Issue 9:
Myths
ISSUE
STORY TYPE
AUTHOR
8
PERSPECTIVE
February 26, 2024
What the “Whole Earth Catalog” Taught Me About Building Utopias
by Anjulie Rao
8
THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT
February 19, 2024
How a Run-Down District in London Became a Model for Neighborhood Revitalization
by Ellen Peirson
8
THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT
February 12, 2024
In Brooklyn, Housing That Defies the Status Quo
by Gideon Fink Shapiro
8
PERSPECTIVE
February 5, 2024
That “Net-Zero” Home Is Probably Living a Lie
by Fred A. Bernstein
8
PERSPECTIVE
January 22, 2024
The Virtue of Corporate Architecture Firms
by Kate Wagner
8
PERSPECTIVE
January 16, 2024
How Infrastructure Shapes Us
by Deb Chachra
8
THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT
January 8, 2024
The Defiance of Desire Lines
by Jim Stephenson
7
THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT
December 18, 2023
This House Is Related to You and to Your Nonhuman Relatives
by Sebastián López Cardozo
7
THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT
December 11, 2023
What’s the Point of the Plus Pool?
by Ian Volner
7
BOOK REVIEW
December 4, 2023
The Extraordinary Link Between Aerobics and Architecture
by Jarrett Fuller
7
PERSPECTIVE
November 27, 2023
Architecture That Promotes Healing and Fortifies Us for Action
by Kathryn O’Rourke
7
objects and things
November 6, 2023
How to Design for Experience
by Diana Budds
7
CHRONICLES OF CULTURE
October 30, 2023
The Meaty Objects at Marta
by Jonathan Griffin
6
OBJECTS AND THINGS
October 23, 2023
How Oliver Grabes Led Braun Back to Its Roots
by Marianela D’Aprile
6
THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT
October 16, 2023
Can Adaptive Reuse Fuel Equitable Revitalization?
by Clayton Page Aldern
6
PERSPECTIVE
October 9, 2023
What’s the Point of a Tiny Home?
by Mimi Zeiger
6
CHRONICLES OF CULTURE
October 2, 2023
A Book Where Torn-Paper Blobs Convey Big Ideas
by Julie Lasky
6
THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT
September 24, 2023
The Architecture of Doing Nothing
by Edwin Heathcote
6
BOOK REVIEW
September 18, 2023
What the “Liebes Look” Says About Dorothy Liebes
by Debika Ray
6
OBJECTS AND THINGS
September 11, 2023
Roy McMakin’s Overpowering Simplicity
by Eva Hagberg
6
OBJECTS AND THINGS
September 5, 2023
Minimalism’s Specific Objecthood, Interpreted by Designers of Today
by Glenn Adamson
5
ROUNDTABLE
August 28, 2023
How Joan Jonas and Eiko Otake Navigate Transition
by Siobhan Burke
5
OBJECTS AND THINGS
August 21, 2023
The Future-Proofing Work of Design-Brand Archivists
by Adrian Madlener
5
THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT
August 14, 2023
Can a Church Solve Canada’s Housing Crisis?
by Alex Bozikovic
5
CHRONICLES OF CULTURE
August 7, 2023
In Search of Healing, Helen Cammock Confronts the Past
by Jesse Dorris
5
THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT
July 31, 2023
What Dead Malls, Office Parks, and Big-Box Stores Can Do for Housing
by Ian Volner
5
PERSPECTIVE
July 24, 2023
A Righteous Way to Solve “Wicked” Problems
by Susan Yelavich
5
CHRONICLES OF CULTURE
July 17, 2023
Making a Mess, with a Higher Purpose
by Andrew Russeth
5
ROUNDTABLE
July 10, 2023
How to Emerge from a Starchitect’s Shadow
by Cynthia Rosenfeld
4
THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT
June 26, 2023
There Is No One-Size-Fits-All in Architecture
by Marianela D’Aprile
4
THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT
June 19, 2023
How Time Shapes Amin Taha’s Unconventionally Handsome Buildings
by George Kafka
4
SHOW AND TELL
June 12, 2023
Seeing and Being Seen in JEB’s Radical Archive of Lesbian Photography
by Svetlana Kitto
4
PERSPECTIVE
June 5, 2023
In Built Environments, Planting Where It Matters Most
by Karrie Jacobs
3
PERSPECTIVE
May 30, 2023
On the Home Front, a Latine Aesthetic’s Ordinary Exuberance
by Anjulie Rao
3
PERSPECTIVE
May 21, 2023
For a Selfie (and Enlightenment), Make a Pilgrimage to Bridge No. 3
by Alexandra Lange
3
THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT
May 8, 2023
The Building Materials of the Future Might Be Growing in Your Backyard
by Marianna Janowicz
3
BOOK REVIEW
May 1, 2023
Moving Beyond the “Fetishisation of the Forest”
by Edwin Heathcote
2
ROUNDTABLE
April 24, 2023
Is Craft Still Synonymous with the Hand?
by Tiffany Jow
2
OBJECTS AND THINGS
April 17, 2023
A Historian Debunks Myths About Lacemaking, On LaceTok and IRL
by Julie Lasky
2
THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT
April 10, 2023
How AI Helps Architects Design, and Refine, Their Buildings
by Ian Volner
2
SHOW AND TELL
April 3, 2023
Merging Computer and Loom, a Septuagenarian Artist Weaves Her View of the World
by Francesca Perry
1
THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT
March 27, 2023
Words That Impede Architecture, According to Reinier de Graaf
by Osman Can Yerebakan
1
CHRONICLES OF CULTURE
March 20, 2023
Painting With Plaster, Monica Curiel Finds a Release
by Andrew Russeth
1
PERSPECTIVE
March 13, 2023
Rules and Roles in Life, Love, and Architecture
by Eva Hagberg
1
Roundtable
March 6, 2023
A Design Movement That Pushes Beyond Architecture’s Limitations
by Tiffany Jow
0
THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT
February 7, 2023
To Improve the Future of Public Housing, This Architecture Firm Looks to the Past
by Ian Volner
0
PERSPECTIVE
February 7, 2023
The Radical Potential of “Prime Objects”
by Glenn Adamson
0
SHOW AND TELL
February 20, 2023
Xiyadie’s Queer Cosmos
by Xin Wang
0
CHRONICLES OF CULTURE
February 13, 2023
How Michael J. Love’s Subversive Tap Dancing Steps Forward
by Jesse Dorris
0
SHOW AND TELL
February 7, 2023
Finding Healing and Transformation Through Good Black Art
by Folasade Ologundudu
0
BOOK REVIEW
February 13, 2023
How Stephen Burks “Future-Proofs” Craft
by Francesca Perry
0
ROUNDTABLE
February 27, 2023
Making Use of End Users’ Indispensable Wisdom
by Tiffany Jow
0
OBJECTS AND THINGS
February 7, 2023
The New Lessons Architect Steven Harris Learns from Driving Old Porsches
by Jonathan Schultz
0
PERSPECTIVE
February 7, 2023
The Day Architecture Stopped
by Kate Wagner
0
OBJECTS AND THINGS
February 7, 2023
The Overlooked Potential of Everyday Objects
by Adrian Madlener
0
ROUNDTABLE
February 7, 2023
A Conversation About Generalists, Velocity, and the Source of Innovation
by Tiffany Jow
0
OBJECTS AND THINGS
February 7, 2023
Using a Fungi-Infused Paste, Blast Studio Turns Trash Into Treasure
by Natalia Rachlin
Untapped is published by the design company Henrybuilt.
PERSPECTIVE
10.09.2023
What’s the Point of a Tiny Home?

