5 June 2014

Good design will stop us in our tracks and demand we take notice. Minim, from Foundry Architects and Brian Levy, does just that. At only 210 square feet, its creators wrung every bit of utility from each square foot. Measuring 10 feet, 8 inches by 22 feet, it is able to be hitched to a trailer, though ours will be built as a permanent structure. But it’s not the size of Minim that grabs our attention; there are many of tiny houses that are around the same size or smaller. It’s not even Minim’s cool features: the wet bathroom; the window shade that is also a video projection screen, etc. While many tiny houses are made to look like Thoreauvian cabins, or as though someone simply shrunk a conventional house, Minim is boldly and unapologetically accomplishing a mission through design. That mission is to help its owner lead a simpler life and is centered on four philosophical principles that Levy lays out:

1. A contented life is largely independent from the size of one’s dwelling.

2. Humans can and must live more sustainably, but not without style.

3. Living in a small structure should never feel compromised— it should feel amazing.

4. Excellence in design has a role to play in spreading the acceptance of simple, affordable, green living.

Levy didn’t take the design of his home lightly, and you can read more about his design philosophy here.

The house is constructed from pre-fabricated SIPs (structural insulated panels), which are strong, energy efficient and cost effective (costing about as much as traditional framing). Minim’s floor plan is flexible and open (check it out below). The bathroom or closet can be enlarged by taking out one or both of the eight foot bookshelves. Walls have been removed to open up the space and large windows allow for plenty of natural light. The couch doubles as a storage unit and a two-burner stove is set into the countertop, with a covering that can be placed over it when not in use. As far as other appliances, Minim can also accommodate a small dishwasher, combination washer/dryer and full-sized refrigerator. Perhaps the coolest aspect of Minim’s design is the rollaway bed, which tucks underneath an elevated alcove. Minim’s exterior is sheathed in untreated, shiplapped cypress, while its interior is outfitted with rich walnut countertops, built-in furniture and flooring and stainless steel fixtures.

There’s the common expression that a picture’s worth a thousand words. That holds true in this case. Here’s a photo tour of the house. You can also check out a video tour, or, if you have free time and want to get away, you can check out the original house in D.C. in person.

Can you see yourself living in Minim? What are the aspects that you like, or might like tweak? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

2 June 2014

As we announced in our last post, Minim was the run away crowd pleaser at our tiny house presentation and survey earlier this month. With clean lines, bold design and versatility packed into every square foot, we here at cityLAB kinda have a crush on Minim too. But the other tiny houses we considered have a lot going for them as well. While we’re moving forward and building Minim, we hope some of these will pop up in Garfield as well. Here’s what our crowd had to say about Minim’s competition.

1. Tumbleweed Loring’s porch was a big hit with a lot of people. About half our crowd loved the sleeping loft with ladder and half did not. Access to the rear yard (with the only entrance/exit being the front door) was another mark against Loring. Some people liked Loring’s Arts and Crafts style and others thought it looked liked a shrunken doll house.

2. Tumbleweed Whidbey was a pretty popular chap. It actually garnered more “yes” votes than any other house when respondents were asked if they would or wouldn’t live in this particular house. It has an open feel to it and an abundance of natural light thanks to the skylight. The second bedroom was a hit, but some thought that this house took up too much outdoor space, leaving very little yard. And again, the ladder thing.

3. A lot of people liked the layout of Tumbleweed Harbinger, but thought it felt small. Access to the sleeping loft via ladder was again a big sticking point. Lack of storage was another point of concern, but on a positive note, some liked the prospect of building a deck off the back of the house.

4. We’ll take an in depth look at the winner, Minim, in our next journal entry.

5. One of the larger houses of the group, Vermont, was also a bit more open than some of its counterparts, but again at the cost of yard space. Some saw its relatively simple design as a plus, “DIY-able,” as one person put, but others saw it as “plain Jane.” In its favor was Vermont’s ability to accommodate a washer and dryer, as well as stairs, rather than a ladder leading to the loft bedroom. Ultimately, it failed to inspire.

6. Modeled after the houses built to replace the wretched FEMA trailers provided for displaced New Orleans residents, the Katrina boasts a French Quarter kind of design aesthetic. While it had a lovely large front porch and first floor bedroom, the kitchen was considered way too small (although this is easily solvable by an architect). Katrina had one of the larger footprints and hardly left any space for a garden or yard.

