Tuesday, April 24, 2012

April AIA-SWO Chapter Meeting Recap

The April AIA-Southwestern Oregon chapter meeting featured three perspectives from evangelists for living small. Michael Fifield, FAIA of Fifield Architecture + Urban Design, Todd Miller, AIA of Todd Miller Architecture, and Jim Russell of ideabox, LLC each offered an inspiring take on the trend toward downsizing the way we live and impact the environment.

Minimal Live/Work Studio by Fifield Architecture + Urban Design (photo by Mike Dean)

Small Unit Design/Small Lot Considerations
Michael Fifield is resolute in his advocacy for scaling back the American dream. The bottom line is that large houses on large lots are not sustainable nor are they best suited to the needs of most homebuyers.

Demographic trends support his contention that there is a demand for a greater diversity of housing types. Between 1970 and 2003, family households comprised of married couples with children decreased from 40.3% to 23.3% while the number of non-traditional households (i.e. persons living alone) has increased significantly. These trends have not reversed course since 2003. So why, Michael asks, do we continue to build so many 5-bedroom, 3½ bath McMansions when alternatives are clearly called for?

An obvious answer is to design smaller units on smaller lots. Smaller lots translate to reduced sprawl, saving open space for agriculture, recreation, and nature. Smaller lots lessen demands upon infrastructure, result in fewer miles traveled by automobiles, and foster densification. Higher densities allow for walkable communities and more efficient public transportation.

Increasing the proportion of small housing types would be a response to the dilemma of the non-traditional household. Small dwelling units consume fewer natural resources, correspond to less embodied energy, and reduce life-cycle costs. Of course, small housing options are also less expensive and more affordable.

Michael believes architects can overcome the residential real estate market’s aversion to downsizing by truly meeting buyers’ needs. For example, visual and auditory privacy, safety and security, identity, adequate storage, flexibility, parking, and affordability can all be achieved with smaller homes. Michael knows we can creatively utilize specific design principles to make the most of living compactly. As architects, we simply need to be willing to challenge the conventional.

Oregon Cottage Company Bungalow, by Todd Miller Architecture

Tiny Houses
Todd Miller knows a thing or two about how to build inexpensively and in a way that minimizes the impact upon our environment. After stints constructing housing solutions in both Haiti and Mexico, Todd established his own firm dedicated to applying appropriate technology to meet basic shelter needs. Knowing there is a cost associated with any decision related to building, he promotes passive and active solar, wind, and geothermal technology, as well as straw bale, cob, rammed earth, and sustainably harvested timber-framing construction types.

Todd has achieved some notoriety for being at the forefront of the tiny house craze. Through an offshoot of his architectural practice, Oregon Cottage Company LLC, he designs and builds quaint little homes for those seeking a simpler, more sustainable way of life. They’re well-crafted and include a full kitchen, sleeping loft, shower, and toilet. They’re also mobile since Todd builds each 8’ x 20’ cottage atop a towable, dual-axle flatbed trailer.

His tiny houses have attracted clients from as far away as Nova Scotia and Connecticut. Micro-homes appeal to people who wish to free themselves from the shackles of a lifetime of debt, help the environment, and live simply. Their mobility is an attractive hedge against economic uncertainty: there’s nothing like the freedom to easily pack up and move your house when and if you need to.

The prices for the Oregon Cottages start at $22,000 for a shell-only option. Fully featured models are offered in the mid-$30,000 range. The company also sells full construction documents for $250 apiece.

These designs may not appeal to everybody but they do represent a real alternative for those who want to minimize their footprint. Todd’s tiny houses may be small but they have a big future ahead of them.

aktiv House, by ideabox LLC (photo from ideabox website)

The Right Amount of Everything
Jim Russell and his partners created ideabox with the goal of providing each of its clients with a “cool house, with awesome materials, that’s just the right size, and at a price that works.” Through ideabox, they’re rethinking prefabrication and what it means to own a manufactured home.

Cost, sustainability, and edgy design are how ideabox sets itself apart in a competitive market. Michelle Kaufmann ’s prefabricated home designs possessed the kind of hip, modernist styling favored by readers of Dwell magazine but at over $400 per square foot they were far from affordable. In contrast, Jim described how ideabox homes are affordable while still scoring high on the coolness scale.

He rhetorically questioned whether fabricating and selling housing like other consumer products is the way to go. Why shouldn’t the process of purchasing a home be more like buying a car? What if you could “test drive” a home before you bought it? What if you could customize your purchase by selecting from an available menu of options?

Jim’s goal is to see ideabox become a recognizable brand, and being perceived as cool is a key to achieving that objective. It doesn’t hurt when one of your company’s enterprises goes viral. ideabox recently partnered with the Portland Ikea store to create aktiv, a concept house designed around Ikea fittings and furniture. Somehow, a blogger got the story wrong, reporting that Ikea was producing a flat-pack, assemble-it-yourself house. Despite Ikea’s own denials, media outlets all over the world picked up the story, including the Today Show, Ellen Degeneres, and the Tonight Show. ideabox was “trending”: within days, its website recorded two million hits. Jim received 4,000 email messages and hundreds of phone calls inquiring about aktiv in less than a week. ideabox couldn’t have bought better publicity.

*     *     *     *     *     *
Michael, Todd, and Jim delivered big ideas about small spaces. As Michael pointed out, smaller homes address a real and growing need. It behooves architects to design small houses to be really special. If we do, everyone will soon wonder why they ever thought bigger necessarily meant better.

No comments: