Microhousing: A Lived and Learned Experience

September 05, 2017
Fall 2017
This online-only article is a supplement to the Fall 2017 print edition of Home Energy Magazine.
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Living within your means has always been prudent—but what happens when you take this to an extreme? Microhousing has become more and more popular over the last few years, receiving more time in articles, television shows, and other media as an alternative to the common suburban home. Much of my design work has been at small scale, from cabins to ranger stations, but I had not yet dealt with the smallest of living spaces: the microhouse. As though she had read my mind, Leah Hodgson, a colleague of mine, mentioned one day that she was living in a microhouse built on a 5-foot x 8-foot trailer bed. She describes the experience of designing, building, and living in this space in the story below. This story convinced me to purchase the microhouse and develop a competition to renovate it for the Second-Year Architecture Studio that I coteach at Virginia Tech.

The microhouse trailer that Leah lived in at her host family's home overlooking the town near Blacksburg, Virginia. She actively lived in the home for three months in 2016.

Leah’s Microhome Experience

I wake up to sun pouring through my east-facing window. Even the homemade curtains can't block the light, but I don't mind. From here I swivel, a single motion, into a sitting position. This places my head 12 inches from the ceiling. I stretch, but only side to side. To stretch up, I must go outside. Next I crack my window, light my propane stove, and pour water from a jug into my single pot. While it boils, I lie back and look out my skylight at the branches overhead. The silence is magical. No electricity, no humming of an air conditioner. Through my cracked window, I hear a bird move in the tree above the trailer. Then I hear the water start to boil. I pour in oatmeal, blueberries, and peanut butter. I have to eat the blueberries within a couple of days or they will mold, because I have no refrigerator. The smell of peanut butter fills the tiny space.

My kitchen takes up a third of my house. My bed half. My chair half. My closet, my floor, bathroom, sunroom, and library all take up whatever is left. The bathroom has no fixtures. My home has no running water. The space the functions occupy still adds up to one. This is what it is when the entire floor area of your home is 40 square feet, with a ceiling height of 4 feet 6 inches. Functions don't so much spill into other areas, as overlap them.

I had many reasons for undertaking this experiment. Environmental consciousness, simplicity, and a purification of my soul were the top three. The reality of living in such bare accommodations is far different from the ideas many of us have. There is freedom, but it comes through routine. Each day I know what my breakfast is, the pan I eat it from. As I leave my home, I grab the bag I packed the night before. It is filled either with clean clothes and shampoo on shower day, or with exercise gear on gym day. This leads to a more efficient me as well.

Most of my time is spent on campus, as an extension of my home. I have had conversations with the ladies in the gym locker rooms, gone to yoga class, stayed on campus for lunch and dinner, made strong connections in studio. When I come home, I can play in my host family's yard and jump on the trampoline with their kids. The sense of community that had been available all along is overwhelming. Forcing myself out of my comfort zone has led to more meaningful interactions, work, and downtime. Defining my home as five-by-eight has led to a more-defined use of myself.

The main function of my tiny home is as a place of solitude. Clearly defining this area of my life has allowed each moment to have a purpose and meaning that had been unclear before. When I choose this, I know that I can lie back on my bed and stare at the sky, fully engaged in it. There is nothing here except time. No distractions.

The interior of the trailer while Leah lived there. A place for everything and everything in its place.

The Process: From Construction to a Student Design Competition

This story of an experience is powerful. Leah’s routine and solitude show how our clients’ choices inherently influence how we design spaces, and how this in turn can begin to influence the development of lived spaces. As architects, contractors, and designers, we have criteria that help to support decisions that we make. Leah designed and built her microhome with her father, a residential contractor. Here’s how she describes the experience:

My original drawings were based on my idea of what a tiny living space should be, but as the thing itself began to take shape, it was obvious that my idea would have to be adapted. My inexperience designing and building tiny homes, combined with my very small budget, made for an ever-evolving project. Furthermore, I was working with my dad, a residential contractor, and we all know that contractors and architects often butt heads during construction. This project was no different, as we both strove, each in our own way, to meet the following six criteria:

  • The house must fit on a 5-foot x 8-foot trailer bed with a weight capacity of 3,000 lbs.
  • It must be well insulated due to the lack of electrical heat sources.
  • There must be windows to provide light to make the interior feel spacious, and that could be opened to provide cross-ventilation.
  • The house must have a low profile for easy towing.
  • There must be designated areas to sleep, cook, and store personal items.
  • The house must be constructed using durable materials.

We started construction in June 2014. The owner of a local hardware store gave us free dimensional lumber. Steel stud would have saved us weight, but in light of the donation and the difficulty maneuvering around the trailer's existing cage, we decided that wood was our best option. We attached 2 x 4 (1.5 in. by 3.5 in.) studs to the steel cage of the trailer, providing extra stability for the road. Based on material sizes, we decided to make to the interior height 4 feet 6 inches. This also lowered the external profile of the trailer, made the roof space more accessible as a sitting area, and provided less volume to be heated. It left no room to stand upright inside the trailer, but I planned to use the trailer mostly for eating and sleeping, and these activities did not require standing room.

Next came exterior sheathing. We used ½-inch plywood and it became the heaviest part of the project. The bottom edge was sealed with spray rubber, and the inside was insulated with a combination of rigid foam insulation to prevent moisture buildup and increase R-value, and batt insulation in the ceiling to save money. This was our stopping point for the summer. During the fall, we moved the trailer inside and I collected more supplies to continue work in the winter. These included a rubber roofing membrane, parts to assemble doors and skylight, interior bamboo flooring, and aluminum flashing for the exterior sheathing.

Now that the project was inside, winter break was spent adding these materials to the house. As with all construction, the framing and sheathing were completed much more quickly than the finishes. We built our own doors from pine boards and installed them along with the hardware. The trim used for the openings and material seams was cut from 100-year-old wormy chestnut planks. The flooring was found in an outbuilding. My limited budget lead to many instances of scavenging for supplies, creating a project that was always surprising.

I finished up the project in January of 2015. After that, I completed my third year of architecture, studied abroad in Europe, and, after returning to the US, moved into the tiny house the first week of March 2015. For three months I lived in 40 square feet—an experience that taught me so much about construction, space, and the human spirit.

The final project was intelligently designed, sturdy, light, and inexpensive . . . but I felt it could be vastly improved in a second iteration.

A view of the inside of the trailer when I was living there. Though it was only 40 square feet, there was plenty of space for one person. The light coming through the skylight was more than enough to enable me to perform tasks and as the clouds passed over, showed the passage of time.

From Leah to the Second-Year Competition Boards

Leah’s desire to develop a second iteration of the microhouse was what led me to buy it from her and run the competition for the Second-Year Architecture Studio. Entries would be judged by how well they met the six criteria listed above. Twenty-one students participated in the competition, and the students themselves selected the three winning boards. See Figures 1, 2, and 3. The captions to the figures explain how each of these three boards shows the potential for overall combination of ideas and introduction to the existing micro-home as a comprehensive design

Competition Board 1

Competition Board 1
Figure 1. This project focused on the interaction of the space and the experience of gathering wind and translating that into a series of different pitches based on the size of the open tubes. Though the site is idealized in the form a mountain valley, it recognizes that the selected site or the surroundings has as much to contribute to a feeling of solitude as does the micro-house trailer itself.

Competition Board 2

Competition Board 2
Figure 2. This project focused on a feeling of rest and the introduction of vegetated planters into the space. This project, though it disregards the conditions of the existing trailer, concepts that can be easily adapted. A common motif between the two projects shows a connection to nature and the blurring of the boundary between man and nature.

Competition Board 3

Competition Board 3
Figure 3. This last project introduces the concept of independence and makes that concept central to a microhouse trailer. This independence is one of the concepts that both Leah and I discovered in using the microhouse.

The Experience of the Microhouse Trailer

With the context and ideas that the students provided, the development of potential renovations of the microhouse was done after spending multiple days living in the microhouse and beginning to see ways of developing into a home. After reviewing the ideas from the students who were selected from the competition, ideas were combined or changed to fit the actual existing microhouse should renovations be done in the future.

Where do we start with the potential ideas provided be used in the existing microhouse? First we start with what currently exists and how we might interact with it. All of the design parameters that Leah set out, I feel, were met. The home fits well into the footprint of the 5-foot x 8-foot trailer bed. After a year of complete exposure to the elements, it is still in great condition. At first I was skeptical of living in such a small space during the final weeks of winter; however, the high amount of insulation allowed my body heat to keep the space at a comfortable 55–65°F most of the time. In the summer, I spent many days in the microhouse, and the ventilation through the space kept conditions comfortable and cool. I will say that anyone living in the space needs to have tolerance for a temperature swing of about 20°F through the course of a day, as the temperature lag is about six hours. Without a heat source, the space is not recommended for long-term winter use.