7. The smallest of all the homes, the Minimotive was too small, really only large enough for one person. It is meant to sit atop a utility trailer, giving the owner the ability to pick up and go when and where s/he pleases. While the City of Pittsburgh building code won’t permit a trailer to be parked on the site, many of our respondents thought it could be converted into a permanent house. The original Minimotive was a DIY project designed and built by an architect for just $11,000. While many appreciated the creative, modern design, and creative use of materials such as the exterior sided in recycled pallet wood, at the end of the day, most found it came up just a bit short on square footage.

28 May 2014

On May 13, an unseasonably warm Tuesday evening, over 30 people gathered at Assemble in Garfield as cityLAB’s president and CEO, Eve Picker, presented seven potential tiny house plans for the upcoming project. Attendees were given a survey packet and asked to record their opinions regarding each building schematic. On a five-point scale of ‘very poor’ to ‘very good,’ respondents rated five aspects: 1) fit into streetscape; 2) overall design quality; 3) functionality; 4) quality of interior space; and 5) potential for outdoor space. Additionally, the respondents were asked if they would live in the house and why, or why not, because, ultimately, this could be their house one day. Back at the office we went to work mining the data and recording each and every comment. We locked our intern in a room and didn’t allow him to come out, excepting for bathroom breaks, small snacks and one hour of sunlight a day. We’ll get to the results in a bit, but first, more on the presentation.

First of all, we’re really excited to announce cityLAB has just signed a sales agreement to buy a vacant lot from the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation. Our tiny house will be built at 223 N. Atlantic Avenue, just north of Broad Street, and only two blocks away from Penn Avenue, making it extremely accessible to public transportation and the business corridor (we’ll talk more about the site in a future post). The planning session was to help attendees (we like to call them “potential buyers”) visualize what a tiny house might look like at 223 N. Atlantic, which measures just 24 feet  by 43 feet.  All seven of the housing plans we considered can be found online and there was no shortage of images describing what each one looks like built.  The smallest house, called Minimotive, is just 196 square feet. None were larger than 600 square feet.

Other aspects covered in the presentation included: how the house would be located on the lot (close to the street, or set back); which way the house would be situated; how big of a footprint the house occupied (and how much outdoor space was left over); how the layout of interior works; and finally, pros and cons about each plan. Designs ranged from beautifully detailed Arts and Crafts to minimalist ultra-contemporary models. You can view the whole presentation below, but now for the results…

A show-of-hands vote was taken at the end of the presentation and Minim, with its sleek design and maximum utility, was far-and-away the favorite. However, the survey responses told a slightly different story. When asked a simple yes/no Would you live in this house?, the results looked like this:

The last question on the survey asked respondents to rank their top three tiny house picks:


Here Minim collected the most overall votes, as well as the most first and second-place votes. Additionally, the survey revealed that Minim was rated ‘good’ or ‘very good’ more times in four out of the five categories than any of the other houses.

We’re thrilled to be building the gorgeous, tiny Minim house in the months to come. We believe people will come a long way to see Minim, and we think Minim will go a long way to help make Garfield a 6% Place.

In the next post, we’ll look at what people had to say about the other tiny homes. In the meantime, check out the slideshow in our previous post and let us know what you think about the different house plans. We’d love the feedback!

14 May 2014

Last night, cityLAB held a planning session where we presented at Assemble in Garfield to get feedback on which Tiny House plan to build on a site in Garfield.  We gave a quick overview of our progress on the project to date, then presented seven different options and got the attendees’ feedback to help us choose the best Tiny House plan. We are currently collecting and analyzing the results, which we’ll announce in a few days. In the meantime, here’s our presentation from last night with all the options we’re considering. Which one do you like the best? Tell us in the comments or email info@citylabpgh.org!

12 May 2014

The Big Tiny: A Built-it-Myself Memoir

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

- Henry David Thoreau

It is hard not to draw parallels between Thoreau’s Walden and the modern day tiny house movement. Diagnosed at age 41 with congestive heart failure, Dee Williams began to question just how deliberately she was living. Like so many middle-class Americans, before her diagnosis, Williams had been drawn to the thought of home-ownership. She soon found herself stressed and unhappy, caught on the hamster wheel of working to pay for her Portland, OR fixer-upper, its renovations, requisite utility bills and more and more stuff to fill its rooms. Downsizing, after all, is counterintuitive to our American sense of success.

