A workshop designed like a tiny house

We believe tiny house workshops should be like tiny houses: small, intimate, and designed to your individual needs.  That’s why a couple of the professionals involved in building houses at Boneyard Studios put together a tiny house design workshop for the DIYer who wants more technical information and planning materials for their tiny house build. Our first workshop this past fall was a success and a lot of fun to put on, so we are redoing it again this Spring at Howard University.  Find out more details about the workshop and watch a video from our past workshop.  Check out our photos and materials from the past workshop below and see why I, Lee, was motivated to help design a workshop with these professionals after my experience building a tiny house.

Throughout my tiny house project, I have realized how much building requires project planning, understanding major decision points in the process, and a knowledge of building code and materials.  I didn’t fully understand how one decision impacted another or what building decisions and techniques were unique to tiny houses.  I had naively bought into some of the promotional materials in the tiny house world that claim you can build a tiny house with just 14 tools or that make it seem like building a tiny house is simpler and easier just because it’s smaller than a regular house.  Our experience has been the opposite: a tiny house actually requires more planning, and a pretty thorough knowledge of building science, health and safety, and codes (International Building Code, RV code (ANSI/RVIA), and city code and zoning) in order to build a structure that is safe, durable, and is an efficient use of space.  Come learn with us again this spring!


Boneyard Studios featured in Dwell magazine

Boneyard Studios was fortunate to be featured in the November issue of Dwell magazine. The current issue highlights small space design and we were photographed and interviewed for an article on microhousing communities.  You can check out the article online or in the print magazine. If you don’t already “like” our Boneyard Studios’ Facebook page, go there to see some photos from the photo shoot (thanks to Eli Meir Kaplan Photography for sharing the photos) .  Also, I don’t blog as regularly as I post new photos and announcements to the Facebook page, so follow us there for regular updates or if you’re an Instagram user, link here.

Screenshot of Online Article in Dwell

Screenshot of Online Article in Dwell

Screenshot of Dwell print magazine cover: Small Spaces, Big Ideas.

Screenshot of Dwell November 2013 Issue: Small Spaces, Big Ideas.

A few clarifications to the Dwell piece/photos:

1) We are a friendly bunch who has fun! (Dwell must have a rule on no smiling as the guys look very serious in all of the photos!)

2) Boneyard Studios is not just dudes (Lee Pera, the female founder of Boneyard Studios, and Elaine Walker, the owner of the little white house, were not on the lot the day of the photo shoot).

3) In addition, many other members of the community were also absent from the photo shoot, including our architects and and another builder.  So many thanks to Foundry Architects, David Bamford of Element Design&Build for the beautiful execution of our projects at Boneyard Studios!

Learn how to design & build a tiny house with Boneyard Studios!

We are excited to offer a tiny house design and build workshop in Washington DC this September.  We have designed a workshop that includes everything I wish I would have known before starting my project.  I took a tiny house workshop before starting my project, but I still left wanting more technical and design information.  We want you to leave this workshop with all the technical knowledge and the planning tools to start your project!

We will be giving you the tools to effectively and efficiently get started on your own tiny/small house project, including an online project plan with major key decisions and technical resources and a base set of plans from which to design your own house. In addition, the workshop will allow you to tour and learn about different design and construction options from the builders and architects of four tiny houses on the Boneyard Studios lot, the nation’s first tiny house community.

Big Ideas, Small Spaces: A Tiny House Design Workshop

Sept 14-15
Washington, DC

Workshop location is just two blocks from the convention center metro stop and at Boneyard Studios.  We will help workshop participants to get to Boneyard Studios via public transportation or car share.

*Limited to just 30 participants to allow ample time with architect and builder on your technical and design questions

Detailed Workshop Schedule Here

Register Here

We are emphasizing quality over quantity and limiting participation for that reason. You will not be in a workshop with 80 participants but rather 30 participants maximum. This is to allow ample time for each participant to get their technical and design questions answered by the architect and builder.

