The Microhouse: A Small Home You Can Build

Living large just isn’t the answer for everyone. Here’s how to build a small house that’s practical and livable.

| April/May 1995

Oh, to have a little house!
To own the hearth and stool and all!
— Padraic Colum

Until recently, we, who live in the industrialized societies have felt and believed that ours is a world in progress — confronted by what we term “problems” but overcoming them, one by one. But during, say, the past 20 years, we have seen the problems no longer diminishing but becoming worse — much worse. Getting a decent place to live and bring up our children was simply something that everybody did in the course of one’s life, but now this seems possible for only a quite affluent few, even in supposedly prosperous America. As for the rest of the world, the matter of housing is rapidly turning into a disaster.

The Stanford Research Institute has predicted that by the year 2000, there will be 19 million homeless Americans. Why so many in this, the richest of countries? We have plenty of wood, cement, and labor. Why can’t affordable homes be built? During World War II, housing was constructed in a matter of days. I recall that the barracks that housed our ship’s company was erected in one week. While on leave, I saw similar structures for war workers built practically overnight. In one area, the military used church property, where they constructed dormitories that housed hundreds of men. In many parts of the country, the military also established trailer parks filled with small but comfortable homes on wheels.

People might argue that there was an emergency then, the war. But my reply would be: “There is an emergency now!” The solutions are all around us, however.

In 1940, I was 18 and my best friend was Jack Keefe. During a visit to his home he showed me a most unusual small dwelling. It seems that his parents became incompatible but rather than seek a divorce, Jack’s father converted a 6-by-12-foot, backyard, garden toolshed into a comfortable and quite lovable home. It featured a miniature kitchen, a convertible sofa bed, and a complete. though tiny, bathroom. With Momma in the big house and Poppa in the backyard, Jack and his sister were able to enjoy the company of both parents instead of having to cope with the problems of divorce.

I never forgot this intelligent solution to a common problem, so in 1985, with the help of a friend, I was motivated to recreate the backyard house to see what might develop. As cofounder of the Holy Terra Church in Aptos, Calif., which was started to help the sick and homeless, I began applying principles of microhousing to help end the suffering of a growing population of homeless people; and we’ve been putting up little houses ever since — not just in backyards, but wherever we can get away with it.

What’s a Microhouse?

A microhouse is an affordable shelter for full- or part-time use by anyone for any rational purpose. The basic size is 8 feet by 12 feet, or 96 square feet, but they can be built to any desired dimensions. Two or more can be linked with a breezeway and effectively form a two- (or several) room home.

1/6/2013 2:11:04 PM

Most passive solar Maybe ok in Cali, but in Miami you need permits fot astorage shed and anything else. i am looking at moving to the Caribbean in order to build my own non nortgaged housr. Unfortunat ly modt passive dolar plans are either huge, obssessed with heating, expensive designer models with walls of sliding glass and acres of decks, multiple bathrooms and pro kitchens. what I don't need is Iwoodstoves, hot watrr,indoor laundry, interior hallways, AC, or large expanses of glass. what is air flow, large eves, a plan with locally available materials, outdoor kitchen.

michael Ellefson
1/5/2010 6:44:18 PM

An excellant site is tiny house There are many more similar to this one but I think it is the best site out there.

8/24/2007 5:59:54 PM

hi... I would just like to say this to anyone who lives in the southwest. I live in San Antonio, TX, and for those who want to save heating costs, I suggest building a large slanted roof, and build the house with a higher ceiling, just so that the heat will rise, instead of getting stuck in the area you inhabit.

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