Inspired by a magazine article she stumbled upon in her cardiologist’s office featuring Jay Shafer’s miniscule home, Williams set out to build a tiny house of her own. In The Big Tiny, Williams recounts the highly personal and peculiar experience of building her 84-square-foot home, mounted atop a 13×8 utility trailer. Williams writes conversationally, her stream of consciousness, though scattershot at times, relaying the undulating emotional experience of building a home with her own two hands. She echoes the sentiment of others who choose to build their own tiny house, attracted to the prospect of creating something they can touch and have an intimate connection to.

By her count, Williams has whittled her life down to 305 items, from books to bed sheets. In one of the more memorable passages, she talks of the emotional process of culling the unnecessary from her life, ensued by the feeling of liberation of not being tied to too much. But more than anything, she enjoys being unburdened from the heavy yolk of a 30-year mortgage, a freedom that allows her the luxury of working part-time, and of reaching out to her community, or simply enjoying that second cup of coffee in the morning.

7 May 2014

From finding a piece of land, to pounding in the last nail, this blog will help you each step of the way on your journey of building a tiny house right here in Garfield. But to kick things off, before we get to the “how-to” stuff, we here at cityLAB wanted to pass along why we think small houses are so cool. Maybe you’re new to the idea and houses like this (or this and this) pique your interest. Or, maybe you’ve considered building tiny in the past and just need a little more convincing on why you should do it, already. Whatever the reason, here are six great reasons to build your very own tiny house:

1. Simpler lifestyle

According to thetinylife.com, most tiny houses are 100-400 sq. feet, though some can be up to 1,000; it’s still pretty small when you consider that the average American home built today is about 2,600 sq. feet. That’s not a lot of room for those weird faceless angels your grandma keeps giving you for the holidays. Getting rid of unneeded or unwanted belongings that otherwise clutter your current living space can be extremely freeing. Living in a tiny house forces you to really consider what you choose to surround yourself with.

2. Environmentally friendly

Fewer resources to build + fewer resources to maintain = happy earth

You can easily go off the grid and earth friendly with solar panels, rain catchments and building with recycled materials.

3. Less upkeep

Kind of a no-brainer here, but if your house is small and you don’t have a lot of junk in it to clean up, the more time you have to be doing cool things…like going to the Garfield Night Market.

4. Cost savings

According to Tiny House Magazine, small houses can cost as little as $5,000 and go up from there, depending on the size and if you hire a contractor to build it. Price of land can vary greatly depending on location. Here’s what others say about the cost of building. Financing through a bank can be a little tricky, but we’ll share some ways around that in later posts. Regardless, building a small house will cost a fraction of building a conventional house. According to Sarah Menz, who just completed her graduate thesis/project on the subject at Chatham University, many tiny houses pay for themselves in about two years. Living a mortgage-free life will allow you to pursue your lifelong passion(s)…or eat out more. For more cool data on owning a tiny house, check out this infographic from The Tiny Life.

5. Personalization

Working with such a small amount of square footage calls for each foot of space to be utilized its fullest. Some items may serve two and three functions. For instance, a surface may fold flat against a wall when not in use and, when needed, be pulled out to serve as a desktop or dining table. Many tiny homeowners decide to design a space tailored to their needs and lifestyle and some even build the house on their own. This increased connection is something that you can’t buy or find anywhere else.

6. City Friendly

Because tiny houses have a small footprint, skinny, unused city parcels are a perfect fit. The infrastructure is already there and so are the amenities: coffee shops, art galleries, delis, etc. And you could use the rest of your plot to plant a garden, work on your art…whatever. Why rent at inflated prices to live in the city, when you could own a space that expresses a style all your own?

Have more ideas on why building a small house is a great idea? Let us know at info@citylabpgh.org


2 April 2014

Welcome to cityLAB’s Tiny Houses blog. We’re going to be writing here regularly, using this blog as a journal to document the construction of a Tiny House in Garfield, a neighborhood in the heart of Pittsburgh’s East End, full of promise and, unfortunately, vacant lots.

Late last year, when we held the Tiny Houses brainstorming session, we heard that people were not all that concerned with the design of their Tiny Houses. What were they worried about? Everything else: how to find and buy the land on which to build a Tiny House, how to navigate zoning and permitting, how to prepare the land for a house, how to build (with or without a contractor) and how to finance the construction of a Tiny House. So we decided to change our approach. Our goal is to lower the barriers to entry for potential Tiny House builders in Garfield. We are going to do that by showing you how to build a Tiny House in Garfield.

We are firm believers in doing, and so cityLAB decided, with the help of our friends at the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation, to build a Tiny House in Garfield and document everything that happens along the way. We’ll be posting new journal entries about once a week—so watch this space! And do let us know what you think in the comments or by writing us at info@citylabpgh.org.

13 December 2013

I. Tiny House Questionnaire

We had about 56 responses to the five questions on our questionnaire, along with some write-in responses.

Our first question gauged how interested respondents were in DIY-ing a Tiny House. The majority were interested in in something between building a house themselves and customizing an existing Tiny House plan to their needs, and many people gave us feedback indicating that they’d be interested in some kind of design/build project where owners worked hand in hand with construction professional. One respondent said they’d like “a small amount of help with the big stuff,” and another respondent said that they “think most people would be interested in helping to build IF it reduced costs.”

The second question asked if respondents were interested in living near other Tiny Houses. The majority of renspondents were interested in living at minimum on the same block as other Tiny Houses and many were interested in living in a pocket neighborhood of Tiny Houses. Responses included: “I like cluster because of 1) cost efficiency and 2) start-up revitalization,” “I would love to be in a community farming group. Open to co-op living, share amenities,” and “Co-housing style; intentional community.” But some respondents expressed concern about clustering too many Tiny Houses together. One respondent wrote, “I wouldn’t want the tiny houses to turn into a gated community,” and another echoed that sentiment: “As mixed as possible. The benefit of Tiny is they can fit in places where conventional houses would not.”

Our third question asked what kind of setting respondents envisioned for their Tiny House, in a wooded area or in between other houses (Garfield has both). A majority of the write-in responses indicated that respondents wanted neither extreme and instead were interested in having space for a garden. “Room for a generous garden,” “Want some land for gardening, entertaining,” “Garden space is super important,” and “Outdoor space (private or shared) would be nice to make up for interior space. Private garden space is important, shared garden space would be awesome” were typical responses.

Our fourth question asked how tar away from a main street (i.e. Penn Avenue) respondents would like to be. The majority of respondents indicated that they’d like to be between one and five blocks away from a main street, and many respondents also wrote in to indicate how important being close to public transportation and bike routes were to them.

Finally, our fifth question asked how important having a place to keep a car was to respondents. Most interesting here were the write-in responses, including “Ideally, I wouldn’t have a car, I want to be within walking distance of grocery story & bus stop, be in bikeable area” and “No parking/ no car or maybe bicycle parking in a pocket neighborhood,” though some respondents still felt they would enjoy “Better quality of life with parking.”

Finally, we went through the notes that participants left on their questionnaires to describe more precisely where on the spectrum they fit, or bring up priorities that we didn’t ask. 28 respondents mentioned a garden; 24 respondents mentioned the importance of public transportation; 17 respondents mentioned sharing resources or public spaces with other Tiny Houses; 10 respondents were specifically interested in some kind of owner designed/built Tiny Houses; 5 respondents were interested in using salvaged materials; five respondents specifically mentioned that bikes were an important part of their lifestyle; and three respondents echoed something that came up in discussion, an interest in training community members in construction to build Tiny Houses in Garfield.

II. Build Your Own Tiny House

We gave respondents a worksheet with three basic Tiny House plans (Tiniest House, Tiny House, and Very Small House), a variety of added amenities, and enough sticky hold stars to spend on only a few choices (see a photo of a worksheet here). The results show that most respondents were interested in a 300-500 square foot base plan for a Tiny House with some kind of outdoor space, be it a porch or a deck, in-unit laundry, and a sleeping loft, as shown in the graph above.

We’re grateful for the feedback our brainstorming participants gave us and enthusiasm they brought to the session; we look forward to working with them as the project continues to unfold in the new year.

6 December 2013

On December 3, almost sixty participants filled up Assemble in Garfield to help us brainstorm about Tiny Houses. Some photos from the session are below, and you can find more on our Facebook page. Thanks to all of our participants and to our facilitator, Dutch MacDonald of MAYA Design! We’ll be posting about what we found in the coming days.

10 September 2013

The second Garfield Night Market was held on September 6, 2013 with more vendors (including 9 Garfield-based vendors), a bigger crowd and more lanterns! Miss it? Take a stroll through the Night Market in the video below, see photos from September’s market on the Facebook page, and come to the October 4th Night Market!