Questions?  Please enter them below.

the philosophy of (tiny house) design

Working through the design of a small space raises a host of issues related to the philosophy and limits of design. Below is an attempt to sketch answers to questions I posed to myself at the outset of this project.

Does design form us? In the Poetics of Space, Bachelard writes that ‘the house remodels man’.  In decorating, designing or building a space, it seems there is an implicit faith that an ordered environment might help us create an more ordered, if not moral, life.  At the neighborhood level, a few pages of Jane Jacobs confirms how neighborhood design profoundly influences our sense of community and security.  In my own neighborhood, it is easily observable that row house neighbors with front porches tend to communicate with their neighbors far more than the porchless row homes across the street.   And at a personal level, an ordered environment helps many to attain a clarity of mind and sense of agency.  Yet one does not have to linger long on some obvious failures of this logic.  Life in a Dwell spread will likely do nothing to relieve existential anxiety or the relationship with our lover.  Life in the White House did apparently little for Mr. Bush.  The finest of buildings, big or small, may do nothing greater for us than some warm soup, as much as we may like to believe otherwise when conversing with our architects, or selecting a dining set.

Does design represent us? There is a reverse narrative we also hear: beautiful space represents a natural expression of an ordered mind and goodness, just as disorganization is at times correlated directly with personal crisis– as every hoarder story and portrait of American poverty quietly reinforces.  Architecture and design certainly represents our wealth and tastes.  But on an individual level, correlation is not causation, and there is often no relationship between the two, as many a brilliant intellectual thrives in disorder or sprawling office parks.  So why does the notion persist that folded clothes and beautiful spaces are somehow the outward manifestation of a peaceful, ordered psyche?  Perhaps because we so desperately wish it were so.  Really many of us are a regular mess, but our clean sight lines and stainless steel appliances imply (plea?) otherwise.  Thus the careful design of space may just as likely be a physical representation of deeper insecurity, an attempt to control the ordering of space when we feel weak to control anything else, even if we are a Hearst or a Frick.

Should we detach from design?  The idea that design represents or forms us may have a darker undertow. It is an admission that the external environment influences one’s own sense of well being– allows stacks of paper, strewn clothes and dirt to readily distract from greater focus.  So the unclean cup can suddenly become another diversion demanding address, like a text message or iPhone app, ready for the monkey mind to seize, at the expense of sustained attention.  So stained walls and suburban banality become a source of regular anguish.

The Stoic and Bhuddist counsel: do not let contentment rest on an ideal or unkept space, a perfect (tiny) house or a soiled couch.  Do not entertain the notion that the finest of spaces can elevate.  And do not spend energy attempting to order spaces that time is forever sending into chaos.  Yet it seems detachment is most frequently invoked when places and people are particularly unwelcome and dour.  It is perhaps, as de Botton writes, a “detachment that stem(s) not so much from an insensitivity to beauty as from a desire to deflect the sadness we would face if we left ourselves open to all of beauty’s many absences”.   So if it can be attained, a prescription of detachment may leave us stable but possibly separated from tremendous beauty, and perhaps less resolved to improve the world around us.  I sense this powerful tool is best left uniquely to situations that cannot be changed through our actions, and have a corresponding capacity to depress us.

Aspirational spaces.  In light of the ruminations above, it seems design and architecture are perhaps best viewed as aspirational activity that plays a supporting role to the kind of life we would like to have, provides a representation of happiness, and supports the values we most desire to reinforce as we rise from bed each day.  We are generally weak to that which surrounds us, and so while a space cannot fully ‘remodel’ us or a community, it can provide daily reinforcement of our conception of the good life.

