'Bigger Than Tiny, Smaller Than Average' Spotlights the Merits of Modestly Sized Houses

There is a lot to learn from Sheri Koones' new book.

'Bigger Than Tiny' books sitting on a wooden surface.

Courtesy of Gibbs Smith

  • Title: Bigger Than Tiny, Smaller Than Average
  • Author: Sheri Koones
  • Topic(s): Nonfiction, Architecture
  • Publisher: Gibbs Smith
  • Publish Date: March 28, 2022
  • Page Count: 432

The ongoing pandemic has changed the way we live. Many have left the big city, are working from home, and not going out as much. We have written many posts about how our homes have to be healthier, more efficient, more flexible, and perhaps a bit bigger to accommodate all of this. Nobody follows these trends more closely than author Sheri Koones, who has written many books on home design, with the latest being "Bigger Than Tiny, Smaller Than Average."

These homes are not as small as the ones in her last book, "Downsize: Living Large in a Small House," which was aimed at a different market at a different time. Many Treehugger readers will question whether these houses can even be considered small, with many running around 1,800 square feet. But the average new American home in 2019 was 2,623 square feet so these are definitely smaller than average, even if a lot bigger than tiny.

Koones sees a number of trends that are contributing to this fad:

Different Use of Space: "Home-owners no longer want space that will rarely be used except as a place to store more stuff that will rarely be used," wrote Koones. They want multifunctional and transformable spaces. She adds: "Workstations are being built into hallways, and offices often double as guestrooms. Bump-outs and niches are built into floor plans for private areas and workspaces. There is more focus today on making every part of the house functional."

Seeking New Environments: "Whether moving from the city to the country or suburbia to a rural environment, many people are seeking a different way of life," Koones wrote. "While some are looking to get away from the chaos of a city, others are looking for the opportunity to be part of a community to avoid feeling isolated."

Energy Efficiency Is Universally Desired: "Energy efficiency was a major factor in all the small homes profiled here," Koones noted.

Buying Small for Economic and Social Reasons: "In many parts of the world, people buy or build homes with the intention of living there for a lifetime," wrote Koones. "That mindset is finally beginning to take hold in this country. Even younger buyers with small children see themselves aging in place. They recognize that if they build a large house, it will outgrow them once the kids move out, so many are choosing homes that are simply 'big enough.'"

And perhaps most importantly, Koones noted: "A newfound respect for the environment is driving the trend toward smaller homes. Younger generations have already grown up with energy-efficient light bulbs, recycling, and electric cars—constant reminders of their responsibility to create a smaller environmental footprint."

Studio 804 houses in Lawrenceville, Kansas
Dan Rockhill's Studio 804 houses in Lawrence, Kansas. Studio 804

This last point is the one that has always resonated with me when writing about Koones' choices of houses to profile. For example, the house on the cover of the book is one of Dan Rockhill's Studio 804 houses in Lawrence, Kansas. When I wrote about it, I discussed why their houses were generally a bit smaller than was usual:

"The fact is, you can't build R-50 walls for the same price as R-20. You can't put in a Passivhaus-sized heat recovery ventilator for the price of a bathroom exhaust fan. You can't get rid of vinyl siding and windows and formaldehyde and asphalt shingles without paying more. And you shouldn't. People deserve healthy, strong houses that will last a long time and tread lightly on the environment."
Bellingham Prefab House exterior and plan

Sherri Koones

One of the great joys in looking at one of Koones' books is the cohesion. Every single home gets a two-page spread with key information about how it is built, how big it is, who did it, and most importantly for me as an architect, a plan drawn for the book in a consistent style.

second page on house

Sheri Koones

On the next page, there will always be a list of green features, energy features, and a feature section noting something special or informative about the house. In this case, Koones explained the benefits of panelized construction, where "wall, floor, and roof components are produced in a factory, numbered for assembly, trucked to the site, and then installed like a jigsaw puzzle."

A bathroom and hallway in the Alleycat House
The Alley Cat Laneway House in Seattle.

Shed Architecture

Perhaps a reason I am so fond of these books is that Koones and I like many of the same things. For instance, in her coverage of Shed Architecture's Alley Cat Laneway House in Seattle, the feature she focused on is the wet room bathroom. She wrote:

"Wet rooms have no enclosure for the shower and, in lieu of a shower tray, there is a drain where the water is directed by a gradient floor. There are several advantages in using this design. Wet room configurations take up less room when there is limited space in the bathroom and make it feel more spacious. They are also particularly helpful for people with limited mobility. These are consistent with Universal Design concepts, which require the building environment to be designed “to meet the needs of all people who wish to use it.”

In our coverage of the house, I focused on the same feature, writing, "[The] big bath and open shower that doesn't scream 'aging in place'; it's a good example of universal design. I actually think it is the smartest way to design a tub and shower, and did it a few times as an architect, as well as in my own home." 

Small house fans will complain that many of the homes shown here are too big. Passivhaus fans will complain they are not efficient enough. Architecture magazine fans will complain they are not edgy enough. Urbanists will complain they are too suburban.

But what we have is a collection of extremely livable, modestly-sized, well-designed homes that are presented with lots of detail and great photography. There is a lot to learn from Koones and her new book.

"Bigger Than Tiny, Smaller Than Average" hit bookshelves in March 2022. Available at bookshop.org and other retailers.

The Treehugger Reading List

Are you looking to learn more about sustainable living or climate change? Do you want an engrossing read about nature or design? Here's a running list of books our staff has reviewed and loved.