House Design Ideas

from Philip Greenspun in June 2004

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Old grass-covered house in Gotland, near Viklau This document exists to collect thoughts related to the construction of reasonably low-cost standalone houses that are well-suited to people who live alone and who would like space at home in which to be creative.

Real estate in the United States has become extremely expensive. Even rich people can't afford to consume more square feet than they need. If one is going to pay $1000 or more per square foot of space one should be able to enjoy as much of it as possible as much of the time as possible. A standard apartment or house, however, is broken up into many rooms. The owner of a $1 million 1500 square foot apartment very seldom gets a feeling of spaciousness because the place is broken up into five or six rooms. Adding all of those walls has the further pernicious effect of limiting the number of rooms with windows on multiple sides. Why is the space chopped up? So that the owner, his or her spouse, and their 2.5 children can enjoy some privacy from each other. This would be great if all Americans got along with each other but the fact is that many of us are divorced, childless, and/or too difficult to have ever gotten married in the first place.

To summarize, we have Big Problem 1: The typical American dwelling is broken up into too many rooms.

Most American dwellings lack work or creative space. The assumption is that the owner has a job and goes to an office, lab, or factory in which to be productive and/or creative. In the case of retirement the owner is assumed to be too old to do much more than tinker a bit in the basement. In reality an increasing number of Americans are retiring young. In a country where the disparity between rich and poor continues to grow it is reasonable to expect that a growing number of children of the rich will never bother to work at all. A nice apartment in NYC costs $2 million in 2004. A person who isn't working as an investment banker, medical doctor, or corporate lawyer is never going to be able to save up that kind of money. So the money will come from Daddy or the person will live in New Jersey. If Daddy was willing to pony up $2 million why not another $50,000/year for living expenses? In this case or the case of early retirement you have a person who is going to be spending all day every day at home and might want to do more than watch TV.

We can summarize the foregoing into Big Problem 2: The typical American dwelling is not conducive to working at home or doing a project that requires more than a desk and a PC.

It would seem that a solution to both of these problems exists: the industrial loft. Indeed if one wants to live in an industrial part of the city this is perhaps true. A loft is open. A loft is usually big enough in which to dedicate a portion for sculpture, painting, or photo studio. Not everyone wants to live in an industrial part of the city, however. A dog owner might want to be in the suburbs or countryside with a yard. A writer might want to be on a lakeshore or in the woods with a mountain view. A salaryman might want to be amidst the farms that are being broken up for McMansions even as this is being written and read. In all of these areas, however, if one looks at existing houses, at factory-built modular houses, and at houses that local architects and builders are comfortable with it all converges on the 4BR family house or maybe a 6BR McMansion. The Great Room of a McMansion is perhaps not a bad place in which to organize one's life but why should one be forced to pay for 4500 square feet of built space simply to enjoy the 500 square feet of open space in the Great Room?

So let's figure out how to build an industrial loft in the suburbs or woods.

Advantages of a one-room house:

Things that would be nice to have: Challenges:


Reader's Comments

I've found it convenient to be able to separate work, play, and rest with some physical partitioning; going into a different room helps to get in the mindset of accomplishing something rather than sitting in bed with your laptop reading blogs all day. Given a loft, people will often place semi-permanent partitions to separate space by function. That said, a one person house probably doesn't need or want more than three rooms [not counting the kitchen, which could be a separate argument].

-- Karl Ramm, July 31, 2004
What you are describing is basically traditional Japanese architecture...

-- Fazal Majid, August 1, 2004
Seems to me like glass brick would be one solution for some of the exterior where you want light to come in, but don't necessarily have a view. Likewise, personally I've always thought a glass brick shower with at least one (if not two) exterior walls would be a cool thing. Maybe not for your neighbors, but cleansing with the dawn just seems fitting...

-- Chuck Ivy, August 1, 2004
I am currently designing a house for myself to meet very similar requirements (single, no kids, work a lot from home on various projects, want a home outside of town, hate tiny rooms). The work is far from finished, but here's what I learned so far:

- Fenestration must be clearly separated by function (getting the light in and getting the view out). In most locations with a view that is worth looking at those two requirements are contradictory.