What then, does this imply for the house, particularly the small one? Apart from providing basic shelter and comforts, what are the values the structure shall attempt to convey and to buttress? If on a blustery day the small house walls could quiver, this is what I hope it might say:

  • beauty is a perfect form of order, fused to complexity.  The clean lines of modernism represent to me all order, and suggest a corresponding sterility of existence.  And the modernist impulse that science and practicality may entirely dictate the form of a structure does not seem to ring true– within the placement of clean lines and open space lies considerable discretion, and an underlying notion that space might order life.   And what kind of life? I find much of what Corbusier designed akin to the lithe legs and perfect skin of a model with little to say- a lovely fling, but rather difficult to engage through years of dinners.  Complexity needed.  Yet by contrast, a rococco interior implies a stultifying complexity and affectation that covers the essence of the structure and (by implication) perhaps that of life itself.  The balance of order and complexity is a delicate one I find in rows of ordered books and clear jars of food, the varied grain in parallel tracks of old wood flooring, and in neatly spaced District row houses, each residence conforming to strict height and width requirements yet each a subtle, unique variation of the next.  In each case, beauty is independent of scale, and perhaps smaller scale allows ever greater attention to crafted quality.
  • a contented life is independent from the scale of dwelling.  From Vetruvius’ primitive hut to Thoreau’s cabin to the modern tiny homes, each small structure sounds a similar refrain: human material and space needs are basic.  We all understand the richness of life is often as simple as fresh pasta and meaningful relationships, independent of house size.  And much of the richness of life is found outside of the home, in the woods, in gardens, in cafes and theaters, visiting friends and traveling.  Moreover, the small house quietly argues that larger dwellings have not made us any more content.  In their fine 2005 article Small is Beautiful U.S. House Size, Resource Use, and the Environment Alex Wilson and Jessica Boehland note as house sizes have increased from 1100 ft2 to 2340 ft2 from 1950-2002, average occupancy fell from 3.67 family members to 2.6.  Thus “in 1950 houses were built with about 290 square feet (27 m2) per family member, whereas in 2003 houses provided 893 square feet (83 m2) per family member — a factor of 3 increase”. (Note that an individual living in the 210 square foot mini-1 represents a 28% deviation from 1950’s norms- hardly a radical move, at least 60 years ago).  Moreover, if the social scientists studying subjective well being are to be believed, larger home sizes over the past 60 years have not not been attended by any reported increases in contentment.  It may be because we now have 3x as much cleaning, maintenance, and decorating to do (and even if one does not do these tasks oneself, time and energy is spent finding, scheduling, supervising and paying for those doing the work).  Or perhaps it is because we simply adapt to circumstances.  Recent psychology studies of paraplegic accident victims and lottery winners strongly suggest that humans adapt rapidly to positive and negative changes in their world, and readily return to their baseline levels of happiness.  The so called ‘adaptation principle’  gives some additional insight as to why increasing house sizes have had no bearing on self reported well-being, and why scaling down is rarely as difficult as we may perceive it to be.  The latest findings in psychology point to a strong influence of genetic makeup on self reported well-being, and a corresponding weak relationship of environmental and demographic factors. (see Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis).
  • the world is on fire, but we might still live well without adding much kindling.  All else being equal, the modern trend toward larger houses and fewer people per house leads to a dramatic decrease in energy efficiency per occupant.  While the average U.S. household now uses around 958 KwH of electricity a month (or 368 KwH per person at current average household size), the structure will quietly demonstrate that an individual may live just as well on an average of 100 KwH/month, with a corresponding decrease in building materials.  Thus the small structure will aspire to show convenient living with little energy use.
  • life is best shared.   The house is intentionally sited next to 3 similar structures on a shared plot of land with a community garden, and situated in a dense, walkable urban neighborhood.  The ordered row of small homes will mirror the rows of District row homes behind them.  As such, the house location reflects the value that community matters, and perhaps is as compelling an option as any suburban or rural location.  Interpersonally, it is easy to assume tiny house conveys a message that cohabitation or family life is undervalued.  Yet nothing in the size of the structure impedes one from sharing a bed, a meal or a story with our significant other or family.   The structure in fact acknowledges what so many roommates, siblings, and lovers discover after a few weeks of life together: a need for personal time and space.  As such, a second detached structure (or a slightly larger, foundation built structure, could we legally build one) may provide such space apart, as so many have found by with a backyard office or garage workshop.

©2012 Brian Levy


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