kids and tiny houses

Let's Not Discount Kids' Tiny House Designs

modeling a tiny house with cardstock and clay When I facilitated a tiny house workshop for a group of fifth graders in January I was impressed that Ten Year Olds Design Awesome Tiny Houses! So I was excited when I found a New York Times article recently entitled “Envisioning Tiny Apartments, No Bathroom Required.” As you might imagine, the article addressed what happens when kids design tiny living spaces.

To help set the stage, let me explain as the article did, that the Museum of the City of New York is hosting an exhibit called “Making Room: New Models for Housing New Yorkers” which features micro units. The kids had a chance to tour a full-size model of a 325 square foot micro apartment. (Think: walking through an IKEA model apartment in the showroom.) Afterwards, the youngsters designed tiny houses in a studio station set up with craft supplies.

Journalist Vivian Yee states: “The results, inevitably, were almost all unlivable — some lacking toilets, another entirely filled by a grand piano — as their young creators grappled with the grown-up problem of too little real estate for too many things.”

exploring tiny house concepts in clay

Why would Yee say it's "inevitable" that children are creating "unlivable" spaces when adults have created thousands of preposterously unlivable houses? Besides, many of us feel a nice sense of contentment in simple structures like a child's tree fort! I’m disappointed that Yee smirked at the kids's designs since kids ignore critical pieces of a “normal” house. I wish instead she had recognized that in many ways kids are much better tiny house designers than adults are.

At least Yee recognized that "too little real estate for too many things" tends to be a grown-up problem. Kid designers are not usually obsessed with cramming all their precious possessions into the space. Instead kids hone in on the essence of what makes a place feel like home. They only include the spaces and the objects that are most important and most exciting to them. It’s true that a grand piano might not be the best fit for a tiny house, but I did have an adult friend request an upright in her dream tiny house. I assured her that as long as she didn’t move often, we worked out the weight balance on a sturdy enough trailer, and she made good friends with a piano tuner it would probably work out.

Lina drafting a tiny house

So yes, some of the kids “forgot” to put in a toilet. Then again, I know adult tiny housers who purposely left out a flush toilet and are instead using a bucket potty. There are even a few architects now experimenting with a boarding house model that does provide a toilet in each micro unit but instead locates them in shared restrooms. A design team comprised of ten-year-old designers probably could have come up with that solution a whole lot quicker than a group of adult architects. Kids probably can’t understand why adults are so anal retentive about toilets and so obsessed with potty talk! Why focus on that when there’s so much good stuff to design!

It’s true that kids don’t always understand the constraints of physics so their structures might not hold up. (Then again, some engineers don’t seem to understand physics either!) And it’s true that kids don’t tend to have a very good sense of proportion and scale. So they may not realize they can’t have the grand piano and the trampoline.

However, I think it’s important that when we ask kids to think about the sort of space they’d like to live in we don’t dismiss their choices. Kids are remarkably flexible and they have an incredible capacity to think beyond the status quo. Their imaginations are more powerful than their logic, but design is all about problem-solving. Logic isn’t always going to come up with the answer and precedent isn't either. We shouldn’t be trying to convince kids that we need our future housing to look like what we’ve already created. Let’s not stifle the creative energy of our future designers and architects – especially when they’re working on space-efficient designs!

Ten Year Olds Design Awesome Tiny Houses!

exploring tiny house concepts in clay This morning I had the opportunity to present a tiny house workshop to an incredible bunch of fifth graders at The Island Schoolon Bainbridge Island. I was lucky enough to have Doug Clawson as my fifth grade teacher, so I have very fond memories of fifth grade myself. I was pleased to be invited to Mike and Betsy’s classroom.

I got to Island School a little early so I could tape out the footprint of the 8x18 tiny house on wheels I lived in last year. I enjoyed the chance to visit with the teachers before the kids arrived. (It turns out it’s a tiny world after all: Betsy’s daughter interned with me for three years when we did volunteer coordination together!) While the kids settled in and completed their morning activity, I got to work memorizing their names.

how would you like to zipline into a tiny house?!

We began our Tiny House Workshop by mind-mapping the relationship between our houses and our use of resources. I shared photos of tiny houses from around the country for inspiration and gave them a “walk-through” of the tiny house I’d taped out on the classroom floor. After a quick discussion of our basic human needs, we did an activity to explore our needs and wants. One of the kids felt like she could let their TV go pretty easily while another said his X-box is his most prized possession. One girl pondered whether or not she could give up her books since she has a library card. Others recognized how important their instruments, pets, or art supplies are to them. We marveled at how different our lists were from our neighbors’ and I pointed out that one of the greatest things about designing a small space is tailoring it to an individual’s unique needs and wants.

modeling a tiny house with cardstock and clay

Keeping all this in mind, we began our design studio. I gave the kids a simple program and we got out the modeling clay, paper, colored pencils, and scissors. Half an hour later the kids shared their design concepts with their classmates. One of the girls sketched out a floor plan, elevations, and sections to think about the house in three dimensions. One boy designed an underground hobbit house. A small design team modeled a tiny house with paper walls and colorful clay furniture. We saw creative ideas ranging from a tree house to a zip line and from multifunctional furniture to a special room for Raffi. I was blown away by how well-thought-out their ideas were, especially considering the short timeframe!

We wrapped up the morning by going around the circle to share something we’d learned. It was very inspiring! I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to teach and learn from these kids. Thank you Island School Fifth Graders!