- A house with four glass walls and a skylight requires a megawatt HVAC system even in cold climates. Internal screens are useless. They block the light but still radiate almost all the heat inside. I found studying Frank Lloyd Wright's approach to getting natural light in helpful.

- Flat roof decks are difficult to properly build and maintain, especially if you get occasional snowfall. Balconies work better.

- Probably because of lifetime conditioning I just do not feel comfortable sleeping in a huge open space. I opted for a separate bedroom; some friends tell me that an inside balcony (gallery) works well too.

For an all-glass approach to prefab houses you might want to have a look at

-- Alexei Kornienkov, August 1, 2004

At least one enterprising developer has built a suburban subdivision of pseudo-loft houses. It sounds like they might not be open-plan, though.

-- Joe Hughes, August 1, 2004
When I was a kid, my father had a copy of Shelter, detailing all kinds of handbuilt homes and shelters from around the world. I see now that Shelter Publications has come out with a sequel, Home Work: Handbuilt Shelter. It's packed full of ideas and links to alternative home designs. It's definitely worth looking into; there are sample articles on their website.

-- Allan Heim, August 1, 2004
Consider the less-well-known world of geodesic dome house designs. Geodesic dome homes scale wonderfully from single-person to multi-family size structures, and are particularly suited to your goals because they can span large areas with high ceilings without the need for internal bearing walls or supports. They use less material than traditional structures to enclose the same volume, and are easily mass-produced, shipped in manageable pieces, and can often be assembled quickly without heavy equipment. This last point is crucial, since when you talk about the cost of building a new structure, a very large portion of that amount is for labor.

There are rather a large number of small companies that specialize in geodesic house kits and related services. For some reason, many of them are in Minnesota. There are many different approaches, some resulting in houses that look relatively similar to standard hip-roof houses, others that are more unusual, made out of aluminum struts and having many windows.

Check out google, or any of the directory-type web sites.

-- Dave F., August 1, 2004

Have you seen the weeHouse? This is a prefab house system that meets some of your requirements and can be customized.

Do you subscribe to Dwell Magazine? That's another great resource.

-- Portia S., August 2, 2004
You should also check out monolithic domes.

Many of the same advantages to the geodesic dome but more hearty. They allow for great spans of space inside. The thick walls help insulate the area for easier heating/cooling. Does not offer entire walls made of glass, but can still place very large openings and skylights for good lighting. They also make very efficient use of steel and concrete materials so they can be more cost effective to build then the equivalently sized tradional building.

-- Chris L, August 3, 2004

I would suggest you have a look at - look at the "Bipad" design, which is a single person's, earth sheltered, 320 swuare foot house design with lots of glass.

Aside from mixing some distilled water with some vinegar and using that to clean the south-facing glass, outside maintenance will be minimal since most of the building is covered with dirt. You might need to mow the roof, but adding a friendly goat to keep your Samoyed company could eliminate that chore. Since the entire south wall will be mostly glass I would say that views should be nice. You could add an earth-sheltered glass atrium/sunroom on the north side to get light in both ends, and have a sheltered patio like area to boot.

-- Patrick Giagnocavo, August 3, 2004

I find that people don't congregate in those great rooms in MacMansions, they tend to hang out in the smaller more cozy spaces. Maybe it's a throw back to our animal past. You might want to look at The Farnsworth House for inspiration. The house is glass on all sides, and is one big room separated by furniture.

-- Scott Palmer, August 5, 2004
Instead of building the houses out of concrete for cheapness and ease of maintenance, why not make houses out of styrofoam

-- Michael Slater, August 5, 2004

So the problem is that you want to be able to do more than just sleep and eat at your house... And the solution is constrained to be an industrial loft in suburbia or a forest?

Combining commercial and residential uses in a single building is antithetical to the principles and legal codes that define suburbia. You can get away with a home office (desk and a PC) in suburbia. Some people setup basement or garage woodworking shops. However, a home/dentistry office would be prohibited. A home/art gallery would not be allowed and could not benefit from the network effects of nearby business establishments. If the business expands between one (or two) employees, you'll have to move it to a commerical ghetto (strip center).

