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].
This design for the Solid State house is an exercise in sufficiency. It will adhere to the tenets of the Sarasota School – a light touch upon the landscape, lightness in structure and massing, and a specific and intimate response to the unique West Coast of Florida. It also carries on Paul Rudolph’s tradition of experimentalism with materials, styles of living, and use of space.
Integrated with this tradition is the reduction of waste. The Solid State House reduces wasted space and construction waste.
Housing will take a great leap forward when the house becomes married to the concept of “solid state.” The Qwave will be the beginning of this revolution, when solid state – i.e., no moving parts – becomes meshed into notion of shelter. Ergo, the Solid State House. This will be the housing of the future.
With the introduction of “solid state” circuitry in the 1940s, the transistor replaced the vacuum tube to shrink circuits, improve precision, and eliminate maintenance and wear. This concept revolutionized electronics. While William Shockley and John Pierce created the transistor, they had to describe the new physical form, or state, they were working in.
Tubes were large, coarse, and had to be replaced when they overheated or malfunctioned. Transistors did not. Tubes required a lot of energy and current to move electrons around so they could do their jobs, rest and recharge, and activate devices. Transistors could do the same job with a fraction of the energy – thus reducing heat, cost, and time because they could also be spaced closer together. Radios collapsed from briefcase sized objects down to thumb-sized objects. A radio today is a mere speck, a partition within a larger microchip measured in nanometers.
The tinyhouse movement is still in its nascent stages, and running into some important battles. For one thing, the entire economic system is blockading this movement, because it is entirely designed for supersize. From the permitting process (you pay the same order of magnitude cost whether you permit 400 SF or 4000 SF – the same “baseline” cost applies, and the increase is only incremental). Municipalities have no incentive to reduce permitting costs, desperate as they are for cash. So the tinyhouse must pay the same tribute to the king as a mcmansion.
Builders have little interest in not-so-big houses, because they are built quicker with fewer materials. Why would a builder want to sacrifice price? The management of a construction job is the same, whether managing a 3-month, 400 SF project or a 3-month 4,000 SF project.
Builders also are accustomed to a certain supply chain of vendors, with whom they have developed relationships. Gypsum wallboard, for example, isn’t really cheaper; it is, however, the bread-and-butter staple of interior construction and has become a commodity that can be manipulated, either by material cost or labor rates, to always come out at the bottom of the options for interiors. If you are seeking an interior finish that has less impact on the environment, you will always pay more. The small house movement has not yet figured out how to work around this consumptive, wasteful supply chain, and unwittingly adopts it into the movement, rewarding the same people at the top of the chain, taking the same resources from the earth, and injecting the same waste. The notion that they are doing less of it only means that a tiny house is less bad than a larger house.
And finally, a tiny house, once it is finally finished, has hundreds, if not thousands, of individual separate parts and all of them move. The daily temperature cycle warms up and expands things during the day, shrinks them at night. Rain wears down finishes, opens up joints between materials. Air conditioning creates a humidity imbalance that nature is constantly trying to correct. Current construction methods, with all the different trades and specialties, has not addressed these in any different way than they were addressed fifty or a hundred years ago. Everything moves, subtly, if not grossly.
We haven’t even considered all the machines within the house. Air conditioners, ceiling fans, switches, faucets, water heaters, and on and on and on. All of these have moving parts. They break down, require maintenance, and have their own supply stream. Whether a house is small or large, it has all the same baggage in terms of motors, lights, machines, and pipe joints. The lengths of straight pipe between joints may be shorter, but the connections, where the leaks occur, are still the same.
The not-so-big-house will not, in its current form, succeed and converge into a broadly cast ethos for the masses. The “system” is embedded way too deeply into its bones. This system has evolved, Darwinian style, carrying all these bad genes into the present generation. If the mcmansion is doomed, so is the small house.
Another type of evolution is possible, however: Lamarckian evolution, that which can be changed in ONE generation. Like transistors evolved out of tubes, so can a solid state house evolve out of the current situation. This is the only possible pathway towards the future.
The ideal Solid State House shall have no separate moving parts. The Solid State House shall be endlessly customizable out of factory parts. The Solid State House shall shrink.
These are the reasons why the not-so-big house movement will be the testing ground for the Solid State House. Innovation is easy when you are dealing with large scale projects, and looking for ways to save money. Invention, however, is not possible. Large projects have too much riding on the scale to look at new ideas.
Small, projects, however, are the province of INVENTION. A new way of doing things is easier to test when failure is small scale. Edison tested thousands of filaments in his light bulb before he found tungsten. A filament is small. Shockley tested thousands of alloys in a transistor before he found gallium-arsenide, and even that needed to be replaced with something a little less poisonous. Finding that gallium-arsenide combination was invention. Perfecting it with silicon was innovation.
The Solid State House shall have:
Single components that service multiple uses. A roof panel, for example, shall be both structural and waterproof. Manufacturing shall be perfected so as to reduce waste in the roof panel process and eliminate the 3-4 large dumpsters that have to be hauled off no matter what size – room addition or mcmansion.
Circuitry above the head shall be all low-voltage direct current. LED lighting only requires 12 or 24 volts DC. Right now, we bring 120V AC to the LED light and it has a built-in transformer. A solid-state house will eliminate the transformer, reduce the quantity of expensive copper needed to get power to the light, and embed the wires into the construction.
Water-carrying pipes are in rigid PVC or copper because it is cheaper for long distance. A small house, carrying water shorter distances, will be able to use more flexible hoses, eliminating pipe joints. The future small house will bake these into the wall, much like holes in bread, eliminating a second material from the mix.
Air conditioning will be underfloor or in-wall through microtubules that work like sweat glands in reverse: constantly removing moisture from the air, channeling it into a system that cools air, and creating a transpirational cycle that will make the small house microclimate function in the same way as the space under a tree canopy. Unlike LEED, which requires a hermetically sealed space to minimize energy, this new system will work best when the windows are open. Reconnecting with nature will be a pleasant byproduct of the solid state house.
As many appliances as possible will be 24V direct current.
As many appliances as possible will function without motors, gears, or bearings. A “gear room” or utility room will be where the shameful old appliances, like washing machines, will be placed, those poor servants that still must labor in the old way. Eventually these will be solid-state, too.
The solid-state house will be at first very small. Finishes, which is the “look” of the house, can be anything. If the current preference is wattle-and daub, that can be added to the building. But the solid-state nature of the house, with prefabricated wall and roof panels cut to size and fitted together seamlessly, will have its own integrity regardless of the clothing it wears.
The last and most important part of the solid state house will be its transportability. A foundation system will allow it to anchor firmly to the ground and be connected to local utilities (if required). As a not-so-big house, however, it will also be easily transportable.
This exciting revolution will allow time and space to collapse finally, and bring architecture into our liquid, postmodern, nanosecond twenty-first century.
The Solid State House was recently published in The New Geography. Trendy Builder Magazine recently published this commentary:
New Geography contributor and architect Richard Reep envisions home design and engineering solution akin to “solid state” technology, involving complete houses with no “moving parts.”
Reep’s riff takes off from the premise of the “not-so-big house” movement, which, although it represents promise directionally, doesn’t have a practical or operational likelihood of widespread traction. Here’s how Reep sees a tie between the non-starter small house initiative and the solid state house of the future:
The not-so-big house movement will be the testing ground for the solid-state house. Small projects are the province of invention. A new way of doing things is easier to test when failure is small scale.
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)