The exterior of the microhouse at the Research and Demonstration Facility, next to my Outback for a sense of scale. The testing was done in the middle of the gravel lot near the main facility.

I realized that one would have to alter several habits to live in the space for long. This is consistent with Leah’s long-term experience. Cooking food on a small stove limits your food choices, but anything that can be boiled is still on the dinner menu. Perishables cannot be stored for more than a day or two, so anything that you cook should be eaten promptly. You will have to take your showers elsewhere, and you must find a source of water to consume. You must do without gadgets (i.e., electronics) if you have no source of electricity. There is plenty of storage, and most small pickup trucks can tow the microhouse without a problem, but the standard sedan might have trouble on hills.

At this point, you are probably thinking, “Why would I do this? It’s almost like camping.” That’s very true. The microhouse is essentially a very small camping trailer without a water and sewage hookup. However, it teaches us that we have become so accustomed to several key aspects of life that we may take them for granted. Most suburban homes are 2,000 square feet or so, and a tiny house is around 400 square feet (a factor of 5 reduced). The microhouse we tested is 40 square feet (a factor of 50 reduced). This makes it difficult or impossible to accumulate objects. This is not minimalism for the sake of minimalism; it is minimalism born of necessity. This process of limiting oneself to true necessities is restricting, but also liberating. In five minutes of total preparation time, you could take the microhouse out on the road (provided you had the necessary license and a vehicle to tow it). The conditions that make up this lifestyle are worth experiencing. If nothing else, you learn something about what it means to live in such a small space. With consistent electrical power, the space would be perfectly fine as a home in which to go adventuring.

The Design of the Renovation

So let’s think of the microhouse as a touring house. We prepare it for travel and dock it when we are not traveling. It simply cannot meet the same standards as a full house, nor should it be asked to. So how would I integrate my idea of home with the idea of a microhouse? Essentially, what is a microhome to me? A microhome is a place that asks me to restrict the objects I own, or at least to be wise in the objects that I choose to have. A microhome’s design is beautiful in the same way that it must be functional; many parts of the space perform multiple duties. The restriction in physical objects results in looking to other places for extended temporary spaces, such as a library for books, rather than accumulating them permanently in a home. However, the limited amount of physical object grants me the ability to move and travel on short notice.

A microhome to me is the relationship that I have with others that visit the home and then the extended place surrounding it (such as nature) rather than the physical space to define an accumulated wealth within. Nature played a vital part in my renovation ideas, allowing the home to have a visual connection to the outdoors, and the capacity to house indoor plants and herbs. (See Figures 4 and 5.)

Potential Renovations

Potential Renovations
Figure 4. Here is some initial work concerning potential renovations to the microhouse. The left side is a diagram of my design process. The right side shows other aspects of the project, including minimalism, transport, and rest. My personal interests are color theory, vegetation, and materials, so I incorporate these topics into any project that I undertake.

Renovation Ideas to Process in the Future

A number of little things could be done to improve the microhouse, regardless of how it is to be used. For example, I’d change the red swing door to an opening overhang window, stabilizing the hinges, to provide ventilation when it is raining and shade in the summer. Personally, I enjoy drawing and sketching, so I’d add a small shelf for storing my supplies separate from the larger storage under the bed. That way I could keep they secure while the trailer was in motion. A small shelf next to the window would allow for some indoor plants. Since the trailer is not always in motion, I might build an exterior set of wooden planks for mounting plants while not in transit. These would be built not on the structure but around it, with the plants providing seasonal shading (see Figure 5).

Future Renovations

Future Renovations
Figure 5. Here is a sketch of the space to show scale. This shows proposed future renovations and additions to the microhouse.

Finally, I am exploring the idea of placing sheets of colored glass or even prisms in the skylight, to fill the space with colored light.

Two different examples of projecting color into the space as a proof of concept.

These are our experiences with designing, living in, and further exploring the concept of the microhouse. We hope you enjoyed the visit.

Since writing this article, the microhome has changed hands to another individual who will take into consideration the design ideas and will renovate the space for use as a touring trailer. This process shows that these spaces hold potential in not only what they physically can become, but also people’s desire for carefully designed small spaces.

Kenneth Black is a recent graduate of the doctoral program and research assistant at Virginia Tech. Leah Hodgson Boblitt is a recent graduate from Virginia Tech's Bachelor of Architecture program.

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