Little house on a small planet (book review)


A lot of people are dreaming about downsizing their dwellings these days. Smaller houses go with a simpler, more rural life… and hopefully freedom from debt and “the Man.”

Naturally they’re turning to books for ideas about how to build or set up their new place. Print is still superior to the internet for providing thematic collections of photographs and drawings, and a book about dwellings can and should be something of a “wish book” for the reader… something they stay up to look at, under the covers with a flashlight if necessary.

image of cover of book LITTLE HOUSE ON A SMALL PLANET

Accordingly I was excited to receive a review copy of Little House on a Small Planet (Lyons Press, 2006), by Shay Salomon, with photographs by Nigel Valdez.

This wasn’t just because I love receiving free swag (note to all: please send more). I’ve also been frustrated by the scattershot bibliography of the small-house movement.

One problem is shifting definitions of small. The ubiquitous Not-So-Big-House books by Susan Susanka et al. certainly make a compelling argument, in both text and pictures, for favoring quality over quantity of space — and Susanka probably deserves a lot of credit for turning the tide against McMansions among the yuppie set — but it’s clear that many of the projects in her books are in the 2000+ square foot range.

That might be modest by the standards of today’s well-heeled homebuyer, but it’s rather large in the context of American history. And huge in comparison to the dwellings some dedicated environmentalists and simple-livers are thinking of building.

Then there are a large number of architecty, designy books, to give just two examples 25 Houses Under 1500 Square Feet and Small Spaces: Good Ideas. Though some of the spaces these publications show are truly small, the focus is on pictures of exquisitely executed, almost universally “modern” architecture, devoid of dirt and often featuring custom fabrications of glass and metal — a trapezoidal glass table, say, on a pivoting stainless steel mount. These are not places the average do-it-yourselfer or local contractor is going to have the slightest clue how to build, which automatically puts it in a realm of fantasy.

Most recently a few books have emerged that represent the grassroots side of the small-house movement — the side that’s deeply dedicated to “simple living” for environmental and economic reasons, and is considerably less interested in (and less able to afford) the austere, sculptural side of modern design. Little House On A Small Planet is the best I’ve seen of these.

It makes a familiar argument for downsizing and simplicity in housing — it’s better for the environment, it simplifies life, it gives freedom by reducing debt, etc. — but unlike much of the loosey-goosey romantic jabbering about small houses it shores up that argument with a lot of evidence — data about house values, debt, a happiness index, etc. The inclusion of that evidence, while not necessarily groundshaking or 100% irrefutable, respects the reader, and helps them consider their own situation more objectively.

That’s mixed with a review of a large collection of houses, family living situations and architectural projects that seem considerably more realistic and achievable for the average reader than the stuff you see in architecty/designy books. From a 300-square foot house for two to a 2100-square foot house for a large family, there are drawings, dimensions, design tips, and narratives about the way people live. Costs are often listed and seem realistic. A few projects are surprisingly pricey. One of the most famous small houses — a 100-square foot place by Jay Schafer — is described as costing $40,000 to build.

One weakness might be a demonstration of variety in architectural style. Most of the book’s buildings are executed in a slightly hippified mode that’s typical of the grassroots part of the small house movement — and is the exact opposite of the candylike modernism in the architecture/design publications. There’s gotta be something in between.

Author Salomon is clearly an advocate for the movement, but she doesn’t claim it’s a panacea. She adds substantial chapters about building codes, about sharing small spaces with other people, and about children in small dwellings. These are issues of lifestyle and legality that are essential to making a dwelling function in the real world, but are rarely if ever discussed in architecty/design books.

The writing is serviceable enough. Much of the text is a bit unstructured. Sometimes references and motifs are dropped in mid chapter. Other times anecdotes and explanations go on and on. But it is clear Salomon is well grounded in the subject, and for this book and this movement reality is more important than slick wordsmithing.

This book should be a great resource for anyone actually planning on living small — as opposed to just fantasizing about it.

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[postscript summer 2011: This book still stands up really well against the competition. A second edition is out. Still recommended!]

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