By valuing small spaces, we find pleasures through design more generous and more humane than solutions made for bigger projects—adding to the case for living with less.

interior of J.B. Blunk's small wooden handcrafted cabin
Inside J.B. Blunk’s handcrafted cabin. (Photo: Yoshi Makino. Courtesy J.B. Blunk)


This past summer, Barbie Dreamhouses sprawled out across our collective imagination like a rose-colored suburban subdivision. They feature prominently in Greta Gerwig’s movie, where a solitary Barbie occupies each multistory home. Notably wall-less and stair-less (who needs a staircase when a spiral slide will do?), the toy houses reflect vast expansiveness—in pink. Boundless, they combine manifest destiny, the American dream, and a pop feminist utopia. If Virginia Woolf wanted a room of one’s own, Barbie craves the world.

Even without stirring up a subtext of the consequences of globalized consumerism, Barbie’s supersize fantasy crashes against real-world concerns. Sky-high housing costs and a need for sustainable solutions in the face of the climate crisis suggest that a compact footprint should be the norm.

Such a shift shouldn’t be understood as reactive nor simply efficient. By valuing small spaces, we find pleasures through design more generous and more humane than solutions made for bigger projects—adding to the case for living with less. We can also find opportunities for renewed intimacy. Literary critic Susan Stewart compares the tiny, enclosed rooms of a dollhouse to the secret recesses of the heart—a stark contrast to the outward-looking Dreamhouse. “Center within center, within within within,” she has written. “What we look for is the dollhouse within the dollhouse and its promise of an infinitely profound interiority.”

That “profound interiority” resonates—particularly in a post-pandemic, sometimes-work-from-home moment. Small homes (houses and apartments alike) must accommodate a seemingly infinite number of overlapping functions: dinner parties, yoga mats, and houseguests among them.

Architect Michael K. Chen calls this phenomenon a “choreography of the body.” MKCA, his New York City–based firm, cut its teeth figuring out how to pack a rich life into just 400, 300, even 200 square feet. “The point was to try to say yes to as many possibilities as one could imagine,” says Chen. “We would make these really fun lists of all of the ‘unreasonable’ things clients wanted to be able to do at home”—and then design a wealth of adaptations. (“Unreasonable” is as subjective as beauty. Hosting a dinner party for eight in a studio apartment is infinitely reasonable when you design for it.)

modern cobalt blue unfolding wall that turns into bed and other living spaces inside small apartment
MKCA’s Unfolding Apartment. (Photo: Alan Tansey. Courtesy MKCA)


MKCA’s Unfolding Apartment, for example, is a study in flexibility. A bright blue cabinet is the central hub of a 400-square-foot Manhattan studio. As if performing a choreographic score, it pivots and flips throughout the course of the day. Spaces for living, entertaining, and sleeping are activated as a Murphy bed is unfolded or a screen pulled out to create a work area. “We look for a bit of spatial constraint,” says Chen. “We don’t like it when a space gets too diffuse. There’s a kind of social charge that happens with a little bit of compression in the right place.”

While a dynamic approach to multiple uses unites the small-scale renovations in his practice’s portfolio, Chen notes another common thread: In almost every case, clients had lived in their homes for years before searching out an architect. These modest apartments were in neighborhoods that had become very desirable over time and the units, cogs in the machinations of New York’s real estate market, were increasingly valuable. Thus, an investment in good design allowed residents remaining in a particular location to maximize all the imaginable ways to occupy minimum square footage.

And yet, inhabiting small spaces shouldn’t be viewed as an extreme sport, either in terms of livability or real estate. What we think of as “small” often falls along a spectrum of minuscule to cozy, with those poles defined by cultural, geographic, and fiscal constraints. The 2022 American Home Size Index notes that, in 1949, the average size for a new single-family home was 909 square feet. By 2021, that figure had ballooned to 2,480, with large home construction in rural and western states such as Colorado and Wyoming contributing to the rise.

One of my books, Tiny Houses, focuses on homes under 1,000 square feet. That figure was basically the difference between average American home sizes in 1970 and 2004. Published in 2009, the book was a reaction to Sunbelt McMansionization, which went belly-up in the subprime housing crash. Then, downsizing became an economic necessity for those impacted, who lived mostly in the suburbs. Today, it’s widespread, as cities advocate densification and home buyers and renters feel the pinch. Small spaces in denser urban conditions are increasingly the reality—in the States and globally—and demand a contemporary rethink.

exterior shot of J.B. Blunk's wooden handcrafted small cabin on a grassy hill with rolling wooded hills behind it
The exterior of J.B. Blunk’s handcrafted cabin. (Photo: Yoshi Makino. Courtesy J.B. Blunk)


In valuing smallness, we must embrace object lessons in intimate interiority. While Chen emphasizes how high-performance furniture might adapt to the movement of bodies, artist J.B. Blunk’s handcrafted cabin demonstrates beauty in its all-encompassing, resourceful design.

