Thinking outside the box while living inside one

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The News & Observer
By: Mary Louise Schumacher
July 31, 2010

There is something bewitching about a tiny house.

The mere idea conjures all kinds of things: desires for solitude and escape, romantic notions of Thoreau's pond-side perch, even memories of childhood fairy tales.

By their nature, they are places of retreat and simplicity. You can't take much with you. You've got to make choices. And you'd better be comfortable with your own company.

While architectural bravado tends to grab headlines, some of the most extraordinary architecture being made in the world today creates small, adventurous structures, transitory buildings that take little from the Earth and give more than seems possible in return.

At their best, these pocket-size projects, sometimes called "micro architecture," do more than set standards for sustainable practices. They challenge the way we live.

One such project is the EDGE, or Experimental Dwelling for a Greener Environment, designed by a Stevens Point, Wis., firm, Revelations Architects. The abode is so bitty, in fact, that it doesn't qualify as an actual house in much of Wisconsin, where 750 or 800 square feet of floor space is required.

Set on a bluff on the northernmost tip of Wisconsin, overlooking Chequamegon Bay on Lake Superior, the EDGE is a beautiful, modernist box. It is more akin to a lovingly crafted cabinet or piece of furniture than a house, really.

It is a remarkably concise and articulate structure made to make a point - that we can live better and greener lives in gorgeous, small spaces.

This is a theory that seemed worth testing. So my significant other, Ken Hanson, and I went up to Bayfield to stay in this prototype for a would-be green and glorious life.

While the largely prefabricated, modular home was recently recognized by AIA Wisconsin, the state's society of the American Institute of Architects, few people have actually stayed in it. We would be the first, other than the architects and a few friends.

I wondered what it would be like to live in such tight quarters. Would we be better to each other? Could I bring my favorite hair dryer? Would we survive without Wi-Fi?
"I hope it shows you something you didn't know about yourself," said principal architect Bill Yudchitz, who met us in Bayfield.

Where we were

Ken and I live in a century-old house that's been tastefully sliced into condos in Milwaukee's historic Water Tower neighborhood. It's a lot of space for two, particularly since Ken's son left for college. I've got my study. Ken has a band room. We have loads of shelves for books.

I've lived in some pretty Lilliputian places, including a converted nun's cell in Hoboken, N.J.; a dinky flat on 14th Street in Manhattan; and a weeL-shaped studio in Milwaukee. I loved the sense of control that came with contained spaces. But that was years ago, when my life was more unsettled. Since then, my life and my possessions have fanned out and dug in.

Our drive northward served as a buffer of sorts. Dropping in and out of cell phone range, forced to rely on actual maps, we were gently weaned from our iPhones.

First impressions

We drove up the driveway, flanked by tall grasses, to the little hutch, not much larger than an RV. It had the style and smarts of the international language of modernism, the stuff of big cities, of steel and glass. But it had a Japanese lightness and North Woods earnestness to it, too.

A rainscreen of white oak, simple slats that run horizontally around the exterior, took on a warm, honey hue in the high sun. A solitary window punctuated the side of the house with a tiny rectangle. Above, the house was topped with a dramatic, butterfly roof, a touch of Atomic Age playfulness.

But it was when we came around to the front that we experienced the real triumph - a cube of light and space, a place to be.

The long sides of the house are dominated by glass windows and doors that make the building's midsection transparent. These glassy squares frame views down to the bay and out to the forest, from inside and out. Inside, the walls of glass define a cubelike, central space.
It's a grand room, despite its size.

It's also where the EDGE departs from other micro projects, many of which just take the strategies of old '70s campers, with interlocking spaces and tucked-away tables and sleeping berths, to new levels.

Instead of complex spaces, fit together like Jenga game pieces, Yudchitz designed a singular space and singular furniture, which can redefine the room. Made of high-grade birch plywood, the modular furniture can be transformed from a seating area to a dining set to a bed in a few simple - if physical - moves.

Precision built

That craftsmanship extends to every aspect of the interior, where everything was machine cut within two-thousandths of an inch. The EDGE celebrates plywood, a renewable resource that both honors natural wood grain and the machine-made aspects of the material. Doors and windows are framed in the subtly striped, smooth end grain. Box joints, hidden by most construction, are exposed, revealing how the place was made and adding a distinctive design element.

The prefab ends of the house, added onto the main room like a pair of brackets, contain everything else the house needs: a bathroom, a kitchen, sleeping lofts, storage and book shelves. A wall of milky white Plexiglas turns an entire wall into a lantern when the bathroom light is on. And, while one has to crouch into the lofts, even a tall man can stand and get dressed on the landings.

I love that there is space for books and art. That there was so little of it made me consider Yudchitz's choices carefully. This raises a real challenge. To truly live in a place like the EDGE, everything, the furnishings and objects, would have to be chosen and designed. You'd not only have to resist buying new things, you'd have to deny yourself cherished possessions.

Sleeping well

We slept well on a hot night. The narrow structure and open windows offered lots of natural ventilation. We woke to a muffled trumpet sound, a buck that bounded into view, framed perfectly in the picture window, looking right at us and blowing hard through his nostrils. It was startling and magical - a metaphor for this wake-up call of an experience, I suppose.

When we were ready to go, we pulled the giant louvered doors closed, shutting the house like a box. The doors have the light, visual effect of Japanese screens but seem to weigh as much as a Japanese car, a reminder that every house is fueled, in part, by sweat.

There are a few contradictions in the design of the EDGE. First, while it makes the case for downsizing, it's likely to appeal to many as a vacation home rather than a new way of living. Second, while it has many green features, it's created for a large parcel of land. The EDGE doesn't address the need for humans to occupy less of the planet, though it's possible that some of the design ideas may translate to urban settings.

Still, the experience of staying at the EDGE has remained large in my mind. In the end, this petite home asks a monumental question: What do we truly need to be happy? More than that, it suggests that it may be a lot less than we imagine.

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