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'How much space does it take to be happy?'

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Christians Judy and Gary live in a 300 sq. ft. home plus 150 sq ft loft, on 40,000 acres in Wyoming.;

At approximately 2,400 square feet, my house is rather large, especially since just two people live here. However, our house does fill up when our daughter comes home from college and groups of active teenagers move hastily throughout the two stories. At Thanksgiving, our dining room and hallway accommodate nearly 20 friends and family members. But try as I may to rationalize this large space for two people, I would never argue that we couldn’t use less. With that said, I admit to not living in a little house.

So, perhaps I’m not the one who should be writing a review on Shay Salomon’s newly published book, 'Little House on a Small Planet: Simple Homes, Cozy Retreats, and Energy Efficient Possibilities.' But, I like it and I like her ideas. Even for those of us who live in homes too large for the bodies living inside them, Shay gives good advice on looking at who we are, where we live, and what we truly need. Shay’s main outlook is simple. In building a little house, one can reduce large mortgages, or eliminate them entirely, removing financial stress and allowing more time for play and travel. Building a small house forces us to go outside in order to gain a sense of freedom that larger spaces allow (like a garden, forest, or nearby park). Environmentally, building a little house is easier on the Earth as we use fewer materials and resources.

And lastly, little houses promote a healthier community and social spirit by eliminating the 'keeping up with the Joneses' notion.

So, what are we talking about here? What is considered a little house? According to Shay, 125 square feet per person is the ideal number. In reality, of course, houses are only getting bigger due to 'Jonesing' and accommodating bank loans; in the extreme, 'McMansions' are setting a new precedent for building large houses. Working in construction, Shay says that she has 'watched people’s dream houses balloon into unmanageable giants…and [seen] the effect on homeowners.' The little house movement is Shay’s answer to leading her clients to 'simpler, happier homes.'

Downsizing is a good ethic for anyone to follow, but I do wonder about people who live in small houses that could use more space. What about big families? How can someone design a small house for a baby, a few kids, some young adults, and full-time working parents? What about teenagers who need autonomy? What about storage? And related to our Tahoe Truckee area, I wonder given the cost of land, permits, and construction, can even a 600 square foot home be affordable? Shay answers all these questions (not concerning our region specifically) with much research and experience. Basically, she asks us to take a closer look at our dwellings or one we’re building and gauge our essential needs. Fundamentally, Shay asks us to take a look at ourselves.

'Little House' is divided in three sections for a variety of readers and needs. The first is for people who are building a new house. The second is about existing structures, remodeling, and how people have arranged themselves socially to better use space. The last section confronts inner and outer forces that shape our homes. Some of the chapters within the three sections include: 'Quit Jonesing,' 'Build a Glove, Not a Warehouse,' 'Pay off your debts,' 'Go outside,' and more. There is plenty to keep professionals in the building business intrigued with graphs, floor plans, and statistics, and for those of us who are technically challenged Shay’s text explains, in layman’s terms, a variety of housing concepts alongside stories and photographs. Inserted in the mid-section are fifteen pages of brightly colored photos showing houses, bedrooms, gardens, lofts, stairways, kitchens, and bathrooms. It is the attention to detail that helps me understand how little houses are built or existing homes remodeled. Following are some of these details and design patterns that Shay noticed in the small houses she visited:
• Alcoves (bay windows, sleeping nooks, desk set into a wall) and Lofts: make any house spacious without increasing its footprint
• Levels: give the feeling of 'separate activity' without building another wall
Ceiling shape and height: add space without much construction expense
• Floor life: some small-home dwellers imitate Asian cultures and eat, play, sleep, and relax on carpets or mats
Doors: pocket and other sliding doors make space available that would otherwise be used for the swing of the door
• Windows: orient windows towards a vast view or even a walled garden; clerestories, dormers, and skylights expand the space without expanding the footprint
• Wheelchair accessibility: widening a few passageways makes a home feel less cramped and helps plan for the inevitable day when someone will want to bring a wheelchair through the doors
• Wall texture and color: in a cold climate, the best wall materials either store heat or don’t feel cold to the touch; choose colors you like and that make a small space seem bigger
• Wall thickness: alcoves, niches, and storage areas can be carved into a thick wall and will hold dishes, benches, and shrines; thin walls (framed or screens) can partition areas to maximize floor space; furniture can be placed to create separate rooms, eliminating the need for walls at all
• Kitchen: as Julia Child said, 'Tools should be out where you can see them.' Build shelves, hooks, peg boards, and crocks; consider how much counter space you really need; design the 'three-step' kitchen where no cooking action takes more than three steps (or two steps or one step)
• Refrigerator: the fridge is the largest space energy hog in the kitchen, take out the rotting vegetables and the old condiments, and you may only need a fridge a third the size.
• Bathroom: instead of building a separate room for the toilet, include it in the bathroom with a partial wall or pocket door
Storage: stuff can contract (as opposed to expand) once space is limited, choose an amount of space for storage and simply not allow more.
• Built in and movable furniture: include both to use space efficiently
• Living room: 'The upper range for full casual voice is about 8 feet. A person with 20/20 vision can see details of facial expression up to 12 feet People eight to nine feet apart can pass an object if they both stretch,' according to The Silent Language by Edward T. Hall So, why are the wall in new living rooms 15 feet apart?
• Open plan or separate rooms: a minimum of walls that are load-bearing makes it easier to remove walls, reshaping rooms to fit the current reality
• House shape: round is best for non-divided space, square has a smaller perimeter than a rectangular box with the same floor space, L or U shaped creates protected outdoor areas
Setting: fit the house to fit the setting (natural and surrounding buildings)
• Slow down: get to know the neighborhood, site, and changing seasons before diving into the building process

Facts from the book
• Forty percent of all the raw materials humans consume are used in construction
• According to the U.S. Census, in 2,000, 10.4 million units of housing were vacant.
• If we went back to 1955 housing patterns (350 sq ft), we wouldn’t have to build another thing until our population doubled again.
• For over 99 percent of our existence, our species spent most of its time outside. Today, North Americans spend about 90 percent of our time indoors.
• A typical new house sends three to five tons of waste to the landfill. It adds 30 tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere-about the equivalent of driving the family car around the world six times-and takes down three-quarters of an acre of forest in the process.

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February 14, 2019