Blunk, a prolific sculptor, passed away in 2002. His home, tucked among pines in the hills of Inverness, California, overlooks Tomales Bay. He and his first wife, the artist Nancy Waite, constructed it from 1958 to 1962. Made from reclaimed lumber from across Marin and Sonoma counties, the home is luxurious in its relationship to place. Redwood boards and other materials were salvaged from ramshackle barns, chicken coops, and abandoned train stations.

“This was not an aesthetic decision, but rather an economy of means,” says Mariah Nielson, who preserves the home as an art space. “Because they lacked financial resources, the house took many years to build, and this allowed J.B. and Nancy to take their time developing specific details and contemplating the space as it slowly came together.”

At 1,400 square feet, the design doesn’t require the same flexibility as a more compact interior, but as a small space, it expresses its personality in the details. Blunk considered it “one big sculpture.” He designed practically everything, at all scales, from the overall structure to the built-in furniture and cabinetry to the ceramic mugs. Such details as light pulls whittled from wood scraps and a carved kitchen sink rubbed smooth by time not only show the artist’s hand, but act as studies in touch, texture, and surface. The sliding front door is made from a single slab of salvaged old-growth redwood. According to Nielson, it groans with a tremendous, visceral sound when opened.

“The patina of a handmade home and its layers of history create a very special energy, which is palpable and sometimes visible: all the marks in the kitchen table, the polished bishop pine door handle,” says Nielson. “Even though the home is small, it provides everything we need and is a delight to live in because it was built with such consideration and playfulness.”

aerial view of colorful micro home neighborhood
North Hollywood’s Chandler Boulevard Bridge Home Village. (Courtesy Lehrer Architects)


“When we talk about the value of a small space, it is personal,” says Marina Quiñónez, senior architect for Los Angeles’s Bureau of Engineering. In 2021, the city opened its first tiny house village as part of the A Bridge Home initiative to shelter individuals and families experiencing homelessness. Chandler Boulevard Bridge Home Village in North Hollywood is just one of 10 built (and 17 total planned) in a county with upwards of 70,000 unhoused people.

The BOE partnered with Seattle-based company Pallet Shelter, which designed the micro homes, and local firm Lehrer Architects. Operated by the nonprofit Hope the Mission, the project’s 40 identical homes are meant to be temporary, with residents staying months not years, but considerations of how one might express identity and have a feeling that goes beyond institutional care were important.

The prefab Pallet homes measure just 64 square feet and look like cartoon houses: four windows and a door. Inside are two beds, some shelving, and air-conditioning. The architects painted the outdoor asphalt and façades in swaths of bright red, blue, white, and yellow to distinguish pathways and individual units that would otherwise evoke widgets in a parking lot. Quiñónez notes that the color gives residents a sense of ownership within a greater community.

“The biggest thing with these tiny home villages is that the small space becomes theirs,” continues Quiñónez, describing how residents place flowerpots outside their doors to individuate their residences. She shares that some decorate inside with string lights and posters. A single mom housed with her kid might have Transformers-themed bedsheets. “They can close the door, which brings safety as well. Large-scale, congregate shelters don’t allow for that kind of personalization.”

Complete with communal facilities for bathing, dining, laundry, and support services, the homes at Chandler Boulevard embody the basic tension of all cities between interior and exterior, between what is private and public. This holds true at any scale. “Designing these little communities is basic urban design,” says Deborah Weintraub, chief deputy city engineer at the BOE. “We did all the things you would do if you were asked to design a city, knowing that our building block was this eight-by-eight tiny home. There is a clear hierarchy to the layout—between the separate paths, the gathering space, and the entrance.”

Chen is also using his expertise in designing small spaces on behalf of people who are most in need. During the pandemic he started Design Advocates, a nonprofit network of architecture firms committed to social equity. He’s currently working with the mayor’s office in New York to evaluate how to convert existing buildings into shelters. He echoes Weintraub’s idea of a city within a city when discussing how to design common kitchens and shared amenities to support friendship and kinship, and he also stresses the importance of connecting to a surrounding neighborhood. A room of one’s own may offer a rich inner life, yet we are forever coupled to the wider world.

Ultimately, designing in small spaces is about bridging the intimate interior and the greater urban environment. This means creating flexible, adaptable places that offer immeasurable benefits—they expand and enhance the way we live.