Farming is always an option in truly rural areas. Or, if you can afford a country estate, then of course you can build the workshop and the sculpture studio and the carriage house/inlaw suite.

So, you've mentioned the industrial warehouse district, the pastoral country life, and sprawling suburbia. That leaves at least one other pattern of development.

Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater Zyberk, architects who have been influential in the New Urbanism movement, are working on solutions to problem 2. "From now on, every home built in America should be a live/work unit" [Andres Duany & Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk: Home/Work]. DPZ's adaption of traditional principles of architecture to contemporary town planning can accomodate loft spaces and other combinations of residences and workplaces. For example: residences over retail, art gallery, or office spaces.

If you want to work at home, it isn't necessary to live among warehouses. You might choose instead to live in a mixed-use neighborhood that accomodates people at all stages of life and in a variety of economic conditions. This is a much better option for:

It seems to me that the question of context is easily decided. If you have enough money, you can do whatever you want: Buy the $30 million Manhattan apartment or the $5 million country house; plan a couple of thousand square feet for your artistic pursuits. Otherwise, you're probably best off in a mixed-use neighborhood. The scale and density can very from small town to small city to metropolis.

The more interesting part of the solution then is the interior organization of space...

-- Sean Foy, August 12, 2004
I've done something like this on the cheap by putting an older single-wide mobile home on a piece of land, and removing all of the interior walls (none of which are load-bearing in these homes). I left the bathroom walls up and built the back of the shower (interior wall) of glass brick. Laminate "hardwood" floors and some paint, and I've got a 1000 square foot 'loft' for less than 10,000 bucks. Works fine for one person, with plenty of room for my digital photography workspace.

-- Steve Hurlburt, August 18, 2004
I'd like to see a return to structures similar to those built during the Arts and Crafts Movement during the early 20th c. in response to the excesses of the Victorian Style (McMansions of the 19th c). Stickley et al. stressed the simplicity and efficiency of these dwellings.

-- Joseph Cierniewski, August 26, 2004
Sounds sort of like a Eichler.

I ended up selling a more traditional and larger house for something similar to what you describe.

Lots of N facing windows facing the forest, and very high ceilings. It uses Post and Beam construction.

Unfortunately it is of mid-century design and the heating bills show.

I also think using the roof as a patio is almost always sub-optimal. There are some decent roofing materials for this use, but they are are few and far between.

I really hate wood framed structures. Are us American's the only one making wood framed structures? My place in Tahoe is really high mainatainence primarily because of its wood frame. I recently resided with fiber cement which is a great material.

-- christopher baus, September 6, 2004

Your first point "Big Problem 1: The typical American dwelling is broken up into too many rooms." is exactly what I have found moving into my first house a few months ago.

There are many rooms, but the space would be so much nicer if they could be consolidated into larger mixed use spaces. The technological advances of TVs and computer monitors make displays fit in so much nicer than in the past. Not to mention reducing the need for furniture duplicates.

I suppose needs are different for those with kids who require a sound barrier, but I'd personally like a 1 or 2 room home with tons of natural light.

-- Steve Andrews, January 24, 2009

I live in an industrial loft in east London (England) which is one room with a mezzanine for a bedroom. A problem I've encountered that I don't think has been mentioned is that I've found maximising your open floor space to wall ratio and your window to wall space ratio has the disadvantage that you have very little room for storage. I haven't found a good way to tackle this yet, and so lots of my possessions are sitting around in trunks, which is not very efficient.

I'm considering building a set of deep, wide shelves on one wall that go all the way up to the ceiling (double height) and having a sliding library ladder. That would be fun, but I'm not sure how sensible a solution it will prove to be.

-- Edward Saperia, September 20, 2009

Edward: I thought about the storage issue as well. I think what would make the most sense is a massive collection of shelving units on tracks, like they have in some libraries. Open up the cube to get to a particular shelf. Close it up for a party.

-- Philip Greenspun, October 9, 2009
Read the book A Pattern Language. It was recommended years ago in The Whole Earth Catalog. Also research building articles in Fine Homebuilding magazine or on its website and research new products such as polystyrene insulation, house wrap, insulated windows, etc.

-- Jeff Ferguson, November 19, 2009
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