s agricultural past, a link to the time before Florida got paved and walmarted over. Farm structures are, by nature, beautiful in their efficiency and spare use of decoration, and this vernacular is honored here in Central Florida.
Enclosing the most amount of space with the least amount of material is not just an architectural experiment, it is a mandate. Sufficiency.
The Qwave replaced the elastic cocoon material with a prefabricated, curved metal panel that serves both as a roof membrane and also as its own structural support. To do so, the panel is highly ridged, with the rugae at least 7″ high – a miniature standing waveform in itself. This creates a tunnel effect which on the outside, the ribs glistening in the sun, is quite nice.
On the interior, one side is lifted up so the space can be doubled. The interior surface is a honey-colored luan finish. The floor is polished concrete: again, the notion of sufficiency, with the floor slab acting as a dual-use function; both as a foundation and as a finished surface.
Two interior walls will be full height to the underside of the roof; these will be metal stud walls with plaster-and-lath. Lower height walls will eliminate the studs, with plaster and lath suspended in the air, spanning short distances.
The detailing will be similar to the late 1940s and early 1950s, with J-mold reveals at the door frames and the wall bases. In a tiny space, eliminating visual clutter is essential.
The qwave’s name comes from its reference to a waveform, with the adaptation of the venerable quonset hut from the early 1940s. Quonset hut + wave = qwave.
“Respect for the natural conditions of a particular region, along with the ability to fashion these to meet contemporary living requirements, provide a harmonious relationship between the present and the eternal.” (Sigfried Gideon)